Miyamoto Usagi, the hero of Stan Sakai’s long-running comic book series Usagi Yojimbo, has been through many, many adventures in the past twenty-five years. This November, however, Usagi takes on an all-new threat in a whole new way.
Yōkai is a stand-alone graphic novel, written and fully painted in water colors by Sakai himself. The project does more than mark the ronin rabbit’s 25th anniversary – it presents Usagi to readers as never before.
Stan Sakai took time out of his hectic schedule to talk to us about the new graphic novel, the new Usagi action figures, and what’s next for his ronin rabbit.
Newsarama: You’ve had lots and lots of Usagi Yojimbo material coming out this year beyond the regular series. The new trade Bridge of Tears, the high-end Special Edition collection, and now in November, your first Usagi Yojimbo original graphic novel, titled Yōkai. First, what trouble can we look forward to Usagi getting into in Yōkai? Stan Sakai: Yokai is the most ambition Usagi project I have taken on. It is a fully painted (with water colors) original graphic novel. The story centers around the “hyakki yako” – the Night Parade of a Hundred Demons. The belief is that every year supernatural creatures congregate and take to the streets. In my story, once every hundred years, they also have a chance to take over the world of the living. However, they need a living soul to lead them. They capture a little girl to be their focal point, and Usagi has to save her and stop the supernatural invasion.
NRAMA: Yōkai, as you note, refers to supernatural beings from Japanese folklore, including shape-shifting animals, oni (Japanese demons), tsukumogami (inanimate objects come to life) and more. Usagi has had many encounters with such creatures over the years; is there a particular brand of yōkai that are the focus of this story?
SS: Japan has such a rich tradition of supernatural creatures – some horrific, but also a lot of goofy ones. They will all be included in the story, from the nure onna (snake woman) to the karakasa (animated umbrella). I had a lot of fun researching this story. There is one yōkai called the sansho, whose design I really like. Basically, it is a foot with a single huge eyeball and a shock of hair. I knew it originated in China and, like many other aspects of Japanese culture, made its way to Japan. I wanted to use it, but could not find the origins of the legend. I sent out a plea on the Internet, which was picked up by various comic book news sites. Matt Alt, whose book Yokai Attack! was just published by Kodansha, contacted me and gave me the details I needed. Matt lives in Tokyo, and by chance, I am going there in November so we're making arrangements to meet up.
NRAMA: Will readers get to see any of Usagi’s recurring cast in this story?
SS: Yes, Sasuke the Demon Queller will play a pivotal role in this, as he did in “Traitors of the Earth,” the story about samurai zombies. The yōkai are bridging over the Witch Queen from the supernatural world, and Sasuke has to prevent that while Usagi has his hands full fighting the others.
NRAMA: Why did you choose to write Yōkai as a single book rather than serializing it in the regular Usagi series?
SS: My editor Diana Schutz suggested this project to me. Since it was going to be fully painted, I wanted it to be visually striking as well as being a good read. Having the variety of yōkai in color makes the story stand out in a way that I would not have been able to do in the regular black and white series.
NRAMA: When you sat down to create a stand-alone graphic novel, is it more important that the book matches the tone of the series, or do you want this to be a differing experience from what readers would find in the monthly?
SS: This is a stand-alone story, but it also continues Usagi’s story line. New readers who know nothing about the samurai rabbit can enjoy the story, and long-time readers will find new things to enjoy as well. Sasuke has always been a mysterious figure, as befitting a demon queller. However, a bit more about his past and origins are revealed.
NRAMA: How has the experience of painting an entire book compared to doing the line art and lettering for Usagi for the last two decades?
SS: It takes a lot longer, and there are a lot more decisions to be made. I can use color to convey mood or to heighten the action is ways that I am not able to do in the black and white series. Also, I can add a depth to the pages and roundness to the characters in a different way than in the regular books. There will be a couple of extras in this book, one of which is a step-by-step look at the creation of one of the pages.
NRAMA: That’s very cool. You’ve published a few Usagi color specials over the years, but all of those stories, when collected into trades, were eventually shown in black and white. Does working in color change how you approach your line art?
SS: I definitely changes to way I approach the line art. Usagi was a color series when it was published by Mirage. When those stories were reprinted in the Dark Horse trades, I had to retouch every panel for black and white printing.
NRAMA: While I’m on the subject of color Usagi stories, has there ever been any discussion of collecting the old Usagi color specials into a color trade?
SS: No, but we probably will if there is a demand for it. I really like the look of the black and white books. The artwork really stands out.
NRAMA: With one graphic novel under your belt, are you interested in tackling such an ambitious project in the near future?
SS: I would. I have another story that I would like to see in color.
NRAMA: With Yōkai wrapped, what’s next for yourself and for Usagi?
SS: I have got to get back to the regular series, which has been put on hold for a few months. This fall will also see the best Usagi figures that has been sculpted. They are just gorgeous. The first batch will feature Usagi, Gen, Tomoe, Jotaro, and Katsuichi. I'm really excited about these. Another thing to note is that Usagi Yojimbo is up for an Eisner in the Outstanding Series category. This is about my 25th or so nomination, with 3 wins.
Usagi Yojimbo: Yōkai ships in November from Dark Horse Comics. Current issues and trade paperbacks of Usagi Yojimbo are currently available as well.