By Stan Sakai
208 pages, black and white
Published by Dark Horse
There are a handful of comics that have gone on for years and years and are reliably excellent. The problem is that, after a while, it’s easy to take them for granted that they’ll always be around and always be fantastic. Having gone on hiatus early last year so Stan Sakai could work on 47 Ronin, I do occasionally worry that being forgotten could be the fate of Usagi Yojimbo. But with a new collection now on the shelves, now is as good a time as any to find out what you’ve been missing all this time. Because trust me, Sakai’s long-running samurai epic is still a pleasure to read from start to finish.
This latest volume, A Town Called Hell, has a story structure that works well for both a serial and collected format, something that regularly eludes many comic creators. Sakai’s stories here open and close in the small town of Hell, as we get to watch ronin Usagi first arrive and offer assistance to the townspeople after two different organized crime bosses use the area as a war zone, and then later return to help clean up what turned out to be unfinished business directly related to his first attempt at help. It’s a fun way to tell a continuing story, with time passing between the two visits to Hell and Usagi getting into other adventures and strange encounters as he wanders the countryside. It’s only when his past catches up with him that he discovers what needs to be done, and Usagi Yojimbo circles back around for a second pass into the forsaken town.
A Town Called Hell, and Usagi Yojimbo in general, succeeds in no small part due to the strength of how Sakai writes its main character. Usagi himself is both noble and pragmatic; it’s too easy for people to write a character that’s supposed to be the hero as also unrealistic or a little too "good." Here, Sakai keeps Usagi very realistic; he makes mistakes, he’s not afraid to kill (the body count here is higher than a new reader might expect), and when cornered by a rambling old woman he’s not against finally fleeing when her back is turned. That’s not to take away from the plotting, which is generally strong too. There are three stories in-between the two Hell sagas, and of them the first two ("Nukekubi" and "The Sword of Narukami") serve as perfect examples of Usagi Yojimbo. The first dips into Sakai’s interest in Japanese mythology—springing a traditional monster on a startled Usagi—while the second has more to do with how to maintain personal honor while avoiding taking a fatal journey. Both of them have a good beginning, middle, and end; it’s all carefully put together and in a manner where it’s a satisfying and logical conclusion. Only "Teru Teru Bozi" stumbles, with a second half that ultimately feels like a cop-out. It appears to serve as a distraction for the final panel, which is a set-up for future stories with the return of a villain from the series’ past, but in addition to being meaningless for newer readers it doesn’t balance out the slight and forgettable nature of this rare misstep.
Visually, Usagi Yojimbo: A Town Called Hell is a treat from start to finish. Sakai’s always been good with action sequences—which is fortunate because there are a lot in the series over the years—but I think at times that his abilities elsewhere are overlooked. He’s got a strong sense on how to stage panel-to-panel progressions; when Usagi and Kato reveal themselves to the men who are supposed to be on the lookout for the duo, the panels on the left hand side of the page have that slow burn of them pulling off their hats, while on the right hand side we see a combination of glee and self-assuredness shift into utter panic. It’s simultaneously a punch line and a building up of the anticipation of the battle that’s to come.
Sakai is also an artist who understands when he should be drawing his beautiful, detailed backgrounds, and when it’s best to just let readers focus solely on the characters in the foreground. When Usagi is suddenly startled by a monstrous flying head, for example, Sakai takes the time to draw the contents of the simple hut that it’s zooming around within. It serves as a contrast here; the ordinary with the fantastic, and that difference helps emphasize the strangeness of the situation as well as Usagi’s surprise. Conversely, in the sequence mentioned earlier, all the focus should be on the people involved rather than the place that they’re standing; you don’t want anything to distract from their facial expressions.
Hopefully we’ll get another Usagi Yojimbo collection or two soon (there are still 13 uncollected issues); it would be great to have the series finally caught up in this format to then lure in new readers when individual issues return. Either way, though, Usagi Yojimbo: A Town Called Hell is one of those real treats that you can’t help but fall in love with. Sakai’s a master of both writing and drawing, and there’s a lot to love here. If you’ve never read Usagi Yojimbo before, this is a perfect place as any to begin.