Storytelling from a Master USAGI YOJIMBO BOOK 8: SHADES OF DEATH
The Entertainment Business is a world where concepts need to be condensed into just a few words (typical pitch: “I’ve got a great story here: it’s Tootsie meets Die Hard - with more nudity”). So for those of you impatient readers and studio executives who are scanning this introduction to find out whether or not to buy (or option) this book, let me put it this way:
Usagi Yojimbo is Carl Barks meets Akira Kurosawa - with more nudity.
Now buy this book, damn it, take it home, and read it.
For the rest of you with patience that extends beyond the MTV attention span, let’s savor the exquisite qualities that make Usagi Yojimbo so special. Each compendium of Usagi Yojimbo is a collection of rarities. No, the comic books from which the particular stories in this volume were collected are not rare (yet). It is the many artistic and literary qualities of Usagi Yojimbo that put this particular rabbit on the Endangered Species list.
Stan Sakai is the Akira Kurosawa of comic books. Stan’s stories are not the hyper-shriek blasts that seem the norm for most comics nowadays. His stories are not an excuse for a series of pinup pages. Stan does not have to resort to cheap flash and false bravado in order to tell a story. He is a man who is in full literary and artistic control of his medium. Stan’s pacing is deliberate, and, like Paul Chadwick, he is not afraid to slow it down a little bit to make a subtle but powerful point. Like Carl Barks, Stan’s graphic simplicity reinforces the readability of his storytelling.
Kurosawa has always understood that contrast is the essence of good art. In Usagi Yojimbo, a richness of contrasts abounds: gentleness / violence; quiet story pause / explosions of action; lowbrow guffaws / subtle and sophisticated wit.
Some writers excel at the short form of storytelling; others find their strengths within a more epic form. This volume includes two long stories, one medium-length story, and four short stories from the Mirage editions (volume two, issues one through six, and back-up tales from issues seven and eight). Stan is a master of all of these forms (my own personal favorites are the short and powerfully poetic back-up stories).
The samurai subject matter provokes expectations of heavy violence. The violence is here, but I don’t know that I would call it heavy. With masterful restraint, Stan dances a delicate line between fulfilling that required story expectation and resisting the depiction of the overtly graphic consequences of the inevitable.
There is real clarity to Stan’s design, a seeming rarity at this time in the history of comics. His art reflects the influence of the best Japanese prints. This influence is also felt in the book’s color. Unfortunately, the valuable film containing the color separations for the comics has been lost, so the stories are reprinted here in black and white.
Nevertheless, I would like to briefly discuss the color that graded the first appearance of these stories. Perhaps you’ll be inspired to search out the original publications of these stories just to savor them in their intended color form.
I’ve found that any colorist worth his or her paintbox has been smart enough to study the world’s greatest art form in terms of sensually subtle “flat” (as opposed to painted or modeled) color: ukiyo-e (“floating world”: the Japanese name for their woodblock prints). Usagi Yojimbo colorist Tom Luth is no exception. It’s easy to argue that no better comic than Usagi Yojimbo could be found to exploit this influence on one’s retinal memory. Tom has studied those relationships well. His sensitivity to color is rare to comics.
Sosit back in your favorite chair and enjoy a rich classic. Take pleasure and contentment in the knowledge that during your relaxed state a city full of studio executives are frantically trying to outbid each other for the film rights to the book that you are reading.
William Stout (1997)
Last Edit: Mar 2, 2021 15:24:48 GMT -5 by usagigoya
I was asked to write this introduction because, I presume, I’ve made it known in interviews and to Stan himself how much I like the book. And I’m surprised I was asked for that very reason… because I’m surprised that I like the book at all. Or still like it, more to the point, and here lie my feelings on what I (perhaps cruelly and dismissively) call gimmick books.
It seems to me that Usagi was somewhat the product of the black-and-white boom, back in the late ’80s, in that when he first appeared in Albedo and Critters, he seemed very much suited to the trends then in comics.
There were a lot of different books, with quirky, sometimes endearing characters published by Aardvark-Vanaheim, Fantagraphics, Kitchen Sink, and a lot of other less noteworthy publishers. Looking back, that period in comics was filled with a surprising degree of diversity. Superheroes were the main thing then, as they have been since the 1960s, but at the same time, people were trying new stuff. Books with more of a crime or horror or humor emphasis than we’ve seen since the 1950s began appearing. This was also a time when a new wave of storytelling reinvention was occurring with Frank Miller, Matt Wagner, Alan Moore, and Howard Chaykin leading the way. And what resulted was a pleasing time of anything goes. For this reason, this was a time of great ideas, good ideas, and bad ideas, and other ideas that, while good, were flawed by their own limitations.
By this I mean a comic with a neat hook. This resulted in a few nice stories, but nothing beyond that. Nothing that compelled you to read issue after issue. Read one, read them all. Read five, read them all. Read twenty, read them all. You’d see these series launch with an often large degree of hoopla and acclaim, and by issue four or five, fans would consider them “hot.” The first couple of under-ordered issues shot up in price. Then, after a while, the fire would ebb, the once sought-after early issues went back into the back-issue bin. And in a year the series was all but completely forgotten.
At that same time of relative diversity one of the phenomena to occur was the resurgence of the “funny animal” comic. Some of these were straight humor. Some carried on from Pogo and were closer to satire. And some were anamorphic books featuring serious subject matter. Books that depicted the adventures of characters who could have been purely human, but due to the creator’s inclination were depicted as quasi-human / animal instead.
Cutie Bunny, Omaha, Usagi Yojimbo, and the other series that premiered in Critters along with Usagi, were all ones that could have been told just as well using real people. The anamorphic element helped them stand apart, I guess. Likewise, Usagi could have merely been the adventures of a samurai. But the rabbit element helped people take notice. It worked. But it could have been the book’s undoing too.
To my mind, Usagi Yojimbo was a gimmick book. A samurai rabbit. Cool. Funny and cute, but with death and sword fights. It was well received, going from the pages of the Critters anthology book to its own comic. And I enjoyed it the whole time.
But there was the lurking fear in my mind that one day I’d pick up an issue and feel I’d been there, done that, as I had with a lot of other books from that era. Books that had seemed so rich and diverse were beginning to seem stale and repetitive. Black-and-white implosion or not, that era of comics was dying. The best… the very best lingered. Some are still published today. But most aren’t even remembered anymore.
And as for funny animals… all the Critters strips apart from Usagi, Neil the Horse, and Cutie Bunny. All were gone because after a certain point, all the stories you could tell with that character were told.
So what of the little rabbit with the big sword? He was still being published. And I was still reading it. And the sameness of storylines that marked the beginning of the end for a book seemed nowhere in sight. I had long ago resigned myself to one day no longer caring about the adventures of Usagi, and yet I still did. And the stories continued to surprise and interest me. In fact, I feel as Stan evolved as a creator the stories have managed to become even better conceived.
Which brings us to the present. Many years and three publishers later for Usagi Yojimbo, the gimmick book…
I remember reading issue eleven’s five page preamble to the story, detailing how a samurai’s sword is made - and enjoying it immensely for the history lesson it was - while the sequence also qualified the stakes that were at hand for Usagi in needing to regain his lost swords. I remember thinking then how combining those two aspects of the narrative, while keeping it interesting, was a delicate balance Stan pulled off brilliantly.
The historic aspect of Usagi is something Stan has never shied away from. His research of the era makes the stories feel authentic, despite the fact that the book features a cast of talking animals. But at the same time, Stan’s historic referencing is deftly scattered throughout the book in a way that doesn’t make it seem heavy-handed.
Stan isn’t afraid of the silent panel / sequence for mood or for the conveying of emotional resonance. His storytelling and graphic abilities are such that he is able to veer away from dialogue and explanatory captions for sequences of quiet nuance that is both sophisticated and assured.
Stan never allows himself to be too clever. His storytelling is simple at the same time. Panel layouts are never so flashy as to detract from the story. Captions are never in first or second person, meaning that peoples’ actions are defined through thought that is never more interesting than the compelling characters themselves.
And, oh, what characters. Usagi; his lost love Kinuko; the stray dog ronin Inukai; the even more mysterious Jei; and the brash, beloved Gen. Stan has woven a varied and rich cast around Usagi, all with different driving motivations and inner demons that make them stand apart from our central character and make them unique to themselves.
I guess ultimately that’s what makes this book. Not the fact that it’s anamorphic with a central character that’s a rabbit. If that had been the be all and end all, I doubt the book would have lasted a year. No, the book is masterfully written. Always fresh, with compelling characters and with a sense of authenticity. And the plots weep coming. Just when you fear you’ve seen it all, Stan comes up with some new twist on samurai themes or avenue of experience for Usagi, and we’re on unfamiliar ground. The book is solid, well-crafted, imaginative storytelling. Classic storytelling.
Hmm. Maybe that was the gimmick to begin with.
James Robinson (1998)
Last Edit: Mar 2, 2021 15:25:56 GMT -5 by usagigoya
Discoveries USAGI YOJIMBO BOOK 10: THE BRINK OF LIFE AND DEATH
I have to admit to a certain thrill, sitting down to write this introduction. This is Usagi Yojimbo, after all. There’ll be a Usagi Yojimbo trade paperback out there that I had something to do with. I like the thought of that, and that’s why I said, “Sure, you bet!” the moment I was asked to do this.
But that leaves me with a problem. Now I’ve got to write the piece, and there’s not a lot I can tell you, whether you’re new to Usagi, or a longtime reader like me.
I can’t, for instance, tell you much about Stan Sakai. I could tell you about the time we went up in a hot-air balloon together - Stan had come up to my neck of the woods for a comics convention, and one of the things the convention organizer (the ever-affable Richard Finn) likes to do is show the guests a fun time in return for signing autographs and such at the con. On this particular day, we got up at the crack of dawn and watched as the folks from the balloon company laid out the brightly colored balloon, fired up the burners, and filled it with hot air until it was straining to be aloft. And then a bunch of us piled in and took to the sky.
It was spectacular - being above the familiar countryside turned it strange and exotic: the early-morning mists, the sensation of absolute stillness as the world rolled by beneath us, the sudden awareness of speed as we descended to just above the treetops. If you’re a comics creator and Richard Finn ever invites you to a show, by all means say yes; you’ll get to do this yourself, or go river rafting, or skiing, or some other such similar delight. But Stan? He was the quiet guy at the back. I can’t say I got to know him, memorable though the trip was.
Other than that, I’ve talked to Stan on the phone a time or two, and seen him at conventions signing books and doing rabbit-head sketches for healthy lines of Usagi devotees. He’s a nice guy - pleasant, friendly, modest, and amazingly talented - but I don’t really know him well enough to share any incisive insights about him.
And I can’t exactly rattle on about 16th-century Japan, setting the stage for the adventures you’re going to be reading. For one thing, Stan’s already taken care of it, with the elegant and informative four-page prologue to the first Dark Horse issue of Usagi, which was done to bring new readers up to speed, and which I expect runs either at the beginning of this collection or at the start of the two-part “Noodles” story it originally introduced. And for another, I don’t really know that much about the subject. Basically, all I know about feudal Japan, I learned from James Clavell novels and Usagi Yojimbo - and probably some Wolverine comics, but I have my doubts about their dependability as historical resources.
It’s funny. I’m a big proponent of doing comics for specific audiences, catching readers’ attention with the content rather than trying to tempt customers into buying stuff they’re not interested in - if you want to attract mystery buffs, do mystery comics, don’t do superhero comics with mystery elements and expect that’ll be enough. If you want to attract romance buffs, do romance comics, and so forth. And I firmly believe this - but I’m the antithesis of the argument, since feudal Japan and samurai adventures aren’t a big interest of mine. It’s not like I go out of my way to avoid such material - but I don’t seek it out either.
And yet, the setting and culture of Usagi Yojimbo are immensely important to the series. Story after story features introductions to and explanations of aspects of feudal Japanese culture and legend, and this volume is no exception - from the seaweed farmers of “Kaiso” to the authentic (if corrupt) village justice system and soba merchant of “Noodles” to the repercussions of Western intrusion into Japan in “Bats, the Cat, and the Rabbit” and more.
And I’ve got to say, I love it all.
That brings me to the third thing I can’t tell you that much about, which is the comics themselves.
I can tell you my reaction to them, which is flat-out awe. I referred to some of Stan’s work as “elegant” a few paragraphs back, and that is an understatement. In an industry overwhelmed by in-your-face spectacle, Stan is a master of restraint, setting the stage slowly and deliberately and letting the story amble forward at an unhurried pace, which seems peculiarly appropriate for the adventures of a samurai traveling on foot. But it also results in comics far more exciting than the gaudiest in-your-face stuff, since the restraint provides a context against which the violence and danger that permeate these stories come as a shock, an ugly interruption of life.
I could point out examples: look at the first page of “Lightning Strikes Twice,” at the panels Stan has chosen - birds over the woods, the high aerial shot of the road, and the slow zoom-in that introduces us to ordinary, everyday people going about their business - only to break that carefully constructed mood in a single panel, as the people turn out to be anything but ordinary, and Inazuma reacts to their imminent attack. And then we turn the page and the scene explodes in action, the peace and beauty shattered. How much less effective would that have been if Stan had opened with the action, without first giving us time to relax into the setting? (Of course, Stan does open stories with action, but they’re worth a careful look, too, as in the way “Noodles” intercuts between the anger and emotion of the chase and Usagi’s slow, relaxed walk, building to a gag rather than an explosion.)
And I could point to the way Stan frames his panels - no dramatic angles for the sake of it, no wild layouts to “jazz up” the page - just clear, straightforward storytelling that lets the beauty of the drawing come through, focuses on content and mood, and always, always, tells the story rather than distracts from it.
I could explain why it is that the setting and culture fascinates me so much here, how Stan is such a good storyteller, such a good explainer, that the history and mythology lesons we get along the way don’t feel like lectures but discoveries - as you’ll see in the many pages of “Kaiso” that are devoted to showing the reader (and Usagi) what seaweed farming entails, and how it shapes the lives of those who make their living at it.
But that’s the thing, isn’t it? You’re going to see it in “Kaiso.” You’re going to read that first page of “Lightning Strikes Twice,“ and the opening sequence of “Noodles.” You have the book. If you’re a longtime Usagi reader like me, you know this stuff already. If you’re a newcomer, you’re about to find out. And either way, you don’t need me telling you about it ahead of time. There’s stuff I’d love to talk about - the heartbreak in these stories, the moments of poetic justice, the treachery and resourcefulness - but I don’t want to spoil it for you. You’ll read it in the stories, as you should.
So what is there for me to tell you? These are the stories from the final two issues of Mirage Publishing’s run of Usagi Yojimbo and the first six issues of Dark Horse Comics’ run (plus a stray backup story from an earlier Mirage issue). You’re going to love ‘em. That’s all you need to know.
But humor me - if you see me at a convention and you’ve got this book, pretend like I accomplished something in this intro, okay? I’ve wanted to be a part of this series for years, and I’d hate to think that I was completely irrelevant…
Kurt Busiek (March 1998)
Last Edit: Mar 2, 2021 15:27:31 GMT -5 by usagigoya
If you met Stan before seeing his work, you would never guess that this soft-spoken congenial man lived a good part of his life in the world of the samurai. I’ve met Stan a number of times at different functions over the years and always enjoyed his and his wife Sharon’s company. I knew he was a cartoonist, of course - but I’d never really looked into his work, until now. Wow.
Always in a hurry, I often pick up a book of illustrations, leaf through it and put it down, thinking that I’ll come back to it for a more thorough look when I have time. When at long last I opened up a book by Stan Sakai, I made time on the spot and read it from cover to cover. Thanks to his generosity, I have since read more!
Not only are his stories engaging, action-packed and well-crafted, but his drawing is so superb that it is something most of us can only aspire to. If I had to “describe” his style of drawing, I’d say it was somewhere between Bill Watterson and Will Eisner - which is a pretty fine place to be! Still, Stan’s work is uniquely his own, which tells me that his skill for life drawing and draftsmanship comes from somewhere within.
Usagi Yojimbo, the wandering samurai, is Stan’s other self. The characters Usagi encounters on his travels are also alive and complete. In a cartoonist’s mind, people, places and situations exist in a sort of dreamlike reality into which we are easily pulled whenever we wish to go there. We hear their voices, see through their eyes and go with them - guided partly by them and partly by our own forces through situations and storylines that almost write themselves.
Because the colorful life of Usagi, the rabbit samurai, is so much a part of Stan Sakai’s life, it was a surprise for me to learn that Stan’s knowledge of Japan and its history was through family and private research only. It was my great fortune to be invited with Stan and Sharon to visit Tokyo on a cultural exchange and to experience with them for the first time the beautiful and powerful culture that is Japan.
Buildings and passageways and hillsides and temples that Stan has drawn from photographs and from the magic of his imagination were there for us to see and touch. I was impressed by his knowledge of the language and by Stan and Sharon’s very deep spiritual connection to everything around us.
It was a privilege to hear them talk about their families, their foods and traditions. We were there with them in the land of Usagi Yojimbo - and I wondered how this adventure would influence Stan’s future storylines!
Since then, I’ve seen his work a little differently, too. I’ve looked at the buildings and the scenery and the costumes he draws with even more respect - knowing the research that has gone into them. I know that his stories would be considered some of the best of the Japanese manga and that he would be one of the most recognizable creative talents in Japan, had he begun his career there.
Stan Sakai is a genuinely modest man. He writes and draws for the love of his craft, and it shows. It has been my pleasure to write this forword because it has given me the opportunity to say congratulations, Stan. I admire you. I enjoy your work. Most of all, I have learned from it, and that, I think, is the best compliment one cartoonist can give to another.
Sincerely, Lynn Johnston (1998)
Last Edit: Mar 2, 2021 15:28:32 GMT -5 by usagigoya
An American Kimikkusu USAGI YOJIMBO BOOK 12: GRASSCUTTER
While I have known about Stan Sakai’s work for some time, I came upon Usagi Yojimbo only recently. This is because my attention over the years has been centered on what I regarded as the expansion of the medium as literature, and I look for those works that seem to be “pushing the envelope.” From time to time I make a “discovery” such as Bone or encourage what I believe is a promising new self-published work. More often my attention is centered on trends, a focus that seemed so necessary during my years of teaching.
While I have always been a staunch apostle of the internationalization of our medium, I confess that I really assumed the form emanated from American comics. Oh, yes, as a student I studied early Japanese prints like the narrative work of Hiroshige, and I used a Japanese brush myself for a long time. I have admired modern Japanese graphic storytelling. But I believed it to be insular and even untranslatable. I never anticipated an integration such as that demonstrated by Usagi.
In the Autumn of 1994 I was shepherded through Japan by Fred Schodt, a leading American scholar and expert on Japanese comics, in the company of a group of American artists and writers. I was stunned by what I found. I saw a booming industry, an enormous readership, and a pervasive social presence of the medium beyond any of my fondest dreams, for the medium to which I’ve devoted my life. There are obvious cultural reasons for this but the fact remains that manga, or komikkusu as the Japanese also call it, is a very singular form of the art of sequentially arranged images and text to narrate a story or dramatize an idea. As in America, manga occupies a place somewhere between films, literature, and “fine” art. The range of an American comic’s subject matter, however, is limited mostly to the interest of young males. They are the best sellers, and the outer margins are left to the foraging of those who address children, women, and adults. In Japan, comic books occupy nearly the same public acceptance as novels and films. The medium has a legitimacy not yet attained anywhere else. But perhaps the most significant characteristic of manga is their range of readership and subject matter. There are komikkusu specifically addressed to expectant mothers, little children, pre-teens, boys, girls, adults, and senior male and female. Many are centered on sports and games.
However enviable is this lateral coverage, the fact remains that Japanese publishers make little effort to reach beyond what is “commercial.” The art is designed to shock, titillate, or emulate animation. Style and surface technique dominate art and content. Like the American superhero and horror comics, their plots are generally simple.
As far as I could see, the Japanese comics are reluctant to introduce stories or ideas of another culture. Save for a surface fascination with American names and certain Western physical characteristics, it is hard to find manga that undertake subjects with realistic problems of the human condition. Work by other nationals that introduce foreign cultures such as those that appear in European and American comic books is rarely seen.
Yet for all of that, the Japanese comics have an undeniable fascination and have succeeded in invading the American and European markets. There is little doubt that they deliver exciting graphics. The trouble is that they have provided us with very little insight into Japanese life, culture, or history such as in the works of Tezuka or the classic Gen.
So, it was with this prejudice that I began to read the Usagi Yojimbo books Stan Sakai sent me. My first reaction was dismissive. I shrugged at his use of anthropomorphic characters as a way of avoiding the demands of realistic art, which made Frank Miller’s Ronin so compelling. Gradually, however, as the story absorbed me I changed my opinion. I felt I was somehow reading a komikusu in Japanese! Stan’s animal-people faces allow the reader to imagine and insert “real” faces out of their own memory. After I finished several stories, the accomplishment was obvious. I was transported into the fascinating world of Japanese folklore.
This is an important event in the progress of this medium because Stan Sakai has successfully brought to American comics a collection of Japanese fables well told in the American style. He has a good control of sequential art, and his compositions have the ability to create powerful understatements.
Usagi Yojimbo is an enduring work. Bravo.
Will Eisner (1999)
Last Edit: Mar 2, 2021 15:30:01 GMT -5 by usagigoya
The Case of Usagi Yojimbo USAGI YOJIMBO BOOK 13: GREY SHADOWS
I am grateful to Stan Sakai for a number of reasons.
First, and foremost, he has created one of the best and longest-running independent comic-book series in the history of the medium.
Second, he has been nice enough to acknowledge me, in the story notes for “The Hairpin Murders,” as one of his two favorite mystery writers. (His other favorite is Ed McBain, whose 87th Precinct novels I have followed since I was about the age that my son Nathan discovered Usagi Yojimbo.)
And, finally, Stan Sakai did the impossible: he (however briefly) managed to make my teenage son impressed with his old man.
Stan Sakai is Nate’s favorite cartoonist, and Usagi Yojimbo is his favorite comic book. None of this is surprising, because Stan’s work is about as good as current comics get, and Nate was raised on a steady diet of Lone Wolf and Cub manga, John Woo movies, and Japanese video games.
For my entire life (short as it may be), I have been a great fan of comics. Living with a writer of comics made it inevitable: I grew up on everything from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to Calvin and Hobbes. But at the tender age of eleven, I was subjected by my father to a different type of comic book - the manga. After I had read graphic novels like Barefoot Gen and the Lone Wolf and Cub series, my father steered me to Usagi Yojimbo.
These brief moments of respect I receive from Nate - however fleeting - have occurred at comics conventions when we have approached Stan, to get copies of Nate’s Usagi comics signed. And, invariably, inevitably, Stan lights up, seeing me, and informs Nate and me that he - the creator of Usagi Yojimbo! - has brought books of mine to have me sign.
This admiration, of course bewilders my son, but somewhere in the confusion is a stirring notion that his father may have some value… after all, Stan Sakai approves.
Which is fine with me, because I sure approve of Stan Sakai. Having worked, off and on, in this field since the late ‘70’s, I’ve become pretty jaded and little impresses me, particularly new stuff. But Stan Sakai is an exception: he stirs in me memories of the classic comic strips, where the likes of Dick Tracy and Little Orphan Annie and Wash Tubbs could - despite their cartoony depictions - enjoy thrilling adventures. His “funny animal” approach invokes the great Carl Barks guiding Uncle Scrooge through journeys of mystery and excitement, in exotic settings, thrilling tales that dared not to be terribly funny… just terrific. His boyish yet courageous Usagi summons the ghost of Herge’s Tintin, that kid reporter whose exploits managed to have a childlike innocence while being extremely adult.
I quickly became addicted to the cute rabbit and his adventures. I was drawn in by many aspects of the comic: the beautiful artwork, so detailed and simple at the same time; the Japanese culture and mythology, with demons, ninja, and sword fights; and the rich story lines that held it all together, the stories that brought alive Japanese folklore to an audience that would never have seen it otherwise… and fueled my interest in Japanese culture.
Stan Sakai has written and drawn a series that both Nate and I can read - and that Nate has been able to keep reading as he grows to adulthood.
In the stories in this book, Stan introduces one of his best characters - Inspector Ishida - who shares the same real-life role model as Charlie Chan: Honolulu detective Chang Apana. Ishida - who spouts wisdom in a vaguely Chan-like manner - is more like the hardboiled Apana than the mild-mannered Chan of Earl Derr Biggers’ novels (and the many films they spawned). Ishida is an action hero, and Usagi makes a great, sword-slinging Watson for him in mystery yarns that are involving, exciting, and deftly plotted.
Besides being an expert storyteller and artist, Stan Sakai is a genuinely kind man. He has always been very nice and personable to me and the rest of his fans I have met at various conventions. Stan Sakai deserves every bit of praise and respect that he has received, and I have no doubt that after reading this collection, you would agree with me.
Max Allen Collins (with Nathan Collins) (2000)
Last Edit: Mar 2, 2021 15:31:08 GMT -5 by usagigoya
Behind the Rabbit’s Mask USAGI YOJIMBO BOOK 14: DEMON MASK
From the ancient fables of Aesop to the contemporary cartoons of Bugs Bunny, the humble rabbit has long been a symbol of cleverness and survival. Even mythology’s master strategist, the fox, routinely comes off the loser when he tries to match wits with his fleet-footed adversary, as the African-American folktales of Br’er Rabbit readily attest. Whether he is called hare, cottontail, or jackrabbit, the little guy with the big ears and buck teeth is truly a timeless figure, and his legends have been told as long as there have been human beings around to tell them.
The storytelling tradition of ancient Japan holds friend rabbit in high esteem as well. As a child, one of my favorite bedtime stories was a rather ghoulish Japanese “fairy tale” telling of the murder of a farmer’s kindly wife by a wicked tanuki, or raccoon dog. It seems the good wife fed and sheltered the little demon, who later repaid the woman for her generosity by murdering her and serving up her stewed remains to the farmer. Pretty gruesome behavior for old tanuki, a comical creature usually depicted wearing an oversized straw hat and toting a sake bottle. Maybe he drank too much sake and became unhinged, or maybe he was simply one seriously sociopathic raccoon dog: the story was vague on that point. What is known is that the grief-stricken farmer was horrified at the crime, as was his good friend, a rabbit who lived in the nearby woods. Playing on the tanuki’s greed, the rabbit lured the evil creature away on a treasure hunt, then secretly set fire to the tanuki’s backpack. When the nasty varmint jumped into a river to douse the flames, the rabbit clubbed him with a paddle and that was the end of the tanuki. In this story, as in many others told throughout the world, we witness the triumph of a small and traditionally meek character who has called upon his brains and bravery to defeat a larger, more aggressive enemy. It is a classic theme and one which writer / artist Stan Sakai weaves masterfully through his endlessly imaginative ongoing series, Usagi Yojimbo.
Stan often pits Usagi, a rabbit ronin of seventeenth-century Japan, in combat against a host of humanoid wolves, cats, bears, and other less easily defined carnivores. Far more than a funny animal conceit, it always seemed to me that Stan was making a visual comment on the true natures of heroes and villains while perhaps referencing the great print maker Tsukikoa Yoshitoshi. In his depictions of Japanese legends, Yoshitoshi often revealed the hidden, many times horrifying animalistic nature of his human subjects. A woman’s shadow partially cast on a screen reveals the head of a fox. A samurai gazing into a dish of water sees not the pretty girl behind him but the reflection of her demonic inner being. In Yoshitoshi’s world, the face of serenity masks the darker parts of the human id. It’s only upon closer examination that we see the beast lurking within.
In the world of Usagi, the reverse is true. The animals’ faces are their masks while their humanity (or lack thereof) is revealed through their personalities, or to be more accurate, through Stan’s deft characterizations. Whether he is armed with swords or not, Usagi is often perceived by many to be a physically weaker character. Ignorant enemies overlook his speed and skill, to say nothing of his courageous heart, and that is their inevitable undoing. Usagi also possesses the samurai’s most valuable weapon, the wisdom of knowing when to fight and when to stand down. It’s a trait that some might mistakenly read a cowardice (as the boy Eizo does in the short story “A Life of Mush”), but it subtly recalls the moral put forth in director Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic Sanjuro that the best swords are the ones that stay in their scabbards.
With the stories collected in this volume, Stan Sakai shows off every facet of Usagi’s engaging and complex personality. We see him as Usagi the warrior certainly, but in “The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill” we also meet Usagi the trickster. After discovering the truth about a colony of obakemono (goblins) infesting the woods near a lonely inn, Usagi adds his own fantastic spin on the tale, perceiving the legend of the creatures while slyly arranging a tidy profit for his efforts.
A much more serious encounter with demons is recounted in “Kumo,” Here Usagi joins forces with the mysterious demon-hunter Sasuke to destroy a terrifying spider-creature that has laid siege to a mountain village. The fox-like Sasuke is a terrific addition to Usagi’s extended cast of allies and enemies, and unlike the reluctant Usagi, I can’t wait for the mystic to make a return appearance.
The collection’s longest tale, “The Mystery of the Demon Mask,” places Usagi in a situation that calls on him to be as much detective as he is samurai. While searching for the masked fiend that has been killing masterless samurai, the rabbit ronin fights to stay alive in a tightening web of tragedy, betrayal, and madness. As with all good mysteries, the outcome is both surprising and satisfying, but Sakai goes a step farther to add a final bitter yet not inappropriate twist to the epic. It’s the sort of human touch that has placed Usagi Yojimbo far in front of every other “funny animal” book published since Carl Barks bid adieu to Duckburg thirty-five years ago.
It’s the mark of a great storyteller. It’s the stuff of legends.
Paul Dini (2001)
Last Edit: Mar 2, 2021 15:32:12 GMT -5 by usagigoya
Introduction USAGI YOJIMBO BOOK 15: GRASSCUTTER II: JOURNEY TO ATSUTA SHRINE
There’s a Mark Twain line that I’m fond of paraphrasing, one of those well-burnished pearls o’ wisdom that I drop whenever someone comes to me and asks for advice in writing.
“I never use “policeman” for a dime when I can get “cop” for a nickel.”
When pressed, I explain that - at least to me - Twain’s talking about efficiency and economy, talking about the need of the artist to get out of the way of his or her work. He’s cautioning against self-indulgence, something that every artist in every medium must guard against. The worst thing a storyteller can do is believe that he is more important than the story being told.
But I’ve said it so often, it’s starting to sound a little hollow, even to me.
Then I pick up some of Stan Sakai’s work, I read a tale of Usagi and Gen, and the truth of it comes back - the essence of storytelling, and perhaps even the essence of capital-A Art, is honesty. The resonance of the image, the power of the story, the emotional connection the audience makes with the work, all of it lives or dies on the basis of its honesty. Set your story in the far-flung reaches of the universe with great quantum-drive battle cruisers, set it in a superheroic nihilistic future, hell, set it in feudal Japan with your cast portrayed as anthropomorphized rhinos and rabbits - it doesn’t matter as long as the story is fundamentally honest.
Because there are things we all share. We’ve all been cold, we’ve all been hungry. We’ve all been betrayed, if not all of us on a grand scale. We’ve all loved.
We’ve all lost.
The best storyteller can hold those truths in one hand, and conjure the tale in the other. The best storyteller can mesh them seamlessly, creating a connection with his audience that at once is both fantastical and absolutely real. In the ideal, a tale is told that resonates long after the last word is read, the last image viewed.
Stan Sakai … Stan Sakai not only does this, but he does it consistently, issue after issue, executing with elegance and economy the epic of Usagi Yojimbo. This collection is Sakai at his best - not a word out of place, not a brush stroke lain error.
Disguised as an adventure story of the most elementary kind - what can be more basic than a chase, after all? - Grasscutter II is so much more. From the foreshadowing prologue to the haunting first epilogue, Sakai teases out themes in words and image that first propel the narrative, then moves the heart. His language, both in text and image, is succinct, deft, and ever-precise.
Nothing in these pages is wasted.
In an age of self-indulgence, where more and more comics and their creators are enamored of flash and image, Stan Sakai never stands in the way of his own work. When we as a profession seem to be moving both forward and back all at the same time, that may be the highest praise anyone can offer.
Enjoy your journey to Atsuta.
Greg Rucka (December 2001)
Last Edit: Mar 2, 2021 15:33:35 GMT -5 by usagigoya
Introduction USAGI YOJIMBO BOOK 16: THE SHROUDED MOON
I was extremely surprised and pleased when Stan Sakai asked me to write the introduction to The Shrouded Moon, this latest collected volume of Usagi Yojimbo. Stan’s Federal Express pick-up-and-delivery person probably has more to do with the production of Usagi Yojimbo than I do, but his schedule was probably too busy for him to write an intro.
However, it occurs to me that I’ve actually had a lot to do with Usagi Yojimbo over the years. In fact, I may be the single person most responsible for convincing Stan to pursue what would become a stellar career in comic books - at least, instead of him becoming yet another overlooked talent working on animated cartoons.
I first met Stan in 1979, when he was one of an entourage of Hawaiian cartoonists visiting the San Diego Comic-Con (now known as Comic-Con International) led by Oahu’s much-loved cartoon sensei, Dave Thorne. The following year, Dave’s group (including young Stan) returned to the convention, as well as taking a side trip to Los Angelas. There, they dropped by Hanna-Barbera Productions, where I was working in the layout department on the new Flintstones TV cartoons. I was delighted to give my new friends an insider’s tour of the studio, where my co-workers greeted the newcomers with the same sort of poo-flinging (thankfully, not literally) that’s usually unleashed upon unsuspecting visitors to a zoo’s monkey house! Years later, Stan confided in me that the sight of dozens of animators laboring in identical cubicles is what convinced him that the one career he definitely didn’t want to pursue was making animated cartoons!
And - other than co-creating a back-up story (“Digger Duckbill” in Fantagraphics’ Usagi Yojimbo #13, with Mark Evanier) back when Stan often spotlighted work by his cartoonist friends - I’m proud to claim I’ve had yet another effect on everyone’s favorite rabbit ronin.
For decades, in addition to my own cartooning career in comic books, animation, and advertising, I’ve collected and studied what I refer to as “Oddball Comics.” These include mainstream comic books of all genres that, due to various nutty aspects, make one wonder how they ever got published in the first place! (If you’re curious about these, please visit my week-daily Internet column, “Oddball Comics,” featuring the world’s craziest comic books at www.comicbookresources/columns/oddball/.) One of the most popular - and certainly most ridiculous - catagories of Oddball Comics that I’ve identified are funnybooks bearing what I call “fish-in-the-face” covers.
These four-color oddities feature cover scenes of people (usually bad guys) getting hit smack-dab in the face with a fish! Apparently, Stan’s a big fin, er, fan of these fish-in-the-face covers, too, as his cover of Usagi Yojimbo #49 - reprinted within this volume - attests. And if you think that’s a fluke (ow!), check out my guest appearance on pages 13 through 16 of “Three Seasons.” (Stan’s portrayed me as that thug with the crewcut and the aloha-print kimono!)
Finally, here’s some observations about Stan himself. When I first met him, his work certainly showed great promise. But I can think of no one in comics who has worked harder than Stan to bring his level of writing, drawing, and sheer storytelling to the heights of excellence he delivers with each new issue of Usagi Yojimbo. I’m equally impressed with Stan’s ability to produce consistently outstanding work with the flawless self-discipline of a samurai. At our traditional Friday afternoon cartoonist lunches, many of our gang relate sob stories about creative blocks, clueless bosses, layoffs, or missed deadlines. Meanwhile, with a little smile on his face, Stan calmly hands out copies of the latest Usagi! Amazingly, Stan is also able to maintain a full life away from the drawing board as a wonderful husband and father. Everyone who knows Stan seems to respect and admire him; he’s certainly the most “balanced” person I’ve ever met. (As for his rotten side, well, you’ll just have to wait for the FedEx man’s introduction to the next Usagi Yojimbo collection to spill the beans about that!)
We’re all lucky to have Stan’s Usagi Yojimbo to enjoy on a regular basis, but I’m especially lucky to have Stan as one of my best friends. And that is better than getting a fish-in-the-face any day!
Scott Shaw! (September 27, 2002)
Last Edit: Mar 2, 2021 15:35:09 GMT -5 by usagigoya
Introduction USAGI YOJIMBO BOOK 18: TRAVELS WITH JOTARO
Back in November of 2003, Stan Sakai came to visit us here at Mirage Studios in Massachusettes, on his way to an appearance in Connecticut. Part of Stan’s reason to visit was to take part in some videotaped interview segments which would appear in the DVD release sometime next year of the episodes of the new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated TV series in which his characters Usagi Yojimbo and Gen appear, in a four-part story we are calling “The Big Brawl.”
During the part of the interview where both Stan and I were in front of the camaras, Stan mentioned in passing that both TMNT and Usagi were having their twentieth anniversary years in 2004. I hadn’t previously made that connection, and it got me thinking about those last twenty years, and specifically how Usagi had come into my life. I realized pretty quickly that while some things from the last twenty years are crystal clear, others are a little fuzzy.
One of those fuzzy things is where and when I first became aware of Usagi. I’m pretty sure it was in the pages of Steve Gallacci’s Albedo comic, which featured a variety of anthropomorphic characters, including a nicely drawn samurai rabbit named Usagi Yojimbo. After that, I started picking up the regular issues of Stan’s Usagi comic published by Fantagraphics, and I was hooked. Part of it was my interest in martial arts and Japanese culture, but I was also fascinated that this guy Sakai was able to create one of the most formidable fighting characters in comics history using a rabbit. I mean - a bunt! How much more cute and cuddly and soft and unthreatening a critter can you get? In less talented, more unimaginative hands, Usagi would have been eight feet tall, hugely and veinily muscled, with big gnashy teeth and glowering eyes. he’d probably wear armor and carry a gun of some kind, along with all kinds of hidden weapons. And he’d likely cross his arms and pose a lot.
But Stan’s Usagi is the antithesis of all that. Miyamoto Usagi is somewhat slightly build, not very tall, and usually carries only two weapons - the samurai’s two swords, the katana and the wakizashi. His demeanor is nearly always calm and centered, even in battle. In fact, in Stan’s Usagi comics, very often Usagi’s adversaries come to bad ends because they arrogantly misinterpret Usagi’s calm manner to mean he is weak or unwilling - or unable - to fight. hah! The fools…
I’m pretty sure the first time I ever met Stan was at the first San Diego Comic-Con that I attended, back in (if memory serves) 1985 or 1986. That was my first trip to California as well, and it was all pretty overwhelming. I wish I had a more clear memory of our first meeting, but in all honesty all I can remember is coming home with the impression that Stan seemed quite a lot like Jack Kirby had seemed, the first time I’d met him - an incredibly talented yet simultaneously really nice, humble guy. (The perfect combination of qualities, if you ask me.)
I know that a lot of people have already commented on just what a great guy Stan is, so I won’t go on too much about it. But it really is true. If you spend enough time in this industry, you come to realize that some of the smallest talents come with the biggest egos. It definitely makes you appreciate people like Stan.
Over the last twenty years, I’ve had the great pleasure of maintaining both a friendship and a good business relationship with Stan. I wish we could see each other more often, for the sake of the friendship … but unless Stan suddenly moves to the east coast or I start flying again, that’s not going to happen. I’ll just have to be satisfied with those times - like Stan’s visit to Northampton this past year - when our paths cross and it feels like almost no time has passed since we saw each other last.
Business-wise, I think that anyone would be hard-pressed to find a better person to work with. My dealings with Stan, mostly through my company Mirage Studios, have included publishing Usagi (and Stan’s spin-off Space Usagi) for a time, doing a few “crossover” comic book stories where Usagi meets one or more of the Turtles, co-developing a Space Usagi licensing proposal, getting an Usagi action figure into the original TMNT toy line as well as a couple of appearances of Usagi in the first TMNT animated series, and now incorporating Usagi into four episodes of the new animated series and into the new toy line as an action figure (which I must, happily, note will look much closer to the “real” Usagi of the comics than the old toy). And in all of that, Stan has shown what I think is perhaps the most valuable - but, sadly, least prevalent, in my opinion - trait in someone with whom one would want to do business: Stan is reasonable. He is no demanding prima donna, but he’s no pushover, either. And it’s refreshing to deal with someone like that.
Many people have noted the recent publication of the 300th and final issue of Dave Sim’s Cerebus comics as a significant event in the history of comics, and it certainly is - anyone who has ever tried to do one issue of a comic, let alone three hundred, can grasp at least a part of that significance. But I think it could be argued - even though, given the very different natures of the two comics, it is sort of like comparing apples to oranges - that Stan’s accomplishment with Usagi over the last twenty years and into the future is perhaps even more significant. And Stan has - except for the efforts of his cover colorists and publishers, which, while not inconsequential, are surely in the final analysis relatively small - done it all himself. He has - by himself, no background artist or co-writer, etc. - written, penciled, inked, and lettered all 130-plus issues of Usagi to date. That simply boggles my mind.
And even more mind-boggling is that through all of that time and all those issues, Stan has maintained the high level of quality both in art and writing. Actually, it’s probably more accurate to say that Stan has maintained a steady increase in the level of quality in his Usagi comics as he becomes ever more adept and skilled, and his research into and knowledge of Japanese history and culture even more comprehensive. I have seen this in the last couple of years of reading Usagi, specifically in Stan’s inking: always solid and appropriate, Stan’s line work lately (at least to my eyes) has become deliciously lyrical, with wonderful gestures even in the simplest of lines.
I feel honored to have been asked to write the introduction to this Travels with Jotaro collection. I wonder if Stan thought of asking me to do it because when we saw each other last, I expressed to him my great delight with the fantastical elements of some key parts of this volume. As much as I like Stan’s work on Usagi in general, I really like it when he lets loose with some more fantastic concepts and characters, as he does it so well. I think the last three or four chapters of Travels with Jotaro are probably my favorite Usagi tales of all.
Usagi Yojimbo is a character who is always growing, changing, developing. As good as he is right now, he knows he can get better. he still makes mistakes (not many), and learns from them. This wandering samurai knows that there is a long road ahead of him, filled with new and old friends and foes, wonders, and adventures. His journey is far from over.
For the last twenty years, I’ve been fortunate to watch this journey of the rabbit ronin, shepherded by the capable hands of his creator, Stan Sakai. And I hope to be around to see the rest of it.
Peter Laird (March 19, 2004)
Last Edit: Mar 2, 2021 15:36:19 GMT -5 by usagigoya
Introduction USAGI YOJIMBO BOOK 19: FATHERS AND SONS
Fathers and sons.
I have one and I am one.
Actually, that statement works no matter which side of the equation I place n=myself.
Like a lot of fourteen-year-old boys, my son shares the usual litany of common teenaged interests with many of his friends: hot new music, the ever-ubiquitous video games, any and all things Japanese, and - of course, thank god - comic books. Now, since my son is who he is and since his dad is who he is, Brennan and his pals have access to a veritable treasure trove of the latter on a regular and rotating basis. They tear through whatever I give them with a rabid hunger, consuming pages and pages of material that - when I was a kid - had to be unearthed with the most painstaking persistence and patience. Still, I’m overjoyed to be able to share my love of our unique medium with them, and I get a real kick out of seeing how their tastes develop and evolve.
And so it was that. about a year or so ago, they all discovered the rich and sprawling world of Usagi Yojimbo.
With a locust-like appetite, they consumed every available volume that I fed them - even digging up some, on their own, that I didn’t have. It was fun to see how deeply involved they became in this distinctive, epic tale that pairs the disarming style so commonly known as “funny animals” with a narrative depth that belies that description at almost every turn. I could often hear the boys discussing not only the individual character traits of Usagi’s wandering ronin and Jei’s soul-gathering demon, but also the artist’s clever use of symbolic word balloons, evocative dialogue, and smoothly paced action sequences.
One day, after I had finished work in my own home-studio, I came upstairs and heard the familiar chatter of Bren’s usual posse of pals all gathered in his bedroom. On my way to a much-needed shower, I stuck my head in the room and offered my usual hellos. This time, as I turned to go, one of my son’s oldest friends, Morgan, summoned me back. “Hey, Matt, wait, wait…”
I paused. “Yeah?”
“Um…” He seemed a bit embarrassed, as if he were about to ask an enormous favor of me.
“Do you…” (Here, his eyes went wide, actually twinkling with the most unfettered display of starstuck awe I think I’ve ever seen.) “Do you…. know Stan Sakai?”
I chuckled to myself. These guys had all been in and out of my studio for years. They’d seen me work on project after project that involved not only my own creations but also a wide variety of popular, established characters, and while surely impressed, they had never expressed this sort of enraptured delight.
“Yeah, sure,” I answered. “In fact, we had breakfast together just a few weeks ago at a convention in Seattle.”
To be so close, even by proxy, to his newfound hero struck my questioner silent. Nearby, his comrade Peter nodded knowingly and offered the only response imaginable. “That is so cool!”
What else could I possibly add to that?
Matt Wagner (2005)
Last Edit: Mar 2, 2021 15:37:18 GMT -5 by usagigoya
I Want to be Stan Sakai USAGI YOJIMBO BOOK 20: GLIMPSES OF DEATH
I first got to know Stan in early 1998, when I helped organize a forum in Tokyo for North American and Japanese cartoonists and comic book artists. I acted mainly as a coordinator and interpreter for the forum organizer, Tezuka Productions, but I also got to help select some of the artists from the states. It was easy to propose Stan as a candidate, since I had long admired his work.
The manga industry has become gargantuan and global, so much so that some people in the business in Japan have begun to look down their noses at North American cartoons and comics, or to consider them limited to superhero fare. In selecting artists for the forum, one of our goals was therefore to introduce people to the wide variety of work being done in North America. In retrospect, to many of the forum’s Japanese participants, Stan must have seemed original to the point of being mind-boggling. Born in Japan of a Japanese-American father and a Japanese mother, but raised in Hawaii and culturally very much American, he draws American comics heavily influenced by Japanese samurai movies, set in feudal Japan, but populated with furry animals and occasional dinosaur characters. To merely call Stan’s Usagi Yojimbo “original” is a terrible understatement.
I was recently reflecting on what it is that I like so much about Usagi. I was watching Yoji Yamada’s 2005 film, The Hidden Blade, the follow-up to his immensely popular Twilight Samurai. It hearkens back to the golden era of samurai movies, á la director Akira Kurosawa and others, and was so good that it made me hunger for more. It also made me want to go back and read Usagi Yojimbo, too, for I realized that Usagi has the same wonderfully rich, detailed, immersive, and otherworldly quality that I love about early postwar samurai films. And of course Usagi’s also got another favorite of mine - furry animals! I know that Stan grew up watching samurai films in Hawaii, and also was probably glued to the box on Saturday morning watching the furry-animal TV cartoon masterpieces of his day. But until Stan came along, I doubt if anyone had ever thought of combining these two worlds, at least in such an entertaining, well-researched, tongue-in-cheek, and only slightly (but deliberately) historically inaccurate way. If all these adjectival phrases sound as though they shouldn’t co-exist, well, in Usagi they get along like dear old friends.
One would think that someone with as much talent as Stan might be a difficult person, occasionally given to smashing hotel rooms and checking into rehab, but he isn’t like that at all. I don’t know anyone so original, who seems to enjoy his work so much, and who is also so well-adjusted. And it shows in his work. To say that I admire Stan and his work is an understatement. I would love to be Stan Sakai.
Frederik L. Schodt (2006)
Last Edit: Mar 2, 2021 15:38:17 GMT -5 by usagigoya
Introduction USAGI YOJIMBO BOOK 21: THE MOTHER OF MOUNTAINS
I grew up in West Los Angeles, California. As a kid, I could take a bus all the way from Sepulveda down Wilshire Boulevard to La Brea Avenue, where for many years there was a movie theater called the Toho La Brea. The Toho La Brea screened only Japanese films in their original versions, with English subtitles. There were Japanese-owned nurseries all over West L.A. then, and many of my schoolmates were Japanese-American. And it was those kids who introduced me to the Toho La Brea Theater and the Samurai movie.
While most of the population of the United States was first introduced to Japanese cinema by the bastardized Godzilla, King of the Monsters, I had already seen the glories of Kurosawa and the magnificent Toshiro Mifune.
So, many years later, when I was with my (then little) son Max at the legendary Golden Apple comic-book store on Melrose, my eye was naturally drawn to the colorful cover of a comic featuring what appeared to be a samurai rabbit! After leafing through just a few pages, I was hooked. Yojimbo is now not just the title of one of my favorite movies, but Usagi Yojimbo has become the title of one of my favorite comics, too!
I hold Stan Sakai right up there with Winsor McCay, Chester Gould, Art Spiegelman, Robert Crumb, Jules Feiffer, Will Eisner, and all the others who can move me and tell such wonderful stories with just drawings on the page.
This collection of nine issues of Usagi Yojimbo in one volume tells the tale of two cousins and a lost mine. The evil Noriko can hold her place among the great villainesses - like Cruella De Vil, but with deadly martial skills! This whole saga reminds me again of how close the samurai stories are to our Westerns. If Italians can make Westerns in Spain, why can’t Stan make realistic samurai tales about a brave and accomplished and honorable rabbit? Stan Sakai can, and he does!
The similarities between comics and film are well known. Movie storyboards - illustrated shot lists - are just comics, after all. When a movie - or a play or book or graphic novel or painting - succeeds, it’s called “suspension of disbelief.” Simply, you believe it.
You’re there. Stan’s work does that. In some weird feudal Japan where these strange lizards run around and anthropomorphic warriors and peasants live, I lose myself entirely.
I love this stuff!
John Landis (March 2007)
Last Edit: Mar 2, 2021 15:39:20 GMT -5 by usagigoya
The process by which reality becomes a legend is as shrouded in mystery as the origins of a legend itself. How does a war leader who shows some grit against the Romans become King Arthur in chain mail, sitting around a round table with a fairy-witch waiting for him in a lake? How does a boy from Tupelo, Mississippi named Elvis become a spiritual icon on a black velvet painting?
Stan Sakai’s work in Usagi Yojimbo is infused with legends. The past comes back to haunt the characters, both in corporeal and fantastic forms. Kitsune uses her past relationship with Usagi to annoy Tomoe and distract her from Kitsune’s thieving ways. The sinister painter Goyemon uses the legend of Minamoto No Yorimitsu to enact a plot against Lord Noriyuki. In “Fox Fire” another legendary figure comes to life to make things difficult for our heroes.
Stan’s reverence for research is somewhat legendary. While the stories he tells unfold with perfect clarity and even simplicity, an unseen wealth of background and historical knowledge gives every tale a solid grounding and structure that ties the overarching story together.
The lady samurai Tomoe, whose origin and character we learn in this volume, is an example of both legend and research. For a series that features anthropomorphic rabbits and foxes as main characters, there’s still a reality to Usagi that makes certain elements more “normal” than others. Giant snakes and demon foxes we can accept - but what about a female samurai who is a trusted adviser and bodyguard? Surely that is an invention - except that Stan’s noble feline warrior is based upon Tomoe Gozen, a female samurai of the twelfth century who fought in the Battle of Awazu and decapitated at least one foe.
Of the fate of the historical Tomoe Gozen, many tales are told. Some say she survived the battle, others that she became a nun, others that she was taken in marriage. As with most “real legends,” the outcome may depend on the storyteller’s view of what constitutes a happy ending.
The stories in this volume bring together history, adventure, mystery, and good old-fashioned derring-do. But there is a bit more, as well. “Chanoyu” - or “Tea Ceremony” - is not only a meticulous depiction of the complex ceremony, but wordlessly shows repressed emotions throughout the ritual, a testament to Stan’s cartooning skills. But the story would not be so moving if he hadn’t done such a marvelous job of laying the foundations of the characters over the years.
In the business of comics publishing circa 2007, the ongoing comic book series has become something of an awkward concession to a previous business model. To my mind, only a handful of ongoing comics live up to the potential of the serial form, and Usagi stands foremost among them. Without this ongoing serial format, Stan wouldn’t have had the time and momentum to create a great story like “Chanoyu.” With over twenty years of publishing and over twenty collections, there is much to savor in the recurring themes and variations, the pleasures of seeing old characters reunited, and the sorrow at seeing them part… for months or even years. Such a rich tapestry is only possible when executed with great storytelling and flawless cartooning skills. By now, Stan Sakai is becoming a bit of a legend himself.
Heidi MacDonald (March 2008)
Last Edit: Mar 2, 2021 15:40:18 GMT -5 by usagigoya