Sunday, July 04, 2010

Have sword, will travel

Last week I received an e - mail about reviewing some comics ( it seems I will finally get some review copies after writing this blog for 4 years ) in which I was asked if I would be willing to read them because they are not superhero comics.

Now that was a surprise for me since I DO read western comics, horror comics, slice of life comics, pirate comics, barbarian comics, or just normal comics. But it seems the impression I give with the blog is another one.

Which may have to do with the fact that non - superhero comics are seldom the main focus of my posts. I have written about some of them in various posts, especially in my posts about comic conventions. But so far the only posts that really are only about this kind of comics are :

CASE CLOSED ( detective manga )

Richard Corben´s HAUNT OF HORROR ( Lovecraft )

JONAH HEX ( mostly the Jordi Bernet issues )

PITT and DYLAN DOG ( italian horror comic )

SAVAGE DRAGON ( which for some people is a superhero )

SAVAGE DRAGON ( german translation )

Since I´m always one who tries to rise to the challenge ( and mostly failing miserably, just so you don´t think I´m cool ) I decided that this month TALES FROM THE KRYPTONIAN is a superhero free zone.

I wanted to write about the last trades of JACK STAFF and INVINCIBLE because I just finished reading them and I think they deserve better sales numbers.....but that would be superheroes again so it will have to wait. Which is kind of a bummer because JACK STAFF ties in to all those cool english comic series that were published in the german comic anthology KOBRA like IRON CLAW, THE EYE OF ZOLTAN, TRIGAN and THE SPIDER.

The way MONTH WITHOUT SUPERHEROES ( I just came up with the title - pretty neat, huh ? ) works is that while I may mention some superhero comics like for instance, if I´m continuing to write about my time in Erlangen this year, the main focus will be comics that are NOT superhero comics. And all the reviews - if I manage to do some - will be about non - superhero books.

Okay, what´s the big deal you will ask yourself ? I mean my usual quota is 4 posts per month so after 4 posts this will be over. Maybe. Maybe I can also improve my quota but at least for one whole month this blog will be about other comics than superheroes and who knows ? If it´s popular with the readers it may pop up from time to time.

So, some may have guessed it from the title, this post is all about USAGI YOJIMBO, Stan Sakai´s ronin comic ( some people are still arguing if it qualifies as a manga ) that has passed the 125 issue benchmark.....which are almost 200 issues if you add the issues done with other publishers than DARK HORSE.

In Germany it´s currently published by the fine folks at SCHWARZER TURM ( shout out to Robi, Mille, Asja, Caroline, Wittek and the rest of the crew that let me make their booth my homebase at Erlangen this year ) after CARLSEN COMICS stopped publishing with volume 6 that left readers with a cliffhanger. SCHWARZER TURM started with volume 8 but since the CARLSEN editions are not so easily available any more they are also reprinting them till they have closed the gap. Volume 4 is the newest and has just come out.

So I´m writing something about this great series hoping that more people in Germany pick up the book. Of course it doesn´t hurt if American readers give the book a try which - by the way - is now 50 cents cheaper than the 4 dollar books from DC or MARVEL. Who would have thought that one day independent comics would be less expensive - and in most cases better - than mainstream comics ? I have planned to write something about the book but so far I only wrote a bit about issues 92 and 93. Now some people may say : How am I supposed to get into a series that has already almost 200 issues under his belt ?

Which is a legitimate question with Today´s comic readers who don´t check out new series when they missed the first issue in fear of missing something. Now I could tell you what a wonderful series USAGI YOJIMBO is, how intricately the stories captivate their audience and what a master comic artist Stan Sakai is. And I will tell you all those things later on. But the best way to ease your fears is to tell you how I started reading USAGI YOJIMBO.


I wasn´t there at the beginning and the first Usagi comic I read wasn´t even a regular Usagi book. Around 1996 Dark Horse started Usagi Yojimbo with a new number 1 but I was a bit hesistant to start with a new series. What I did buy was SPACE USAGI which was kind of an ELSEWORLDS story....something I didn´t know at that time. It was a three issue limited series and it was anthrophomorphic samurais and ninjas with big swords - in space ! It was in black and white ( I didn´t read much black and white stuff back then ) and it was only three issues. What did I have to loose ?

Long story short : I was so impressed that I just had to start with the regular series and even though some things were not like in the science fiction version I was delighted which everything new I discovered of Stan Sakai´s work and the world of Usagi Yojimbo. I tracked down all the original Mirage Studio trades and bought the other ones in german when CARLSEN COMICS started publishing it. It is a bit difficult to read the first volumes after having seen his current stuff because Stan has evolved so much as an artist since then. On the other side it just shows you how he developed and it´s worth it for the stories alone. And most readers just have to get all the issues once they have started. If I have played my cards right this is the moment when you might ask yourself what the series is all about. Just read on and hopefully all your questions will be answered.


The main character of the story is Miyamoto Usagi, a ronin ( a masterless samurai ) in Japan at the turn of the seventeenth century who is on a musha shugyo ( warrior's pilgrimage ) occasionally selling his services as a bodyguard and fighting his way across a land ravaged by civil war.

This timeperiod is also the backdrop for other manga masterpieces like LONE WOLF AND CUB because it was an interesting period in Japan´s history. The time of the samurais began to end and the country was opening for western visitors and western culture. There were lots of ronins wandering the land and most of them were not on the warrior´s journey to perfection and enlightment, most of them turned to crime or lost all their principles. In this sense Usagi is a kind of unique samurai, because while he still believes in the warriors code that brings him to help other fellow samurais even if he is not of the same opinion, Usagi doesn´t see himself better as the common folks.

At that time the position in society of a samurai was still above common people in the sense that a samurai could do whatever he wanted. Usagi on the other hand is often seen seeking border with normal people and insisting in paying or at least working for their hospitality. Which is something normal samurais wouldn´t even consider.

Usagi's adventures are filled with fascinating historical detail, the costumes, landscapes, and buildings are beautifully drawn, creating such a sense of realism it's easy to forget the hero is a rabbit. Stan also changes from longer storyarcs to single issue stories - one of the few forgotten arts in writing comics. Some of the best stories are the done - in - one stories that can be heartwrenching, funny, poetic, downright frustrating or filled with hope.

Usagi Usagi Yojimbo is heavily influenced by Japanese cinema and has included references to the work of Akira Kurosawa ( as the title of the series is derived from Kurosawa's 1960 film Yojimbo ) and to icons of popular Japanese cinema such as Lone Wolf and Cub ( Lone Goat and son in the comic ), Zatoichi ( the Blind Swordspig Zato - Ino ), and Godzilla. Aside from that Stan Sakai also covers popular movies in his stories which with other writers would be boring. He somehow always pulls it off to make even the best known stories still interesting even if you suspect how it´s going to end. Like in the just recently published story A TOWN CALLED HELL which is his adaption of Sergio Leone´s western classic FOR A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS that also was the blueprint for LAST MAN STANDING with Bruce Willis. Like his great inspiration japanese movie director Akira Kurosawa Stan Sakai is a master at adapting other stuff in his stories.

And speaking of adapting and stories one thing I especially like is the variety of stories. There are the usual stories about Usagi´s pilgrimage, funny stories but also murder mysteries ( for which Stan created his own detective Inspector Ishida ) and ghost stories. As a fan of horror comics I especially like those, the simple stories about Usagi´s encounters with Obakemonos ( ghosts or demons ) and more horrortype stories of exorcism, some of them involving Jei ( whose name is an in - joke for horror fans ), which are really tough stuff.

The strength in this book lies in the fact that it can be enjoyed by people in many different ages and points of interest. It has something for everyone. For some people it's a book filled with fun, easy to follow stories about a Samurai-bunny who wanders around the country and gets involved into all sorts of adventures. To others it's also a collection of stories with real good characterization. All the characters are portrayed as animals, but the sort of animal each character portrays is far from randomly chosen. The sort of animal is clearly chosen on the personality of that certain character, without using cliches to do so. And the interaction between the characters works really well. Both in dialogue as in ' screenfilling '. Next to that Stan Sakai has also worked in some really nice references, traditions and customs of the old eastern philosophy which will be appreciated by those who have eye for it. Stories about the honor of a clan, the tea ritual, the art of kitemaking ( which in these times took a whole year ) and sacred swords may sound boring while in truth are anything but.

Usagi Yojimbo is the kind of quality work that transcends time, genres, demographics, and even age groups. It crafts a delicate and beautiful balance between honor and savagery, cute innocence and dark brutality, simple heart-warming stories and multi-part epics that shape a dense continuity. Whether or not you've ever been a fan of feudal Japanese culture, furry anthro characters, or independent, non-superhero comics, Usagi Yojimbo is a comic that can't help but impress even the harshest critic. In other words : it´s totally Airwolf !

Speaking about critics, this series has gained a number of awards : The Grasscutter storyline from issues 13 through 22 of the Dark Horse published series was a top votegetter for the Comics Buyer's Guide Fan Award for Favorite Story for 1999. The trade paperback collection of this story was a top votegetter for the Comics Buyer's Guide Fan Award for Favorite Reprint Graphic Album for 2000.

Usagi Yojimbo has also won several Ursa Major Awards, the major awards of the furry fandom. With the exception of the years beyond and including 2006, it has won an award every year since the awards were founded. This makes Usagi Yojimbo the most successful publication in these awards. It won " Best Anthropomorphic Comic Book or Strip " in 2001 and 2002. In 2003, 2004 and 2005, it won " Best Anthropomorphic Comic Book ". The book The Art of Usagi Yojimbo also won " Best Anthropomorphic Other Literary Work " in 2004.

Other awards : 1999 Eisner Award for " Best Serialized Story " ( Usagi Yojimbo's " Grasscutter " ), 1996 Eisner Award for " Best Letterer ", 1996 Eisner Award for " Talent Deserving of Wider Recognition " , 1991 Inkpot Award from Comic-Con International: San Diego for " Lifetime Achievement in the Field of Cartooning ", Winner of a 1990 Parents' Choice Approval for " Skillful weaving of facts and legends into his work " ( recommended for children ages 7 and up ).

Here is what a few other people ( who are all more eloquent than me ) have to say about the awesomeness that is Usagi Yojimbo :

One of the most original, innovative, well-executed comic books anywhere to be found. (Stan Lee )

Fans of comics set in historical Japan should definitely check this out. You'll be glad you did. I think it would also be a good fit for manga fans looking to try a non-Japanese comic. I enjoyed this book a lot, and look forward to reading more. – (Panel Patter )

While I enjoyed Sakai's artwork in the first volume, this second trade collection is even stronger. ... Usagi Yojimbo is a great addition to the canon of samurai stories, and is definitely highly recommended for anyone who is a fan of wandering ronin or just good storytelling. (Rob McMonigal - Panel Patter )

As a fan of samurai fiction (to the point of having a Seven Samurai tattoo) and comics, I can’t recommend Stan Sakai’s beautifully drawn, note-perfect reinvention of the genre highly enough. (Kevin Church - )

These bittersweet adventure stories offer entertaining reading, especially for young Asian-Americans who feel excluded from mainstream juvenile literature. (Los Angeles Times )

More about Usagi Yojimbo : a general overview ( with some spoilers )

usagi at wikipedia / official usagi website / usagi at schwarzer turm

previews and reviews :

review issue 119 / preview issue 121 / preview issue 123 / preview issue 124 / preview issue 125 / preview issue 126 / review issue 126 / preview issue 127 / review issue 127 /review issue 128 / preview issue 129

And this concludes our first installment of MONTH WITHOUT SUPERHEROES as I should have gone to bed one hour ago. I´m going to do the proofreading and spellchecking Tomorrow and maybe add one thing or two. I hope you liked our first foray into the world outside DC and Marvel and you will check out USAGI if you haven´t already.

Since it´s awfully hot in Germany right now I´m going to get my pijama from the freezer and go to bed. Good night, till our next superhero - free post.

New to the blog ? Everything you need to know about TALES FROM THE KRYPTONIAN : top ten posts / more posts of interest

1 comment:

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