March 7, 2010

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Usagi Yojimbo Volume 1

Written by Stan Sakai
Illustrated by Stan Sakai
Fantagrapics

I kept telling myself that one of these days, I was going to sit down and read this classic series by the guy who letters all those Groo comics I've read over the years. For no particular reason, I decided the time was now.

I'm really glad I did, as this series is every bit as good as I'd hoped it would be. Don't let the anthropomorphic characters fool you--this series is just as deep as any other samurai comic despite its comic exterior.

Usagi Yojimbo is a ronin, a samurai without a master. He lost his lord in a heated battle, where another of their party deserted them for the enemy. With no one else to cling to, Yojimbo turns himself over to the life of a bodyguard for hire. What follows are his stories.

In this book, collected from the various short stories in which Yojimbo first appeared, we get his origin, some dealings with a crafty bounty hunter, and a new clan leader who needs protection from the very forces that destroyed Yojimbo's life. There are also a few one-off stories that tend to lighten the mood of what is a more somber series than I'd anticipated.

One of the reasons I put off reading this for so long is that I am not a big fan of talking animals inhabiting an entire world in place of humans. As a rule, I tend not to be a big fan of comics that do that. I don't think I can even formulate why, to be honest. I think it has something to do with the fact that the trick of anthropromorphizing animals is a way of covering up a weak story.

Rules are made to be broken, however, and if the story is a good one, I don't have a problem with it. (I also admit, the sight of a rabbit with his ears tied up riding a horse, as we get on the cover image above, is pretty compelling.) Usagi Yojimbo features a strong focal character and is set around the idea of a wandering character righting wrongs in a world that often has no balancing factor. That's a story I've read countless times and I never grow tired of it. Sakai's take is a bit lighter than usual, but it's obvious that's he's influenced by those that came before him. (He even names a chapter title after one of them.)

I like how Sakai handles the format of these early stories. We get the origin in pieces, based on new adventures. Yojmbo is formed as a character by his experiences, showing his fierceness, his devotion, and the fact that he understands honor and is perplexed when that notion is challenged. We get a feel for who he is and who he will be without it feeling forced. If you only read one of these stories, you'd know the basics. Taken together, they form a whole that makes you want to see what other adventures he will get into and if he can ever find peace and a way to stop his wanderings.

Each of the stories in this volume are very short, befitting their origins in different anthology books. Despite that, there are still links and several characters reappear, showing that even at this stage, Sakai was world building. Right now, the world is similar to Groo, and if you look carefully, you might even spot a certain well-known barbarian in the crowd.

Speaking of Groo, Sakai's artwork is reminiscent in style to his friend Sergio Aragones. There's a cartoonish feel that belies a lot of detail work. Beyond the funny-looking animals and manic action scenes are drawings of well-detailed buildings, forests, and plains. It would have been easy to use generic backgrounds since the focus is on Yojimbo and his adventures, but Sakai sets the series in a world that has a lot going on in the background, from miniature dinosaurs to bark peeling off trees.

The fight scenes are more over-the-top than choreographed, but he does not shy away from actually showing heads chopped off or even a little blood here and there. However, because of his style, it has the look of cartoon violence rather than the more formal and somber conflict of other samurai stories in graphic medium.

I'm so glad I started reading this series and can't wait to catch up. Usagi Yojimbo is that rare breed of animal comic that works for me, blending Sakai's cartoon style with a story that would not be out of place in Lone Wolf and cub. Fans of comics set in historical Japan should definitely check this out. You'll be glad you did. I think it would also be a good fit for manga fans looking to try a non-Japanese comic. I enjoyed this book a lot, and look forward to reading more.