Twenty-three years after the character debuted, I’ve finally gotten around to reading a “Usagi Yojimbo” comic. This series has been one of the gaping holes in my comic book knowledge — something I’ve always meant to read, something I have pre-ordered in hardcover form, but a comic that I’ve never actually sat down and read, after all these years.
My first impression? It was exactly what I expected.
Issue #127 is, it turns out, a good place to start reading “Usagi Yojimbo,” but my understanding is that almost any issue of this series is a good place to begin. Stan Sakai tells his stories so clearly, and so frequently uses the short story form or the single-issue tale, that this is a series that you can just jump into at any time. It’s rare to find something like that these days.
I suppose I’ve always held off on “Usagi Yojimbo” because I didn’t want to start anywhere other than at the beginning, though. I realize that’s foolish, and I realize it even more after reading this issue, but that’s one of the reasons that I haven’t bothered to read even a single issue until now. The other reason is that I’ve always kind of conflated it with other mid-to-late 1980s black and white anthropomorphism, like the pals of Usagi, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. As much as I may have enjoyed Eastman and Laird’s Frank Miller pastiche a couple of decades ago, I’ve long lost interest in that type of comic.
“Usagi Yojimbo” isn’t that type of comic.
Its anthropomorphism is incidental, as far as I can tell. Like the work of the great Norwegian cartoonist, Jason, Sakai just happens to draw humans as if they looked like animals. There’s nothing about Usagi that makes him particularly rabbit-like, other than the way he’s drawn. And the other ronin he meets in this issue, drawn as a dog, is basically just another human.
So what we get in this issue is a team up between two masterless samurai, trying to reclaim a sword from a pack of bandits. It’s almost all fighting, with moments of characterization interspersed. It’s direct, effective, and without sentimentality.
It’s a comic that kids could understand, but it doesn’t seem directed toward them. It’s a comic that has grown-up concerns about duty and honor and violence, but it doesn’t seem like a “mature readers” comic, either. It’s just a comic. It’s a comic drawn by a confident cartoonist who knows his characters, who knows his world — one who has an almost quaint DIY approach to comic book creation. It’s just Stan Sakai, telling his stories the only way he knows how. Nothing flashy. Nothing fancy.
And it’s good.