This week's Comic You Should Be Reading takes a look at one of the great long-running classics of independent comics: Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo!
Comics You Should Be Reading is a feature here on the Outhouse where a rotating panel of Outhouse writers highlight some of the best, under-heralded books out today.
Usagi Yojimbo is written and drawn by Stan Sakai
Synopsis of the book: Miyamoto Usagi is a wandering samurai who roams the countryside of feudal Japan helping out those in need and occassionally facing down entire armies of evildoers.
Reasons why it's awesome: Usagi Yojimbo manages to combine the best aspects of samurai-based fiction with those of the talking animal genre. It combines action-adventure, romance, humor, mythology, history, and a strong moral compass (stemming from the title character's strict code of ethics) to synthesize a compelling read that would appeal to younger readers as much as it would to grizzled adult comic book fans. The anthropomorphized animals who populate the series allow for a playful sense of character design full of dimension and personality. Stan Sakai's artwork and stories are both packed with period detail and some of the most engrossing sequential storytelling anywhere. Usagi is an easy character to root for, and his adventures are a ton of fun. Frankly, Usagi Yojimbo is one of the great epic fantasies in comics, and it's so easy to get wrapped up in each issue. Sakai is a true creative professional in every sense of the word, and it shows one every single page.
If you like __, then you'll like this book: The most obvious parallel would be the various samurai films of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa, particularly Yojimbo. Fans of another great samurai epic Lone Wolf & Cub would also find a lot to enjoy here, although it isn't as hard-edged (there isn't as much blood or sex in Usagi). Superhero fans would love the book too. Usagi is cut from a purely heroic mold, and the sense of high adventure with higher stakes would certainly appeal to the spandex set.
Best pick-up point: The character of Usagi showed up in assorted anthologies, and in an earlier book by Sakai, but in the mid-1980's, he got his first #1 issue, published by Fantagraphics. After about forty issues, Sakai took the book to Eastman and Laird's Mirage Studios, which is where his association with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles started. Not only did he show up in a few issues of their book, but officially became a multimedia property when he made guest appearances on the early 1990's cartoon show based on the Turtles (he also was made into an action figure in the wake of his appearance there). After sixteen issues published by Mirage, Usagi was set up at Dark Horse, where it continues to be published to this day. As it closes in on its 200th issue across all three publishers (not including the various specials, artbooks, and even a story produced for charity), readers can effectively pick up the series with any issue. What may be more satisfying, however is the over twenty volumes of trade paperbacks that collect just about every appearance the character has ever made. The first eight volumes collect the Fantagraphics era, while the Mirage series is collected in the ninth and tenth volumes. It's all Dark Horse after that, along with Usagi's appearances outside of his series. Much like the single issues, you can pick up any trade and just start reading, although it does work a lot better to start from Volume 1.
Written or Contributed by: Royal Nonesuch