Interview with Stan Sakai

This June, legendary cartoonist Stan Sakai debuts a brand new Usagi Yojimbo #1 at IDW Publishing. We talked to Stan about the exciting new adventures awaiting Usagi and Stan himself!

Welcome to IDW, Stan! Some of our readers might not be familiar with Usagi Yojimbo. Can you explain what the series is about?

Stan Sakai: “Usagi Yojimbo” literally means “Rabbit Bodyguard” in Japanese.  The series follows a ronin (unemployed samurai) rabbit  in an anthromophized 17th century Japan.  That is about all you need to know to start enjoying the stories.  Usagi was first published in 1984, in Albedo #2, and because of its success, he was offered his own series.  Because I own the series I can do whatever kind of stories I want.  I have crossed genres from straight adventure to historical to fantasy and mysteries.  I have placed a descendant in a futuristic setting in Space Usagi and even had Martians attack feudal Japan in Senso.  Usagi’s many adventures make the stories very reader friendly.

Usagi Yojimbo celebrates its 35th anniversary this year. What is it about the character and world that keeps you returning to the title?

Stan Sakai: I enjoy writing and drawing the Usagi stories.  He is an interesting character in an intriguing world.  True, it is a fantasy series but it is grounded in an actual time and place.  Japan has a rich culture, tradition of folklore, and an interesting history.  I pull my stories from all these sources as well as my own imagination.  

Can you tell us a little about the first storyline printed by IDW, Bunraku?  

Stan Sakai: As I said, much of my inspirations come from the culture and traditions of Japan.  Bunraku is Japanese puppetry.  The Japanese puppet theater is very different from the Western counterpart which focuses on slapstick and humor.  The Japanese tradition is very dramatic.  My story revolves around a haunted puppet theater and guest-stars one of Usagi’s most popular supporting characters, Sasuke the Demon Queller.  

Usagi Yojimbo is full of interesting supporting characters, some of which are friends and some of which are foes. Do you have a favorite supporting character?

Stan Sakai: My favorite is probably Gen the Bounty Hunter who was inspired by Toshiro Mifune’s performances in Yojimbo and Sanjuro.  Gen will return in issue #7.  

The series is going to be colored by Tom Luth, a first in quite a while for a new ongoing Usagi title. What is appealing to you about Tom’s work?

Stan Sakai: Tom Luth does amazing work.  Anyone who can color Sergio Aragones’ detailed artwork has got to be good.  Tom has a great color sense and he has been coloring my stories since the beginning.  He recently did an amazing job on Namazu, the TMNT/Usagi crossover.  I trust his coloring instincts completely.

What drew you to IDW Publishing?

Stan Sakai: IDW is a relatively young company, but they are aggressive, growing and I like the products they produce.  I enjoy working with the people there and together we came up with a great promotional strategy.  They are also willing to take risks, such as publishing Usagi in color or in different formats.  Also, it helps that they are located in Southern California not far from where I live and work.  Just last week, (Editor) Scott Dunbier stopped over with his two boys to pick up some original artwork, and my editor Bobby Curnow has come by a couple times as well.  I like the personal yet professional atmosphere. 

IDW is known for its wide range of titles. Can we expect any crossovers or work from you on a non-Usagi title?

Stan Sakai: Usagi has already met up with the TMNT, though with a different iteration of the characters he had encountered before.  I would like to explore that again.  And maybe do crossovers with other characters.

Stan, you do virtually everything for the Usagi comic: writing, line art, and lettering. Is there any aspect of cartooning you feel like you’ve made particular growth in over the last couple of years? 

Stan Sakai: I like to think that, as Usagi has grown and matured as a character, I have matured as a storyteller.  There are more layers in my stories and I am dropping hints for plot lines that won’t be developed for years.

What do you hope for Usagi Yojimbo in the future?

Stan Sakai: We are developing an Usagi Yojimbo TV series along with Gaumont, the world’s oldest film company, and James Wan who directed Aquaman, and Dark Horse who has had success in placing comic book properties.  However, my priority will always be the comic stories.