Long ago…well perhaps not that long ago, but when I was growing up I remember watching the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon and on occasion this strange rabbit samurai would show up. Since I wasn’t really into comics then I had no idea who he was, but I was intrigued because he seemed so similar to the turtles…well Leonardo at least (who was my favorite.) But it wasn’t until the last couple of years when I came across a volume of Usagi Yojimbo in a used bookstore that I found out who he was. And I was blown away by the complexity of the character and the stories that Stan had built. I’ve slowly been making my way through reading the volumes and this latest one is just a great adventure to the story (and a great place for new readers to start.)
Many of the volumes in the Usagi Yojimbo series contain long format story arcs that follow Usagi and his friends (and enemies) on various adventures. This particular volume though is an intermission in between a just finished arc and a new one, so this volume is a collection of short stories. The short stories in this collection include: Usagi and Kami of the Pond; Cut the Plum; Traitors of the Earth; What the Little Thief Heard; The Hidden Fortress; A Place to Stay; and The Death of Lord Hikiji. Bonuses include Story Notes; Groo vs. Usagi: Who Would Win?. Since it is a collection of short stories new readers don’t have to worry about picking up what’s happened previously in the story line and they get a good introduction to the character of Usagi, as well as introducing some of the other characters that show up from time to time. And for longtime fans of Usagi it adds some interesting new information to the universe.
What I like most about the Usagi universe is that Stan has created such a complex and interesting character. Usagi is someone that at face value could be looked at as the archetypal hero, but once you start reading the stories and getting to know the characters you realize that he has difficulties with some of the decisions that he makes, but still seeks to serve a greater purpose in the world. He’s the type of character that is easy to relate too…well perhaps not the samurai part, but thinking about the path to take in life. And that’s what I really like about my favorite story in this collection, Usagi and Kami of the Pond. Usagi is relatively young, still learning the ways of the warrior from his sensei who tells him a story to help him understand some of the concepts he must learn to be a great warrior and of course there’s a moral to the story. But it’s not quite the one that you would expect it to be and I like the fact that the lesson is not one that we would commonly think of, at least in western culture, and it makes you think.
At first glance Stan’s artwork appears to be simple line drawings, but as you go further in you begin to see the complexity surrounding the simplicity. He’s able to effectively lay out the panels and the characters to create complex scenes without anything being overwhelming, such as in the story the Traitors of the Earth, which contains some of my favorite artwork in the collection. For me it seem like the characters weave and move on the page and it’s almost like watching a short cartoon. I love the layout and composition of the scenes, especially the battle scenes early on when Usagi joins in on the action, such as the scene to the left. it’s easy to make out each character and see what’s going on. And the detail he gives each face is remarkable, whiskers and fur give each character such a distinct look.
There are some excellent reasons why Usagi is continually nominated for Eisner awards, such as this year’s best continuing series. Its has great storylines and fantastic characters that grow and change as the years progress. It just gets better each year. If you haven’t checked the series out before go ahead and give this volume a read. You won’t regret it.