Stan Sakai is one of the most quietly prolific comics creators in the business. Having trudged down the Way of Self-Reliance with his creation Miyamoto Usagi for 25 years, he trails a devoted fanbase and a considerable reputation in the cultural mainstream. Two thousand eleven was a banner year for Sakai, marking the 200th issue of the long-running series, his being named Cultural Ambassador by the Japanese American National Museum, and their unveiling of "The Year of the Rabbit"—a highly publicized retrospective of his work. In commemoration of these various milestones, Fantagraphics (Sakai's original publisher) has released a new edition of Usagi Yojimbo: The Ronin, a collection of the character's earliest appearances. Boasting their usual high-production values and showcasing the genesis of the indie comics icon, The Ronin is a meticulously curated artifact of comics history.
Miyamoto Usagi was born—quite accidentally—in 1984. While working on character designs for a series based on historic samurai Miyamoto Musashi, Sakai doodled a rabbit with his ears tied back like a samurai topknot. The rabbit outlasted the more traditional conceptual drawings, forming the latest addition to the odd tradition of violent, anthropomorphic animals (one of Usagi's early cameos was with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) in the indie comics of the '80s. After starring in a couple of Fantagraphics anthologies, he had his own title by 1987—Usagi Yojimbo—following the rabbit ronin in his adventures around a 17th-century Japan populated with anthropomorphized animals. Unlike his contemporaries in the decade's comic-book bestiary, Usagi emerged astonishingly well formed from the get-go—a supremely confident merging of various cultural influences, ranging from spaghetti westerns and samurai films (the series title is cribbed from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo) to Japanese mythology and Kabuki plays.