In Review: Usagi Yojimbo #1

Usagi restarts its numbering and maintains its outstanding storytelling and visuals.

The covers: There are twenty-four different covers for this premiere issue published by IDW Publishing. Here we go! The Standard cover is by Stan Sakai. It features the image that’s been used to promote this issue: Usagi in full armor, a katana in each hand, looking up at the reader to see he’s standing in a pool of blood, which is countered by cherry blossoms that are falling from a tree branch just above him. Great detail and gorgeous coloring. The Retailer Incentive A cover is by Daniel Warren Johnson with Mike Spicer. This has a much more larger rabbit standing after a fierce battle. Arrows protrude from his armor, his face is filthy, and drops of the slain fall from him. He’s standing among bodies of the dead against a deep violet sky. Powerful! Walter Simonson and Laura Martin are responsible for the Retailer Incentive B cover. Usagi is surrounded on all fronts by enemies whom he tries to stop with his blades. Making matters worse is the monstrous dragon in the background that’s spied him. Smart coloring with all these figures, as the title character stands out in bright colors. How could one not like anything illustrated by Simonson or colored by Martin? Usagi has not had it easy on the Retailer Incentive C by Kevin Eastman and Tomi Varga. Standing on a rocky outcrop in full armor, both swords at his side, the samurai grits his teeth as he stares into the distance. A huge plume of violet smoke curls behind him, partially obscuring a massive city colored in oranges. He looks as though he’s battled hundreds and is only getting started. A much more relaxed character was created by Maria Caligari for MOD Collectables. Sitting underneath a tree full of cherry blossoms, Usagi looks up to consider a small blue bird. His katana is held upright by the hands in his lap, but he looks at peace. Before him is a blue and violet colored lake with a lone crane. Beautiful. Brave New World Comics has a Variant cover by Chris Johnson. The reader is slightly below Usagi whose brow has furled as he looks derisively at something off to the right. He is in full armor and his right hand is on his blade that hangs off this side. A smattering of cherry blossom petals flit down before the light blue and white background. Striking. Mike Choi does two covers for Collectors Paradise/Knowhere Games; the image is the same, with the change being in formats. Armored Usagi uses the right shoulder to take two arrows as an unseen attacker tries to take him down. He right hand has his blade held high, while this left blade is held forward. He’s twisting his body to to see if he can better view his foe. The second cover has no text on it and the banner that the character has is better seen, as is the cool blue background. Against a swirling red background, Usagi pulls his blade from its sheath. To his right is a solemn looking panda in orange robes and to his left is a tokage. Behind all, standing tall with her blade above her head is Inazuma. The colors make each character shine on this ominous background. J. Scott Campbell and Nei Ruffino do the CnP A Variant, while Campbell does the B Variant which has no colors. You can’t go wrong with anything by Campbell and Ruffino. A moment of reflection can be found on the Variant cover by Excelsior Collectibles who snagged Alex Kotkin and Ivan Nunes to create it. Sitting alone in a dwelling, a kitchen seen through a door, Usagi has his sword drawn and point down on the floor between his feet, his elbows are on his knees to cradle the weapon. His forehead is on the hilt with his eyes closed. He obviously needs this quiet moment and it’s terrific. Mike Vazquez does a Walking Dead homage on the Frankie’s Comics Variant. Slowing coming at the reader in a grassy terrain covered in mist, Usagi holds his blade to his right side. In his left hand are two leather leashes to lead the large raptor dinosaurs forward. These lizards look ferocious and ready to kill. Love the look of everything on this, especially the serious demeanor on the hero. Charles Vess does two Variant covers for HeroesCon. I love Vess’s work and would buy anything by him, even if was just one of his iconic trees. And speaking of trees, a deliriously twisted one with howling faces has a yellow and red Chinese dragon in it looking down at Usagi, mere inches from his face. The hero looks up at the beast with sword drawn, but held back to make sure that if he strikes it’s for a good reason. A green mound of grass supports the tree with some monstrous boulders behind it. The second cover is a black and white version of the same cover. This makes me hungry for more work by Vess! Simonson and Martin return for the IDW SDCC Variant, which comes in a 2 pack with the next issue of Simonson’s Ragnarok. This is the same illustration as the Retailer B cover without any text. I love this as well. Against a white background that has a tree branch in the top left corner peppered with cherry blossoms which are falling to the ground, Usagi, in full armor, stops to consider the reader, his blade resting on his right shoulder. Another similar tree branch is in the foreground emerging from the right. So peaceful with beautiful coloring. Excelent job on this Jak’s Comics’ Variant by Tessa Rose. Buzz and Brittany Peer have created the Variant for Legends Comics and Games. Usagi battles five ninjas in a dusty terrain, with clouds of detritus kicked up around them. Before a full moon is a gigantic bust of Usagi with a hand to his chin in consideration of the action occurring below him. A trail of cherry blossoms caught in the wind emerge from behind the large figure and is moving to the right. There’s no text on this cover which allows the giant hero to command attention. New England Comics claims Ian Nichols for their Variant cover. In a field of tall grass that’s gone tan, Usagi holds his sword forward with both hands, with light reflecting off the blade. His eyes are slightly turned to think of the man behind him. It’s the Tick who sports a massive smile and a loaf of bread that’s almost as long as a katana. I laughed out loud at this image due to its contrast in characters and its content being so unexpected. Sakai and Luth handle the art, with Luth also coloring, on the Other Realms Variant. This has Usagi on a hill of grass confronting five foes, with one on the wrong end of his sword. The hero has a brown fur wrap around his neck. The foe to his left ignores the rabbit to look up at the monstrous figure behind them who has a hand reaching forward as he pulls back a massive sword for a destructive blow. Great image with bright colors that I adore. Slab City Comics has a Sakai and Luth original with the ronin on a grassy hill clutching at his ratty shawl. The wind is chilling him, tugging at his shawl and making his ears pull to the right. One of his blades has been pulled as he looks behind him at something he is wary of. A stunningly blue sky with a magnificent curl of ecru colored clouds comprise the background. One of my absolute favorite covers is by Julie Sakai with Stan Sakai and colors by Emi Fujii with Matt Enterline for the Dogu (Sakai Chibi Variant). I never in a million years though I would enjoy Chibi style artwork, but I’ve fallen in love with the look of these characters from previous UY issues. All the classic Usagi characters are on this cover with many of them dancing before a red shrine that holds the title character who’s holding a white fan. I need this! The Stan Sakai Sketch Variant is a blank sketch cover that sports only the title and publishing info at the top on a dark background. I like the idea behind this type of covers which allows fans to get a one of a kind original sketch, or get signatures of the two creators on the cover. However, on its own it’s not much. The Incredible Con Variant is by Linh Nguyen has Usagi holding his blade with both hands in the reader’s face — or is he? Reflected in the blade is the visage of Jei. Great cover with a beautiful rural setting in the background with excellent colors, especially with that light pink sunrise/sunset. The final cover — WHEW! — is by Sakai and Luth and has the character at the top of the border with his ears overlapping the title. He’s on one knee with a blade point down. A trail of blood, which grows more voluminous the closer it gets to the reader, originates from its tip. Undeniably strong cover. Overall grades: Standard A+, Retailer Incentive A A, Retailer Incentive B A, Retailer Incentive C A, AOD Collectables A+, Brave New World Comics A+, Collectors Paradise/Knowhere Games A, “Virgin” Collectors Paradise/Knowhere Games A+, CnP A A, CnP B B, Excelsior Collectibles A, Frankie’s Comics A+, Heroes Con A+, “Virgin” Heroes Con A+, IDW SDCC Variant A, Jak’s Comics A+, Legends Comics and Games B, New England Comics A, Other Realms A+, Slab City Comics A+, Dogu A+, Stan Sakai Sketch C, Incredible Con A, and Vault Collectibles A+

The story: Sasuke battles for his life in the forest against a seemingly endless horde of demons half his size. He swings his blade, killing several and taking limbs, but their numbers appear to be overwhelming. Once this battle has concluded, he is tired, unable to even keep his eyes open. A voice behind him roars, “Demon queller! You will pay for murdering my children!” A giant sized creature lunges at him. Not only are its size, teeth, and claws a threat, but it can expel fire. A battle commences and after it ends another character appears to give direction to the victor. The story transitions to the city where Usagi is watching a puppet show. During the break he drinks tea with the master of the troupe. Words are exchanged and the yojimbo leaves, bumping into a frenemeny where he learns something sinister. This is confirmed by the book’s last panel, promising trouble in the next issue. I was surprised at how much time is spent with Sasuke, but it is necessary for the direction of this story. I loved the bunraku, which  Stan Sakai gives some notes on after the story. Pages 18 – 19 had a surprisingly harsh reaction from one character, which will play out next month. The top panel on 20 has me wondering if Usagi’s age is getting to be an issue. This issue is setting the stage for dark danger that will be doubtlessly be encountered in Issue #2. Overall grade: A

The art: This issue opens with more action that has been seen in quite a while. Artist Stan Sakai starts with a full page splash for the first page that is close-up of Sasuke gritting his teeth, his eyes are closed, and his blade behind his back to whip down on someone the reader cannot see. There’s no text, save the story title at the top, which makes this a strong moment captured in time, leaving the reader wondering what is going on. A turn of the page and the blade has whipped down and a limb is shown flying as several clawed hands reach for him. Sakai pulls back from the character at the bottom of the page to show the demons around him — and they look great! The beaten look of the character that starts Page 4 is outstanding and what the reader needs to see to understand what he’s endured. The design of the monstrosity that appears at the bottom of the same page is awesome and the fight that follows is epic. Pages 9 – 11 have some new characters involved in some drama that turns horrific, with the reveal on 12 excellent. The change in a character’s demeanor on 16 could be foreshadowing hidden knowledge. The individual that’s formerly introduced on 16 is imposing looking and his final panel on 19 could be a tease of things to come. I had a tiny smile that became a massive grin at the object in the second and third panels on 17 because it looks like someone see in the last miniseries. I liked the physical action that tops 20 and the reaction of seeing a familiar face. The final individual shown on 21 gave me chill because of what the characters are discussing and then the reader sees this character. Page 23 has no text as it is an atmospheric pull in to a building that was visited earlier. There are no people present, so it becomes a sinister series of panels. The final page enters a room to focus on something that is accompanied by a small, yet scary, action and one tiny sound. This is sure to create pupaphobia in some readers if they don’t already have it. Overall grade: A

The colors: I’m so happy to see this series colored and even happier to have it done by Tom Luth. Sasuke’s arm and face dominate the first page. There’s some neat lightening around the character’s face to draw the reader to his teeth, but check out the work Luth does on the foliage behind him: every shade of green that has it looking like a full forest rather than a uniformed, unrealistic sea of green. The white of the demons’ teeth and their pale red tongues within their black maws has the tiny terrors looking like hell unleashed. I love the coloring of the giant on 4, given a faded hue to suggest its age. The character that arrives on 8 is also in lighter colors, but this is done more so for a mystical reason and it works. Notice how Usagi stands out from the get-go on Page 13 with his blue clothing brilliant and eye catching. The background in the last panel on 19 turns a different color from previous pages to intensity a sound. The dark colors on the final two pages increase the suspense for every panel. I’m so happy to have Usagi in color and Luth doing it. Overall grade: A

The letters: Stan Sakai also creates the letters for this book, which includes the story title, dialogue, yells, sounds, the unique speech font of an individual on Page 4, and the unique font of an individual on 8. The title that opens this issue is in a strong font and I like that Part One is stacked at the end, making the title look even larger. The sounds are big in this book, starting with the one that ends Page 3. The dialogue fonts used for the characters on 4 and 8 further separate them from the other characters of the book since their words don’t resemble normal speech. I love that some sounds are done as dialogue, such as GNASH and SIP. Overall grade: A

The final line: Usagi restarts its numbering and maintains its outstanding storytelling and visuals. This is the perfect issue to jump in on if you haven’t read this character’s exploits. Plus, having it be a mystery that’s not fully explained to the reader is a solid way to guarantee returning readers. And having the book in color is a treat for those who’ve been long time followers. This is a book that should be on everyone’s pull list. Overall grade: A

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Patrick Hayes was a contributor to the Comic Buyer's Guide for several years with "It's Bound to Happen!" and he's reviewed comics for TrekWeb and TrekCore. He's taught 8th graders English for 20 years and has taught high school English for five years and counting. He reads everything as often as he can, when not grading papers or looking up Star Trek, Star Wars, or Indiana Jones items online.
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