There are very few independent comics that have survived to their 30 year mark like Usagi Yojimbo. In fact, I’m hard pressed to think of anything outside of Love and Rockets and Judge Dredd, which makes the samurai-laden, anthropomorphic action epic that is Usagi that much more special. That being said, I have the distinct honor of never having read an issue. Not for any particular reason, I just have never picked up an issue despite having many, many opportunities (of course, it seems like Usagi does just fine without my business) so when I heard that issue 163 was the perfect jumping on point, I decided to finally see what I was missing out on. As it turns out, quite a lot! Usagi Yojimbo is a great, low flying comic about a samurai bunny named Miyamoto Usagi that travels Japan and helps out wherever he can. In the latest issue, we find our hero helping out in a town plagued with a Robin Hood type thief who’s framed for something that he didn’t do.
While the Usagi world is full of ghosts, monsters, and dinosaurs (!), #163 goes the easier-to-digest route and starts off with a thief. Nezumi, a gentleman criminal that steals from the rich and gives to the poor, is seen flying over rooftops as a crowd of onlookers cheer him on. Chased by the police and a conflicted Usagi, he finally gets away from his pursuers only to witness an even bigger crime! A local merchant is murdered for not paying protection fees to a gang, who not only are looking to harden their stance on payment, but also hatch a plot to take down their leader. Nezumi quickly makes a getaway but not before leaving behind a distinctive stolen treasure that can easily be traced back to him, quickly framing him for the murder. While Nezumi is forced to plead his innocence to Usagi, there are much deeper waters stirring in the gangs that threatens to encompass the town whole.
They weren’t wrong when they said this is the issue to start with. Granted, a bunch of Usagi Yojimbo tends to be self-contained with a longer story running underneath it, so it’s pretty safe to start with any of the graphic novels, but if you want to simply sample the story without committing, this is a good way to go. Usagi is a serious character with a strong sense of justice and, based on his interaction with Nezumi, follows his gut when needed, like a lawful good character in a Dungeons and Dragons campaign. The official Usagi Yojimbo website describes him as oftentimes stumbling into delicate affairs of national and political importance, which is exactly what happens in the newest issue. The great thing is that it’s not an over convoluted story line about the powers-that-be, but instead, is broached with careful explanation through action instead of the less appealing talking-head standard. It’s not a group of people (er, animals) simply talking about betrayal; the reader actually gets to see it happen and get more invested in the story line. Sure, Usagi and his world have been around for a while and the author could’ve simply crammed in a story, but he took the time setting up the situation which allows for fresh readers to feel part of the series.
Speaking of the author, Stan Sakai also has the double duty of illustrating the epic as well which allows for him to have complete control over his work. Each character is completely unique, ranging from the tough faces of the gangs to the flirty figures of the geishas, with each one contributing to the 17th century Japanese period setting. While there is a definitely a back-catalogue of supporting characters that Sakai could’ve also packed in there, the only well-known faces are Usagi and the police captain on adorably high geta sandals. Sakai keeps it pretty mellow. Of course, if you do want to see more of the police captain and other characters, there are literally decades of material just waiting to be checked out. It’s a fun read, honestly; I enjoyed it. I might finally pick up some of the graphic novels.
If you love stories about politics in the Edo Period or simply enjoy samurai epics (or furries, I’m not judging), Usagi Yojimbo is for you. I suggest starting out really anywhere, but if you got a lineup of things to read and want to wait, #163 is out today, the 1st November!