Comics: Art of Usagi Yojimbo

Art of Usagi Yojimbo, Stan Sakai, Dark Horse Comics

The Art of Usagi Yojimbo hardcover celebrates 20 years of Stan Sakai writing and drawing the adventures of the rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi. In comics today, that’s quite an achievement, especially for the anthropomorphic (aka furry comics) stylings of a samurai bunny set in the times of feudal Japan, in black and white.

Most people get thrown by that description. Especially the ‘rabbit’ part. Which is a shame, as it’s one of the most wonderful comic book series being published today. Sakai has created in Usagi a fascinating character, and given him a rich and diverse world of supporting characters with which he interacts in stories ranging from wars to detective stories to horror stories to day-in-the-life tales to multi-part epics.

Recently, Stan had Usagi journey with his son Jotaro, although Usagi has not told Jotaro that he is his father, and pretends to be an uncle. There is a strong bond between the two of them already, made stronger by the fact that Jotaro is being trained by Usagi’s sensei, Katsuichi, and their adventures bring them even closer. The poignancy of the predicament is made more intense when, at the end of the tale and the two have to go their separate ways again without the truth being revealed, we discover that Jotaro has been told the truth by his mother, but he was told not to tell Usagi in case it complicated matters. I’m not embarrassed to admit that the story brought a tear to this cynic’s eye.

This tale even prompted me to send an email to say thanks to Stan for this lovely story, which got published in the comic (although probably more for the question about purchasing back cover art) but it means that I know am part of the publishing history of this amazing series, something of which I am quite proud.

For more about Usagi, the official site Usagi Yojimbo Dojo will tell you everything you need to know about Usagi, such as the fact that the pronunciation is ‘oo-sah-gee’.

This art book itself is a wonderful thing: big, heavy and lovingly presented. I don’t have any other ‘Art of …’ books, and this one is perhaps unusual, as Stan’s art isn’t the sort of work that is presented in this format. His style is rooted in a story-telling tradition, where the art tells the tale instead of just being cool images ready for sale at a convention. So, his seemingly simplistic line is actually full of detail, in reference knowledge and it’s application to the scene it is trying to tell.

The book contains a lot of material that recent converts to Sakai’s work wouldn’t have easy access to, including pieces from magazines about the creation of the comic and promotional pieces from long-gone publications. Previously unseen material, plus original covers, as well as covers from the trade paperbacks make an excellent package for the Usagi fan, and it’s interesting to see some pin-ups in the back from different artists, seeing their interpretation of the rabbit. My favourite was the Andi Watson page, which gets the sense of design inherent in a work recreating feudal Japan with animal characters.

This is a gorgeous tribute to a great artist and his great creation, and something special for his fans. It will be getting pride of place on my mantelpiece.

Update: Other big name online reviewers weigh in with their thoughts on the book; Augie enjoys it over at his Pipeline column, as does Randy at The Fourth Rail [EDIT: links now broken]. While I don’t always agree with these two on everything they like, my general egocentricity is satisfied when other people like the things I like as well.

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