BY JENNIFER M. CONTINOStan Sakai’s
ronin warrior has faced many different evils in the twenty-five years since his creation. But in the New Year, Usagi Yojimbo
is going up against an evil he’s never faced before, samurai zombies! Sakai told THE PULSE it’s going to be a tough battle for these three issues. “ … swords are little protection against a boiling river, living stone statues, and an army of the dead.” THE PULSE: Your solicits for issue # 117 teased that Usagi would be facing a "never-before-seen threat!" What can you tell THE PULSE about this terrible challenge facing our ronin warrior?
Samurai zombies! This is the first episode of a three-part story. 300 years before Usagi's time, there was a battle and the leader of the defeated army was beheaded and his followers were cursed, and left to rot where they lay. A small figure, called a "netsuke", was carved from the skull of the warlord, and now it has the power to raise and control the dead warriors. Kitsune the thief picks the pocket of a samurai, not knowing that he was delivering the netsuke to a sorcerer. Now the wizard is after Kitsune, and Usagi has promised to protect her. But swords are little protection against a boiling river, living stone statues, and an army of the dead.
This story also features the return of Sasuke the Demon Queller, one my most popular characters. THE PULSE: It sounds quite dangerous and exciting! What were your challenges of coming up with something for Usagi to face that he hasn't had to before, especially after doing this series for so many years?
Usagi is such and interesting character and Japan has such a rich history and tradition of folklore, that it's easy to get new ideas for stories. However, though Japan does have legends about the walking dead, zombies as in the Western concept is unknown in folklore. It was fun to mix Japanese and Western mythologies.
Besides I enjoyed drawing all those zombies decked out in samurai armor. THE PULSE: I bet! How are the things inspiring and influencing you now different -- if at all -- from what was affecting how you regarded the characters and situations when you were first working on Usagi Yojimbo all those years ago?
As Usagi has matured as a character, I've matured as a storyteller. The latest collection--Book 22: Tomoe's Story-- reprints a story that was printed about 20 years ago in the first Usagi Color Special. When it was time to gather all the art together, I could not find the art for that particular story. Fantagraphics, the original publisher, had changed printers a number of times since then and the negatives had been destroyed. I redrew that 20 page story. It was interesting to see the choices I had made so long ago, and how I would tell the story now. In most cases, I just adjusted the composition a bit or changed a panel. However, there was one page that was completely changed.
Back then, I was a lot more tentative, but now I'm a lot more confident in my storytelling and my art. THE PULSE: When you were first working on Usagi Yojimbo, did you hear the voice of anyone as the voice of your character? Like, I always heard George Takei when I read Usagi .... Do you hear certain voices when you're scripting your characters?
I don't hear any particular voice. That is why it was difficult with Usagi's television appearances. The producers would ask, "Who does Usagi sound like?" I really did not have an answer for them, so we kicked around ideas from giving him a Brooklyn accent to having him speak only in Japanese with subtitles. They shot down my idea to get Sean Connery as Usagi. I was talking to Sergio Aragones about what our characters would sound like, and he told me that when Groo speaks to him, it's in Spanish. THE PULSE: That makes sense! I would have loved to hear Sean Connery as Usagi. Getting back to the current mess, he's facing, after this three-part adventure, assuming Usagi survives, what's next for the hero in the new year? What other challenges await?
There will be a few single-issue adventures, then two multi-issue stories--one a murder mystery and, in the other, he is caught between two warring factions. These will be leading up to another epic-length story arc along the lines of Grasscutter or Mother of Mountains. THE PULSE: Every time I read a new adventure of Usagi, I keep thinking this would make such a cool anime or film. What kind of " Hollywood " interest have you had in expanding Usagi's reach beyond comic books?
Usagi has been optioned for film and TV a number of times. The property is currently under option, and a script is being written. But then, everything gets optioned, so don't believe anything until you actually see it on the screen.
Usagi, and a few of my other characters, have made guest appearances on the TMNT TV series. He will be appearing in their new season as well. THE PULSE: Great! We'll be looking for him. Speaking of television, do you watch Heroes? Because when I was watching Hiro's quest to help the legendary warrior become the legendary warrior, I kind of got a Usagi Yojimbo vibe from it .... What did you think of that storyline?
I got the first season on DVD, but have never seen anything of the second season. I guess this is where the Hiro's Quest storyline takes place. THE PULSE: Yeah, you'll have to watch it. What other projects are you working on?
My Samurai Hulk story for Marvel should finally see print in the Marvel Underground anthology. I'm working on an original, fully painted (with watercolors) hardcover Usagi graphic novel for Dark Horse that is due out in November. "Yokai" will pit Usagi against many of the creatures of Japanese folklore, not only the horrific stuff but the goofier ones as well such as the Haunted Umbrella or the Hopping Foot. I did a six-page story for Dark Horse's Free Comic Book Day giveaway, and a variant cover and story for Dark Horse Presents (September). There will also be a 25th anniversary poster that Dark Horse will be giving away at conventions, starting at WonderCon.
Dark Horse will have a new collection, UY Book 23: Bridge of Tears out in time for the San Diego Con, and Fantagraphics Books will be releasing a 2 volume hardcover slipcased edition of the Complete Fantagraphics Usagi Yojimbo in June.
I will also be in a few art exhibitions this year. I have a few pieces in the Out of Sequence show curated by the University of Illinois Urbana/Champaign, and am in a show at the National Japanese American Historical Society. Opening in February, will be an "Art of Stan Sakai" show in San Francisco's Cartoon Art Museum just in time for WonderCon, and the Images of the Samurai exhibit at the Pacific Asia Museum in Pasadena, CA. Jaime Hernandez and I will have some work displayed in the gallery at the Fantagraphics Store during the Emerald City Con. I am now negotiating for a major exhibit (about 200 pieces) for 2010.