USAGI YOJIMBO has been one of the longest running serials in independent comics. Beginning his creative adventure in 1984, Stan Sakai has written, drawn, and lettered the production himself for the last two decades. There are currently 17 collected volumes and one spin-off, and Sakai is still going. While the story is often episodic and soap operatic, the skeleton of USAGI YOJIMBO is based on the life and myth of Miyamoto Musashi, a 17th century samurai whose life-long journey has been celebrated in novels, comics, and films for hundreds of years -- but none ever quite like this.
Translated, USAGI YOJIMBO means "rabbit bodyguard." That's right, Sakai's Miyamoto Usagi is a long-eared warrior in a cartoon Japan. It sounds silly, for sure, but don't make the mistake of not taking this book seriously. While the story itself is rooted in the history of one of Japan's finest literary models, the approach is classic American cartooning. There are many reasons why an artist might choose to turn his characters into anthropomorphic animals. In Sakai's case, arguably, it has allowed him the freedom to stretch the bounds of his epic, making supernatural creatures seem more acceptable and grisly violence far easier to swallow (when Usagi's opponents die, thought balloons with little skulls inside appear as symbols of their departing souls). It also allows Sakai to go straight for the emotion. By simplifying and stripping away the distraction of outward humanity, Sakai is able to make his characters seem even more human. We know the kindly rabbit is good, while the slithering snake isn't, just by looking at them.
Even though one can jump into the world of USAGI YOJIMBO at any time, a lot of the basic information that Sakai will build on in later volumes is outlined in The Ronin. We learn of the battle that cost Usagi his master, and we meet many of Usagi's most notable friends and enemies -- the noble lady warrior Tomoe Ame, the genial bounty hunter Gen, the blind swordspig Ino. And while the drawing is still a little crude at this point, the storytelling isn't. The cinematic action and wide range of acting is there (and trust me, Sakai's characters are alive enough that one can easily call their pen-and-ink gesturing acting), as is the sense of a larger story, with seeds being sewn for plots that won't grow to be harvested for many books to come. Don't fear, though -- you can enjoy USAGI YOJIMBO just as much in short bursts as you can by signing on for the long haul.
There are few experiences in Western comics as addictive as USAGI YOJIMBO, and few artists who are both as dedicated as Sakai and as good. Like his namesake, Miyamoto Usagi is a class above, and his legend should easily endure.
Jamie S. Rich has edited comic books for ten years, over half of them as editor in chief at Oni Press. In 2000, he published his first novel, Cut My Hair, and is currently exploring his second. When it's done, he swears his website, confessions123.com, will make a lot more sense. In addition, he has written film and music criticism for various publications, and has worked on scripts for far more Tokyopop manga translations than he cares to count.