Star-Bulletin Features

Sunday, July 15, 2001


Usagi Yojimbo cartoon

A man and his
samurai rabbit


Graphic Arts As Literature

By Gary C.W. Chun

TO COMMEMORATE this week's release of the 50th issue of Stan Sakai's popular long-eared ronin, Usagi Yojimbo, the rabbit dies!!

Er, that is to say, the rabbit dyes.

The Hawaii-raised comic book artist, who has churned out 17 years' worth of high-quality "funny animal" adventures involving a rabbit samurai in 16th-century Japan, was having a bit of fun with a magazine interviewer.

"I really had nothing special planned for the issue," the amiable Sakai said by phone from his Pasadena, Calif., home. "And if you combine the publishing runs the comic has had with Mirage, Fantagraphics and now Dark Horse, it's really, overall, the 110th issue. But I jokingly told the guy that, in a fight scene in a dye factory, Usagi 'dyes.' A bad joke, I know!"

Punning aside, Sakai's comic books and paperback collections represent the best of what comics can offer.

Shawna Ervin-Gore, media representative for Dark Horse Comics, said via e-mail that "in so many ways, Stan is a publisher's dream come true. His work is absolutely top-notch in terms of quality, and it just seems to get better with each issue. He's also tremendously positive when it comes to interacting with fans, which is really important in this industry. 'Usagi' is also one of the only truly 'all-ages' comics. ... Parents would be proud to have their kids read it, but it's a fun and compelling read for anyone who likes cool, intelligent adventure."

Sakai's is a true "local boy makes good" story -- not just because he's made a reputation for himself, but because his friendly and helpful, low-key demeanor is in the spirit of the islands. You'd be hard pressed to find someone so well liked in this competitive field. "My dad's originally from Hawaii," he said. "Even though I was born in Kyoto, Japan, my dad moved the family back home when I was 3. I grew up in the Kapahulu area, and ever since I could remember, I always enjoyed drawing."

In fact, Sakai learned to read from comic books, especially titles from Marvel's heralded Silver Age, such as the Fantastic Four and Spider-Man. Years later, after earning his bachelor of fine arts degree from the University of Hawaii, "I would have the opportunity of meeting my heroes from Marvel, Jack Kirby and Stan Lee." Sakai letters Lee's Spider-Man newspaper strip and performs the same duties for another of his heroes, Sergio Aragonés, who came to fame for his sublime gag work for Mad magazine. His comic book work is released under the Dark Horse Maverick logo, like Sakai's.

In 1982, Sakai did his earliest drawings of Usagi. "The series is based on the famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi, but I loved designing him as a rabbit," he said.

The honorable rabbit first appeared in an anthology comic book published in 1984 by Thoughts and Images in Seattle. Usagi's run with another Seattle independent, Fantagraphics, in 1991, brought the character more to the forefront, earning wider fan and critical appeal.

He even rode the wave of popularity of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, if only briefly. "Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird started their comic at about the same time I did," Sakai remembers, "and I met them at a comic book convention. They became fans of Usagi's, so much so that he even appeared in a couple of episodes of the animated series."

Sakai's research is so thorough and his work so historically accurate (seemingly atypical for "just a comic book") that he's received a Parent's Choice award. Not bad for a guy who didn't even revisit his birthplace until later in his career.

A previous story arc, "Grasscutter," is part of the curriculum in the Japanese history department of the University of Portland. "It's the best-researched story arc I've done," Sakai said, "as it involves the history of the origin and development of the Japanese islands."

There are 14 trade paperback collections of Sakai's "Usagi Yojimbo." While Sakai said that all the collections are accessible to new readers, he suggests the second collection, "Samurai," as a good jump-on point.

"Usagi was just starting his own series, and there's a story cycle that starts when he was a kid," he said. It's a time in the character's development he's still referring back to even now, with the publication of a short story found in this summer's Maverick annual.

Now both creator and character have matured. The girl that Sakai knew throughout his school years -- from Waikiki Elementary, through Kaimuki Intermediate and Kaimuki High School -- is now his wife of 24 years, Sharon. They celebrated the anniversary of their 1977 wedding just this past Wednesday. They are the proud parents of Hannah and Matthew. "Sharon has always been very supportive of me," Sakai said.

Admitting a love of travel -- the popularity of Usagi has led to invitations from Japan, Norway and Spain -- Sakai comes back to Hawaii to visit family every other year.

"I just want to tell good, solid stories," Sakai said. And he has, to the delight of present and future fans, and to the benefit of the medium.

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