Stan Sakai’s “Usagi Yojimbo” is usually a new reader friendly series. While I’ve never been in the habit of reading it regularly, I do pick it up every now and then and enjoy it. In the last few months, Sakai’s been telling single issue stories, which should appeal to newbies even more. This month’s issue, I fear, is not a good place to start. It’s not that it’s a bad story, but that readers who are judging the whole of the series on this one issue are bound to be disappointed. I’d steer them to either of the previous couple of issues.
Before getting to the core problem with the issue, let’s look at what works:
Sakai excels in taking a simple cultural artifact and turning it into a complete 24 page story. In this issue, he uses something called a “teru teru bozu.” It’s a simple doll that children make to ward off the rain. It becomes not just a symbol to be used in the story, but the entry to a tale that’s relatively calm but with two terrifying moments made more impactful due to the rest of the issue’s simplicity.
This isn’t the most clever or the most action-packed issue of the series. Aside from one fight scene in the middle of the book, it’s fairly low key and mundane: Usagi is overnighting with a kind family. They’re having dinner together before bed. The young boy of the house says and does things that cause his parents shock while Usagi laughs at his childishness. The next morning, they’re walking on stilts together. It’s all so pleasant and slice of life-ish.
But Sakai tells it well. Even the most simple of actions becomes a cartooned sequential narrative worth studying. While Sakai’s style isn’t naturalistic, he does pay special attention to the backgrounds and environments he places his characters in. The wood textures inside the house are expertly crosshatched in, special relationships make sense, and the variety of angles used in Sakai’s storytelling reveal more minor details throughout the dwelling. He even manages early on to draw an exterior scene in which it is clearly raining, but nary a raindrop is drawn. He does so by drawing the effects of the rain on the page, and guiding your eye around them. There is no cheating in here, which makes it all the more impressive that Sakai’s able to write, draw, and letter a full 24 page story every month.
The action scene in the middle of the issue draws from a series of influences and styles, from classic manga to modern superhero. But Sakai doesn’t cheat here, either, by drawing extreme close-ups or randomly silhouetted creatures. It’s all on the page, beautifully and consistently drawn, clean and easy to follow. No fancy tricks. No diagonal panels. Just clear action, well told and well drawn.
While there is a lot to recommend this issue, there are also a couple of stumbling blocks that cause me to advise against this issue for potential new readers. You never want to start reading a series when the only action in it turns out to be a dream sequence, and the villain is an unnamed cameo that’ll be meaningless to you — though from the character’s design, he’s clearly not a nice man. Did he have something to do with that bad dream earlier in the issue? Probably. But I don’t know. I haven’t a clue who he is, nor would a new reader. And without a name given in the story, it’s not even a question Google can quickly answer. (Trust me, I tried.)
That’s the bad news. The good news is that “Usagi Yojimbo” is still a modern classic with a strong narrative that deserves an even bigger audience. It’s just advisable to start with an issue other than this one. Check the rack at your comic shop this Free Comic Book Day and pull out the previous issue to flip through, instead