TCJ 300 Conversations: Stan Sakai & Chris Schweizer

Posted by on December 25th, 2009 at 4:05 AM

 


Cartoon by Schweizer, with Sakai on the left and him on the right ©2009 Chris Schweizer.


Historical fiction is cartoonists Stan Sakai’s and Chris Schweizer’s stock in trade: The latter is best known for his graphic novel, Crogan’s Vengeance, the first of 16 volumes that will trace a family throughout the centuries, beginning with the tale of the pirate Catfoot, while the former’s acclaimed Funny-Animals-in-Feudal-Japan series, Usagi Yojimbo, has been chronicling the adventures of the titular rabbit samurai in single-issue and trade paperbacks for 25 years (almost as long as Schweizer has been alive). Schweizer, who teaches at the Savannah School of Art and Design in Atlanta, met up with Sakai at a library conference in Springfield, Mass., where they carried on the following conversation, ranging from the perils of research to process to the all-ages comics comeback to the perennial question of just where creators get their ideas.

 

Chris?Schweizer:
The first thing that I wanted to talk about was how you got into comics in the first place. Was it a specific goal? Did you stumble into it?


Photo of Sakai by TCJ staff.


Stan Sakai:
I both stumbled into it, and got into it by design. I grew up in Hawaii and there is no comics industry in Hawaii, and when I was growing up — you know, I’m really old — I remember buying Fantastic Four #2 off the racks, because DC Comics had raised their prices to 12¢, but Marvel was still at a dime, so I saved 2¢. I grew up reading comic books, but it wasn’t until much later in high school that I actually realized, “Hey, there are actually people making a living drawing these comics!” — Steve Ditko, Jack Kirby — and this was about the time that Marvel was listing creators. That’s how I learned to associate Stan Lee with comics and Jack Kirby with comics. Before then, comics just appeared magically on the stands every Friday. [Schweizer laughs.]

The thought was, if you wanted to work in comics you had to live in New York. But I wanted to do artwork — commercial artwork or freelance artwork. And it wasn’t until much later that I discovered you could make a living doing comic books. I moved up to California about a month after I got married. A company wanted to start a line of junior sportswear and they brought myself and a couple of other guys to create their line. I stayed with them for about a year, and then I quit to do freelance artwork.

Schweizer:
Were you doing comics during this time?

Sakai:
Well, in the ’70s, there were things like fanzines, I guess nowadays they call them independent comics, but back then they were fanzines; cheaply printed — well, not always cheaply printed — small-press comic books. And I would contribute to them. I did that kind of comics, but my paying work was mainly advertising art, record album covers, T-shirt designs, whatever I could find to pay the rent.

Schweizer:
Well, that’s how people who have the intention to do creator-owned comics start out these days, doing the minicomics. I guess it’s the same thing: sharpening your teeth on those, learning storytelling structure, learning your aesthetic. There’s the adage that your first 1,000 pages are terrible, so it’s best to get those out of the way in some capacity or another.

Sakai:
Right, and start doing the good stuff. When I was doing freelance work I met Sergio Aragonés, and he invited me to a C.A.P.S. meeting, The Comic Arts Professional Society. It was an organization of print cartoonists started by Sergio, Mark Evanier, and Don Rico. There are so many comic-book artists in the Los Angeles area, but we never socialized. I joined the second year. I was told that the first meeting was in a church in Hollywood, and it was booked right after the Gay Christians Organization or something like that. Through the grapevine I learned about Steve Gallacci in Seattle wanting to do an anthropomorphic-comic anthology, but not having enough material. I sent him a Nilson Groundthumper story, a Funny Animal comic with bunnies, and he published it. Then he said, “I have another issue — what else do you have?” I sent him the first Usagi story.

Schweizer:
Nilson Groundthumper — a lot of the elements from that story ended up in Usagi. Did you do much with that character or with that storyline prior to Usagi?

Sakai:
Well actually, the entire Nilson story was going to be a great epic. The premise of the story — it was going to be a 2,500 page story — would tell why there are Funny Animals, why there are real animals, and the rise of the humans. It was going to be my epic, my Lord of the Rings! It was going to end with a climax with a huge castle with the big war between the anthropomorphs and the humans and everyone is going to die, and it was going to be glorious! And Usagi was going to be a part of that storyline. He was to be introduced at about page 1,000. But I fell in love with that character after doing that first story, so I pretty much put Nilson on the side, and concentrated on Usagi.

Schweizer:
That’s why the Lord Hikiji’s character is a human. Only after hearing about the Groundthumper stories did that ever make sense, because I could never figure out why you had changed it to have one human.

Sakai:
Yeah, Lord Hikiji was going to be the great menace in the Nilson Groundthumper story. The final remnant of Nilson is that Lord Hikiji was shown in one panel in Usagi as a human.


Photo of Chris Schweizer by Liz Schweizer.


Schweizer:
The animals in Usagi also have tended to look less animal-like over the years. In Usagi Book One, Usagi is clearly a rabbit. He’s got the skull structure of a rabbit. Gen is much more of a rhinoceros. Side-samurai look very much like their individual parts. What prompted the move? We recognize that they’re animals, but we’re not concentrating on what type of animals they are.

Sakai:
Right. Well, I think it came as my style of drawing changed. It was unconscious on my part. Usagi’s proportions have changed; he has a bump on his nose — suddenly. [Laughs.] People pointed that out to me, and I said, “I never noticed!” [Laughs.] The types of animals that I use now are more generic, rather than specific animals, like Carl Barks’ generic dog-people that populate his backgrounds. I remember looking through some of my early stories, and yeah, I have a cow in there, but I haven’t drawn the cow people in a long time. Back then I was concentrating more on animals, rather than concentrating on character designs.

Schweizer:
Also, my goal is not to demystify, but I’m curious as to how much of Usagi you had planned out, because so many of the characters that feature very prominently into Usagi’s life — especially Jotaro — they are introduced incredibly early on in the series. The vast majority of the characters are released within the first few issues of Usagi — comparative to the larger scale. Did you just decide that you really liked those characters and wanted to continue using them?

Sakai:
Well, that’s the great advantage of having a creator-owned series, where you have one creator in charge of the life of the entire series. When I introduced Jotaro, I knew he was Usagi’s son, but it wasn’t revealed to Usagi until about five years later, or even longer, actually.

Schweizer:
I was curious as to whether or not you knew going in that you were going to be doing that? There was groundwork set, and it never felt like —

Sakai:
Well, first of all, they look exactly alike. [Laughter.] I did set up groundwork for that, but it was something I wanted to reveal much later on in the series. Actually, there were times when I doubted that I’d ever reach that point. Back then, I was just concentrating on getting the next story finished, whereas now I’m thinking of storylines that won’t be resolved for about another five or 10 years.

Be Sociable, Share!

Pages: 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8

Tags: , ,

One Response to “TCJ 300 Conversations: Stan Sakai & Chris Schweizer”