Ask Chris #240: What’s So Great About Usagi Yojimbo? Everything.
Q: What's the big deal with Usagi Yojimbo, anyway? - @cwidtz
A: If you're not already familiar with Usagi Yojimbo, I can see why it might be a hard sell. On paper, it just sounds weird. I mean, it's a long-running samurai story where all the characters are cute furry animals, and that's just the start of things. It's exhaustively researched and set in feudal Japan, frequently using actual historical events as the centerpieces of its stories, but also ghosts and magic are completely real, it's cartoonish and frequently very funny with great buddy comedy bits and a ton of slapstick humor, but it's also very serious and violent, with the highest on-panel body count of any comic I read, and everyone who really loves it won't shut up about how great the word balloons are when people die. Even if you're willing to believe that it's very good, there's a lot there that sounds like it'd be hard to get into.
But since you asked, here's the big deal with Usagi Yojimbo: Stan Sakai's been doing this comic for over thirty years, and he hasn't done a bad issue yet.
In a weird way, I think that actually works against it, at least as far as getting the word out goes. The way people talk about comics --- and all media, really --- tends to be based around peaks and valleys. The stuff that gets press is either really bad or really good, and both of those are relative states, especially in comics where there are multiple teams working with the same character and setting. To go back to my favorite example, it's a whole lot easier to say that this Batman story is better than that Batman story and talk about which one works better, because there are always differences that make each one stand out. Even a long run by a single creative team tends to have its ups and downs.
With Usagi, there's a consistency that I don't think you'll find in anyone else's work, and that makes it hard to talk about. The first time you read an issue, the level of craftsmanship that's on display and how instantly engaging the characters are, and how accessible it is despite building on decades of intricately plotted continuity is mind-blowing and it's all you want to talk about. Around that fourth issue, though, when it's still on that level, you've kind of run out of things to say. I used to joke that I could write one glowing, 10 out of 10, five-star review praising Usagi and just copy and paste it every time a new issue came out. Saying that something hit a plateau has a negative connotation, but it's really the only way to describe it --- it's just that the plateau Usagi's on is up above everyone else's peaks.
I think that's why so many people always go to Grasscutter.
Whenever anyone talks about the series, Grasscutter is the one that gets brought up. It's the Usagi story, the Eisner winner, the if-you-only-read-one comic that's always recommended as a starting point for new readers --- which is pretty weird when you consider that it's volume twelve --- and it's easy to see why.
It's everything that makes Usagi Yojimbo great all happening at once: The perfect blend of history and mythology, the balance between action and comedy, political intrigue and the supernatural, and virtually every major character introduced in the series up to that point has a huge part to play. Plus, I'm not gonna lie, the way that it's structured is perfect for appealing to the pretentious side of the Comics Are Serious Literature crowd. I mean, this thing has four prologues, going into everything from the Shinto creation story to the establishment of the Shogunate in the 12th century, just to get things in place before the actual story begins. It's an epic in the purest sense of the word, spanning centuries of real history and building on ten years of Sakai's own world-building. And it's great.
To start with, we have our characters. In the lead, of course, is Miyamoto Usagi, the ronin (masterless samurai) who became a wanderer after his lord died at the Battle of Adachigahara Plain. He's a character defined by honor and loyalty almost to a fault, and he's marked by kindness to others as much as his skill with a sword. Seriously, that ridiculously high body count I mentioned above? Most of it comes from the fact that Usagi can't walk from one village to another without being set upon by five or six bandits who are very, very bad at picking their targets.
Joining him are two frequent costars: Gen, a hard-drinking rhinocerous bounty hunter inspired by Toshiro Mifune's character from Yojimbo, and Tomoe, a friend and occasional love interest of Usagi based loosely on Tomoe Gozen, a real-life female samurai from the 12th century. She serves as the vassal for Lord Noriyuki, a young but wise panda who became lord of a province as a child when his father died. In addition to them, there's Sanshobo, a former samurai who became a priest, and Ikeda, a general and rival to Noriyuki's father who became a farmer after a failed coup and was presumed dead.
And then there's Jei.
Jei, the Blade of the Gods, is without question one of the best villains in comics. He's essentially a slasher movie villain dropped into a samurai saga --- if you're being formal, you'd address him as Jei-san, a pun that took me actual years to get --- who wanders around killing everyone that he deems to be evil, tearing out their souls with his consecrated black blade. And, as you might have guessed, everyone is evil, with the exception of Keiko, an innocent young girl who travels with him.
Those are the major players, but the story also involves a clan of cat ninja, a deadly swordswoman named Inazuma, a conspiracy of eight lords who want to overthrow the shogun and reinstate the emperor, their leader Kotetsu, the witch that he hired to find the Grasscutter sword, her familiar, and a few other characters besides.
If that sounds like a lot, well, it's like I said: Grasscutter is a story that ties together a decade's worth of characters and plots into a single story that revolves around one of the greatest treasures in Japanese history, full of unrelated threads that intersect, and massive battles for the fate of a country.
And the battles are massive --- one of Sakai's greatest tricks as a storyteller is how deceptive his style is, how it's so intricate but looks so simple and effortless as you're reading. The entire series is built around the visual gag of an anthropomorphic rabbit with his ears tied up to look like a samurai's topknot, and the book's full of little skulls that pop up whenever someone dies, so that even the most dead serious fight scenes have this whimsical, fantastic quality to them. You get used to how cartoonish it is, and then suddenly you're reading about a war between two full-on armies, full of historically accurate detail and dozens of characters fighting each other.
That Grasscutter ties all of that stuff together at all is a pretty monumental achievement, and that it does it as perfectly as it does makes it a great comic, but what really sticks out about it is that it does it in a way that's welcoming and accessible for new readers.
I've written before about creators who play the long game with how they build stories, laying groundwork and setting up long-term payoffs. It's something that a lot of my favorite runs have in common, like Simonson's Thor, Ostrander, Yale and McDonnell's Suicide Squad, Giffen, DeMatteis and Maguire's Justice League, even more recent stuff like Snyder and Capullo's Batman or Waid and Samnee's Daredevil. They're arranged so intricately and build on each story, adding complexity and rewarding readers by laying out threads that tie up months or years down the line.
Grasscutter does that on a pretty massive scale, but the trick is that it does it so well that it seems simple and easy to get into even if this is the first time you've encountered these characters. Characters' traits come through so vividly, and everyone's role in the story is so well defined that it's engaging on every level. It fits together like clockwork.
Here's the big trick, though: Grasscutter is not unique. It might be a high point, sure, but it's not the only one, and it's not that much higher than the rest of the run. The entire series is that good.
Just look at Daisho, the story that comes a year or two before Grasscutter. For my money, it's every bit as good, although it's certainly not as complex. It's actually a very simple premise, a story about the cruel leader of a gang of bandits who steals Usagi's swords and, and how Usagi goes about getting them back in a brutal and deadly display of skill. At its heart, it's a story about how important a samurai's weapons are to his honor, and it plays out almost exactly as you'd expect. It's something that almost feels standard-issue, a by-the-numbers revenge story where the irredeemably evil bandits get what's coming to them.
A lot of Usagi stories have that quality, especially the ones that come between longer arcs. So many of them are based on folktales or fables, short ghost stories or murder mysteries that our hero wanders into on his journey. Sakai has so much skill as a storyteller, though, that they never feel disposable, like he's padding things out until the next "important" story rolls around. The simplicity doesn't make them feel standard, it makes them feel accessible --- they're always engaging, and they always feel like they're building on a foundation of solid character work and a setting that feels alive in a way few other comics ever manage.
There's an issue in Seasons, for instance --- the volume of shorter stories that comes directly before Grasscutter --- built around Usagi meeting and dueling a samurai who has a grudge to settle against the man (or lion, in this case) who taught Usagi his unique sword style. In the span of a single issue, they go from allies to rivals, and at the end of it, he beats Usagi in a duel and tells him to pass the challenge onto his old master. Again, it's a standard-issue samurai premise; there's nothing more basic and mandatory than the challenge-to-the-master-of-a-fighting-style plot, right? But not only is it done with an incredibly engaging amount of skill, it's something that hangs in the background of the story for years, through Grasscutter, until it finally comes back forty issues later in Duel at Kitanoji.
It's a perfect illustration of the balance that Sakai strikes in this comic between accessibility and long-term planning. It's entirely possible to read Duel at Kitanoji, or Grasscutter, or Daisho, or any of the issues in Seasons, without starting at the beginning and working your way straight through them --- the only one that really requires prior knowledge is Grasscutter II, and that one warns you what's up right in the title.
Sakai even has a habit of explaining in footnotes that ronin means "masterless samurai" in almost every story, and in addition to being one of the book's most likable quirks, it's also a pretty strong indication of how he expects readers to be able to jump in at any time.
But then, why would you? There's no bad story to skip, no tedious setup to get through when you can jump right to the good stuff. It's all the good stuff, and the only real reason not to just start at the beginning and work your way through it has nothing to do with the comic itself. Instead, it's just a function of the publication history --- the first 8 volumes are published by Fantagraphics and the rest are from Dark Horse, which means that it's rarely all in print at the same time. Still, it's entirely possible to just start at vol. 9, Daisho, and keep going from there.
I don't think I'm exaggerating at all when I say that Stan Sakai is arguably the greatest living comic book creator in the world, and Usagi Yojimbo is a thirty-year masterpiece that has a consistency and craftsmanship that other comics only touch when they're at their peak. It's so good in every way that the people who love it rarely even bother to explain why anymore --- if we're not talking about it all the time, it's only because its greatness has been such a permanent part of comics that we're taking it as a given.
And really, that's a pretty big deal.