So much of my writing about comics is spent either reviewing new comics that are coming out, or, focusing on the state of the industry. It occurred to me yesterday that I should share some of that attention on not just the new, but also the greatness that has come before. What sent me down this road of nostalgia was one of my favorite books of all time, Usagi Yojimbo.
I have been reading Usagi Yojimbo faithfully since 1994 when I was first turned onto it by a mutual friend. I had heard of the samurai rabbit before then but my indie books at the time came from publishers like Dark Horse, Comico (now defunct), and of course my beloved Judge Dredd. Like many people, I deemed cartoon animals unworthy of my time. I considered myself into more serious comics, and to my uneducated mind Usagi was not serious. Sometimes it’s good to be wrong.
Stan Sakai is just not the creator of the character, he is a one-man band, doing nearly all of the work himself. Stan has done something that many illustrators only dream of, being able to dedicate his career on a single character. The universe he created has been home to great stories about the long-eared ronin since 1984. That’s 32 years of work, and he’s still going strong. The only other creator that comes to mind with that kind of dedication is Erik Larsen, creator of Savage Dragon.
The story of Usagi is loosely based off of a legendary Japanese swordsman, Miyamoto Musashi, but the legend of Usagi is so much more than just a simple retelling of an older tale. Stan mixes in the culture, myths, and lives of Japan itself into his work. Each story is like opening a history book onto a time in history, and the myths of those that lived it.
Over the years I’ve had the great pleasure of meeting many creators, and I’ve always been apprehensive of meeting those whose work I admire. Several times I have come away thinking that I would not be able to enjoy their work as much as I had in the past, because they weren’t very nice. I of course had that apprehension when meeting Stan Sakai for the first time.
I am very happy to say, having met the man many times, Stan is a great person, a true professional, and a gentleman. I like to talk, and chat, and I’m not generally at a loss for words or star struck, but I am by Stan. And after meeting so many creators over the years, only Stan Sakai and Matt Wagner have been able to do that to me.
The complete series has been in print for a long time. Recently Dark Horse released new collected versions of the older runs and the publishing company continues to publish a new issue each month too, so there’s a lot of Usagi Yojimbo awaiting new readers. It’s like finding a great TV series on Netflix; you can binge on it until your heart’s content.
In an industry that changes far too much, and is full of mediocrity, with hiccups of greatness, Usagi Yojimbo has been consistently good for thirty years. If you want a comic that is full of the love and hard work of a master of the craft, you have to read Usagi Yojimbo.