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.
The Ronin is a judicious selection of those initial anthology appearances, combined with stories from the first series special. They construct a composite picture of Usagi's origin story and provide introductions to several of the series' regular supporting characters. While later installments of the series tend toward graphic-novel length, this book is comprised entirely of short stories, making it an ideal sampler for those new to Sakai's work. As far as samplers go, this is a representative one. The stories are the sort of archetypal yet just off-kilter enough material that Sakai was to trademark over two decades, combining rabbit-who-came-in-from-the-cold genre tropes with outré supernatural elements. Every page is dripping with mythic resonance; the very first panels depict the cloaked warrior entering a peasant's hut to shelter from a snowstorm, announcing his presence with a brusque "I am called Miyamoto Usagi." It's difficult to mentally superimpose the granite countenances of Toshirô Mifune or Clint Eastwood onto the features of a rabbit but Sakai gets you there.
The narrative setups are also reminiscent of Sakai's pop-culture preoccupations. Usagi encounters a community under siege from malevolent outsiders and rescues them. Usagi meets a fellow wanderer on the road and they exchange stories only to uncover past connections. Usagi saves innocent hostages from clans of evil ninja. This is timeless stuff, emerging from the creator's mining of that liminal space between East and West, "high" and "low" art—Nogaku drama by way of Sergio Leone. The continuous referentialism could easily have crossed the line into lazy pastiche, but Sakai is a good enough writer to weave his own ideas into the narrative tapestry, using well-defined characters, solid pacing, and economical storytelling to enable his work to stand on its own. Character work is one of his real strong points; the memorable figures introduced in this volume practically dare the reader to pick up the next one. The supporting cast provides much of the series's humor: Sakai gets a lot of mileage from Zato-Ino, the blind swordspig so focused on living in peace that he kills anyone who gets in the way of his doing so; and another highlight is the love-hate relationship between Usagi and rhino bounty hunter Gennosuke (their competitive banter is all Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, 25 years before Robert Downey Jr. and Mark Ruffalo's back and forths). The action-comedy beats are punctuated with moments of surprising poignancy wrapped into Sakai's continued reflection on class conflict and the bygone era of the Bushido code. All these elements are set up in The Ronin and built on in subsequent storylines.
The book is worth buying for the art alone. Sharply reproduced on gratifyingly durable stock, the quality of the lines leap out from the page even in these early stories. The clean calligraphic visuals are in Sakai's signature style, each page thoroughly researched in terms of period detail and character design. Unsurprisingly, given the cinephilia apparent in his work, Sakai structures his panels like a cinematographer, merging cinematic aesthetics with the language of comics. A rapid-fire series of small drawings—just Usagi drawing his sword and taking a few steps—simulate motion photography and dynamism only to culminate in the static painterly image of a splash of blood on a wall. Sakai is a pro at boiling complex scenes down into a few visual beats or gestures.
Sakai is one of the best cartoonists working these days. He hasn't published any New Yorker cartoons or birthed any doorstoppers about an anguished childhood (lovely as both those prospects would be). His life's work has been Usagi Yojimbo, a series that belongs to him in more ways than one—distinguished by the style of his lines, the economy of his words, the cut of a warthog's katana. The Ronin is the first chapter of this still-ongoing 25-year magnum opus, but it stands well enough on its own—the ideal gateway purchase into a 22-thus-far-volume narrative. Like you didn't have enough books to buy already.
Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo, Book 1: The Ronin was released on May 25 by Fantagraphics Books. To purchase it, click here.