By Andy Mansell | Contributor Published: 07/06/2013 10:00 am EST
Publish date: July 3, 2013 Publisher: Dark Horse Comics
I went into this collection cold. The only things I knew about Usagi Yojimbo were that it was originally published in the late, great Kim Thompson’s funny animal anthology, Critters, that cartoonist Stan Sakai moonlights as the letterer for the Groo the Wanderer team, and that although the readership of this Rabbit Ronin’s adventures is relatively small, it is dedicated and fervent. I kept promising folks whose opinions I respect that I would give it a try. But at 27 volumes, that is a daunting (and expensive) task. So, much like a masterless samurai, I set off alone into Volume 27: A Town Called Hell.
Let me tell you, I am glad I followed this samurai’s path. Usagi Yojimbo is an entertaining and exciting comic filled with some masterful black-and-white cartooning from 30-year veteran Usagi scribe, Stan Sakai.
The framing story—from which the collection takes its title—is a solid samurai yarn with all the expected twists and turns. It is a fast-paced, entertaining story and the ending—although telegraphed—is satisfying. But it was the middle two stand-alone tales that really hummed.
The best story is undoubtedly the second story, “The Nukekubi”. I had no idea what the title meant as I began to read and it proved to be quite a surprise. Sakai masterfully juggles excitement and humor. In fact, the story moves so effortlessly that the reader doesn’t notice the slight of hand Sakai is performing until the tale is over.
The third story involves Usagi spending a night or two with a peasant family. The Rabbit Ronin’s interaction with the young child is well written and believable. Sakai is a man who knows kids—how they think, what they say, and (especially) how they move. This is integral to the story’s success. Also, Sakai takes advantage of the events of “The Nukekubi” and challenges the reader’s perceptions. The end of this story is a bit odd, however. I have to assume it is some kind of cue for regular readers, but it left me baffled and uncomfortable.
Best of all, these two stories enhanced the reading of the two-part climax to “A Town Called Hell”. The samurai world of Usagi Yojimbo was suddenly a more complex place and it made the generic story a much livelier read.
If I had the space and the time available, I would love to dissect a few sequences to show off Sakai’s brilliance as a page designer and storyteller. Suffice to say, like all manga, Usagi Yojimbo is read at a breakneck pace. It is only on a second reading when his true artistry becomes apparent.
The funny animal conceit does not weigh down the storytelling. In fact, Sakai is able to use the anthropomorphic characters to build depth and during the multiple-foes-on-one sword fights, thanks to the variety of species used by Sakai, the reader has a simpler time keeping the corpses and future corpses straight.
The solid storytelling and consistency of character has gotten me in a feudal Japanese mood. I don’t have any manga handy, so it looks like I am off to Hulu Plus to mine the Criterion Collection for some Kurosawa.
The bottom line is this. On my next trip to Ye Olde Comic Shoppe, I plan to start picking up the previous 26 volumes, and I may have to start following the monthly floppy as well.
Andy Mansell lived in Chicago for over 40 years until his doctors advised him that he would die soon unless he got as far away from the land of Italian combo sandwiches and soft serve frozen custard. He is currently growing rather old rather quickly in Charlotte, NC as a member of the Waistline Protection Program. He lives for four things: his family, baseball, opera, and of course great comics. He is also looking for a ride back to Chi-town for just one more breaded steak sammich. He will provide gas, guaranteed. Contact him at this address.