Usagi Yojimbo is an almost singular achievement in Western comics. For 36 years, Stan Sakai and his rabbit samurai, Miyamoto Usagi, have drawn pen and sword respectively to bring engaging stories and impeccable cartooning to comic fans across the world. Usagi Yojimbo: Color Classics #1 invites the reader to journey back to the early issues of this independent icon, now in gorgeous full color provided by Ronda Pattison.
This first issue presents Usagi’s origins and the beginning of his journey to becoming a master swordsman. This is delivered through the framing narrative of Usagi recounting to Gen, the fan-favorite Rhino bounty hunter, what led to him feeling bound to kill an as-yet-unnamed opponent.
For a first issue attempting to draw in new and old readers to archival material, this feels like a smart choice of story. There is a solid introduction to the main character but more importantly, it shows a few of the many things that have made Usagi Yojimbo so enduring. Sakai has the ability to switch seamlessly between the dramatic and the comic, perhaps best illustrated by the two different presentations of fights in the issue. One, the initial duel between Usagi and the grotesquely caricatured warthog samurai that culminates in a dramatic sequence of three still panels, before Usagi’s opponent finally falls dead in the fourth. The other being two panels of Usagi’s sensei, the retired sword school master, Katsuichi, beating down a mob of four swordsmen with little effort as they fall with cartoonish shock, tongues sticking out of their mouths.
The main criticism of this issue would be simply that it is very early material in the canon of Usagi Yojimbo and because of this, Sakai’s cartooning isn’t quite at the peak that it would reach in later stories (like the masterpiece, Grasscutter). The characters are a little blockier than they would come to be and the absence of some of the motifs of the visual language that develops as the series progresses feels almost jarring to a returning reader. The back matter in this issue feels a little lacking with the main piece of original content being a single-page gag strip that, while fun, is by nature fairly light. Other than that, there is a several page black-and-white reprint explaining the premise of the overarching story of Usagi, which hopefully after this issue will leave several pages for more interesting material. But these are criticisms that only serve to highlight how exciting it is that there is only better to come.
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