Usagi Yojimbo #90

By Stan Sakai
24 pages, black and white
Published by Dark Horse Comics

It may have been a while since I’ve checked in with Usagi Yojimbo; the book was one of the very first reviews I posted on back in 1999. That doesn’t mean I don’t love the comic, though. Stan Sakai’s creation is one of the smartest ongoing series being produced right now, and when I read a new issue like this one it just reminds me all over again why it’s so good.

Miyamoto Usagi is visiting his good friend and ally Tomoe Ame for some much needed rest and relaxation, but once again that seems to elude him. Even as the Kojima Trade Delegation meets to work out an alliance with Lord Noriyuki, a killer is loose among the grounds of Geishu Castle. The path falls cold at a boarded up well, though, one supposedly haunted by the spirit of a love-struck maid. Could the two possibly be connected?

One of the many great things about Usagi Yojimbo is that with almost any issue, you can pick it up and jump right into the story without worrying what’s happened before. Sakai has always had a real natural way of making his character’s back story feel like it’s part of the narrative and never an exposition dump; in a matter of panels you know why Usagi is at Geishu Castle, what it means to him, and his relationship with Tomoe. More important, though, is that Sakai does a wonderful job of telling stories in general. From the opening sequence’s double-fakeout to the story of Okiku and Aoyama’s fatal relationship, everything unfolds perfectly. Sakai’s pacing is perfect here, revealing pieces of information such as the cursed well or the negotiations going on within the castle all at just the right time. By the time the first part of “The Ghost in the Well” reaches its conclusion, he’s put together more than enough mystery and suspense to lure the reader back for a second installment.

What’s even more important, though, are the characters of Usagi Yojimbo. Usagi himself is such a rich character, one that’s really developed over the years. He may not always be the smartest character in the series (at one point he even wishes for recurring character Inspector Ishida to be there to help him solve the mystery) but he’s the most true. Usagi’s strength is his heart, and his genuine desire to do good and help others. In less skilled hands this might come across as trite or phony, but Sakai makes Usagi feel real from start to finish. The supporting cast gets the same treatment as well; from frequent secondary characters like Tomoe and Lord Noriyuki to new guest-stars, everyone has a proper motivation. Even characters that others would’ve put in Usagi’s path as a one-dimensional hindrance get much more here; their reasoning and motivations make perfect sense.

It’s this strong characterization that has helped some readers get past what might’ve otherwise been a stumbling block—that Sakai draws his characters as animals. It’s funny, because over the years I’ve actually stopped noticing that Usagi is a rabbit; perhaps it’s because I’m spending more time looking at the rest of the art. When Usagi discovers the covered well, for instance, Sakai spends just as much effort on the rest of the scene as the well itself. Leaves are falling gently through the air, and the walls of Geishu Castle loom overhead. There’s a nice sense of body language here; it’s the little touches, like Usagi pulling up his legs as he sits on the edge of the well that look so nice. Everything from texture of backgrounds to the characters themselves in the foreground are all taken care of here, and the result is a sharp-looking book.

It’s easy to sometimes forget that a book as good as Usagi Yojimbo is being published, taking it for granted that month in and out you’ll get your fill. The reality, of course, is that it would be a poorer comics industry without Usagi Yojimbo. There may be 19 collections of the series to date (thanks to 54 issues published at other publishers before the current series began at Dark Horse), but the great thing is that you really can dip in just about anywhere and understand what’s going on. If you haven’t sampled this thoroughly charming series yet, this is as great a point as any. (Or, if you want to get a bigger piece of the series all at once, try a collected edition. The Brink of Life and Death is my favorite way to introduce people.) It’s all good. No, I take it back. It’s all great.

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