Bizarro Back Issues: Usagi Yojimbo Destroys All Monsters (2003)
Ever since I wrote about how great Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo is a few weeks ago, it's been the only comic I want to read. As a result, I've been re-reading the entire run, and it occurs to me that even though I wrote at length about how great it is, I might've actually undersold it a little bit. I mean, I talked about the craftsmanship, the accessibility, the commitment to historical accuracy and the effortless way that it's blended with myth and legend, the instantly engaging characters and all that stuff, but when you get right down to it, that's only part of what makes that comic so great.
I mean, I didn't even mention the time that Usagi fought Mothra and summoned the King of All Monsters. That seems like something worth mentioning, right?
If you're looking to read the story for yourself, and you should be, you can find it in the pages of Usagi Yojimbo vol. 18: Travels With Jotaro, which tells the story of a month Usagi spent wandering around with his "nephew," Jotaro, who is actually and secretly his son, which is a whole thing. And, as is usually the case for Usagi, it's a pretty eventful month, complete with ninjas, thieves, and a visit from the Lone Goat and Kid, Sakai's parody of Kazuo Koike and Goseki Kojima's Lone Wolf and Cub.
That's something I didn't really mention when I was writing about the series before: How frequently Sakai plays with parody. It's actually one of the more longstanding elements of the comic --- one of the earliest stories is about Usagi facing off against Zato-Ino, a take on the blind swordsman Zatoichi as a pig who uses his finely tuned snout to sniff out his opponents. It's clearly meant to be funny on one level, but Sakai never quite plays it for laughs or treats it as something that's silly --- or at least, no sillier than the very idea of a bunny rabbit wandering round feudal Japan as a ronin (masterless samurai). When that's the premise of your thirty-year epic, I imagine it gives you a little more wiggle room.
Which brings us to Sasuke and the magic ink set.
Sasuke the Demon Queller previously crossed paths with Usagi in a story where they saved a village from a demonic spider-woman, and here, he rescues them from being eaten by a giant centipede - which, even in Usagi's world, is pretty unusual to find just chilling out on the side of the road. As it turns out, it's not a natural phenomenon, it's the product of someone wielding an artifact of great evil: A sumi set. Which, you know, is basically just ink and a brush.
But this particular sumi set, my friends, is not merely for the fine art of calligraphy. The ink is made from the blood of children, and anything that its owner draws comes to life, doing its master's evil bidding. And when Sasuke and Usagi destroy the centipede, the set's owner, Katsushige, decides to up his giant evil bug game by sending a giant moth after them to kidnap Jotaro:
At this point, if you're reading the story for the first time, you might have a moment where you think, "Oh, that's kind of like Mothra." The way it plays out in the story, it seems like it might just be a coincidence, especially since Sasuke identifies the giant centipede as a creature drawn from a 10th century legend.
When the giant kappa shows up, though...
Yeah, okay, that is definitely Gamera.
And this is where the story gets even more awesome than the usual Usagi tale. Faced with an enemy who can bring any creature that he imagines to life, and who wants to turn Usagi's son into evil magic ink --- and feeling slightly outmatched by the difficulty of trying to battle a twenty-foot turtle with a sword, a bow and a handful of arrows --- Sasuke decides that it's time to fight kaiju with kaiju. He focuses his spiritual power and summons up a massive dragon. A three-headed golden dragon with giant wings.
I'll cop to not really being a huge fan of giant monster movies, but if there was one thing that could get me more stoked about King Ghidorah than I have ever been before, it's seeing Stan Sakai draw someone summoning him from thin air to go do battle against the forces of evil. Just look at that lettering!
While Usagi and Sasuke are finding out the hard way that this version of Gamera is definitely not the friend to all children, Jotaro is trying to escape from Katsushige's lair by cutting his way out of a cage with a throwing star. To be honest, it's an extremely compelling argument for letting children have access to ninja weapons that I wish I would've been able to present to my mom when I was trying to buy bootleg shuriken at my local flea market when I was ten, but alas.
The giant kappa manages to take out the giant dragon, but the distraction gives Sasuke the chance he needs to burn it to a giant turtley crisp. The original drawing of the kappa burns up too, something that happens every time one of Katsushige's monsters is defeated, alerting him that he needs something new. This time around, he settles on a giant stone samurai, sending it out to keep Usagi busy while he boils the kids.
Throughout the story, we've seen Katsushige's drawings of the monsters that he keeps sending out, and unsurprisingly, he draws a lot like Stan Sakai. Sure, he's got a heavier line from using a brush, but his monsters have the same level of detail and substance to them that we're used to from the rest of the comic --- they're basically the same on the page as they are in "real life." Which is what makes it so great when Usagi gets his hands on the sumi set and has to come up with something to fight the stone giant:
Apparently Usagi is a follower both of the warrior's code of bushido and the Homestar Runner School of Dragon Design.
Fortunately for Usagi, Jotaro and Sasuke, the magic of the sumi set seems to be based more on intent than actual artistic skill. The magic works, Usagi's kaiju comes to life, and soon enough, the stone giant is being thoroughly burninated by the King of All Monsters.
The monster's roar being written as "ZYLLA" is a nice touch, too.
And that pretty much settles that. The monsters battle it out while Usagi and Sasuke rescue the kids --- except for Jotaro, who goes off to have his own adventure in the next arc --- and Katsushige himself is killed by an amateur bandit while trying to escape with the sumi set. As is so often the case, evil is only temporarily defeated. It's still out there, waiting to bring anything to life, and while I can't remember if it ever shows up again, I'm really hoping it does.
And this time, I hope whoever has it draws an entire team of Power Rangers. Seriously, let's take this thing as far as we can.