I’ve been meaning to talking about this comic book for quite some time, but I continually got sidetracked with one article or another, or just didn’t feel it was the right time yet. That was apparently before I started making media contacts, and one of my absolute favorite is Dark Horse Comics (just down the road from my apartment!). I’m big on Concrete, Hell Boy, and a handful of lesser-known properties, but of all of them my favorite is undoubtedly Usagi Yojimbo. Issue #141 releases one week from today, but I had the splendid opportunity to read through it first. What makes it so special? Why, because it’s Stan Sakai’s 200th overall issue! Usagi Yojimbo must therefore be today’s choice for the Comic Book Club!
Before I dive into the actual 200th issue, you need some frame of reference. Artist/writer Stan Sakai started the series all the way back in 1987, first going through Fantagraphics for 38 issues, then with Mirage Comics for 16, and finally landing at Dark Horse up through today (141 issues and counting). The best and probably most amazing part of all of this, at least to me, is that Sakai is the sole creative mind at work here, both writing and drawing from the very beginning. Even better, Usagi Yojimbo is 100% his, so he’s allowed to take it wherever he pleases, and that’s just awesome.
Usagi Yojimbo, which is Japanese for “Rabbit Bodyguard,” follows the story of Miyamoto Usagi as he wanders feudal Japan as a ronin (masterless samurai). Everything is seeped in classic samurai tropes, so just about every village he enters is being terrorized by bandits, bandits that will very soon pay for getting in his way and harming innocent people. He’s a rabbit that has samurai swords; how can you go wrong with that?
I’ve read quite a lot of the collected Usagi volumes, and one thing that always stood out to me is the vibrantly expressive cartoony anthropomorphized characters set inside this stoic, serious world where one minute a little lizard could be giggling at you, and the next everyone’s getting hacked to death by swords. Sakai doesn’t pull punches with the comic since characters most certainly die (usually addressed by a speech bubble with a sad skull drifting up from the body), but he strikes such a balance that the violence isn’t gratuitous. When I have a son, I’m so happy to know that I can hand him an issue of Usagi at any age feel perfectly okay with the subject matter.
Sakai’s style is just so well honed at this point that I can’t get enough of it. There’s a heavy manga influence happening here, but it’s not stifling in any way. It pays homage to the classics, such as Lone Wolf and Cub and the films of Kirosawa, but it’s still very much its own thing, even when the Ninja Turtles cross over with the warrior rabbit now and again (which is always wonderful).
So what do we have at work in issue 200? Titled Two Hundred Jizo (a jizo is a little Bubbha statue), Usagi wanders upon a village that’s…being terrorized by a group of bandits. Okay, stay with me here, because it’s not all about simply Usagi needing to beat guys up. Our titular character meets the artist who’s been carving these little statues and learns that a dream premonition told him to carve 200 jizo in order to rid his town of its troubles. Usagi shows up during the 199th…and that’s all I’m telling you on that issue! It’s a one-off story, which is somewhat of a lost art these days, so the fact that Sakai can start and finish a story within 24 pages and include action scenes, quiet dialogue moments, and even an ending that genuinely pays off, well that’s just amazing. It’s also not denting your wallet much since the price is simply $3.50, so if you have any interest in seeing what the deal is with Usagi, now is a perfect time to give him a shot. I promise that you won’t be disappointed in the least.
What does sadden me is that in all this time, Usagi hasn’t been converted into an awesome cartoon or placed into a full-on video game past the Commodore 64. I’d personally adore an animated series, but if I have to settle for his appearances in the TMNT cartoons, I suppose that’ll suffice. But Stan! If you’re listening! Please go do that! For me! Do it for me!
But there’s no good reason to sit around here as I gush over Usagi Yojimbo when you could easily start the journey through the back issues. There are 200 issues to go through, not including color specials and bonus stories! Go to your local library, check some garage sales, or, more simply, head to Things From Another World and look there (no they didn’t tell me to say that, I just really like Things From Another World as well).
So Usagi fans out there, any moments you’d like to share? Would you like to help spread the good word on the good rabbit? Perhaps suggest a great starting point for new readers? Leave a comment and let your voice be heard! As for me, I’ve got some back issues to get through. (Not Yet) The End.