Interview: Stan Sakai Pt. 3

Categories:  Interviews, Reviews

stan sakai samurais

[Part One][Part Two]

Jeff Smith famously knew exactly what was going to be on the last page of Bone before he even started working on the series. I think Mike Mignola has had a similar approach with Hellboy, knowing the ark from beginning to end. Are you looking that far down the road?

Not that far, no. And I know Jeff. We traveled together on the Trilogy tour for a year. He developed his characters when he was in kindergarten [laughs]. Thorn was his college newspaper strip. They were with him for his entire life. And when we went to Ohio, he took us to places that Bone takes place in. It’s just incredible. He had the entire story mapped out, even before he started committing it to paper. It was just incredible.

I’m not that structured. I pretty much know where I want to take Usagi, but his final destination I don’t know.

Usagi made his first appearance in another character’s story in a very different form. But prior to latching onto him as your vessel for so long, was it your goal to create a character that you could work with for a long time?

Well, I wanted to do art work, and I was thinking mainly of going into advertising or commercial illustration, but I’ve always loved comic books, and that’s the direction I kind of steered myself in—not intentionally, not thinking that this is the kind of thing I’ll be doing forever. But it’s something that I wanted to do, but I never imagined that I would be doing this with my entire life.

But then, I’m glad I’m doing this. I love what I do. No one bothers me. My contract with all my publishers has always been: whatever I send in, they publish. So they have no editorial input, as far as the story goes. It’s an ideal situation for someone like me.

Do you enjoy working with other people? You’ve done a lot of work with Sergio [Aragones], and you’re still doing lettering [for the Spider-man Sunday strip]. Do you like working on other people’s comics?

I do—if it interests me. I did something for the Marvel Strange Tales anthology. That was great. They called me up and said that I could use any of the characters and do whatever I want with them. And my first thought was: Spider-man ninja. But that was too obvious. I wanted to do something I’m familiar with, because that’s the way I have to be because of deadlines.

So then I decided to do Samurai Hulk. Just seeing the Hulk in samurai armor, that would make a nice visual. And having him fight off an army seemed like fun to me, so I did that. And I told them I was going to kill him at the end, and they said, “oh sure. That’s fine.”

What’s your level of involvement on the Spider-man strip?

I just do the lettering for the Sunday strip. I’ve been doing that for more than 25 years, as well. I get to work directly with Stan Lee. It’s still a thrill. It’s really neat. I remember him calling me up and saying, “hi, this is Stan Lee, looking for Stan Sakai.” And I remember thinking, ‘he really sounds like Stan Lee.’ I thought that was the funniest thing.

It was the same thing when I did a signing with George Takai from Star Trek. And I kept thinking, ‘he really sounds like Mr. Sulu.’ It was the funniest thing. They really sound like their characters. And Stan is the way he’s portrayed. He’s always exuberant and friendly. He’s a really sweet guy, and the main reason I still do the Spider-man strip lettering is because of Stan.

Are there still things you can learn from someone like Sergio or Stan?

Oh yeah, oh yeah. Especially working with Sergio. He’s been doing this for such a long time. The research that I do for Usagi is something that I learned from Sergio. Because his approach to doing Groo, even though it’s such a humor strip—all of the ships that Sergio draws, they might not be actual ships, but you can build them and they would work. He has actual knowledge about ships.

He’s the one who taught me that you have to do your research, and that’s something that I try to do now. And even though Groo is a humor strip, it’s amazing how much he puts into it. The amount that he puts into it is something that I’ve learned from—and keep learning from Sergio.

A number of cartoonists have told me that one of the most important things about choosing your subject matter—especially on a longer project—is picking something that you enjoy drawing. Did that play a role in deciding on the subject matter for Usagi?

Yeah, I think so. Originally, I had wanted to do a series inspired by the life of a 17th century samurai named Miyamoto Musashi, but –he’s regarded as one of the great swordsmen in Japanese history, but one day I just drew a rabbit and Musashi became a rabbit. Instead of Miyamoto Musashi, my charcter was Miyamoto Usagi—”usagi” means “rabbit” in Japanese. The “Miyamoto” part I kept as an homage to the original Musahi, but everything else is pretty much original.

[Concluded in Part Hour]

–Brian Heater

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