Strange Tales

Strange Tales Spotlight: Stan Sakai

The legendary creator of Usagi Yojimbo has two words every Marvel fan has longed to hear: Samurai Hulk!

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By Sean T. Collins

Like a warrior of old, Stan Sakai has journeyed across the comics landscape for decades, slaying all in his path with his formidable skills—only instead of leaving a trail of bodies in his wake, he's left a trail of devoted fans. He's the creator of Usagi Yojimbo, the long-running series (up for an Eisner this year) starring a sword-wielding rabbit slicing his way through feudal Japan. But he's also Made His Marvel as a letterer for Sergio Aragoٌes's classic barbarian comic GROO and the Sunday newspaper SPIDER-MAN strip, written by "The Man" himself, Stan Lee.

A page from Stan Sakai's STRANGE TALES #3 story
When offered the chance to bring these worlds together and contribute to STRANGE TALES, Stan reacted in true fanboy fashion—by placing the Hulk in samurai armor and letting him loose. Marvel.com got the skinny on his story, from the surprising things Japanese folklore and the Hulk have in common to the scenes that ended up on the killing-room-ahem, cutting-room floor.

Marvel.com: Stan, is it just me, or does "Samurai Hulk" sound like an old John Belushi sketch from Saturday Night Live?

Stan Sakai: [Laughs] And he even played the Hulk in that super hero party sketch! I remember that one!

Marvel.com: What made you want to work with the Hulk?

Stan Sakai: When Aubrey [Sitterson, the original editor of STRANGE TALES] contacted me about this, there were two characters I really wanted to work with. One was Spider-Man—y'know, everyone wants to work with Spider-Man—and the other was the Hulk. The imagery of the Hulk in that samurai armor fighting the samurai hordes just really appealed to me. Aubrey was a wonderful guy to work with.  He is a terrific editor. He just pretty much told me what my guidelines [were] and let me go from there.

Marvel.com: Is this the Hulk we know and love somehow wandering around in the past?

Stan Sakai: No, he's a new version. I pretty much made up the origin for him. Actually, I tried to make it as much of a parallel to the modern Hulk as possible. Such as his name-he is referred to as Sashimonowhich means "banner." It's a samurai banner. And obviously there's no gamma rays, so he's cursed into turning into the Hulk by a witch called Gama, which is Japanese for "toad"-she kinda looks like a toad.

Marvel.com: Wow. It's fascinating how well that worked out.

Stan Sakai: Well, I've been doing a bunch of research. [Laughs] The story is called "Oni." An oni is a creature from folklore. It's pretty much an ogre, and they do come in different colors like green. So pretty much the entire Hulk story meshes nicely with Japanese folklore.

A page from Stan Sakai's STRANGE TALES #3 story
Marvel.com: What does our Feudal Green Giant get up to in the story?

 Stan Sakai: I have a big war going on in the comic—I love to draw the old samurai armor—so he gets sucked into the fray. [Laughs] I do Usagi Yojimbo, which takes place in feudal Japan, so I pretty much know the period. I've been doing Usagi for going on 24 years now. So putting the Hulk into the Usagi time period just worked out great for me.

Marvel.com: As you point out, your familiarity with that era is a huge advantage.

Stan Sakai: And if I'd done the Spider-Man story, he was going to be a ninja in feudal Japan. In fact, if I had more time and more pages, there was a whole scene where the Hulk fights a bunch of ninja. But with eight pages I just could not get into it.

Marvel.com: Damn!

Stan Sakai: I mean, it's just one story, you know? [So I'm thinking] "Why did this have to go? Why did that have to go?" I wish I could do it, but y'know... [Laughs] The Hulk might even fight Godzilla at the end!

Marvel.com: I've actually seen debates as to who would win that fight.

Stan Sakai: Just two big green guys!

Marvel.com: It sounds like you could practically cook up a whole Marvel Universe in a samurai setting.

Stan Sakai: Like what they did with 1602—the Marvel characters in Elizabethan England and Renaissance Europe. It's the same thing I wanted to do with the Hulk, just in feudal Japan.

Marvel.com: Now, am I right in thinking that this is your first full-fledged comic for Marvel?

Stan Sakai: I think it is. I've worked with Marvel for years through GROO, and I still work with Stan Lee on the SPIDER-MAN Sunday strip. But yeah, I think this is actually my first drawing or story work that I am doing for Marvel.  But you know, I grew up reading Marvel comics.  I remember buying FANTASTIC FOUR #2 off the rack.

Marvel.com: Wow!

Stan Sakai: Well, I bought it mainly because it was still a dime and DC had just raised the price to 12 cents. Now it's worth so much, but at that time, two cents was two cents! [Laughs]

A page from Stan Sakai's STRANGE TALES #3 story
Marvel.com: What Marvel books have you dug lately?

 Stan Sakai: Some of my recent favorites are FIN FANG FOUR by Roger Langridge—I love those old Marvel monster books, and I'm a fan of Roger's creator-owned works. The HULK stories by Frank Cho and Arthur Adams—I'm a fan of both these guys' work. FANTASTIC FOUR—Mark Millar and Bryan Hitch were a great team.

Marvel.com: Say a Marvel fan picks this up and sees your work for the first time and is wowed by it. What do you recommend they check out if they're hungry for more?

Stan Sakai: Well, there are about 21 collections in the Usagi trade paperback series, and they're either all in print or they will all be printed again. Meanwhile Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai comes out in mid-November from Dark Horse. It's an original, 64-page, fully painted hardcover graphic novel priced at $14.95. Yokai are the haunts and monsters of Japanese mythology and folklore, and I had a great time working on this. And [new readers] can pick Usagi up from almost any volume. My stories are pretty accessible to new readers. Like I said, I have been doing this for 24 years, and there is quite a bit of work that I've got.

Marvel.com: Congratulations on that amazing feat, by the way. It's basically just you and the Hernandez Brothers on Love & Rockets who can boast of a run like that.

Stan Sakai: Yeah, probably. And Matt Wagner is still doing Grendel, and that's been about for 25 years now. There are a few of us out there!

 

 

 

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