FF1986: Usagi Yojimbo

Usagi Yojimbo Summer Special #1, Usagi Yojimbo #1-38, Usagi Yojimbo Color Special #1-4 by Stan Sakai.

There aren’t many Fantagraphics series that has had more issues than Usagi Yojimbo (uhm, Love & Rockets and Naughty Bits), but they were all published over a long time period. Usagi Yojimbo is the only character focused Fantagraphics publication that was released on a somewhat timely schedule throughout its history.

Usagi Yojimbo started in Steve Galacci’s Albedo, but quickly moved to Critters. After a couple of years there, he was given a solo book. It’s fun to re-read these early issues again: The artwork is a lot less polished than it is these days, but has a wild charm.

Sakai was also apt to do these super-dramatic and stylised fight scenes back then.

I didn’t read this series regularly back in the 80s. I picked up an issue here and there. I thought it was funny and exciting, but I remember being quite put off by all the offhand violence. Dozens of people typically die in every issue, which means that Usagi has killed thousands and thousands of people, and I found that rather creepy.

So that’s the reason Usagi is so late in this blog series: I had to find the (about dozen) issues I hadn’t picked up at random through the years already.

One fun thing about reading the individual issues instead of the compilations is all the backup stories. Now, I don’t think any of them are better than the main attraction, but it’s a nice rhythm. Long Usagi story, random surprise, long Usagi story, random surprise…

Above we have a rare Dennis Fujitake solo story, written in a rather original… language…

The in-jokes abound. Here’s a panel from a Dave Thorne piece, and that’s 1) Groo exiting the panel, 2) a Phil Yeh unicorn, and 3) the aforementioned Fujitake’s van.

Sakai’s artwork changes into his “mature” style over the first few issues, and he establishes some idioms that he’s using to this day, like the skull in the thought bubble there, which signals that somebody has died.

As usual in this time period, Fantagraphics inserts ads between the main story and the backup story. They’re usually pretty good at picking things that you’d assume would appeal to the typical reader of the comic in question, but with Usagi Yojimbo, it’s very random. I think the Sinner/Usagi crossover audience is pretty slim. Like, er, me.

Kim Thompson is the editor, and he explains that he doesn’t really have much editorial input on the series.

Tom Luth, the colourist, does a backup story. I think he’s still doing the cover colours on Usagi to this day?

Back in the day, I read these stories pretty much at random, so I was somewhat intrigued by whether they were going to tell a coherent story or not when read in publication order. And they do, but it’s also pretty much a “steady state” comic book. That is, no matter what happens, Usagi has to return to normal: Wandering alone, helping people, killing bad guys and monsters. So when he acquires a pet, like the tokagé up here, you pretty much know immediately that that can’t last.

The weirdest backup feature in Usagi Yojimbo ever: A half page thing from Hunt Emerson with this creature wishing Eclipse happy birthday. What’s that about?

A backup story by Peter Laird (of Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles fame) where Usagi is apparently a psychopath. (These stories aren’t “canon”.)

Very pretty mayhem from Sergio Aragones.

As I said up there before I got distracted by some backup features, Usagi Yojimbo basically never changes. However, there is a slow development going on with all the recurring minor characters that’s amusing.

For instance, these two hapless woodcutters cross paths with Usagi time and time again, and nothing amazing develops from that, but it’s still fun to check in on them.

Other characters do develop more, and you can see some children grow up (a bit), so it’s not like anything never happen. It’s just that whatever happens doesn’t change the basic structure and premise of the book.

This is a technique that I think is odd that so few comics use for their covers. That is, if you print colours over black areas, they will stand out from the areas that have just the black ink. So you get a “lacquer” effect for free, basically.

Usagi Yojimbo is an action/adventure comic book, but Sakai also puts plenty of humour into the relaxing bits between the adventures. I like this understated bit a lot.

It’s more this kind of thing than funny bits, though. I’m excerpting this bit because I found the swirly backgrounds in the third panel interesting. Sakai only used that effect a handful of times, but usually the characters’ emotions aren’t reflected this way in the surroundings.

This is one of my favourite stories. There’s no fighting and not a lot of drama in it. Instead we learn of an old technique for making kites. It’s interesting and moving.

Yes, there are horrible, horrible puns, too. Sakai is the letterer for Groo, so I guess that’s professional damage.

What these soldiers are worried about are flying bat ninja, which is one of the few times that the anthropomorphism makes a difference. The characters in Usagi Yojimbo are recognisable as bunnies, pandas, foxes, cats, etc, but it rarely matters: Usagi doesn’t hop around. But these bat ninjas fly, which kinda makes you go “hm”.

Sakai does homage to a few other comics in the series. The Lone Wolf and Cub one is cute.

I didn’t know that Fantagraphics was run by the mob! In this Tom Stazer-written story, Sakai finally spills the beans.

And I wasn’t the only one squicked by the constant massacres.

Heh. Usagi has just killed an octopus demon, so we get a thought bubble with … a skeleton with tentacles. That doesn’t make any sense, but it’s fun.

A recurring theme in the writings from ED. is that, once again, something is late, and it’s not Sakai’s fault. In a previous issue, he said that Sakai had (at that point) finished the next four issues when this one went to print, which is rather unusual for something that’s published (in actuality) bi-monthly. I wonder whether these snafus played any part in Sakai taking Usagi over to Mirage (and then Dark Horse)…

The circulation was 15K and increasing, which seems quite good. On the other hand, at this point Usagi had been featured in several Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles episode and had his own action figure, so perhaps it could be better.

The violence in Usagi Yojimbo is usually pretty antiseptic. This is one of the few fights that look brutal.

I like Sakai’s way of drawing remembrances in a scratchier, hazier style.

Hey! A Mike Kazaleh backup, and this time with very stylish zip-a-toning.

Stan Sakai announces that he’s moving to Mirage mainly because Usagi Yojimbo is “out of place” on Fantagraphics’ current line-up. Which is true.

And the reason for this issue’s delay was a Martin Wagner backup. *sigh*

Anyway, that’s it. The series went on to greater success at Mirage, and then Dark Horse, and it’s running there still. I think one of the recent issues was hailed as being the two hundredth issue? I started subscribing to it again a few years back. It nice and comforting to have it arriving just about every month. And it’s still pretty much the same as it was in 1992.

But! We have a few specials to go before we reach the end of this blog post.

The Summer Special (from 1986) reprints the earliest Usagi stories, I think. Usagi was a lot squatter back then, and we’re given a slightly different “origin story” than we saw in the Usagi Yojimbo series.

And Tomoe Ame isn’t the capable samurai we see later, but is easily defeated by some no-name assassin.

I kinda like the punky tokagé look.

But I understand quite well why Sakai never did this again. It’s the only fight scene where blood spurts, I think. He’d drop the splatter effects after this.

Then there’s three “color specials”, published about once a year starting in 1989. These are mostly new stories, drawn with colour in mind.

All these three issues feature Tomoe Ama heavily, and we get her backstory and get to see her kick ass a lot. Reading these back-to-back with the Summer Special stories it almost feels like an apology from Sakai for dismissing her that way previously.

Here’s a bit of that Gnuff story Kim Thompson mentioned in the introduction, coloured by Mike Kazaleh. He uses that classing Disney “different colour in every panel” technique… Hm…

Oh, here’s that story that was originally printed in Doomsday Squad. Let’s compare it to the original version, if I can find it now…

Yeah, that’s quite a difference.

I must remember to use that greeting more often. Mangy villagers!

And with a Space Usagi featurette in the last colour special, this blog post is at its end.

I feel like I didn’t really say much of interest here. (“As opposed to when?” cries the mangy villagers!) It’s been a really pleasant Sunday reading all these comics, and perhaps that’s the issue: They keep rolling by as if a (pleasant) force of nature, and I’m just sitting here looking at them.

This post is part of the Fantagraphics Floppies series.

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