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CR Sunday Interview: Stan Sakai
posted July 31, 2011
 

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imageStan Sakai is quietly having a career year. He was honored in April by being named the 2011 Cultural Ambassador by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. That same institution is currently hosting Year Of The Rabbit: Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo, a major and much-publicized retrospective of Sakai's anthropomorphic, historically-informed comics series. In October, Dark Horse will publish the 200th issue of the Usagi series, adding the issues in their long run with those in Sakai's previous stays at Fantagraphics and Mirage.

At 58 years old and with more than a quarter century of work already performed on the Usagi series, Sakai is at the height of his formidable creative powers. One of the last of the traditional one creator/one character/one series comics, Usagi can boast of one of the most fervently enthusiastic fan bases in the medium.

I've long enjoyed Sakai's work, and catch up to Usagi every couple of years or so in great big pleasurable gulps on what tends to be a weekend afternoon -- the same way I used to watch samurai films on Channel 4 as a kid. I don't think I've talked to a cartoonist still in the midst of a life-defining project the way Usagi is for Sakai since I spoke to Dave Sim about 15 years ago; this conversation like that one allowed me to explore a much different perspective than what one tends to get from a cartoonist discussing a work that's completed. I greatly enjoyed our conversation even if all of my questions revolve around the achievement that is Usagi rather than details from the saga itself. I hope he'll forgive me. -- Tom Spurgeon


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TOM SPURGEON: One of the many reasons I wanted to talk to you is that you're being exhibited right now in a very major, high-profile way.

STAN SAKAI: It's at the Japanese American National Museum. They did such a beautiful job designing the layout of the exhibit hall. It's just gorgeous.

SPURGEON: What is your reaction to having your work placed into that particular context? I know some artists are uncomfortable seeing their work pulled out of the narratives they create and seeing it up on a wall. Is that something you're comfortable seeing? Do you enjoy that people want to see your work in that way?

SAKAI: I get great satisfaction out of it. I have been in a lot of exhibits, from Angouleme to having a few pieces at the Society Of Illustrators to the University of Illinois to Belgium. It's very satisfying.

SPURGEON: How much input do you have into how your work is shown? Do you work with someone on an exhibit like the current one?

SAKAI: I worked with the museum. It's great because they're local. They're in Los Angeles and I'm in a suburb of Los Angeles. In most cases, when the venue is far away or in another country, they'll either send me a wish list of things they'd like to have exhibited or ask me to pick out, say, a dozen items. In this case, they came out here and we worked closely together in terms of what they wanted exhibited.

I do not sell my comic book pages, my story pages. I have more than 5000 Usagi pages in the closet. [laughs] So they pretty much told me what they wanted, they went through the stack and said, "These are the ones we want." Everything from story pages to cover to pin-ups to progressions from story outlines to thumbnails to pencils to finished inks. There's also things from 1980. These would be character sketches for Usagi, which were much different at that time. He had bushy hair and looked very different. It's a nice retrospective.

SPURGEON: Can I ask after a reason you haven't sold your pages over the years? Is there a final destination for the pages for which you're planning?

SAKAI: I just feel I'm not ready yet. Sergio [Aragones] doesn't sell many of his pages, either. The pages that he did for Marvel have been sold. But these pages are really... I'm just not ready to let go of these pages yet. And they have come in handy. When I made the transition from Mirage to Dark Horse, where I currently am, I was supposed to get all the film negatives from the printer that printed all the Mirage books. But they destroyed all the negatives. Fortunately, I had all the original artwork. So the pages were re-shot from the originals. Another time, I thought I had the pages for the first Usagi color special from Fantagraphics. This would have been 20 years ago. When the story was reprinted in the trade from Dark Horse just a couple of years ago, I thought I had those pages. But I could not find them. So I re-did those pages.

SPURGEON: Oh my goodness.

SAKAI: It was first published in color, and we did not have black and white line art. I make photocopies of everything, but I couldn't find the photocopies. So I just re-did them. I know those pages are around somewhere, but I could not find them. It was so frustrating! [laughs]

SPURGEON: Looking at the photos of the recent exhibit, I thought for some reason you worked much larger than most cartoonists. Now I'm thinking you work standard size or a bit smaller. How big are your pages?

SAKAI: That's a standard 10 X 15 image on an 11 X 17 sheet of Strathmore Bristol two-ply finish.

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SPURGEON: Given how long you've been working on Usagi, have there been any significant changes to your process over the years? Or do you have a pretty time-tested way of making comics at this point?

SAKAI: It's been pretty much the same throughout. First I do a quick outline -- usually maybe one or two pages. These would include bits of action, some dialogue. So it will make sense to me but it may not to anyone else. From there I would go to thumbnails. I would thumbnail four pages on 8 1/2- by 14-inch paper. That would be my final script. Then I would go to pencils on 11- by 17-inch Bristol with a 10 by 15 image area. Then I would do the lettering and then the inks and then off to my publisher. I do send off the physical artwork. [laughs] I'm still not in the Digital Age.

SPURGEON: The other big milestone I wanted to talk about is that you're coming up on your 200th comic book issue of Usagi. First of all, congratulations. That's an amazing achievement.

SAKAI: Thank you.

SPURGEON: I was wondering if you could settle a bet. A friend and I have been talking about your 200th issue. One of us says that because you're such a great steward for your property you were aware of this issue coming up; the other thinks it's far more likely you're the kind of artist that is so focused on the work that you had to be told this milestone was on the horizon.

SAKAI: I was told. [Spurgeon laughs] I was told. It was a surprise to me because I don't keep track. Even when we reached the 100th Dark Horse issue, I was just going to treat it like an ordinary issue and do a continuation of the storyline that I had been working on. It was my editor, Diana Schutz, that said, "No, we have to do something special for this." She came up with the idea of the roast. For the 200th issue overall -- and when we say 200 issues, it's when you add up the Fantagraphics issues, the Mirage and the Dark Horse issues it comes out to 200. It's still a coherent storyline even though it's gone through so many publishers. I was told about a year ago, "Hey, your 200th issue is coming up next year." I told Diana, and she said, "By George, you're right."

imageSPURGEON: Do you remember a time when you first realized you'd be doing Usagi for a long while? It might have been right away, I don't know, but I know that many creators that end up working on a single project for a long time start out without quite believing that it will last as long as it ends up lasting. Was there a time when you realized that you were going to be doing it for a good, long while, that you realized Usagi would be a major thing in your life?

SAKAI: Usagi was first published 27 years ago, and that time I just concentrated on the next story. It was around maybe... I would say with book four, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy. That was the first major storyline. It took maybe 10 issues or something, I'm not exactly sure. Maybe eight issues.

SPURGEON: It's substantial.

SAKAI: Yeah. Before then, I was thinking, "Usagi's going to be canceled any month." [laughter] "I can't spend too much time devoting myself to a long storyline." But once I did that and got over that hurdle, that's when I realized that hey, this could go on for a long time. Now I'm in a position to lay groundwork for stories that won't see print for another three, four even five years from now.

SPURGEON: You have a very recognizable style. I can't imagine seeing a page of your art, even just backgrounds, and not realizing immediately that you were the artist behind it. When I look at your older work, your basic style settled in very quickly. When I talk to strip artists that have worked on the same strip for years, they're much more highly aware of changes in their style later on than maybe a reader would be. I wondered if there's anything you do better now that maybe even seven or eight years ago. Have you continued to develop, or do you feel settled into a certain style at some point?

SAKAI: It develops. It develops a lot. It's just so subtle that you don't pick it up from issue to issue. If you go back to my early work there's a huge difference. I'm looser now. I think I'm a better storyteller. The characters themselves have developed over a period of years. It's mainly unconscious on my part. It's just getting more accustomed to the characters, more accustomed to the process. Even Usagi has changed. In the very early ones his proportions were very different. He was maybe three and a half heads high. Now he's more like five heads. Now he has a little bump for a nose, as opposed to the very early stages where he had a very Roman nose.

SPURGEON: When you say you're looser, do you mean the quality of your line is looser than it once was?

SAKAI: The quality of the line, yeah. I've gotten more familiar with the materials. It's just the process, I think. For Usagi I've been doing this for such a long time it comes naturally to me now. Starting off, I had to think about what I was doing. It's not by rote now, it's more being comfortable drawing the characters and the scenery, the backgrounds.

SPURGEON: You wrote something very interesting a couple of months ago about your character Inspector Ishida. You wrote that as a character he had enough in terms of main character qualities that he would put other characters into a more supporting role. This made me wonder in that beyond your achievement with making 200 issues, Usagi as a lead character has been able to sustain 200 issues. Usagi has a personality, and he can be forceful, but he also works well with a variety of supporting characters. I wondered what you thought about that balance, and what makes a character like Usagi work over the long term.

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SAKAI: Usagi is... well, he's the typical good guy. He does have a lot of flaws. He's a good swordsman, but he's not the best. Giving him those frailties adds interest to the characters. He has some character defects. He leaps before he looks. He goes into a situation headlong, siding with the underdog all the time. That's not always the case with stories, that the underdog is a good guy. Usagi is an every type of man. When you mention Inspector Ishida, Ishida is soft-spoken. He doesn't have a dynamic personality, but he has a keen intellect. With Usagi, he's smart, too, but he doesn't catch all the nuances Ishida does. So whenever Ishida appears in a story, it's usually a mystery or something, Ishida always comes oof as the main character, the protagonist, because he does have that insight, and Usagi comes off as the Dr. Watson to Ishida's Holmes.

I love Ishida, but I don't use him as often as I would like to.

SPURGEON: Are there any characters that you use more than you initially thought you would, that revealed themselves to you over time? Maybe a character that you weren't immediately fond of using?

SAKAI: For me I think it was Gen, the bounty hunter. He has a nice, funny relationship with Usagi, kind of a love/hate relationship where they're best friends but he really abuses that. [laughs] And Usagi knows it, and he kind of abuses Gen sometimes, too. That developed into a nice friendship. Both are pretty much loners but together they make a pretty nice team. There are a couple more. The priest Sanshobo. He was a one-shot, throwaway character that appeared in a four-page or a five-page story. People kept asking for him. "Bring him back, he's such a great character." So I did. He became a much stronger character. Another is Kitsune, the thief. Again, she was supposed to be a one-shot, but I got all these letters saying, "Bring her back. She's wonderful." I got fond of her, so she comes back quite often.

SPURGEON: I attended one of your panels at a recent San Diego Con, maybe the 25th anniversary panel a couple of years back, and I was fairly blown away how enraptured with your work and generally solicitous and kind your fans were.

SAKAI: I have the best fans in the world.

SPURGEON: How do you negotiate having fans that are so devoted and attentive? I would imagine there's a danger where you have fans that solidly in your corner that you might end up preaching to the choir, creating with those fans in mind. At the same time, it's hard to imagine having devoted fans ever being a bad thing.

SAKAI: I'm very fortunate. There seems to be a kind of fan that's drawn to Usagi. Of course, I get those strange fans, too. I got a phone call out of the blue saying, "I'm at the airport. Can you pick me up?" "What?" [laughs] "I read Usagi, and I'm here at LAX. Can you pick me up?" "What? No!" [laughter] Then there was a time I got another call out of the blue, saying, "We're from the Midwest. We're out here in California. We made it our summer project to" -- and these are their words -- "hunt you down." [laughter] "We're right around the corner, and we found out where you live. We went to all the comics stores and everything. We'd like to take you out to lunch." So I went out to lunch, and we had a great time. [laughter]

Most of the fans are great. One of the early times I went to France one of the French readers took a week off from work to show me around. We had a wonderful time. Incredible.

SPURGEON: In a creative sense, is there every any temptation to make too much of feedback from devoted fans? Your work remains open and accessible to my eye, and there are plenty of people that have come to it later, so I'd say you've avoided making your work too much of a closed circle. Still, do you ever find yourself carefully weighing what you hear back?

SAKAI: Usagi has always been and continues to be written for a readership of one. They're the type of stories I would like to read. It's for me. I do get feedback from fans, but I don't any suggestions from fans as far as storylines. The only person I've taken a storyline suggestion from is I think Sergio. I was stuck for a story. It was a three-page story and there were certain criteria: I wanted to something about culture, and history, and I wanted to show armor. All that in three pages. He said, "Do something about netsuke," which are these little Japanese carvings. And I did. Another time he drove out to me to pick up Groo pages at three in the morning. He said, "Oh, I have great story for you." He had thought of two stories. He thought of a Terminator story for a movie, which of course never got made. And he said, "I have a great story for Usagi. I can't use it for Groo, but I'll give it to you." He told it to me in my living room, he acted it out. And then I took that and I changed it quite a bit. I turned it into a story. Afterwards I showed him the pages and said, "This is the story you told me about." He said, "No! This isn't it!" [laughter]

SPURGEON: One thing that surprises me when I read a bunch of your work at one time is the light touch you employ in terms of theme, the ideas and values that your work might communicate. It would be easy to employ a heavy hand in that arena, and yet you always seem to avoid having done so. Do you think explicitly in terms of the ideas you're presenting, or does that come naturally to you as you focus more on plot and narrative?

SAKAI: I... don't know. Basically in Usagi, the way I approach the storyline is that I plot it out, and then I always try to use a twist at the end. The themes come mostly from the code of the samurai, bushido: honor, loyalty and self-sacrifice are the basic themes I'm aiming for. Also along the way I can do stories using those same themes where they're mystery stories, romance stories or straight-out adventure stories. It's nice because I own the characters and I can do whatever I want with them. My contracts with all my publishers have always been whatever I turn in, they publish. None of my publishers have had any type of input as far as story goes. It's wonderful.

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SPURGEON: You work in anthropomorphics, which was maybe much more common to comic books and comics generally when you started than it is now. I wondered, the strengths of working with animal characters are pretty much self-evident at this point, having been made clear through the work of multiple great cartoonists. Were there ever any step-back moments, or moments where you had to figure out how to work in this particular arena of comics making?

SAKAI: You know, I started off wanting to do straight characters. I wanted to do superheroes. The people I admire, the artists I admired -- Steve Ditko was my first big influence -- were Ditko, [Jack] Kirby, those kinds of people. I got into funny animals because I created Usagi. My strip was going to be a story inspired by the life of a 17th Century samurai named Miyomoto Musashi. It was going to be a straight adventure story with people. But once I created Usagi, I had the choice of keep Usagi in an all-anthropomorphic world or do something like Dave Sim did, and have Usagi in a world populated by humans. And that did not make sense to me. [Spurgeon laughs] So I went the first route, where I just did funny animals. For me, it became natural later on. At first itw as very difficult; now it's very natural.

imageSPURGEON: What was difficult about it early on?

SAKAI: I don't know... like I said, I was going towards becoming a straight artist. My big thing was doing Spider-Man or something. This was completely out of left field: wanting to do Spider-Man and ending up doing a samurai rabbit... [laughter] Usagi came naturally after the first few stories. I still do get to do straight human characters. I've done a short Star Wars story and I'm working on a Rocketeer story for the anthology. That was nice of them to ask me. I also do other stuff, too. I had a regular feature in World of Warcraft magazine. Suddenly I'm drawing goblins and gnomes. When I turned in my first pencils, they said, "No, you've given the gnomes goblin proportions. Remember: it's a goblin." I didn't know there was a difference between gnome and goblin proportions! [laughter]

SPURGEON: You're one of the last guys working in that single issue headed into trades way, once a pretty typical way of working but now much less so. Do you feel like a last man standing in terms of the way you make comics? Has that format been a good one for you over the years?

SAKAI: It has been very good. When we first started the trade paperbacks, or graphic novels, there was no real graphic novel market. That's why Usagi is in such an odd size. It's not comic-book sized, but also not graphic novel proportioned. When Usagi was first published as a trade, the big trend was things like 1001 Things To Do With A Dead Cat, the [B.] Kliban books -- you remember those titles?

SPURGEON: Sure.

SAKAI: There was no real graphic novel format. If there had been, we would have followed it. Usagi was one of the early graphic novels that started coming out. I'm glad we're in that format. It's different and it's attractive for me.

SPURGEON: I would also imagine sticking with the comic books puts you out in front of people on a regular basis and gives people an easier entry point into this massive body of work you've created.

SAKAI: Right.

SPURGEON: I've been in shops where your comic book is practically the only thing on the stands that's not Spider-Man or Batman. Has that been beneficial to you, to have that reliable presence on the stands?

SAKAI: It's been very beneficial. I alternate between single-issues and longer story arcs. The single issue or done-in-one stories or done-in-two or -three stories are good places for new readers to jump on board. Whereas the older readers tend to favor the longer story arcs, those epics. such as Grasscutter, where there's more research that needs to be done, more character development, more interaction between different characters, just a bigger story. For me, practically, the single issues help support me, whereas the graphic novels are a nice thing to have on the shelves. But it's the income from the single issues that pretty much support my mortgage and all that.

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SPURGEON: About two years ago you did a stand-alone graphic novel that was fully painted.

SAKAI: Oh, Yokai!

SPURGEON: It was extremely pretty. What was that experience like, taking a different artistic approach and applying it to a familiar character? Was it nice to break away from the past, at least in terms of the art involved?

SAKAI: Yokai was the idea of Cary Grazzini, who is the designer at Dark Horse. My designer. He is so talented; I love his work. He also designed The Art Of Usagi. It was his idea to do something special for Usagi's 25th anniversary a couple of years ago. Again, for me it wasn't a milestone. I was just going to continue what I've always been doing. Both Cary and Diana said, "Yeah, we should do something special for the 25th." Cary came up with "Have Stan do an original graphic novel fully painted." So Diana called me and said, "This is Cary's idea. What do you think." I said, "Yeah, that sounds great. I will need at leat three months to write and draw and paint it." She said, "I'll give you two and a half and it better be in by then." [Spurgeon laughs] I got it in three days ahead of deadline and I was so proud of myself. [laughter]

It was a different experience. For me, to do all of that in two and a half months is very intensive. I had a great time with it. Unfortunately, I'm still trying to recover from that. I still have not caught up with my deadlines.

SPURGEON: Do you get new readers with that kind of an effort, or does something like that sell to mostly existing fans?

SAKAI: I think new readers came on; it certainly sold a lot of books. Dark Horse did a great job. It was a terrific price: a hardcover, fully-painted book for I think $15.

imageSPURGEON: I have a last couple of questions. You're about to head off to Comic-Con as we're talking, and the interview should run soon after the show concludes. I wondered, seeing as you're one of those guys that's been going to Comic-Con since forever, how that show's changes -- if that show's changes -- have altered what you get out of that show. It's a very different show than when you started going. Is it still a good show for you?

SAKAI: Batton Lash said it best when he compared it to Brigadoon. [laughs] It's there, and it's there for a week. And Sunday it disappears, but it will come back again. One of the main reasons we go is to see old friends. There are these friendships you make where you see these people only at Comic-Con, and it's like the year has not passed. It's a neat feeling. This will be my 34th year at Comic-Con. I remember going to the early ones, and you could talk to Jack Kirby poolside; it was very special. It's a lot bigger now, certainly. Hollywood has discovered Comic-Con and has made its presence known. As have the toy companies. There are still a lot of comics book to be seen there. Basically, Comic-Con is what you make of it. You can go with the Hollywood thing, or you can stay with comic books. It's all there.

SPURGEON: We talked earlier about how you looked at storylines and how that's changed over the years: you're now working on stories far in advance of their actually unfolding. I have to imagine that Usagi has a strong presence in your life as an ongoing creative endeavor. Do you ever think about it in terms of a final result? Or perhaps its legacy? Do you think about in terms of completing the storyline, or what the end result might be.

SAKAI: When I first created Usagi, there was a definite end to it. And he dies a glorious death. [laughter] But the way it's gone now, I don't think I can use it. The storyline has changed so much. I never thought about any type of legacy. This past year it's changing for me. Usagi has been more in the public eye -- not in the comic book world, but more in the general world. I received a cultural ambassador award earlier this year, and with the exhibit... the exhibit has received such great feedback I'm hoping it will be picked up by another museum somewhere else. I don't know. As far as legacy, I don't know. I'm more concerned about what I'm doing next month. I'm still trying to catch up on my deadlines.

SPURGEON: Even though you can't use the ending you had planned at one time to use, does that mean you don't seen an ending at all. Do you see Usagi as a story to be completed?

SAKAI: I don't think there will be an ending. Right now I can't foresee an ending. The original storyline was going to be the story of why there are funny animals, why there are real animals, and the rise of humans. That was a long time ago.


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* Official Usagi Yojimbo Web Site
* Usagi Yojimbo #141, the 200th issue of the title, Dark Horse Comics, October 26 2011
* General Dark Horse search page for various Usagi offerings
* Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai, Dark Horse Comics, 2009
* Year Of The Rabbit: Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo, Japanese American National Museum, Through October 30 2011

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* drawing of Usagi Yojimbo, the long-time lead for the comic book of the same name, by Sakai
* photo of Sakai by Whit Spurgeon
* action sequence from Usagi; note the death head balloon, an all-time comic book visual solution
* the fourth book, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, where things became more involved: it's where I started with the character
* Usagi as a character; here with son Jotaro
* Usagi in a stand-off with some of the better-known supporting characters
* I just always liked this cover
* from the fully painted Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai
* cover art for the two hundredth comic book issue, Dark Horse's 141st.
* fun, involved Usagi scene for I think a print, maybe? (below)

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