(Welcome to Comics Rewind, a weekly column devoted to discovering – or re-discovering – great comics published some time in the past. Here you will find looks back at comics published in every era, from the Golden Age to the Modern Age, as well as retrospectives on the work of important comics writers, lists of “essential” comics, and evaluations of important works, as well as works worthy of a second look or a wider audience. Enjoy!)
I’ve made a lot of trips back to the beginnings of comic book sagas. I like knowing where things come from. But by the time a character’s built up a presence and acclaim in the comics world, their humble beginnings can often seem more than a little underwhelming. It’s understandable, of course. The characters haven’t fully formed identities yet. The stories are often more about introduction than action, and often you put the book down feeling intrigued enough to read on, but hoping that next month things will be a good deal better. The beginnings of Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo aren’t like that, and we’re talking about a character who didn’t even begin in his own comic. Reading this first volume is like a warm welcome into a new world, and you can’t wait to go back.
Usagi Yojimbo is a book with one of those simple premises that, in the right hands, translates into a rich collage of storytelling alchemy. The Japanese title translates to “rabbit bodyguard,” and that’s exactly what we’re dealing with here. Miyamoto Usagi is a roaming samurai who travels fuedal Japan on a kind of warrior’s pilgrimage, seeking out bodyguard work and good deeds to be done. Oh, and he’s a rabbit. Sakai was originally going to tell these tales with human characters, but a flight of fancy led him to draw a rabbit-ear topknot on the head of his hero, and it stuck. As a result, Usagi Yojimbo is a universe filled with personified animals, and the effect is something between fantasy epic, educational all ages story and fairy tale.
Book One of the Usagi Yojimbo collections includes only the stories Sakai told before Usagi landed his own series at Fantagraphics (the comic is now at Dark Horse, and still publishing new stories). None of the tales here are given their own full comics issue. They’re short stories, pieces of anthologies, little peeks into the world that Sakai would expand dramatically in later volumes. But perhaps the greatest achievement of these stories is that they don’t feel like little peeks. Everything about the Usagi Yojimbo world – despite the black and white art – is immensely vivid. Sakai works hard to faithfully recreate the fashions and weaponry and political climate of feudal Japan, and it shows, even if the main characters are cats and rabbits and snakes. He also just seems to instinctively know how to tell these stories. We know (or we should now) that a lot of work – including research, planning and who knows how many rewrites – goes into stories like this. But when you read Usagi Yojimbo everything feels organic and new and alive in a way that many other comics can never hope for.
The art might seem rather storybook-ish at first, until you see Sakai pencil an action scene. Usagi flows through his swordplay like the best samurai films, and yet it’s not a horrifically violent exercise. It’s all done artfully and effectively, but with a cartoonish sense of fun that’s rare in stories with such dramatic ambition. It helps create a universality that’s come to help define the series. It’s a story for everyone, an inviting work full of action, humor and even education, and after reading this volume I’ve come to feel like that’s all centered in Sakai’s clean and energetic art.
Oftentimes I feature works here simply because I like them and want others to like them too. In this case, we really are dealing with an essential work. Usagi Yojimbo is a comic book universe unto itself, a story that feels like no other tale in the medium. It’s timeless, it’s broadly appealing and, most importantly, it’s truly a work of brilliant storytelling.