We wrap up our conversation with Usagi Yojimbo’s creator by discuss, space rabbits, licensing deals, and the differences between goblins and gnomes.
What is the World of Warcraft strip you’re working on?
Oh, I do a strip for the World of Warcraft Magazine. Someone else hands me a script, and I illustrated a one-page story. Actually, Scott Shaw is going to be doing the writing for me. This is my first time collaborating with Scott, so I’m looking forward to that. I’ve been doing this for a year or so, but I’m not a gamer at all. It was kind of funny, because I was drawing the first story—it’s basically gnomes versus goblins. When I turned in my first pencils, they said, “you’re giving the gnomes goblin proportions. Remember, this is a gnome, it has gnome proportions.” What?! I didn’t know there was a difference [laughs].
Is it hard to follow someone else’s own rules, after you’ve been working in your own world for so long?
No, no. I’m really having fun with it—as long as you know what the rules are. I didn’t know that gnomes and goblins had different proportions [laughs]. But I’m having fun with it.
Does it help keep you sane? Do you get tired of working with the same characters after a couple of decades?
Not Usagi. I own the characters, so I can do basically whatever I want with him, as far as the story goes. Most of it is adventure, I’ve done romances, I’ve done mysteries—I even did Space Uagi, where he goes through outer space. I can pretty much do anything I want with him, so I never get bored. I’m having fun with Usagi, even after so many years.
I’m sure there are certain places you wouldn’t go with him. Certain lines you don’t cross.
Oh yeah. People occasionally ask me, “does Usagi have a tail?” I have no idea. I never picture Usagi naked!
Is that a question that may be answered some day?
Oh, I don’t know. I don’t even want to go in that direction.
There was a video game.
Oh yeah, the computer game.
A lot of that happened around the Ninja Turtles craze.
Is that something you’re still interested in? Branching out into other mediums?
I’m lazy. I don’t really go looking for licensing deals. Usagi has been optioned for movies and television just about continuously since he was first published. And he’s under option right now. But everything gets optioned. It’s not a big deal. Maybe ten percent of what’s optioned goes into pre-production, and then ten percent of that goes into production and then ten percent of that actually makes it to the screen. But it’s always nice to see some kind of merchandizing. The Usagi stuffed animals came out and the action figures. At one time, there were even Usagi pajamas on sale at Wal-Mart. Those were kind of fun. Kids pajamas.
You wrote and drew some Usagi strips featuring the Turtles, and he also became part of the comics and the TV show and there was a figure. You had to let go of him to some degree.
Yeah. I knew I had to make some compromises, but it was just a fun thing to do. The negotiations took place at San Diego Comic Con. I was sitting with Peter Laird, and he said to me, “you want a Usagi toy?” And I said, “sure.” And after that, it was pretty much the legal stuff, getting lawyers to hammer out some details.
When he got the new Ninja Turtles TV series, the more recent one, he called me up and said, “you want to do it again?” And I said, “okay.” And it was that easy [laughs]. But we were friends first. Usagi and the Turtles came out at the same time, and back then, there were very few black and white books—there was Elf Quest, Cerebus, and Mage, and Grendel. So I supported them and they supported me and we became friends that way.
And then, of course, the black and white boom came, and then everything was in black and white.
Did you ever expect that Usagi would get caught up in the craze and become a marketable property on the level of the Turtles?
No. I was a very, very small part of it. Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman were just inundated with all of these merchandizing and licensing deals. I was just a very small fish, far away on the other side of the country. I was never a big part of it, at all. But it was always nice to see Usagi action figures.
Have you ever seen the first Usagi action figure? It looks like Usagi’s head on He-Man’s body. But I know I had to make compromises, because it had to fit into the Turtles’ universe. All of the figures had the big griny teeth and everything. I didn’t approve of the original version—it was very extreme. But the whole thing was very nice. It was nice to have some merchandising out.
You went back and looked at the old Fantagraphics work before the new collection was printed.
Is it hard to look at that old stuff?
No, not really. Actually, I enjoyed it. It’s been so long since I’ve read it. But I was very pleased with the continuity—even how it fits into today’s continuity. I was very happy with it.
Well, thanks so much.
My pleasure. And I would like to say that 2011 is the year of the rabbit. One of the things that I’m going to do is an exhibition at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. There will be about 200 of my pieces in there.
Is Usagi popular in Japan?
No. There has never been a Western comic book that has ever made any kind of a significant dent in the manga market. Usagi is translated into a dozen different languages, but not Japanese.