There are few graphic novelists living today who can command such a dramatic level of respect as Stan Sakai. For over 30 years, Usagi Yojimbo has been winning Eisner awards and rewarding fans with the ongoing tales of the ronin rabbit, Miyamoto Usagi. While it's certainly not unusual for funny book heroes to stick around from generation to generation, it's almost unheard of for a character to be written and drawn by the same creator for three decades and counting. Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition captures the first seven years and over 1100 pages of the titular lagomorphic swordsbunny, and this two-volume set is a bona fide comic treasure.
When I was a kid, I was a big fan of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and I had most of the old action figures. My favorite was, by far, Usagi Yojimbo (his figure was objectively the coolest); however, I only had the vaguest of notions that Usagi was not just a Ninja Turtle guest star, but a title character in his own comic series. It took me a few years of comics fandom to figure out that Usagi Yojimbo was serious business. Usagi has even appeared in other characters' books, Sergio Aragonés' Groo being a notable example (Sakai provides the lettering for Groo, and has for many years). Usagi gets around, and it's no wonder; there's something absolutely satisfying when anthropomorphized animals are given room to be more than just cartoons.
Sakai effortlessly weaves Japanese history and folklore into Usagi Yojimbo, and this immaculate attention to historical detail is one of the series' greatest strengths. Drawing basic inspiration from the real-life exploits of the famous, 16th-century samurai Miyamoto Musashi, Sakai places Usagi Yojimbo into tales that both parallel and evoke stories from all corners of Japanese culture and myth; the films of Kurosawa, the manga of Kazuo Koike (Lone Wolf and Cub), the historical sagas of Tokugawa Japan – everything is fair game for Sakai's interpretation. This series feels like Japan, distilled and composed with asymmetry, negative space, and an eye towards grand adventure. Recurring allies bring hijinks, humor, and camaraderie, while rivals and villains lurk in the countryside, surprising an unsuspecting Usagi with carefully laid traps and devious schemes. Through it all, Usagi, ever the pragmatic and unwavering student of bushido, relies on his wits and his consummate skill in the double-sword style to overcome all challenges.
While the hardcover edition of Usagi Yojimbo: the Special Edition can be hard to come by (and hard on the wallet), the softcover version featured in this review is a perfect alternative. Included in the set is a gallery of full-color cover images, an introduction by Stan Lee, essays by the author, and other bonus material. This two-volume set might just be a must-own for comics fans of all ages.
– Garrett Gottschalk
Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition
by Stan Sakai, introduction by Stan Lee
2015, 1160 pages, 7.2 x 10.6 x 2.8 inches (softcover)