Usagi Yojimbo Has Arrived at IDW, and Is STILL the Best Comic Ever
Two years ago, I had never read Usagi Yojimbo.
As of today, I own and have read every single issue, twice. I own several Usagi action figures, including a 1989 “Mint on Card” from the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles toy line (that I hope to get signed this weekend). In two short years, I’ve become an obsessed fan who jumps on every opportunity to sing praises of this amazing comic (to the point that I’m sure a few friends and my wife are sick of hearing about it).
Why? Simply put, Usagi Yojimbo is the single greatest achievement in the history of comics. For nearly 35 years, across 238 issues, (plus many short stories that have appeared in places like Dark Horse Presents) only one person has plotted, written, drawn, inked, and lettered every single page of its amazing story. For comparison, the classic Stan Lee and Jack Kirby 100+ issue run on Fantastic Four, itself a benchmark for “Greatest Ever,” typically had four or more people doing those jobs.
It’s not just the fact that creator Stan Sakai has single-handedly done all of those things for basically as long as I’ve been alive. It’s the level at which he’s done them. For his lettering alone, Sakai has won four Eisner awards. He’s won other Eisners, Hugos, the first ever Joe Kubert Distinguished Storyteller Award, and numerous others. The awards don’t tell the whole story though.
What’s it about?
For the unfamiliar, Usagi Yojimbo follows the adventures of a wandering Ronin (masterless Samurai) in Edo-period Japan. The characters are all anthropomorphic animal cartoons, and the book’s title itself translates to “Rabbit Bodyguard,” which is a pretty solid description of it’s hero, Miyamoto Usagi.
Having lost his master in battle, Usagi now travels “the warriors path” of learning, wandering across Japan, stumbling across adventures wherever he goes. His willingness to help anyone and everyone often throws him into conflict with bandits, gangs, monsters, ghosts, Feudal lords, and other Samurai. He’s an expert swordsman, to the point that regardless of the odds, you know he’ll win just about any battle (and it’s a BIG DEAL any time he doesn’t).
Usagi Yojimbo depicts 17th Century Japan in meticulous detail, to the point that the comic is sometimes used in High School and College history classes. The depth of Sakai’s research is mezmerizing, and the comics often contain mini-essays on their subject matter, whether it’s folklore, Edo-period politics, or Japanese cultural customs. There’s an entire issue depicting the Japanese tea ceremony, that is presented with so much reverence that it leaves you in awe.
If that all sounds a little too high-brow, it’s also a comic in which a cartoon rabbit sword-fights an absurd amount of ninja and demons, and occasionally teams up with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, via magic or time travel.
What’s so great about it?
Reading Usagi Yojimbo is like if apple pie was good for you, and made you feel like a better, more educated person for having eaten it.
Sakai’s character building is without peer. His hero is a genuinely good person, often finding himself in over his head because he tried to do the right thing. Over the past 35 years, Usagi himself has grown. Once impulsive, and quick to anger, he’s now measured and hesitant to draw his sword until it’s absolutely necessary. It’s that kind of long game character development that really sets this comic apart.
Usagi’s sprawling supporting cast is full of colorful, fully developed characters. Readers can go years of publication without seeing a supporting cast member, and when that character reappears, you realize that you’ve actually missed them. The always honorable Usagi is surrounded by lovable thieves, roguish bounty hunters, sly ninja, and deadpan hilarious Master swordsmen.
It’s a genuinely funny comic. Think your family has some strong Dad-joke game? Sakai sometimes spends full issues setting up monumental puns and one liners, and has decades of story riding one particular pun about a serial killer named Jei-San.
It’s almost impossible to describe Usagi Yojimbo because, so often, it’s a study of contradictions. The art seems simple and cartoonish, but stop to admire it for a second, and it’s clearly the insanely detailed work of a master. On the surface it’s a fun, silly comic about a Samurai rabbit, but stop to think and it’s full of very real history, beauty, and deeper reflections on life. It’s accurately described it as an “all ages comic” and yet it’s got a body count that puts the Punisher to shame. It’s instantly accessible to new readers, yet intricately woven plots simmer in the background for years, and sometimes even decades.
The craziest thing about it is how well 35 years of stories hold up. Grab your favorite comic from the mid-90’s, and compare it to an Usagi story from the same year, and you’ll see how timeless Sakai’s storytelling is. There’s a consistency of quality that Sakai maintains from day one that is unmatched in any medium, ever.
After two decades and 172 issues of publishing at Dark Horse, Usgai Yojimbo has moved to IDW, with a new #1 issue.
In addition, for the first time ever the comic will be ongoing in full color. It’s been a black and white comic since 1984, with only a handful of specials and short stories in color. It’s one of the last surviving ongoing comics from the “Black and White Boom,” so that’s a pretty monumental change. Tom Luth, who has been coloring Usagi covers since before Bon Jovi put out Living on a Prayer, will be the colorist.
The first issue opens with one of Usagi’s many supporting cast members, Sasuke the Demon Queller, doing epic battle with a horde of demons. Meanwhile in a far away town, Usagi enjoys some Bunraku Puppet theater in brilliant, historically accurate detail. In typical fashion, the puppets are likely demon possessed, and he’ll probably be sucked into fighting them to protect the innocent. That’s kinda his deal.
It’s a perfect taste of many of the elements that make Usagi Yojimbo great. There’s meticulously researched detail on Japanese history and culture, including a short essay on Bunraku by Sakai as an end-cap. There’s an abundance of sword-fighting, and mythological creatures. Then there’s Usagi, friendly, kind, and always doing his best to help others… which generally involves killing a whole lot of bad guys with his swords. It’s maybe the best comic ever.
Usagi Yojimbo #1, and it’s 25 variant covers, is in comic shops on June 19th, 2019.
The following is a preview, courtesy of IDW.