Usagi Yojimbo #1 is the perfect jumping-on issue for those wanting to get into the iconic character. All the wonderful commentaries you’ve heard about this perennial Eisner Award nominee (and winner) since the 1980s are richly deserved, and as the series finds a new home at IDW, now is your chance to experience Stan Sakai’s samurai rabbit at the beginning of another gripping adventure.
It’s hard to find a comics creator more attuned to, and in command of, his original characters than Sakai. He has consistently and excellently surrounded his seminal anthropomorphic hero, Usagi Yojimbo, with a fully developed and interesting supporting cast, a delightful yet perilous vision of feudal Japan and a diverse gallery of exceptional villains.
The start of the three-part "Bunkraku" story, issue #1 begins with a demon hunter before moving to a seemingly innocent traveling puppet show and ending with a supernatural evil. Sakai isn’t concerned with explaining the vast history of Usagi and his exploits. Instead, the story starts with pulse-pounding action as demon-hunter Sasuke is engaged in lethal combat with a host of unfriendly demons. Victory is not a foregone conclusion for Sasuke, even after he dispatches the lesser demons. Their mother is a fire-breathing nightmare and a reminder from Sakai about vigilance and never underestimating one’s opponent(s). With effort, Sasuke prevails and receives a visit from his patron spirit, Lord Shoki, who directs him to the city of Kuroyama to face yet another evil.
Sakai masterfully weaves elements of Japanese history, culture and folklore in this series—often without the reader ever noticing the educational elements. Bunraku is one form of traditional Japanese puppet theater, where the sophisticated motions of single puppets are often the coordinated effort of three puppeteers. The stories are so engaging that the audience ignores the presence of the puppeteers. In Kuroyama, Usagi is one of those enwrapped audience members, and when the intermission is called, he has tea with the story’s sage narrator, who explains Bunraku’s complicated components. Usagi then meets Sasuke, and, knowing that the demon hunter is of a singular mission, he learns that all is not what it seems with those very lifelike puppets—or their masters.
As engaging as this story is, the stellar art nearly steals the show. The definition of a page-turner, Sakai’s brilliant panel construction in this issue seamlessly and swiftly leads the action from page to page. Plan on giving it a second read to uncover and appreciate all the details. Longtime fans and new readers alike will enjoy the fluid flow of the fight scenes, the fully rendered backgrounds and the level of personal detail given to each character. And then there’s the color -- yes, I said color! Tom Luth (teammate with Sakai on Groo the Wanderer) joins Sakai to present Usagi Yojimbo for the first time in full color -- and it’s gorgeous.
Come for the story, stay for the art, Usagi Yojimbo #1 is an intelligent, visual delight.