25 Years of the Rabbit Ronin: Stan Sakai on Usagi

25 Years of the Rabbit Ronin

Stan Sakai

Celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, Stan Sakai’s long-running series Usagi Yojimbo looks to be the recipient of several high profile projects for 2009. In addition to the regular series from Dark Horse Comics, this summer will see a new trade paperback collection, Bridge of Tears (collecting issues 94-102); Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition, a massive 1200-page, two-volume slipcase edition of all the early Usagi stories published by Fantagraphics; and an original, hardcover, fully painted graphic novel this fall, titled Yokai.

We’ll have more information about Yokai later this year, but we took time to talk to Sakai about what’s going on the Usagi series and both collected editions coming up this summer.

Newsarama: Stan, the current Usagi Yojimbo storyline, “Traitors of the Earth,” has Usagi and occasional ally Kitsune afoul of a wizard, and he’s going to have to fight zombies in the big finale. Usagi’s fought a lot of things in the past twenty-plus years, but zombies are a new one. How did you come to this big battle?

Stan Sakai: Japanese folklore has stories of the dead coming back to life, but zombies in the Western sense are unknown in traditional mythology. I wanted to do a story that takes elements from both cultures.

Usagi Yojimbo #120

NRAMA: Of course, zombies have enjoyed a recent popularity surge in comics lately. Did any of that get you thinking about the concept of Usagi fighting zombies, or was it simply a surreptitious storyline?

SS: Zombies have been a part of comics since the old EC days. I think the walking dead were specifically mentioned in the 1950s Comics Code Authority guidelines. However, my story does not deal with the zombies pursuit of human brains, but rather about the duty to of a samurai to his lord when a defeated samurai army is brought to life to follow a charm made from the skull of their lord.

NRAMA: Kitsune, a spirited pick-pocket, and Usagi, a reserved ronin, are a surprising tandem, though they seem to bring out hidden traits in each other – Kitsune’s hidden responsibility and Usagi’s sense of humor. Is that what makes them fun to play off one another for you?

SS: They do bring out qualities in each other that are not usually so evident. Usagi can be a bit formal, but seems to loosen up around Kitsune. Usagi brings out a sense of responsibility in the thief.

NRAMA: After “Traitors” concludes, you’re planning a few shorter stories, correct? I saw that issue 121 will have Usagi walking into a very cunning trap set by a group of mountain bandits.

Usagi Yojimbo #120, page 1

SS: I generally alternate shorter stories and longer ones, though “Traitors of the Earth” is not a particularly long arc. After “Traitors,” there is a follow-up story with the after-effects of Kitsune being under a wizard's enchantment. Then Usagi has a few solo stories – he is tricked by bandits in UY 121, then the remaining bandits are after him in 122. In 123, he may finally be able to avenge the death of his lord by assassinating Lord Hikiji.

NRAMA: This summer, Fantagraphics, which used to publish Usagi many years ago and continues to print the first seven trade paperbacks, is collecting all of their Usagi Yojimbo material into a single package – a two book, hardcover, slipcase edition, Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition, with over 1200 pages of story and art, color cover galleries, etc. Have you been involved much with assembling that book?

SS: Yes, my original editor, Kim Thompson, and I are updating an old Comics Journal interview for this new edition. We are also including most of the hardcover extras that had never been reprinted, including a crossover with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. We even got permission to print frames from Usagi's appearances on the Turtles’ animated series.

NRAMA: Will there be any rarely or never-before-reprinted stories appearing in The Special Edition? I was thinking, for example, of the original Tomoe origin story from the old Fantagraphics’ Usagi color specials that you recently redrew for inclusion in the Tomoe’s Story trade paperback.

Usagi Yojimbo #120, page 2

SS: I keep all my story pages, so when it was time to reprint “Tomoe's Story” in the Dark Horse trade I was confident I had those pages. However, I could not find the originals in my archives. I could not even find photocopies. All we had were the color comics. Since the trade paperback was going to be black and white, we had two options: bleach the color out of the color pages, or redraw that 20 page story. I chose to redraw the story. It was interesting to see how I approached the story then, and how I would do it now. Every page had at least one panel that was dramatically changed. One page was completely redesigned altogether. Unfortunately, I still have not come across the original pages from 20 years ago.

NRAMA: This type of high-end collector’s edition isn’t terribly common in comics. It must be a point of pride that publishers believe in the material and that readers seem excited about it?

SS: I am very grateful that both Fantagraphics and Dark Horse have kept the volumes in print. I believe Book 1 is currently in its 9th printing. Usagi is a consistent seller for both companies. Fantagraphics is taking a leap of faith with this edition; however, it does collect all the Fantagraphics material in a beautiful hardcover edition for what it would cost to buy the trade collections.

NRAMA: Finally, this summer, you current publisher Dark Horse is putting out Usagi Yojimbo: Bridge of Tears, the 23rd Usagi Yojimbo trade paperback. It’s a tremendous accomplishment to have continued Usagi’s story for all these years. Are there any moments in this collection that stand out to you among the thousands of pages of Usagi Yojimbo you’ve produced?

Usagi Yojimbo #120, page 3

SS: I especially like the last story in the last collection, “Chanoyu – the Tea Ceremony.” It has very little dialogue, and no conflict at all. Everything focuses around the ceremony with Usagi and Tomoe. There is a lot of restrained emotions, which is how their entire relationship has been so far. It is a very satisfying conclusion to that story arc.

NRAMA: After wrapping up the lengthy “Traitors” storyline, what’s next for you and Usagi?

SS: After spending time with friends such as Tomoe, Gen, Stray Dog, and Kitsune, Usagi will have a few solo adventures. In “A Town Called Hell” he will be caught up with rival gangs warring for control over a town, but Usagi is not sure the townspeople are worth fighting for after all. He will then have an encounter with a rokurokubi – a disembodied head from Japanese mythology. I am just starting research for “Shoyu,” a story centering around how soy sauce was made in the 17th century.

The big project I am currently working on is Yokai, an original, full-color graphic novel that is scheduled for November from Dark Horse. Yokai are the demons, ghosts and goblins from Japanese culture. There are not only a lot of horrific ones, but many goofy ones as well. This story will have both. It will be hand-painted with watercolors. I'm having a great time with it.

Usagi Yojimbo is published by Dark Horse Comics; a preview of issue 119 is available online. Bridge of Tears, vol. 23 of the collected series, is scheduled for release this July, and Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition is planned for summer from Fantagraphics.

Twitter activity