Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition

As loyal Comic Book Daily readers can attest I greatly looked forward to Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition two-volume slipcased set.  It had two things going for it: a long-running series by its creator, gathering the first twelve hundred pages of stories in two deluxe oversized 7.25″ x 10.5″ hardcovers.  Here’s the publisher’s blurb:

Usagi Yojimbo The Special Edition

For the first ten years of his career, the battling bunny was published by Fantagraphics Books. In honour of his 25th anniversary, Fantagraphics is releasing a deluxe slipcase set collecting the seven first Usagi books. With over 1000 pages of story, this is the complete, definitive, early Usagi. This Special Edition will also be brimming with extra material, including a complete full-colour gallery of the more than 50 Usagi covers from that period (never-before-collected); preparatory sketches, including Sakai’s original first draft of the “Samurai” story; two “non-canon” Usagi stories by Sakai co-starring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (with whom Usagi also shared screen time in the TMNT TV series); the rare behind-the-scenes “How I Draw Usagi Yojimbo” strip; Introductions by Stan Sakai and Stan Lee; and a feature-length, career-spanning interview with Sakai.

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Around for the past 25 years, any comic shop attendee will recognize Stan Sakai’s creation Usagi Yojimbo.  I had seen it many times and always dismissed the work:  I wasn’t interested in reading about a bunny’s adventures, no matter how cute he looked.  After I stopped collecting weekly comics my focus widened and I started to pick up a lot of different collected works.  Usagi has been recommended repeatedly but I didn’t want to get into a story that had twenty-three trade volumes, all in that small manga size.  The appeal of a decade’s worth of material in oversized hardcovers was just the ticket.

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For those of us who are new to the series, it’s about Miyamoto Usagi, a masterless rabbit samurai or ronin who spends his days wandering.  He lives his life according to Bushido, the way of the samurai, a code of conduct and ethics.  Usagi’s moral code is strict and very honourable, always dealing with people in a kind and gentle manner, until it’s time to not be nice.  Sakai decided early on he wanted to work in feudal Japan but use animals: overall it works well.

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There is a real depth and draw to the stories, a timeless quality that speaks of honour, duty, courage, loyalty.  A great mix of action, emotion, and some humour: the later stories try a little too hard to be funny in spots.  Usagi’s character doesn’t develop so much as emerge as we follow his travels and learn of his past.  Supporting characters start coming on board fairly early and we have a rotating cast that contrasts our hero.  Sakai adds the English translation after any Japanese word he uses; it’s a nice touch.  I also enjoy that anyone who gets killed usually has a thought balloon of a skull; it’s cartoony but works.

The art is top-notch: over the course of the two volumes, I don’t see any evolution of Sakai’s art as none is needed.  He starts with an excellent black and white style of clean lines and superb inking that carries through.  Movement and anatomy are tricky but Sakai has it down pat.  When going through the extras original character sketches are included and I couldn’t believe how rough and undeveloped they were compared to what I just read.

This package is an excellent value, containing the first seven trade paperbacks of the series, all that Fantagraphics published.  Individually they’re $17 so by buying this you’re saving $19 and getting the work in a larger hardcover format.  Plus you have the extras: a long interview with Stan Sakai, reproduction in colour of all the covers, a “how-to” from Sakai on creating the series.  After this Sakai switched to Dark Horse: we can only hope they have a similar format in mind.

Usagi Yojimbo: The Special Edition
Fantagraphics, 2010, ISBN 978-1-60699-154-1

Originally published at Comic Book Daily.