A Losing Hand: Hsu talks “8-9-3”

Fri, August 21st, 2009 at 10:29am PDT | Updated: August 21st, 2009 at 10:41am

Comic Books
Emmett Furey, Staff Writer
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"8-9-3" on sale now

The name for Japan’s most famous organized crime syndicate, the Yakuza, actually comes from a card game from Japan’s samurai era called Oicho-Kabu. It is this game and its violent legacy that informs "8-9-3," the new Yakuza graphic novel by two-time Xeric Award-winning writer/artist Jack Hsu, who spoke with CBR News about the project.

The rules of Oicho-Kabu are similar to those of Blackjack or Baccarat. “The objective is to reach nine with the second number of the sum of the hand,” Hsu told CBR. A hand of eight, nine and three adds up to 20, the worst hand in the game. And in Japan’s traditional form of counting, eight, nine and three translate to “ya,” “ku” and “za.” “In a culture steeped in symbolism, the moniker ‘yakuza’ was adopted by the organized criminals of Japan to show their pride in being social outcasts.”

“8-9-3” tells the story of Shin, a prized assassin of the Sakurayama clan. Shin’s father had been the clan’s second in command, and when Shin’s parents were murdered by a rival clan, Sakurayama boss Hiroshi-san took the orphaned Shin under his wing. “Because of this, Shin swears absolute loyalty to Hiroshi-san and dutifully carries out his boss’s bidding without question,” Hsu said. “However, deep down Shin struggles with the criminal existence he was born into and patiently awaits deliverance - the day Hiroshi-san steps down, so he could start a new life.”

The seeds of “8-9-3” were sown in 2003 when Hsu was working as a storyboard artist on “Spider-Man 2.” At the time, his work schedule left Hsu little opportunity to work on projects of his own, but on one particular weekend, the artist found time to bang out a few sketches. “One of the drawings I did was this yakuza character with a Kanji design of the name ‘8-9-3,’” Hsu said. “The yakuza had fascinated me ever since my teenage years in Japan, so I kept sketching and developing a world around this character. Before I knew it, I had generated a big pile of drawings and story ideas and ‘8-9-3’ was born.”

"8-9-3" on sale now

“8-9-3” was partially funded by a grant from the Xeric Foundation, a non-profit organization which offers financial assistance to comics creators who self-publish their work. “I submitted six Xerox copies of my work in progress last March along with all the required paperwork: a story outline, a budget breakdown, and a purpose statement,” Hsu explained. Three months later, Hsu was “thrilled and honored” to receive an acceptance letter from the foundation.

“8-9-3” is not Hsu’s first Xeric award; he and his wife Julie Yeh had won one for their all-ages book “Poppie’s Adventures: Serpents in Paradise.” Written by Yeh and illustrated by Hsu, “Poppie’s Adventures” was the couple’s first book, and the project marked the beginning of their own independent publishing company, Way Out Comics (“8-9-3” itself is published under the banner Automaton, a division of Way Out). Despite Way Out’s repeated recognition from the Xeric Foundation, Hsu and his wife are no strangers to the perils of working in the independent comics press. “Being small and part-time, we produce only one title every few years, so we have little brand recognition,” Hsu admitted, saying that the long hiatus between projects often forces them to re-brand their company from scratch with each new series.

"8-9-3" on sale now

Distribution is an even bigger hurdle. “Because Diamond is basically the only distributor on the market, it’s not easy competing for retailers’ attention in the ‘Previews’ catalog when the big publishers eat up most of the real estate,” Hsu said. But with “8-9-3,” Way Out has made the leap into the digital comics arena, and Hsu hopes the new paradigm will be more small press-friendly. “In addition to the book, ‘8-9-3’ will also be available in Apple’s App Store through the Genus Kamikaze! Reader. I’m hopeful that the new medium will have a far wider reach to potential readers than the brick-and-mortar model, especially for a small publisher like me.”

After the series wraps up, Hsu may well return to the world of “8-9-3.” The ‘8-9-3’ world has many more exciting potential storylines,” Hsu said. “I’m parsing through them and hoping to share them with the readers in the not-too-distant future.”

Hsu continues to work as a storyboard artist for Sony Pictures Animation, and his most recent project, “Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs,” hits theaters this September. The writer/artist is also currently developing comics projects in the horror and western genres.

The 144-page “8-9-3” graphic novel is on stands now, and chapter one is available on Genus Kamikaze!

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TAGS:  jack hsu, 8-9-3, xeric foundation

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