"Usagi Yojimbo," writer-artist Stan Sakai's long-running black and white comic starring a rabbit ronin journeying through a stylized Medieval Japan inhabited by other anthropomorphic animals, reaches its 25th anniversary this year. The series, previously published by Mirage Studios and Fantagraphics, also reaches its 125th issue with Dark Horse in December. CBR News spoke with Sakai about the anniversary, the landmark issue #125, and "Yokai," the first Usagi original graphic novel, which arrives in stores this week.
Miyamoto Usagi, based partly on the Edo-era hero Miyamoto Musashi, is a wandering swordsman on a warrior's pilgrimage, selling his services from time to time as a bodyguard ("yojimbo") to make his way. Over the course of Sakai's long-running series, Usagi's stories have found inspiration - occasionally direct inspiration - in the films of Akira Kurosawa and the manga "Lone Wolf and Cub," and the artist's technique has been influenced by Sergio Aragones, for whom Sakai letters "Groo the Wanderer." To date, there are 23 trade paperback collections, with the first seven being published by Fantagraphics, and subsequent volumes, including the Mirage material, published by Dark Horse.
In the beginning, Sakai said, it would have been impossible to believe a black and white indie comic like "Usagi Yojimbo" would experience such longevity. "I was thinking month-to-month," he recalled of plotting those early stories. "At that time, black and white books were very rare, and who could have thought that I'd be doing the same character 25 years from now? I think at that time, 1984, the number of successful black and white comic books could be counted on one hand. 'Elfquest,' 'Cerebus,' 'Grendel,' and maybe one or two others. Well, in the same year, 'Ninja Turtles' came out and created a black and white boom. But like I said, at that time, I was thinking of the next story rather than 'what am I going to do a year from now?'"
The scarcity of successful black and white comics led their creators to form something of a bond, and Sakai reached out to "Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles" creators Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, a move that would ultimately lead Usagi to appear on the popular cartoon series. "Ninja Turtles were very new, as was Usagi, so I sent them a letter, they sent one back, and we became friends that way," Sakai recalled. "And we became friends. It was at a San Diego Comic-Con that Peter Laird and I were talking, and he just turns to me and says, 'We have a TV show now, and toys. Would you like an Usagi toy?' Of course! So, pretty much that's how the deal was made. After that, the contract was signed, of course, but that was the initial idea, it was Peter's idea.
"With the new Ninja Turtles, the more recent incarnation, he called up and said 'do you want to do it again?' and I said 'sure.' So Usagi's been appearing in the current Ninja Turtles, as well," Sakai continued. "In fact, in one episode, Leonardo goes to Usagi's world, so there's a lot of my secondary characters that pop up in that episode. It's been fun. I wish I could say that I sold my property for $60 million [like Laird recently did], but I'm happy doing what I'm doing."
Despite the series' longevity, "Usagi Yojimbo" has remained remarkably accessible to new readers. "I write the kind of stories that I would like to read," Sakai said. "I also consciously write long story arcs and then short story arcs. And the short stories are a good place for new readers to pick up 'Usagi,' but also older readers seem to like reading the longer arcs because there's more character development, a lot more meat in there. So I try to satisfy both the new readers as well as the longtime readers.
"But basically, Usagi is pretty much written for myself. I have the perfect job, I'm able to do what I want and make a living at it!"
Over the last 25 years of drawing Usagi and company, Sakai has seen a marked change in his own artistic style. "I have gotten more confident with my art and storytelling," he said,"and even Usagi's features have changed slightly. Now he has a little bump for his nose, whereas, at the very beginning he has a Roman nose. Also his proportions have changed. But also, I think it's the evolution of the character and my drawing style. I work with Sergio Aragones on 'Groo the Wanderer,' and have for 25 years now, and if you look at 'Groo,' the early Groo looks completely different from the Groo of today. So it's not just myself. Basically every artist goes through this process."
Sakai has often talked about the degree of historical study that goes into his signature series, and joked about readers calling him out for any errors. "I still do a lot of research. I've been doing this for so many years that a lot of it is ingrained in me, such as the houses, I don't have to do as much research about the architecture of the period, or the various customs," the cartoonist said. "But there are still some very specific aspects that I try to do research on. Right now, I'm researching how they made soy sauce back in 17th-century Japan. And every so often I'll come across a little snippet of information and go, 'Oh! I can make a story around this!' It all started with 'A Kite Story,' when I'd bought a book on kite making and it sparked an idea: Usagi goes to a kite festival. The same thing when I've done a story about sword making, or pottery making. In those cases, I have to do a lot of research. The internet is wonderful, it's a valuable tool, but I also have a pretty complete Japanese library in my home. And my mother is also a pretty good reference!" (Sakai is a third-generation American on his father's side, but his mother is from Japan.)
Issues #124-125 make up the two-part story arc "A Town Called Hell," which finds Usagi journeying to a small town where two warring factions struggle for control. "He aligns himself with one of the factions, and on the other side there's a really skilled swordsman," Sakai said. "But I wanted to make a twist on that; usually, the two skilled guys, Usagi and the guy, would be very antagonistic toward each other. In this instance, I had them become friends. In the end, the other guy feels that Usagi has betrayed him, and that will pick up later on. I tried to make it so it's not your typical sort of adventure story."
Then, in issue 126, Usagi meets a floating head yokai, or haunt, but Sakai said this story is completely separate from the "Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai" graphic novel shipping in November. The artist said he is quite excited for the "Yokai" graphic novel, which he described as "my most ambitious Usagi project to date."
"It's a fully painted, in watercolor, original graphic novel. It's 64 pages, and Cary [Crazzini], the designer, did an amazing job putting it together," Sakai said. "It was originally Cary's idea. But also my editor, Diana Schutz, approached me with this. I thought it over, I said I'd need maybe three months to do a fully painted story. She said, 'I'll give you two and a half, and it better be in by then.' I finished it with a day to spare!
"Yokai [has] no literal translation in English, but it's the haunts and the monsters of Japanese folklore. And not only the really scary stuff, but also the really goofy ones, such as the rokurokubi, the lady with the neck with the animated umbrella, the animated foot, and other stuff, but also the really scary stuff," Sakai explained. "It's based upon the legend of the Night Parade of One Hundred Demons, which basically goes that, every summer, the yokai would parade through the streets. And if you even look upon them you die. But in this particular story, every 100 years, the yokai attempt to take over our world - that is, Usagi's world - and they have to capture human souls (animal souls) to lead them into the world. And so they kidnap a little girl, and Usagi, along with the wizard Sasuke, has to rescue the girl and prevent the takeover by the yokai.
"I had a lot of fun painting this story, and I can't wait for the next 25 years so I can do another one of these," the artist joked.
Other Usagi items on the horizon include the long-awaited plush figure from Dark Horse and a slipcased two-volume hardcover edition of the first seven volumes of "Usagi Yojimbo" from Fantagraphics, which is expected to ship in 2010.