Usagi Yojimbo

One of the benefits of the new job is a rather nice commute which allows me time to either: kick back and doze; kick back and listen to the ipod while looking at the lovely scenery; or to kick back and get back in the reading habit again. Because the prolonged period of depression/ unemployment has had something of a serious knock on effect on my reading habits, it's been a while since I devoured a lot of books so I'm taking reading quite gently. So I've been reading a lot of graphic novels/ collections this last week or so as that seemed a nice compromise.

Today's book was volume seven of the mid nineties Fantagraphics reprints of Stan Sakai's "Usagi Yojimbo". I bought a handful of issues back in my first flurry of non UK comic buying because of Sakai's links to "Groo the Wanderer". "Groo" was my first non Fleetway/ DC Thompson love, a giddy, silly, witty and madly inventive romp of a book. I adored it for the stories, the jokes, the puns, the stunning art and also the mad attention to detail Aragones poured into everything. Not only did he pop in the infamous secret message into every issue (in the first issue I bought, the first appearance of Pal and Drumm, I believe the message is decorating the wall of a room in binary. I'd never have known this but just the fact it was there stunned me as a thirteen year old) but he also drew the creative team somewhere in each issue. In the poster below Aragones (artist and writer), Mark Evanier (sort of translator/ joke refiner), Tom Luth (colourist - sorry, have to do the British spelling. Seems wrong not to) and Stan Sakai (letterer) are hidden in the top left, in the tree.

As someone who always loved the scale and scope of fictional worlds, this was some sort of perfection to me. And as such I picked up "Usagi Yojimbo" because of the Sakai connection and because the general idea - wanderer in some sort of strange new land - didn't seem a million miles away from what Groo was doing. But I went no further, because there's so many back issues of the comic and I've never known exactly how self contained the world was. The reason why I picked up this volume was because it was cheap enough for me not to care too much if I'd missed too much in the previous six.

Thankfully it doesn't seem to matter at all. It's actually a far more enjoyable comic for me as an adult than it was as a kid. I definitely appreciated it back then, even though I didn't quite understand why it couldn't be as funny as Groo, but now it seems a lot more emotionally powerful. There's a sort of strange melancholy to it all, a sadness to the story, that seems entirely more adult than you'd expect from a comic with a samurai bunny in it. Mortality is often just one step around the corner and almost every story in this volume addresses loss in some way. If anything the fact that it's a bunch of animals paying very strict attention to ancient Japanese codes of morality gives it a lovely distancing effect - you focus on the narrative and the inter character relations a lot more, because the character design seems so initially jarring you just have to either accept or reject the concept of animals doing samurai things. You don't keep questioning it as you go along. I accepted it, and as such focused on the stories.

Which are, frankly, beautiful. Sakai has a really lovely eye for the poignancy of a story and can really tease a lot out of a simple story, which gives it a nice fable like tone perfectly in keeping with the genre. I think he particularly loves to imbue minor characters with more depth than other comic writers would, so even a couple of soldiers guarding a building chatting about what they have for dinner seem a bit more real when they suddenly die. It's kind of a shame that for my generation Usagi Yojimbo was kind of known peripherally as some sort of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles connected thing, because of a couple of guest appearances in the comic and show - there's a lot more to it than simply anthropomorphic warrior animals. Although there is a lot of Groo here in this world (kind of inevitable really, although in a drastically different tone obviously), there's a lot more seriousness of intent in what Sakai is trying to do. In many What it most reminded me of was Jeff Smith's masterpiece "Bone", but somehow slightly better because rather than one grand narrative, it's more episodic and thusly allows you more time to see how the characters relate to events. You see more about what makes them who they are without being info dumped on from a great height. And it's that subtlety which I really love. Definitely going to get more of these I think.


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