In this second part of our interview with the indie comics great, we discuss the influence that manga and Japanese culture in general have had upon his long running series, Usagi Yojimbo.
You were born in Japan, but grew up in Hawaii.
Yeah. I’m a third generation Japanese American. My dad was an American citizen, and he was stationed in Japan, after the war. He met my mom there, and they got married, and I was born in Kyoto. We moved back to Hawaii, where my dad grew up. And now I’m living in California.
Were you surrounded by Japanese culture in Hawaii?
Oh yeah, yeah. At that time—I’m not sure how it is now—the Japanese were the largest voting block on the island. When people immigrate to another area, they usually take their culture with them. So I grew up with the festivals and the Japanese language. I was reading manga before it was called “manga.” We just called it “Japanese comics.” I used to watch things like Astro Boy on television, Gigantor. That type of thing.
Have your comics always been fairly steeped in that manga style?
Well, I’m more influenced by western comic books I am by Japanese comics, though I did grow up with manga. But I guess because of subject matter, I consciously sought out Japanese artists, though I don’t think it’s particularly Japanese looking. At least the story telling style is completely western.
What makes it “western?”
I think it’s the pacing. In the Japanese style, you have the luxury of devoting 12 pages to something like walking down the street or drinking coffee or even a fight scene. And I can’t devote that many pages to just one thing, because I’m limited to 24 pages in one comic. So the pacing is one thing that’s completely different. And there are a few other things, but they are very small nuances. I think the pacing of the story is what really differentiates Japanese storytelling from the western style. That might be why western comics have never made a big impression on Japan.
Would you like the luxury of being able to take your time to tell a story in that manner? Or are you happy with the constraints of western storytelling?
I’m really happy with the structure that the comic book has. A year-and-a-half ago, I did a book called Yokai. It was a 60 page, full-color painted graphic novel. So I got to play with that one continuous story in one format. And I enjoyed that. And then I have also done complete stories such as The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, which was in the Fantagraphics book. It’s about 150, 200 pages. And that’s one continuous story. But I try to vary my storytelling, with short stories, where new readers can come onboard, to much longer, epic type of stories where I can have a lot more character development and do a lot more research into the stories.
It’s funny to talk about constraints like page count and time, when you’re working on a story that’s now around 6,000 pages.
[Laughs] Yeah. And I read through the old Fantagraphics stories, and I’m really happy with how it all holds together, and how it flows into the current continuity. The characters mature, but they pretty much stay in character. So, I’m really happy with that. And the types of stories that come about, I think I’ve matured as a storyteller. And Usagi has matured as a character, so I’m quite pleased.
Have you always considered it part of a long, on-going story? Did you anticipate—not that it was going to be 6,000 pages, but that it was ultimately going to be a manga-length story?
No. When I first started with the Fantagraphics stuff, I was concentrating on what I might be able to do next month. I’d need an eight page story for the following month. As for now, I’m laying the foundations for stories that I’ll be telling in like five years.
Dark Horse published book 12, Grasscutter, and that took two years, just to lay down the groundwork. And that book received the Eisner Award, the American Library Association Award—Will Eisner supplied the introduction for that book. Like I said, I can lay down groundwork for stories that I won’t be telling for another few years down the road.
How do you map these out? Do you have notebooks, or are you able to do it all in your mind?
Most of them are not written down. They’re in my head. I know where I want to take Usagi. I may know what’s going to happen to him, two years down the road, but then, it’s trying to figure out the story I do next month.
How he gets there.
Exactly. That’s the hard part.
[Continued in Part Three.]