Who is this warrior? What is his way?
Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo is one of the capital-G Great American Comic Books. The tale of Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering rabbit samurai in a world of anthropomorphized animals, Sakai’s comic has told a tremendous range of stories in its 36 years. Action, horror, romance, comedy, studies of faith and questions of honor; Usagi Yojimbo‘s done all this and more.
Grasscutter combines legend and political intrigue with an earth-shaking showdown between Usagi and the terrifying demonic spearman Jei. Usagi’s friend Tomoe Ame, a woman who has risen to become a great samurai in an era of particularly rigid gender roles, has navigated both massive conspiracies to slay her liege lord and her family’s fraught history. And, for the 30th anniversary, Sakai got the whole cast together for Senso – a combination of homage to H.G. Wells’ The War of the Worlds and a possible “final” Usagi story.
Usagi Yojimbo: Wanderer’s Road, published by IDW, is reprinting some of the earliest Usagi stories with new color work by Ronda Pattison. This first issue, The Tower, introduces Usagi to a tokage lizard (in a world of anthropomorphic animals, the vaguely dinosaurian tokage play the part of wildlife) who he’ll come to name Spot.
And how does he walk the path?
The Tower is a lighthearted tale, which isn’t to say that it’s without peril or stakes. Spot, in search of a snack, angers an abrasive pig restauranteur, who chases the tokage up the title structure. When Usagi intervenes, the pig makes a noxious fool of himself trying to stop the samurai. Despite his hair-trigger temper and an ego the size of Neptune, the pig manages to trap the samurai and the lizard atop the tower. If Usagi’s going to get both of them down alive, he’ll need to earn Spot’s trust.
One of Sakai’s greatest skills as an illustrator is his character work. Since Usagi’s nomadic lifestyle means that he meets a lot of people in a lot of places, the folks he interacts with need to stand out.
Take, for instance, The Tower‘s brutish restauranteur:
Look at the pig’s posture. He’s wound himself as tight as he’ll go. His shoulders are hunched up. He’s got his cleaver in a full-on death grip. His teeth are clenched, but there’s a hint of a sadistic smile. For all the pig’s wrath, he’s going to enjoy trying to murder Spot.
With one panel, Sakai tells Usagi Yojimbo‘s audience everything they need to know about the man. He’s a rageaholic who’s been looking for an excuse to explode, and when the chance comes along, he leaps at it knife and all. Throughout the issue, Sakai contrasts the pig’s forced and frothing rage with Spot’s more natural defensiveness and Usagi’s serene thoughtfulness. The result is a quiet little morality play with a dark sense of humor. It turns out that getting so caught up in your own glory that you can’t see beyond your immediate desires is a great way to walk right into karmic payback.
While The Tower‘s stakes are quite low compared to some of Usagi Yojimbo‘s longer stories, Sakai brings the same level of craft to it as he does, say, the epic Grasscutter. Spot isn’t just a cute animal in danger, he’s the comic’s viewpoint character. The audience learns about how he sees the world, how he interacts with others, how he tries to get by — all before Usagi even appears for the first time.
When the rabbit ronin earns the tokage‘s loyalty with care and kindness, it reads as true as the heartbreaking conclusion to Travels with Jotaro — a story arc that paired Usagi with his son (they both know their relationship to each other, but do not know that the other knows – and neither is willing to sacrifice the other’s happiness) for a series of adventures.
Ronda Pattison’s color work is quite good. She brings depth to Sakai’s crowd scenes, and does neat work differentiating a selection of very similar colors late in the issue. Usagi’s white fur, freshly fallen white snow and a white rice ball are all distinct from one another, even as they remain unmistakably white.
The Tower is a very fine story in a series that has been reliably excellent for decades. Pattison’s colors work well with Sakai’s illustrations. Given Usagi Yojimbo‘s longstanding quality, there’s a ton of great places to start reading. One issue in, and Wanderer’s Road has swiftly proven itself to be one of them.