This is the time of year where everyone starts listing what I’m thankful for, so here’s what should be perennial item on every comic reader’s list: Stan Sakai’s “Usagi Yojimbo.”
Issue after issue, Sakai crafts a beautifully written and illustrated story of a ronin warrior (Miyamoto Usagi) in the 17th century, forever encountering criminals and wrongdoers and attempting to rectify the situation. One of the things that will almost immediately strike a new reader of the series is how Sakai is always bringing in historical details to liven up the story, from aspects of tea ceremonies to (this month) the ice runners who were charged with racing down from mountains to deliver a quickly-melting block to the rest of the country.
The plot in “Ice Runners” is a slightly predictable one, as Usagi encounters a group of ice runners under attack as they attempt to defend their lord’s honor by delivering a block of ice in the heat of the summer. You can see exactly where it’s going, and sure enough Usagi ends up accompanying the runners to try and get their ever-shrinking cargo to its destination. Here, the enjoyment is not so much in the plot, but rather in the details; the way that the ice runners operate, the methods they use to transport (from a cadence chant as they sprint down the trails, to pouring stream water on the box to cool it down), and the reason for why getting the ice to its destination is so important.
A samurai story involving honor is a bit of a cliche, but it’s to Sakai’s credit that it never feels that way here. Maybe it’s because Sakai writes Usagi and his world as genuine what you see is what you get sort of people. There’s no ulterior motive for defending honor, no sarcasm involved. As a result, you can buy into their quest, and cheer it to its inevitable finale.
As always, Sakai’s art looks great. Everything is drawn in careful detail, from the transport box, to the dots on Usagi’s clothing. It should be no surprise to readers that Sakai’s good at action, too, what with there being a lot of samurai in the comic. When the group is ambushed by a pack of hungry tokage lizards, Usagi’s half-stumble back as the tokage attack looks so alive you’d think it was animated, and likewise his sword-strikes at the lizards on the next page have a great deal of power and thrust behind them.
“Usagi Yojimbo” has been around since 1987 (with runs at Fantagraphics and Mirage before the current series that began at Dark Horse), and there’s a reason it’s lasted so long. It’s just that dependably good, month after month. Despite being 24 years old now, Sakai still makes sure that the comic is open to new readers, too. So if you still haven’t given it a shot, well, what better way to relax after a huge turkey dinner? It’s the best dish of rabbit you’ll ever have, but it won’t leave you feeling full. If anything, you’ll want another serving.