By Todd Shogun 1996 - Current
Stan Sakai, letterer of Groo The Wanderer wanted to create a character based on the 17th-Century samurai Miyamoto Musashi. Usagi began initially as a human character in 1981 named "Miyamoto", as did Stan Sakai's other character, Nilson Groundthumper, who was originally called "Oakenshield". Miyamoto was supposed to be a secondary character in the Oakenshield and Hermy (Hermy was then a troll) storyline. Stan has an 8-page Oakenshield story lying around his house in Pasadena, California. One day (CIRCA 1982) Stan changed his characters to funny animals and changed their names as well. Usagi originally had black hair, but Nilson looked as he does today. One unique design aspect of Usagi that Stan felt made the character was his ears, which were tied up in a samurai's top knot. Check out these early Usagi pics.
In 1984, Seattlite Steve Gallacci had formed a small self-publishing company, Thoughts and Images, and was searching for some contributers to his comic book series, Albedo Anthropomorphics. He heard that Groo-Letterer Stan Sakai had some stuff worth checking out. Stan lived in Pasadena, California, with his wife, Sharon. With some correspondance from Seattle to Pasadena, a deal was made. Stan's stories of Usagi and Nilson appeared in the first five issues of Albedo (Usagi first appearing in Albedo NR 2), alongside Steve's own amazing series, Erma Felna, EDF. In the beginning, Albedo's success was nothing to be proud of, as giving copies away was almost as hard as selling them. But sometime in mid-1985, the black-and-white explosion hit (obviously Stan and Steve did their fair share of praying for a miracle) in full-force. Over on the east coast, a pair of grocery-baggers by the name of Eastman and Laird struck gold with a self-pubbed comic of their own, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It is believed that this comic was the catalyst for the B&W explosion which saw its peak between '85 and '86. Hundreds of other publishers popped up out of nowhere with tons of black and whites, some of great quality and some of seriously lame quality. While Eastman and Laird, along with all of their clones, were busy raking in the dough, Stan and Steve were just happy to finally see their back-stock of Albedo vanish and then reappear in the form of income. It was around this time (cica 1985) that Stan had some Usagi t-shirts made up. Albedo became a hot item, and #'s 0, 1, and 2 were being sold at prices upwards as high as $250 each!!! Wow... Now those issue are not possible to find for sale ANYWHERE. In late '86, the B&W boom was dwindling down, and the Eastman/Laird clones crawled back into their holes, awaiting for the next craze to break out (Probably the Manga Invasion). Only the really high-quality B&W comics survived, like Usagi and Albedo (both going strong). Eastman and Laird, not yet satisfied with their earnings, ended up licensing their creations for cartoon and toy purposes, raking in millions no doubt. Stan had maintained a working relationship with Eastman and Laird and a future appearance in the TMNT cartoon series was in Usagi's future. Here's some more early Usagi artwork before he made his comic book appearance:
Now back to our story. In 1985, with the B&W boom in full-swing, Stan got a call from alternative comic publisher Fantagraphics Books. Editor Kim Thompson was putting together a funny animal anthology, Critters, and invited Stan and Steve to contribute. Of course, they accepted. (Don't think that Stan "abandoned" Albedo or Steve Gallacci. If you were working for McDonald's, wouldn't a job offer from Donald Trump make you pack up your burger-flipper too?) Usagi appeared in Critters #1, along with Steve's Erma Felna spin-off, the equally amazing, high-tech Birthright series. Usagi became very popular, and a reprint of the Usagi's Albedo stories was published. This comic, entitled the Usagi Yojimbo Summer Special was released in 1986, and sold out from Fantagraphics in less than 90 hours! Interest in Usagi began to soar. Even Stan's other comic, Nilson Groundthumper, made an appearance in Critters. Fans started demanding more Stan Sakai work, as he was only able to do about 10 pages of UY every other month or so for Critters. Kim Thompson would have gladly gave Stan his own series, but he was too busy lettering other comics. That is, until mid-1987, when Fantagraphics announced the first ongoing Usagi Yojimbo comic book. The first issue was such a success that it had to be reprinted to meet demand. It was truly a time for celebration. Fantagraphics' UY, which was published monthly during the summer, and bi-monthly the rest of the year, was a huge success. Not only was it on-average 20 pages of Sakai-art per issue, but also included 8-page back-ups by pros such as Sergio Aragones, Scott Shaw!, Peter Laird, Dave Garcia, Tom Stazer, Tom Luth, Martin Wagner, Ken Mitchroney, and even a cover by Ken Steacy. Jeff Smith was unknown back then, but I'm sure Bone would have made several appearances in the back-up slot if Jeff had been drawing it at the time. Needless to say, UY was a constant hit. Usagi even made appearances on the TMNT cartoon show back in '89-'90, had his own line of PJ's, two silkscreen prints, several collected trade paperbacks and hardcovers, new t-shirt designs, guest appearances in Critters, and even his own action figure in the TMNT toyline. Stan did some Usagi Yojimbo Color Specials, drew a strip for Rowrbrazzle entitled Ten Little Critters featuring Terry Miyamoto, a female descedant of Usagi in a whodunnit-type comic, and had his first child, Hannah. It was during this time that Stan approached Mirage Publishing to do his Space Usagi series in 1992. That was also a hit. Other things that happened: Fantagraphics moved to Seattle, Bone came out, and Stan was even nominated for an Eisner. Cool! Stan has since had another child, Matthew. The Sakai Clan still reside in Pasadena, California to this day.
All good things must change at times though, right? Well, during 1992, black and white comics hit an all-time low in popularity, and this affected Usagi's sales figures. Even Critters was cancelled. Fearing a low readership, Stan decided a color Usagi comic would fare better on the market. But FB wasn't a color comics publisher, and Usagi, being the only funny animal comic done by them, seemed just out of place to Stan (I disagree with this, however). So, Stan talked with Mirage Publishing, whom he had a relationship with before. In late 1992, the FB Usagi comic was cancelled at #38, and a new volume appeared in 1993, with a fresh new look, all-Sakai issues (except for a Tom Stazer 2-parter), and coloring by Tom Luth. Mirage also did a second Space Usagi series in color, but what about Fantagraphics? Well, Stan and them worked out a deal to handle publishing the UY Graphic Album Series, so they weren't left out. Usagi's run with Mirage was only bi-monthly all year, but the issues looked very good, and had some awesome stories. Why then did Mirage choose to cancel UY with issue #16 when its publishing department hit hard times? With no functioning publishing department after a devastating natural disaster hit the East Coast, it was unavoidable. Even the TMNT themselves moved to Image Comics. Mirage has since taken the TMNT back and with Peter Laird the sole owner, they are back on track and the marketed Turtles are slightly more "mature" than they originally were. Usagi has even appeared in the 2nd-generation TMNT cartoon series with a more serious flavor. He's joined by other Usagi characters as well, like Gen and Tomoe, along with new action figures.
Mirages's unfortunate and reluctant cancelling of Usagi was probably a blessing in disguise. Stan decided to move to Dark Horse Comics in 1996. This is probably the best move he's ever made. Usagi is back in Black-and-White, and is actually coming out ON-TIME. Dark Horse started up with a 3-issue Space Usagi mini-series, then a 3-issue UY mini-series. But the demand for Usagi was so high, that they soon upped it to five issues. Published monthly, this series feaures 24 pages of Stan Sakai story and art. If that wasn't reason enough to party, Dark Horse finally got on the ball and decided that an ongoing UY series would be in their best interest. So, after issue #5, UY was officially to be published nine times a year from DHC!!! Around this time, the UY Dojo Website was slowly growing into the monster website that it is today, with 100's of megabytes of text, graphics, downloadable media, and cgi-scripts. Stan took an interest in the website and began contributing artwork and previews for the benefit of UYD members shortly after it's inception in 1996. In a short time, the UYD became the ultimate source for UY info, with info and news about UY way before anyone else (yes, even before Dark Horse's website!)
1997 saw an excellent opening year for Usagi Yojimbo. This website, the UY Dojo, became the OFFICIAL UY Website, and became an essential part in Dark Horse's advertising campaign for UY. The UYD and Dark Horse have since joined forces to promote Usagi and Stan Sakai, creating a unique partnership between a comic book publisher and its fanbase. 1997 also saw the beginning of a new UY epic: GRASSCUTTER. The party had only just begun...
In the years that follow, Usagi continues to enjoy a fantastic run with Dark Horse. With volumes of collected editions, several new Action figures, resin statues, metal miniatures, magnets, t-shirts (including UYD t-shirts), baseball caps, and tons of other collectibles (most of which can be seen here on the UY Dojo). Usagi's popularity continues to soar. Stan has won many major awards for Usagi, both domestically and internationally. His publication spans globally, from the U.S. to Latin America, to Spain, Sweden, Germany, Finland and many other European nations. Where other mainstream comics have failed on the international market, Stan's universally popular series flourishes.,.. that is, in all but the homeland...Japan. The popularity has not caught on the the Land of the Rising Sun just yet, but with the help of you, the fans, maybe we can change this! For now all we have is the Japanese satellite of the UYD. One day this satellite could be the official site for the Japanese edition of Usagi Yojimbo!
Usagi's TV Appearances
Year Three(1989)Episode Numbers