Thursday, March 21, 2024

Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin by Stan Sakai

We all have holes in our reading, some more surprising than others. I started reading "comics" seriously about 1986, when I went off to college to a town (Poughkeepsie) with a good shop (Iron Vic's) and bought mostly the weirdest stuff I could find on the racks at that time. There's a lot that I've read since then, sometimes by following the same creators and ideas, sometimes by deliberately paying attention to new things (manga! YA! Eurocomics!). But no one can read everything - no one wants to read everything, to begin with, and it's not physically possible now, if it ever was.

So I've known who Stan Saki was almost since that first trip to a comics shop in 1986 - maybe even earlier, since my kid brother might have already been reading Groo before then - but I've never sought out his central series Usagi Yojimbo, which started in anthologies (the old-fashioned kind, single issues published on a semi-regular schedule) in the mid-80s. As I'm writing this, I looked up the details, discovering that there are thirty-eight Usagi collections to date - well, I don't know if I'll make it to the end, but let's see if I can read at least a few of them.

To make clearer my ignorance: I think the only Sakai book I've read - I have read his stuff in anthologies and collections, and works he contributed to but doesn't own, to be clear - was The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, a pre-Usagi short series of stories I saw a decade ago.

So this is a thing I could have paid attention to, and maybe should, but didn't. And, nearly forty years later, I finally got to the beginning: Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin.

It collects eleven stories, originally published in random single issues, mostly the anthologies Albedo and Critters - all of the scattered Usagi stories from before the main series began in 1987. (This book was also published in 1987, back in the era when trade paperbacks were random and occasional rather than the expected next step of every series. That's a sign of the initial interest or importance of Usagi, I think.)

The stories are episodic, but the world and backstory is clear from the beginning - it's an anthropomorphic version of late Edo-era Japan, with different clans and groups drawn as different animals. Our hero is Miyamoto Usagi, a rabbit samurai formerly in the service of an (I think unnamed) lord who was betrayed by one of his generals at the battle of Adachigahara and died there. Usagi now wanders the country, working as a bodyguard (Yojimbo). I gather Lord Hikiji, the evil feudal leader who betrayed Usagi's master, is the major background antagonist of the series, and he shows up here, both in person and through his minions.

So this book is a mixture of early world-building - the very first story tells us the story of Adachigahara in flashback - and random wanderings, which I gather stays the pattern of the series throughout, with longer stories that seem to fall into both categories ("mythology" and "monster of the week," to use not-quite-accurate borrowed terms).

The art is crisp and clear from the beginning, though some angles (especially Usagi looking up) and some of the smaller panels of battle scenes are not as clear as I might like - these are shorter stories, that likely had page limits, and Sakai was trying to tell expansive stories from the beginning. 

I often have a quizzical reaction to anthropomorphic stories - wondering why that style was chosen, and if there are world-building hints buried in the choice of creatures - but this seems to be the old, traditional style of anthropomorphism: the creator's style aims this way, he's leaning into it, and that's all it means. The style is slightly disjoint from the bloody, mostly serious and mostly historical matter, but that doesn't seem to be meant as a source of irony: it's just the way Sakai tells stories.

These are good stories, though they seem somewhat derivative (of samurai movies, mostly) at this point in the series' history. That's not a fatal flaw - lots of things are derivative, maybe most things - but it is pretty central. On the other hand, going in any reader knows this is a long-running comic about a rabbit samurai, so all of the potential deal-breakers are right up front. The good news is that it was strong and assured from the first page: if you are interested in rabbit-samurai stories, you can start with Book 1 very easily.

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