Offered as a jumping-on point for new readers, Usagi Yojimbo continues to be the surest hand in comics as it heads into issue #163 this week. Created by Stan Sakai, who writes, pencils and letters each story, the anthropomorphic series centers around the eponymous rabbit-y ronin as he walks the world, getting into problems and attempting to help people wherever he can. It’s a simple premise, which means that for once we’re offered a jump-on issue which genuinely does explain itself with incredible efficiency, allowing new readers to try the series and get an idea of the kind of dense planning-upon-planning which has always characterized Sakai’s approach.
The story here starts out with Usagi tracking down a Robin Hood-style thief, who gives away half his plunder to the poor -- and in the process, effectively buys their support and silence wherever needed. That’s story alone to sustain an issue, but from there Sakai spends his time carefully staking out tiers upon tiers of other villains and allies whose lives are affected by this one robber. It’s clear Sakai wants to explore the various levels of criminality which exist, although in typical style he’s more interested in raising questions than in bluntly stating his own thoughts.
The issue offers a chase sequence and swordplay, but the more intriguing sections are by far the pages where Usagi calmly goes about the process of pulling together the various plot points into some kind of coherent story so he can solve several crimes at once. The series benefits hugely from the calm, leisurely paced narrative, which only rushes when its hand is forced. Sakai’s artistic style -- especially as the comic is in black and white -- demands that readers stop and pauses regularly to look at the buildings, or a group of characters.
One of Sakai’s greatest skills in storytelling is his ability to ink depth and therefore perspective into his scenes, which offers him the opportunity to throw groups of characters into every panel without losing them to one another, or the scenery behind them. That inking is what gives Usagi Yojimbo the life and pace that it has: it regularly stops the reader entirely so they can think over the story. There’s depth in both the artwork and the overall story as a result of that one ability, developed by Sakai over a particularly distinguished career.
Yet another ability he possesses (seemingly without fail) is the power to convey everything without leaving younger readers out of the story. There’s a level of density to the narrative, sure, but Sakai always ensures that he’s leading the reader by the hand if it feels like things are getting complicated (and with the slight lack in variation between the design of the characters who walk in and out of this issue, that can come as a problem) and alleviates every dark moment with a comedic scene. The result is a comic which will stay in the hand of any reader for a fair while - and no matter what people may say to the contrary, there’s always benefit to a comic which takes a longer time to read than most others on the shelf.
Over the years Stan Sakai has more than earned the opportunity to do whatever he wants with his iconic lead character: that his latest issue seeks once more to bring new readers into the medium and into his world speaks volumes to just why Usagi Yojimbo remains so compelling and uniquely satisfying even now, 30 years later.