One of my favorite presents from last year’s holiday season was Fantagraphics’ Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition, a two-volume slipcased collection of the earliest issues of Stan Sakai’s groundbreaking independent comic book about the adventures of a masterless samurai in a fantasy Japan populated by anthropomorphic creatures. (Usagi is Japanese for rabbit, and Kurosawa fans will recognize the action-packed significance of Yojimbo.) From the beginning, Sakai’s script and artwork were able to combine a grand sweep with intimate characterization; the panel above, from Usagi’s first appearance in 1984, hints at a backstory that would take years to unfold.
Along the way, Sakai would insert sly tributes to samurai movie icons like Gennosuke (a rhino with a distinct resemblance to Toshiro Mifune) and Zato-Ino the blind swordspig—they might seem like one-off jokes at first, but then he folds them perfectly into The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, a story that rivals just about any epic fantasy (novel or film) in the last 25 years for its narrative complexity and powerful action sequences. But it’s not just the hundreds of pages of graphic novel storytelling at its finest that makes this a must-read. You also get a glimpse at Sakai’s earliest sketches for the character, a reprint of Usagi’s first crossover with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, an extensive interview with Sakai, and a pictorial guide to how he creates the comics. (I’m actually still working my way through the main storyline, but I skipped ahead to read all this backmatter, and it’s really fun!) Reading this stories will help you understand why, when we talk about the success stories of independent comics publishing, Usagi Yojimbo should be one of the first titles that gets mentioned. (And there’s plenty more Usagi graphic novels to read after this!)
14 March 2011 | read this |