‘Usagi Yojimbo’: A Warrior’s Journey 30 Years in the Making

Bob Aquavia
Comics
Comics

30 years, over 200 issues, 30 trade paperback collections plus 3 stand-alone graphic novels, and frequent crossovers with one of the most beloved franchises of all time. That is the legacy of Usagi Yojimbo. The series follows Miyamoto Usagi, a masterless samurai (ronin) who wanders the land on a warrior’s pilgrimage (musha shugyō). The time period takes place near the beginning of Japan’s Edo period, and the stories contain both real, historical elements and events mixed with fantastic folklore and mythology. It’s with all of these components that creator Stan Sakai built his initial story from the ground up, and 30 years later it’s that same world that continues to grow and flourish. And it all starts with an anthropomorphized rabbit samurai seeking shelter for the night.

Opening Panel of Usagi Yojimbo #1
The very first panel from Usagi Yojimbo #1 (Vol. 1)

“I remember that day well…”

The series initially started off as a handful of one-off books in 1984 with the comic publisher Fantagraphics. After 38 issues, it moved to Mirage Comics for another 16 issues and then moved to publisher Dark Horse where it’s been under ever since. With 30 years of stories, it can seem intimidating trying to find a point to jump on and start reading. With most other ongoing comic series, you can base the suggestion around your favorite creative teams, or which storyline is your favorite, or even which relaunch/reboot is in effect. But in this case, I would recommend the simplest solution: start from the beginning. Fantagraphics have re-released their issues in a large two-volume set, and Dark Horse is re-releasing their older collections in a larger format also; finally, for digital fans, the majority of the series is up on the Comixology app. Trust me, seeing the story beats that were planted even in the early-going makes the current storylines that much richer.

Traditional Samurai Stance
Usagi adopting a traditional fencing stance

Usagi’s continued popularity can easily be credited to both the stories and characters. The entire series is known for both unique individual stories such as “The Green Persimmon”, where an innocuous sculpture holds the key to unraveling a conspiracy against the Shogunate; as well as several long-form storylines, one of the most notable being “Grasscutter”, a massive story arc that involves almost every character in the series to date in a race to claim a mythical sword. You’ll see the characters get older, retain scars or injuries from combat, witness the seasons change, fall in love and have children, etc. They grow and evolve, and move in and out of the stories as people do in real life.

Tying in with the character building is the painstaking attention to detail to its world. Almost every story has some form of a historical or mythological element that’s been exhaustively researched. These include details such as period-appropriate dress and behavior, how peasants would farm and raise crops, how lords would travel, the treatment of samurai from both upper and lower classes; they also include how demons, ghosts, and monsters such as yokai and kappa would look and behave according to Japanese folklore, and you even have the incorporation of famous fictional Japanese characters based on Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi, and Toshiro Mifune’s samurai from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and Sanjuro. Sometimes if you look closely, you’ll also see more “modern” influences in the characters as well.

Usagi meets the lizard, Zylla
Usagi meets a very familiar fire-breathing lizard called "Zylla"

What also makes the series even more impressive is the sheer consistency of it. Stan Sakai has been the artist and writer since the very beginning, with full creative control of everything involved. You can see the evolution of his craft, from backgrounds to character design to page and panel format. This is a creator-owned work in the truest sense of the word. That ownership has also allowed him to branch his character out however he chooses. Usagi has shown up in comics for other companies (Oni Press, Wizard Press, etc.) for many reasons: some for fun, other times for charity or to support a cause. Yet some of the biggest exposure given to Usagi was when he would crossover with characters from a comic created by Stan’s friends, and what was arguably the biggest pop culture phenomena of the time: Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Stan and Turtles creator Peter Laird have been friends for years, with both of their comics starting around the same time. With that friendship came frequent collaboration, with both sets of characters periodically crossing over into each others’ comics, as well as Usagi and other characters from his universe showing up in two different iterations of the TMNT cartoons (both the 1987 and 2003 series).

Usagi Yojimbo TMNT Crossover
Usagi Yojimbo/TMNT crossover from the story "Shades of Green"

That was actually my first exposure to Usagi, as I imagine it was for lots of other fans. When I was a kid, I was HUGE into TMNT. One summer, I was on vacation with my parents and I saw a comic shop. Needless to say, I made it a point to hightail it in there ASAP by any means necessary. By the front counter, I saw a trade paperback called Shell Shock. It was a collection of one-off stories of the Turtles from all different writers and artists, and one of the first stories in the book involved Leonardo being transported through time to feudal-era Japan, where he teamed up with an (at the time) unknown rabbit samurai (“The Treaty”). Per the editor’s notes, this wasn’t the first occurrence of time-travel between the two; and the banter between them proved that they were close friends and allies. Right from the jump it was one of my favorite stories in the collection, and still one of my favorite stories to date. Years later I would come across the Fantagraphics collection and my mind was blown that he had his own ongoing series the whole time. I bought the first 12 books right then and there and consequently devoured them in a full-day binge. From then on, I’ve been picking them up very year for the past 17 years. It’s one of the very few ongoing series that I’ve kept up with, the first one that I always refer people to when I talk about comics, and it’s a series that I’ll continue with until the very end of Usagi’s journey.

Usagi Cast of Characters
Some of the characters that fill the world of Usagi Yojimbo
Bob Aquavia
I occasionally put words to page as a Fan Contributor by way of sunny Las Vegas. A fan of books (comic and otherwise), movies, tv, pro wrestling and video games. A periodic traveler and wanderer; also, more coffee than man.
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