Over the recent holiday break, readers may have spent evenings nestled snug in their beds with visions of sugar-plums. I, however, curled up with visions of a sword-wielding, anthropomorphic rabbit named Usagi Yojimbo.
In a robust, finely crafted package, Fantagraphics celebrated the 25th anniversary of the wandering rabbit ronin (a samurai without a master) this December by collecting the first seven volumes in two hardcover books sheathed in a sturdy, eye-catching slipcase. I knew of the character thanks to the recent and ongoing Dark Horse collections--where new Usagi stories are still told--but I’d never investigated his origins. While our graphic novel holiday gift guide highlighted plenty of good-looking gift ideas, Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition is in a class all its own in terms of presentation.
The two sewn-bound hardcovers collect 1,200 pages of Stan Sakai’s work, almost all of which is in black and white (a series of covers is reproduced in color in the second book). The pages are crisply white, and I haven’t seen black hues reproduced at this level before. The inks are deep, rich, and without flaw. When Sakai creates shade or shadow, he generally does so with etched lines, whereas the black backgrounds and early 17th century Japanese garb are presented without blemish, a uniform coating of ink. It makes for a striking visual read (and it is smudge-proof). Despite the bugged eyes and exaggerated expressions, Sakai’s cartoonish, playful designs carry dramatic weight once the reader settles into the flow and deep continuity of stories. But it never forgets its outlandish subject matter, and readers will often spot goofy creatures mugging in the corners of panels during somber sequences. Watch for the terrified expressions on the horses charging into battle and the thought bubbles containing floating skulls when a character falls to Usagi’s quick blades.
Over my vacation, I read the first book, and while it is a dense read, it’s never formulaic. There are several well-plotted surprises, and the nine-part “Samurai!” arc brings Usagi’s tale to a satisfying full circle--and Sakai smartly varies the length of each chapter, keeping it fresh for the reader. We hear of Usagi’s origins over several bottles of sake--friends, enemies, and romantic interests drift in and out, reappearing often to Usagi’s chagrin (and grudging benefit, in the case of the rhino Gen).
I admit I flipped ahead in the second book to peek at the supplemental section, which includes early sketches, two crossover stories with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of all characters, a lengthy interview with Sakai, an introduction by Stan Lee (Sakai introduces the first book), and much more.
The stories do have the occasional wart--Part Three of the “Samurai!” arc is listed as Part Two, for example--and the dialogue or narration may suffer a rare syntactical error, but that’s part of this collection’s charm. It thankfully isn’t remastered or corrected, as can be the case when a creator revisits his or her work. Instead, its presentation is heightened--celebrating the stories for what they are: classic examples of independent, creator-owned comics that not only hold up over time but put their contemporaries to shame in terms of vision and style. I am thrilled that I have an entire second book to read--those sugar-plums are going to have to wait.