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Usagi Yojimbo

I was a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles freak back in my pre-adolescent days. I had every toy imaginable: from that electronic plastic disc (“pizza”) shooting thing, to the Michelangelo surf board, not to mention all the action figures a grubby handed kid could get for Christmas. I even had the Ninja Turtles table hockey game.

We all have skeletons in our closets.

The reason I bring this up, is because it was on Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles where I was first introduced to Stan Sakai’s character of Usagi Yojimbo, an anthropomorphic samurai rabbit that for one reason or another, was fighting the Turtles and then became friends. (My memory is slightly fuzzy on the actual plot specifics of the episode; such disgrace to the fanboys I am.) It wasn’t until years later that I discovered that Usagi was actually a character from the comic book world, and had been since the mid-1980s.

There was something an explosion of black and white comics in the 1980s; some claim Eastman and Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic, which would explain Usagi’s arrival on the cartoon, started it. This gave Stan Sakai, a letterer on Sergio Aragones’ Groo the Wanderer at the time, a chance to be noticed by Fantagraphics Books, who began shoving work at Stan in the form of Usagi Yojimbo requests, eventually leading to an ongoing series.

Usagi Yojimbo has survived the lull in popularity of black and white comics in the early ‘90s, and the varying tastes of comic readers that is a benchmark of the current readership, by moving publishers several times, most notably to Dark Horse, and the publishing rights for Usagi material is split between Fantagraphics and Dark Horse, Fantagraphics handling the first seven books, and Dark Horse covering everything else, which is hefty since the number of collections of Usagi is near twenty volumes.

The first volume, which is a loosely strung together series of events culled from the short stories of our hairy retainer that appeared in Albedo Anthropomorphic and Critters, shows Usagi as a samurai without a master, having lost his lord in battle with the Lord Hikiji. Miyamoto Usagi is now a ronin, taking work as a yojimbo (“bodyguard”) whenever he can. The reader follows Usagi through several short stories, wherein the presence of Lord Hikiji’s machinations towards the Shogun seem to foreshadow an active future for Usagi, and the fighting prowess of our katana-wielding hero is but to the test more than once.

What marks this series as interesting is the way Sakai balances the humor, the violence, and the action so well. Most cartoon comics that came out of the 1980s weren’t all-ages. Many simply used the conventions of cartooning to juxtapose against the usually violent or overtly sexual nature of the story. Eastman and Laird started Turtles as a parody of Frank Miller's Ronin with a slight dose of X-Men, and it was never meant to appeal to the preschooler audience that the TV show captured so well (until Laird and Eastman decided to completely throw out all the things that made their comic popular, in favor of dumbing it down for the kiddies and making a mint doing so…smart or morally bankrupt is left up to you fair reader).

Usagi isn’t necessarily meant for children, but it could easily be read by children with no ill effect. The subject matter is simply good story telling with nothing to mark it as either “children’s” or “adult” reading. Sakai easily shifts the character from the role of dangerous samurai to coincidental punching bag as Usagi gets mistaken for a horse thief, caught up in assassination attempts, and even befriending convicted killers while traveling. And more importantly, Sakai gives his character a sense of humor that is subtle and matches the feel of the feel of a typical “swords and samurai” book, but marks it as clearly American. Manga will often overplay the role of the samurai, taking the practice of bushido to the extremes and bogging down a good plot with too much pomp and ceremony involving the samurai code, which usually makes for characters that are one-dimensional. Sakai makes Usagi personable, funny, angry, wistful, and a dozen other characteristics, because Sakai wants the reader to be able to relate to the character, and because he wants the flexibility as a writer to have fun with his own creation.

All of this may be helped by the fact that Usagi is a big honking rabbit with a sword, but floppy ears aside, Usagi never feels out of place in his anthropomorphic status to the reader. Usagi as a character is about as organic as the carrots you would put in his food bowl, were you to possess such an awesome pet.

Sakai’s artwork, along with Kyle Baker and Jeff Smith’s, is what gives me hope that American cartooning has yet to die a horrible death at the hands of the anime revolution. I like standard comic book art that is meant to reflect more the anatomical qualities of it’s characters, but there are times when a thousand sinew marks and face lines on a comic character becomes too much (Liefeld, this means you). I sometimes thirst for the simplicity of less cluttered artwork.

This is not to say that cartooning is somehow “simple” in that it isn’t complex, but that cartoon characters can sometimes emote better, can move in more definite ways, than their human counterparts with far less work on the reader’s part in reading. If Usagi is angry, the eyes bulge and the eyebrows arch; when he’s happy he smiles a wide grin. Sakai is able to describe pictorially the movement of his characters in a definite manner.

One sequence in which Usagi moves from one end of the panel to the other to remove the head of an assassin about to kill a child, is wonderful because of the way that Sakai illustrates it: Usagi drawn in greater degrees of detail as he moves from the left to the right of the panel, demonstrating the speed of Usagi’s sword, as well as Sakai’s great sense of linear timing. Also of note is the fact that, even in the tale of a samurai, Sakai shows little in way of gore and blood (the number of blood sprays could be counted on one hand, and a shop teacher’s hand at that), keeping the violence clean but still interesting.

Usagi Yojimbo Book One is a great comic that doesn’t appear deliberately “all-ages,” but simply manages it through the strength of its creator’s artistic ability. It’s well-worth $15.95 for the first volume, and the subsequent volumes more than likely live up to the first. In an age chalk full of bad “cartoon books” being published in the US merely because they’re origins lie in the land of the rising sun, it’s good to see an American comic that puts most of them to shame using their own conventions. Well done, Stan Sakai.

The Ronin (Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1)

Robert Sparling

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