June 26, 2019

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Relaunching the Rabbit Ronin - Usagi Yojimbo Moves to IDW, but It Is Business as (Un)Usual.

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After two decades at Dark Horse, Stan Sakai has brought Usagi Yojimbo, the longest running independent creator owned comic to IDW Publishing. Dark Horse recently experienced another exodus of the entire Whedonverse lineup, but unlike the newly revamped Buffy: The Vampire Slayer that moved to BOOM! Studios, Usagi Yojimbo is merely changing publishers, not rebooting its entire history. In fact, these moves aren’t necessarily new for Stan Sakai as this latest change marks the fourth publisher for the rabbit.

He’s just going to let him get colored in this time around. That’s all. 

Yes, fans of Sakai’s output will likely be stunned to see colored interiors. I’ve been a Usagi reader since the end of my eighth grade year, and stepping into this series, I couldn’t help but be curious about how the IDW treatment would fare for Miyamoto, namely the aforementioned color and the explosion of nigh-infinite variant covers. One of the treats of Usagi Yojimbo has been Sakai’s minimalism, his presence as the auteur singularly crafting a cartooning masterpiece over more than thirty years. Long after indie books all but abandoned black and white printing, Sakai kept up the aesthetic, and it’s been a definitive trait for Usagi Yojimbo since the character’s Critters debut in 1984. 

And, to be fair, it’s not that I’m concerned color will change the tone of the story or remove some sort of novelty from the tale. I have no problems with the title evolving, or with Sakai taking a new approach to storytelling. My only concern would be any potential tradeoff in Sakai’s line art to give way to coloring. Fortunately, Sakai enlisted Tom Luth, co-collaborator on Groo and longtime Usagi cover colorist, for color duties on the IDW debut. Thus, what Usagi devotees can expect is interiors that resemble the past few years of covers – a clean, natural pallet that allows Sakai’s inking to come through. It won’t look Sakai’s painted versions of older covers or the Yokai graphic novel.



Tom Luth's colors are a nice addition to Sakai's line art, and it freshens up the approach to the series.
The new series starts with Sasuke embroiled in battle with a hoard of juvenile demons, because fighting demons is what Sasuke does. Our demon hunting fox friend encounters and defeats the father of the demon children before meeting a mythical lord who alerts him to dangers in Kuroyama Mura.  
Meanwhile, in Kuroyama Mura, Usagi is settling in to a somewhat unusual bunraku performance. There’s something about the play that seems to irk our hero, some enhanced verisimilitude that doesn’t sit quite right. 

Speaking of unusual things, it takes twelve pages before the titular character appears, and even then, he’s just an audience member at the bunraku show. While there is something odd about waiting that long to introduce the title character in a brand new relaunch, it indicates for long time readers just how little this move will actually mean to the Usagi mythos and Sakai’s storytelling technique as a whole. It’s even less unusual considering Sakai’s most recent Usagi run that started with late 2017’s #161 and continued through the renumbered mini, The Hidden. Sakai has moved towards highlighting the ensemble cast he has built for Usagi, and he’s clearly been interested in developing the way Miyamoto interacts with characters and the community. Over the course of that run, Usagi and Inspector Ishida became close partners, and Sakai became less consumed with explaining the warrior’s and more interested in crafting mystery stories. 

Sakai seems to be setting up a mystery in this arc as well. Though Usagi is impressed by the execution of the bunraku performance, he clearly smells something fishy. It’s fair to say that he might be a little too impressed, and he’s hesitant to fully embrace Takagi-Sensei, the writer and narrator of the puppet dramas. Something about the blind dramaturg irks Usagi, and Sakai builds the tension gradually until the last panel reveal that sets up a major cliffhanger for issue two. 

Longtime fans of Usagi Yojimbo will be right at home with this series regardless of the addition of colors. Tom Luth’s work on this issue was a welcomed addition for me. My fears over any changes to Sakai’s style were assuaged almost immediately, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying Sakai’s world brought to life with Luth’s colors, especially the classic Sakai aerial view of town, a clear nod to the history of the series and an indication of the fact that Sakai won’t be breaking that sharply with any traditions.  

For newer readers enticed by the relaunch, they’ll be treated to Sakai’s intricate scenes, his deftness of style, and his expert pacing. There won’t be anything bombastic. Usagi Yojimbo is a series of charming subtlety, and style is on full display in this relaunch. There’s likely never a bad time to pick up a Usagi book, but if one ever felt intimidated by the long run of the series, this new IDW debut is a perfect excuse to dive in, especially before the inevitable IDW crossovers begin. (I know man of you are thinking Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but I’m definitely suggesting Snake Eyes and Storm Shadow . . .)