REVIEW BY Dave Whiteman
After 165 issues have been published by Dark Horse Comics, the critically acclaimed series “Usagi Yojimbo” is being released by IDW Publishing this month. When it was announced in February of this year, some were surprised, but since IDW also currently publishes the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” series, it seems only fitting that they share the same publisher. While Usagi Yojimbo inhabits a different universe as the TMNT, they have appeared together in many comic over the years as well as several times in the TMNT animated series. For those unaware of the rōnin rabbit, the title “Usagi Yojimbo” essentially means rabbit bodyguard (Yōjinbō) in Japanese. Created by Japanese-American cartoonist Masahiko ‘Stan’ Sakai in 1984, the series features the anthropomorphic swordsman, Miyamoto Usagi, who was based on the famous samurai Miyamoto Musashi. Having been published by many companies over the years including Fantagraphics and Mirage Studios, it seems as if the bunny has found a new home.
Beginning with this new three-part story arc “Bunraku”, Usagi continues his wandering of an anthropomorphized Japan during the Edo period on his warrior’s journey, when he comes upon an unusual puppet drama (bunraku) performance, where the puppets (Ningyō) seem strangely lifelike. After Usagi introduces himself to the blind narrator (tayu) and praises the performance while sharing a cup of tea, he later comes across fellow samurai Sasuké (aka the demon queller) where he informs him of evil demons (nukekubi) disguised as townsfolk residing in the town. Later, there is a brief afterword where we see that one of the puppets is not what they appear to be.
The “Usagi Yojimbo” comics have always been a favorite of mine for years, having first discovered his character (and action figure!) in the “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” animated series in 1989, not to mention my growing love for samurai movies (Akira Kurosawa) and anime (Rurouni Kenshin). The comic are a perfect combination of comic fantasy, Japanese culture, folklore and history, not to mention many stories involving supernatural creatures (yokai) and demons. And this latest story is no exception, with its fun combination of a samurai drama and the “Puppet Master” horror movies.
Written, drawn and lettered by Stan Sakai, with colors by Tom Luth (“Groo the Wanderer”), this begins a new chapter in the 35 year epic of Usagi Yojimbo, while many of the comics over the years have been in black-and-white, like many independent comics, there have been a few color specials over the years. According to IDW, this new monthly comic book will be published in full color and IDW will curate a fully-colored graphic novel library of the complete Usagi Yojimbo saga.
If you are a newcomer to the Usagi story, this is a great starting point for new fans, or older fans like myself as a fresh start. For those who desire to catch up on the story, the last 32 volumes are available to read and Volume 33 will be available next month. This milestone first issue also includes a main cover by Stan Sakai, plus variants by Daniel Warren Johnson, Kevin Eastman and Walt Simonson.