Usagi Yojimbo is a character that many people might only recognize from his appearances alongside the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. However for decades this samurai rabbit has been the main character of his own successful comic book series created by Stan Sakai. First appearing in 1984, the character originated from Sakai's desire to write a series inspired by samurai Miyamoto Musashi. One day Sakai drew a rabbit with his ears tied up in the style of the samurai topknot, and Usagi was born.
Thirty years later Usagi is continuing to make an impact with comic book readers. Sakai told Boing Boing he doesn't know exactly why his character resonates so much with fans. He just writes about adventure, integrity, and honor, and hopes to teach people about Japanese history and culture through his stories.
"I create my stories for a readership of one. These are the types of stories I would like to read and I'm just grateful there are so many people who feel the same way," he said.
This year comic book fans and professionals have come together to do much more than just celebrate Usagi's anniversary — they're raising money to help Sakai and his wife Sharon, who suffers from an inoperable brain tumor. Artists have contributed tributes to Usagi for a book called "The Sakai Project" and all the proceeds go to the Sakais to help with medical expenses.
The journey to this book began when Tone Rodriguez, vice president of the Comic Art Professional Society (CAPS), noticed how the situation was wearing on Sakai. Rodriguez said they'd usually see Sakai about every month and his ability to light up a room and be energetic just wasn't the same. Rodriguez has some experience seeing the toll being a caretaker for someone who can't care for themselves can take. His father had the difficult job of caring for his mother after she suffered a stroke. While he may not have noticed how this affected his father at the time since he was around him everyday, his realization of how hard it impacted him years later gave Rodriguez perspective when it came to Sakai.
"I thought back to my pop, and decided maybe we could help. Also he [Sakai] was posting on Facebook his wife's medical updates, and it was after reading one of these updates he made mention of what his insurance was and wasn't covering, and what he had to cover out of pocket was considerable. We decided to collect art on his behalf, to help him with paying Sharon's mounting medical bills," Rodriguez said.
The art would be auctioned off with all the proceeds going to the Sakais. The auction was a huge success, with Rodriguez receiving donations from around the world. Sakai said he expected they might receive 25 or so drawings, but instead they received more than 400. A PayPal donation page was also created as another way to help.
Artist and co-editor of "The Sakai Project" Bill Morrison contacted Rodriguez to ask how he could help when he first heard about the auction. While Morrison had known about Sharon's condition, this was the first time he'd heard about their need for help. Morrison met with Rodriguez and some other CAPS members to discuss auction plans and heard them talking about also printing a sketchbook to feature some of the art coming in, many of which were tributes to Usagi.
"I was impressed by the quality of a lot of what I was seeing and I suggested that maybe we should be thinking bigger than just a cheaply printed sketchbook. Much of the art was really top notch and there were some very well known artists in the mix as well. I offered to talk to Mike Richardson at Dark Horse (Stan's publisher) to see if he would be interested in publishing a nice hardcover book of Usagi Yojimbo art," Morrison said.
Richardson gave an immediate yes, offering to pay for printing, advertising, and more while giving the proceeds to the Sakais. Artists contributed to the book on a volunteer basis and the overwhelming response caused the book to grow from 60 pages to 100 to eventually 160. The team started in late January and in two months completed the book, getting it out in time for San Diego Comic-Con. Some of the contributing artists include The Simpsons' Matt Groening, Hellboy's Mike Mignola, and Morrison himself who offered his take on Space Usagi.
Morrison said seeing such support for the Sakais "was probably the best thing about the whole experience" and the outpouring of selflessness was sometimes unbelievable. The support made Rodriguez feel great too.
"It was great to see the love people have for Stan and Sharon, they have always been the greatest, happy and sweet, and the response we got on this project reflects that," Rodriguez said. "It's been a year since I started this, and I think it's been my best year in the business. It's been a pleasure to have been involved."
All of the support is making a difference. Sakai said that while they have good insurance it doesn't cover everything they need, like hiring a health care provider for Sharon to visit five days a week.
"Without the support from the auction, fans, and the book we could not afford to hire them. It really helped so very much…" Sakai said. "I am always so grateful for the love that they show myself and Sharon."
Seeing this love for the Sakais and Usagi, it's not hard to imagine 30 more years of the rabbit ronin. Rodriguez sees the appeal of Usagi as partly due to how the stories teach a lesson without bashing the reader over the head with it, while Morrison thinks people love tales of selfless heroism, which is at the core of what Usagi is.
"We all imagine that in an impossible situation we would have the courage to step up and put ourselves in harms way to save someone in trouble. We see that in Usagi Yojimbo and most of us humans aspire to that ideal," Morrison said.
No matter what exactly draws fans to Sakai's character, it's clear they are grateful to him for creating an amazing world and are willing to step up to help to show just how much he's impacted their lives.