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Thursday, July 2, 2015

Usagi Yojimbo

In my opinion, one of the best Japanese comic books ever made isn't done in Japan, rather in the good old US of A, the middle part of North America.

With some 35,000 comic books capably protected in cocoons of acid-free cardboard and mylar, I've got a wide swath of comic book material, everything from: war (Sgts. Rock and Fury); dinosaurs and space monsters; talking cars and dogs; richy-rich brats; teenagers chasing blondes and brunettes, but maybe should pick good-girl Cheryl Blossom or one of Josie and her Pussycats; DC and Marvel spandex super-heroes and westerns; barbarians both funny and serious (both favorites); the horror of secret, mysterious, eerie and creepy houses; talking ducks and other critters...

In fact, along with a certain caped crusader and power-ring wielding space ranger, my favorites are the anthropomorphic animals... the funny animal characters who talk and act like humans.

Characters like Pogo Possum, Donald, Huey, Dewey and Louie Duck and their Uncle Scrooge McDuck, an aardvark named Cerebus (who also happened to be a con-man/kid, barbarian, Prime Minister and Pope at various times in his very much-missed adventures)... even Mickey Mouse - though I only prefer the adventures and not the comedy - no one knows how to make Mickey funny anymore... he's like Clark Kent only more boring - though I bet I could make him far more interesting and viable a comic book character, if any one is listening.

Now funny isn't what I appreciate when it comes to the comic books...in fact, aside from some William Van Horn, Don Rosa or Carl Barks humor in the Duck comics - the latter two who added it in expertly within the serious adventures they created, what I enjoy more than anything is the serious adventure.

In Japan - especially nowadays when its manga seems overwrought with kids with strange powers or creatures to help them do battle - there is a distinct lack of realism involved.

The duck comic adventures, for example, had them adults and ducklings search for wonderous treasures like a golden Viking helmet that might provide ownership of North America. Or maybe travel on a rocket to strange planet with starving creatures...those old Barks Duck tales made me want to be a writer - and here I am years later...

Rambling... okay... the two best comic books I have ever read are Lone Wolf & Cub, and Usagi Yojimbo.

The former is a realistic human father and baby team of masterless samurai known as ronin - perhaps one of the most beloved manga ever produced in Japan, and the the later is a samurai rabbit - both set in Japan's feudal era, aka the Edo era of the 1600s to 1850 approximately.

Usagi Yojimbo is the brainchild of creator Stan Sakai, whose surname is very obviously Japanese.

Originally a letterer (and still is, I believe) for the comedic misadventures of the barbarian Groo the Wanderer (that funny barbarian-thing I mentioned earlier by Sergio Aragones - artists of those MAD Magazine marginals et al and scripter Mark Evanier), Stan Sakai (坂井 雅彦 Sakai Masahiko) was born May 25, 1953 in Kyoto, Japan) - now residing in Pasadena, California.

Usagi Yojimbo - the title translates directly to "Rabbit Bodyguard", which is exactly what the hero of the book is... he's a rabbit samurai warrior - a bodyguard, featuring the main character: Miyamoto Usagi, who wanders the Japanese landscape on what is described as a musha shugyo (warrior's pilgrimage), and whenever required selling his swords as a bodyguard.

Sakai says he based the Usagi character after famed Japanese ronin Miyamoto Musashi (surname first 宮本 武蔵, c. 1584 – June 13, 1645), known for through stories for many duels he participated in.
Page 19, Issue #2 of Usagi Yojimbo - 1987.

What I particularly enjoy about this comic book series that first began in 1984 and continues to this day, is the realism involved... the attention to detail... explaining segments of Japanese life that existed in the Edo period... the real Japanese history... the known Japanese folklore... the mythical spirits and creatures that most Japanese know of... plus Sakai's attention to drawing things correctly: architecture, clothing, weaponry, tea cups, bowls, kites... even the trees and bushes that are uniquely Japanese...

Every comic book adventure of the plucky rabbit is a step back into Japanese history.

While there are a few laughs spread around the epic series - most of these stories are self-contained, with portions of it extended to give it that epic feel - the series is a serious one... akin to any samurai drama.

Perhaps that's not so surprising, considering Sakai seems to have also been heavily influenced by none other than master film-maker Kurasawa Akira (surname first).

Usagi Yojimbo may be one of the best comic book heroes you've never heard of, but I heartily recommend that the next time you are in a book shop, go to their graphic novel section and purchase one of the collections... you need not start at beginning... heck... I didn't... my first comic of Usagi Yojimbo begins at #2... which might actually be his 10th or 11th adventure.

What's sad, for me, is that I did not discover this wonderful book earlier in my comic book fandom career. I was certainly purchasing a lot of independent comic books back in the 1980s... and you would think that I might have purchased a lot of this title prior to leaving for Japan, but even then I was convinced there was no way I was going to go... I really didn't want to go to Japan... but JET apparently knew better about not necessarily what I wanted, but what I needed.

I only discovered it a couple of years ago, and have been meaning to write about since then. I actually knew of the book, but for whatever reason - it never made the list of 50 books I was purchasing monthly. That was dumb.

I do NOT collect comic books for their monetary value... I collect them to enjoy... to escape... and the 40 or so copies I have now - a small amount by comparison - has recently been a part of that. Ugh... why didn't I read them earlier?

Buy Usagi Yojimbo... it's a wonderful, wonderful read, that few comic books can come close to matching... certainly not for a maintained level of awesomeness... from one creator... and 30+ years.

If you are interested in rabbits, comic books, Japanese history and samurai... damn... how could you go wrong?

Usagi Yojimbo... try it... you'll like it... no, you'll enjoy it immensely. Good bookstores, your library, and good comic book shops should have copies. A good comic book store will even order it in for you for a small deposit - unless they know you, in which case they'll just order in some collected works.

Amazon.com even has a good selection.

Kanpai,
Andrew Joseph

1 comment:

  1. You forgot to mentioned that he was also in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. That's how I knew about him anyway.

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