Consistency is rare in the world of comic books. Long runs of sustained creativity, like Peter David’s epic 12-year stint as the writer of The Incredible Hulk, are the exception, not the rule. That’s one of many reasons why writer/artist Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, a series about the adventures of a samurai rabbit and his anthropomorphic-animal comrades-in-arms that’s been published since 1987, is among the greatest comics of the last few decades. There’s really no precedent in North America for Usagi Yojimbo, except maybe Love & Rockets or Cerebus, two other long-running, independently published, creator-owned (and, only coincidentally, black-and-white) comics dating back to the 1980s.
But, publishing history aside, Usagi Yojimbo doesn’t really share much with those two other titles. Sakai’s series has none of the dense interconnectedness of Love & Rockets or the off-the-rails philosophical speculation of Cerebus; it’s a very traditional comic, told in an uncomplicated and immediately accessible way. It’s a funny-animal comic, a throwback to the days of dime-store newsstands. But, despite its straightforward narrative and classic cartoonish art, it’s also a sophisticated project from a master storyteller who has taken influence from all over the place—samurai movies, Carl Barks, epic fantasy, Japanese folklore—to create an utterly original series.
The most recent trade-paperback collection, Usagi Yojimbo Volume 27: A Town Called Hell, published this month by Dark Horse, is a near-ideal starting point for new readers. Actually, almost any single issue of Usagi is a good place to jump in; part of Sakai’s brilliance is that he’s created a fictional world that balances recurring characters and continuing storylines with one-off adventures that can be told in 20 or 30 pages. It’s one of the rare long-running modern comics that isn’t bogged down by continuity.
A Town Called Hell features a little bit of everything that makes the series great. The four-issue storyline that gives the collection its title is an update of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 chanbara classic Yojimbo. (“Yojimbo” means “bodyguard” in Japanese.) In Sakai’s telling, Usagi and fellow wandering swordsman Kato conspire against two inept crime bosses to end a gang war in a small village; they employ violence, guile, and courage to stop the standoff, and later return to defeat the boss they had left in charge. In between, Usagi fights a couple of demons and helps a disgraced samurai recover his master’s sword. All the elements that make Usagi Yojimbo fun—swashbuckling adventure, pop-culture references, the warrior’s code of honor, supernatural enemies—are here, and all delivered in Sakai’s dynamic, animation-influenced style, drawn from Barks, Osamu Tezuka, and Tintin creator Hergé.
A Town Called Hell runs through 2010; a handful of as-yet-uncollected issues followed, but in early 2012 Sakai announced he was taking a hiatus from Usagi Yojimbo to team up with Dark Horse publisher Mike Richardson for an adaptation of the popular Japanese legend of the 47 ronin. That five-issue miniseries—written by Richardson and drawn by Sakai—has just been completed, and it’s a minor modern classic.
On the surface, Sakai and Richardson’s 47 Ronin feels a lot like an extension of the Usagi Yojimbo universe. But it’s populated by real human beings, and it’s also significantly darker than Usagi. It’s an old-fashioned prestige project, more serious in tone than Sakai’s previous work, and printed in color. The story is appropriately grim—a band of samurai, left masterless by their lord’s ritual suicide, seek to restore his honor by killing the officious bureaucrat who provoked his death. Richardson and Sakai take their time here, providing all the necessary background drama and then slowly, patiently setting the action in motion. They take obvious delight in the complicated politics of Bushido, the samurai code, and in the melodrama of a warrior’s sacrifice. But 47 Ronin is, at heart, an adventure story; the final issue is an explosive payoff, full of suspense and bursts of bloody violence.
As good as 47 Ronin is, though—and it’s a beautiful, precise example of comics’ classical style—it’s still a side project, and even a little bit of an indulgence on Sakai’s part. The end of the series is a satisfying conclusion, but the best news is that it means Sakai can soon get back to Usagi Yojimbo.