STAN SAKAI ANSWERS 15 QUESTIONS WITH JULINDA MORROW
Stan Sakai is a comic book veteran. He is the creator of the long running series Usagi Yojimbo, which follows an anthropomorphic rabbit ronin in a mythical land that also mirrors culture of feudal Japan. Stan cites Akira Kurosawa and other filmmakers as influences.
Stan has seen his creation animated alongside the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and packaged as a toy figurine. While many other creators and their characters have come and gone from the world of comics, Stan and Usagi have stood the test of time.
A gallery of Stan’s delightful art follows this interview.
Julinda Morrow: What path led you to comics and sequential art?
Stan Sakai: I grew up reading comic books. Comics gave me my love of reading in general. There was never any doubt that I would do something in the arts, especially sequential arts.
JM: What schooling or training did you receive?
SS: I have a Bachelor of Fine Arts degree from the University of Hawaii. At that time, though, the emphasis was on abstract expressionism, which really did not do me any good. However, I enjoyed the life drawing and advanced drawing classes. I later went to the Art Center College of Art, and studied Advertising Illustration.
JM: Who, in your opinion, are the pioneers of sequential art?
SS: Will Eisner was one of the greats. So was Osamu Tezuka. No one could match the energy of Kirby’s pencils. The amazing thing with these three is that they kept their passion to the end, and they just got better. Will Eisner, especially so – his best works were created in the second half of his life.
JM: How do you define sequential art?
SS: Sequential art is combining words and pictures to tell a story when read in a predetermined order.
JM: Do you find that sequential art provides you with near-limitless possibilities for storytelling or do you experience it as constraining?
SS: Sequential art can be very confining; however I enjoy it especially because I create the process entirely by myself. If it was film, I would be both the writer and director. There are certain nuances, moods, expressions that [sequential art] can’t convey the way film can.
JM: What qualities or resources do you believe are most important for a sequential storyteller to have?
SS: Anyone who goes into the arts has got to have passion and tenacity. Ability is important, but you have to put your art first to be successful in this business. It is a business, and you have to approach it that way.
JM: How do you approach your work process?
SS: I’ve detailed my work process many times, beginning with an old Amazing Heroes interview to Dark Horse’s Art of Usagi Yojimbo, and even in my self-published sketchbooks. Basically, I write an outline, breaking down the story into scenes. I then do the thumbnails for composition of pages and panels, and to determine pacing. Because I write and draw the stories, these thumbnails do not have to be very detailed–stick figures are fine. It is at this stage that I write the script. My pencils tend to be very loose, as I do most of the drawing in the inking stage. However, before the inking, I letter the pages. I still do hand lettering directly on the original art. When all this is done, I send the original art to the publisher. This is usually the first time that the actually see any of the art. This is not the case if I am doing work for a licensed property, of course. Sometimes the publisher or licensor need to approve various steps in the process.
JM: How many hours a day do you work? Are you uniformly productive on any given day or more productive on some days than others?
SS: I try to do a page a day. It usually takes me five weeks to finish an Usagi story. This schedule allows me to do outside work as well – I still letter the Spider-Man Sunday strips, for example – and allows me to travel to comic conventions and festivals in the US and internationally.
JM: Was it a struggle, at the start of your career, to find work and make ends meet?
SS: I was already a freelance artist in the LA area when I got into comics. I had been doing newspaper and magazine illustrations, advertising, record album covers – basically anything to get by. When I started doing comics, I kept my other freelance work to help support myself. Now almost all my time is spent doing comics.
JM: What has been your most valuable professional experience?
SS: Meeting other artists, without a doubt. When I was growing up, there were no comic conventions and you pretty much had to live in New York to break into comics. I grew up in Hawaii, and that is as far from New York as you could get and still be in the US. By the time I moved to California, comics were no longer centered in New York. Jack Kirby had moved to Los Angeles a few years earlier, a new company called FedEx was making it easier to ship art, conventions were getting popular. I started going to the San Diego Comic-con when it was at the El Cortez Hotel – I have been attending the for 34 years – and I had the opportunity to meet other creators, to network, and get tips both in the artistic sense and in business.
JM: What inspires or informs you creatively?
SS: I love what I do, and I get a great deal of latitude in how I do it. As far as Usagi Yojimbo goes, my contracts with all my publishers have always been that whatever I send in, they publish. They have no input at all as far as story and art. That is the ideal situation for an independent creator.
JM: What is your position on digital comics? Are they a good thing or a bad thing?
SS: I grew up reading the old-fashioned way, and it is difficult for me to read comics on the computer. There are just more things I would like to do while on the computer than read comics. However, digital comics are the norm for my kids, and seem to be the next step in distribution.
As far as creating comics on the computer, I still love the traditional way of paper, pen and ink. I love the feel and texture of the 500 series 2-ply cold press Strathmore Bristol, and the lines you can get with the Koh-i-noor Artpen. However, with the ever-growing use of computers to create art, it is getting more difficult to find good art supplies. The pen that I use was discontinued almost 20 years ago, and I still haven’t found a good substitute for it. Fortunately, I still have about another 10-year supply of barrels and nibs. I am looking for a good ink, though. The one I was using changed their formula a couple of years ago.
JM: If you were to make any changes to the industry or the market what changes would you make?
JM: If you could apprentice under any artist at any time in history and anywhere in the world who would it be?
SS: Sergio Aragones is a good friend, but I also think of him as a mentor. I’ve lettered his Groo the Wanderer series for about twenty-five years. Through him, I’ve not only learned the mechanics of creating comics, but, more importantly, how a creator should approach his craft. It is in many ways because of Sergio that I do the amount of research that I do for my stories. He’s also just a fun guy to hang around with and travel with. We’ve gone all over North America and Europe together.
JM: What, in the future, would you like to accomplish creatively?
SS: I really enjoy working on Usagi Yojimbo, but I am taking a hiatus this year. I am drawing the story of the forty-seven ronin for Dark Horse. It is one of the most famous incidents in Japanese history, where a group of samurai took revenge for the death of their lord. I knew this story since grade school, and I’m thrilled to be working on it. Mike Richardson is writing it, and Kazuo Koike of Lone Wolf and Cub fame is acting as technical advisor.
Once The 47 Ronin is finished, it is back to Usagi Yojimbo. I’m thinking of returning with a six-issue War of the Worlds mini-series. What would have happened if the Martians had sent a scout ship that landed in Japan two hundred years before the events chronicled by HG Wells? It will have samurai armies in full armor attacking the space ship, ninja versus tripods, and Usagi against aliens. It may not be historically accurate, but it will definitely be fun.