Usagi Yojimbo #76, June 2004, Dark Horse Comics
by Stan Sakai
Living the devout lifestyle of a geek is not without its spiritual experiences.
Devout readers of my blogs know by now that my recent acquisition of a DirecTV DVR has enabled me to become a faithful fan of Star Trek: Voyager, which airs at least twice daily on the Spike network. I’m several episodes into season four now, and I just hope that they continue to air the series chronologically and comprehensively until its end. The episode I watched yesterday, “The Omega Directive,” ended with former Borg Seven of Nine having her first spiritual epiphany, which I registered as an interesting (and potentially not entirely coincidental) story to see on the Wednesday before Easter.
Enter Usagi Yojimbo #76, my first comic book experience with Stan Sakai’s famous long-eared samurai. Like Panda Khan, my only significant experience with Usagi Yojimbo is his action figure incarnation from the ‘90’s Playmates Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles line. I actually have both the original figure and his space gear-wearing version, which even as a kid struck me as peculiar. Still, I didn’t learn until much later that Usagi (whose first name is actually Miyamoto) starred in his own comic book as a land-dwelling samurai -- nowhere near space.* Indeed, the first wave of TMNT mania truly made some significant strides in introducing independent comic characters to the mainstream, particularly of the anthropomorphic variety.
(Side note: Special thanks to the Rabbit Valley Comic Shop ad on the back of this issue for using that word, “anthropomorphic.” I’ve reviewed dozens of comics starring personified animals now, and that word has been on the top of my brain for just as long!)
So, I thought, what better time to review an issue of Usagi Yojimbo than the week of Easter, when I can place a special emphasis on anthropomorphic comics specially starring rabbits? I certainly didn’t expect the experience to achieve spiritual significance, especially since this issue was a random buy from a twenty-five cent back issue bin. The cover was simple and iconic enough for me to assume that the story inside was self-inclusive enough for a novice like me to understand. With twenty years of continuity behind Usagi, I think such a concern is legitimate. Fortunately, judging this book by its cover paid off, in more ways than one.
In this issue, Yojimbo encounters a dying doctor whose last wish is for the samurai to deliver a mysterious package to his daughter Ayane. Ayane explains that her father was a doctor assigned to an eclectic port city, where he discovered “a cure . . . for all the people.” Unfortunately, the authorities have dubbed this package illegal contraband and are right on their tail (pardon the pun), until Ayane creates a fatal diversion so Yojimbo can get the package to the next link in her subversive group’s underground chain. He is successful, and when he hands off the package to the kindly fish merchant, he comments, “That -- whatever it is -- has caused enough pain.” The merchant replies, “It is not pain that this brings, Samurai . . . but, rather, salvation.” He unwraps the package, and there it is -- a crucifix. I really didn’t see that one coming.
So you can understand my sense of wonder regarding this issue, as my intent was to read it in pseudo celebration of Easter. Now, if only Sakai could explain the whole painted eggs part . . .
Seriously, I really enjoyed reading this issue. Although Yojimbo doesn’t actually battle anyone, the suspense he and Ayane experience during their flight from the authorities infuses this issue with an exciting sense of adventure and intrigue. Sakai’s use of dialogue is simple and insightful; character development isn’t an aside to the story but a natural result of its context, though after twenty years with Miyamoto, I’m sure he’s pretty familiar with the ol’ hare by now. Interestingly, his line work isn’t perfect and in some cases betrays hints of hurriedness or shortsightedness, yet in its imperfections this issue’s art tells its tale rather comprehensively. I frequently had to remember that these pages are even void of any gray tones, as Sakai uses crosshatching and stippling so effectively, the backgrounds are rich with depth and texture. He has mastered his craft, yet with a story like this, also reveals his potential to surprise and continually entertain.
But what does it all mean? A former Borg, a rabbit samurai . . . are they conspiring to tell me something? Or is this convergence of spiritual themes simply a cosmic coincidence? For now, I’ll embrace this mystery and see if it unfolds in my other pop culture indulgences this week. Of course, I’ll be sure to fill this space with all of the details.
Is it possible? Can man surely not live on comics alone?
* I looked it up. Stan Sakai actually created “Space Usagi,” as well. Here I thought Bucky O’Hare was the only star trekking rabbit out there . . .