Stan Sakai isn’t a cartoonist, he’s a force of nature. The artist has been writing, drawing, and lettering Usagi Yojimbo for more than a 25 years–a book he continues to churn out at a rate of ten a year–a pace that’s no doubt mind boggling for the majority of independent cartoonists who take months or years in between single issues.
Speaking with Sakai over the phone for half an hour, it’s clear why his samurai rabbit is one of the few characters to have survived the 80s black and white comics boom in tact–after 27 years of Usagi, Sakai still clearly derives as much joy from the book as does his dedicated fan base.
In honor of Fantagraphics’ new two volume, 1,200 page Usagi collection–and a belated celebration of a quarter century of the book–we sat down with Sakai to discuss what makes him so attached to that little rabbit, after all of these years.
You mentioned that your schedule was free this week when we set up the interview. Are you mostly writing and drawing these days?
Yeah, pretty much. I work at home, and I do Usagi full-time. My schedule is pretty flexible. I can work in the morning or work at night.
Do you make your own schedule, as far as how often the book actually comes out?
Oh yeah—well, for the schedule, I confer with my editor, who is currently Diana Shutz at Dark Horse. We figure out a good schedule for me. The comic book comes out about ten times a year, plus there’s a trade paperback and other projects. I do at least one non-Usagi project, and I also have other work.
That’s sounds like a pretty brisk pace. You’re doing issues on almost a monthly basis, which is quick for someone who writes and draws his own work.
Almost, yeah. Not quite. And I also do other work. I lettering the Spider-Man Sunday newspaper strip. And I have a regular feature in World of Warcraft Magazine and a bunch of other stuff—special projects.
Has your work process sped up significantly, over the years?
Yeah. It’s much faster. And actually, I’m a little behind, because I did a lot of travelling this year. I work when I travel, as well, but I’m not as productive.
Do you have shortcuts? What about the process speeds up?
Well, I’ve been doing this for more than 25 years—going on 27 years now [laughs]. I’m acquainted with the characters. So my pencils are not tight pencils. They’re more layouts, and I start inking on the layouts. I pencil while I’m inking. That’s one shortcut. I pretty much learned that from Sergio [Aragones], because he pretty much works the same way.
I just read the new Fantagraphics collection. It really gives you perspective, being able to see the early stages of something and then seeing what it grew into, 1,200 pages later. It’s something you don’t usually get with a book. You can see how the art evolves.
[Laughs] That’s right.
Obviously the characters are still evolving, as far as story is concerned, but is the art still evolving?
Oh yeah, yeah. In that Fantagraphics collection, compare Usagi in the very begin with him after 1,200 pages, he’s changed. The character design has changed, he has a little bump for a nose, as opposed to the Roman-type of nose he had at the beginning—very straight. His proportions have changed. And he’s evolving even today. You talked about the Frantagraphics book, which is 1,200 pages—I think I’m more than 5,000 pages into it now.
Are these design changes conscious decisions on your part, or do they just occur when you draw the same character enough?
Well, some of conscious, but most of the design changes have been gradual. They’re very unconscious on my part. I’ve gotten more acquainted with the character, and I think I’m a better storyteller now. Things like that change the pace of the story and the design of the characters.
Has the storytelling changed as drastically as the character design has?
Well, I’ve gotten much more comfortable telling a story. At the beginning, my focus was on doing the artwork. Right now, it’s more trying to tell a good story. For me, storytelling, the storytelling takes much longer.
The stories in the Fantagraphics collection are really parables. Is that still a defining characteristic of your current storytelling methods?
Yeah, I think so. For the most part, the good guys win. And the types of stories I tell are kind of like what I call “O. Henry” stories—they have a kind of a twist at the end. That’s something that I like. It’s something for the reader. I think I mentioned that the story is a lot harder for me. When I’m writing a story, I need absolute quiet. But when I’m drawing, I have the television or radio on. The story does come a lot harder, even though the drawing takes a lot longer.
Do you have to force yourself to sit down, when you’re working out the concept?
I do most of the story writing on the plane, when I’m travelling. It’s very rare that you have an interesting seatmate [laughs]. Usually, when I’m travelling, that’s when I’m actually writing the story. I’m either writing or sunbathing, and last year, I went to Germany, Croatia, Croatia, Canada, and all over North America—so I got a lot of writing done.
Do you have to force them?
Sometimes I have to yank it out, really work on it. Other times it comes quickly. One thing I like to do is watch a lot of documentaries. One of the stories that was recently put out was called “Toad Oil”—that’s the secretions from toads. It used to be a folk remedy in old Japan. I thought, “hey, that’s pretty neat,” so I wrote a story based around toad oil. Same thing with taiko drums. I did some research. I like seeing taiko drum performances, so I wrote a story about them.
A lot of times it’s just about trying to find the right hook. I do a lot of research, a lot of reading about Japanese culture, and a lot of times, something will spark an idea.
[Continued in Part Two].