Monday, November 17, 2008

Kracka-THOOOM!!! - My love affair with a samurai rabbit

I’ve been reading Usagi Yojimbo (UY) pretty much exclusively as of late and I have to say that nothing has touched me, and inspired me, so much since I began my infatuation with Usagi’s stable-mate The GOON. Much like Mr. Powell’s work from 3-4 years ago, Stan Sakai's subtly splendriffical creation strikes the perfect note with me. It’s cartooney and simple on every page, but that’s not meant as a negative here at all. I’ve used the words “cartooney” and “simple” but I consistently find Usagi Yojimbo conveying an advanced, perhaps “dignified” is a better word(?), sensibility. For perfect example of what I mean regarding UY’s dignity, take a look at the sketch that serves as the guest artists’ introduction to the Dark Horse UY trade “Duel at Kitanoji ” (Vol. 17). Legendary MAD Magazine mad-genius Jack Davis duplicates a distinctive UY cover that displayed the sword wielding rabbit donning a traditional Japanese straw hat, poised with his back elbow raised high, his face set in a grim determination and his blade ready to strike its target true. In JD’s rendition of the image UY is replaced by the artist, Samurai Davis-san, and suddenly becomes less real. Both drawings would correctly fit the dictionary definition of “cartooney”, meaning that neither one of them convey a sense of “lifelike” illustration, only somehow in some way Sakai’s drawing of a Samurai rabbit conveys more composure and believability than Davis’. This is no knock on Mr. Davis at all, I just feel it best illustrates Stan Sakai’s ability to be so consistently and abjectly cartooney yet never be silly about it.

I truly believe while operating at its zenith, Sakai’s book expects very little from the reader by way of design, plot development and characterization while simultaneously demanding the same reader possess a modicum of intelligence in order to follow along. The anthropomorphic creatures are unapologetically cartooney, their actions are black & white good & evil, and very little exposition and/or plot development is left un-said, but I have yet to find even one panel to be buffoonish or childish. The storytelling is also pitch-perfect for me as it moves at a brisk clip with events unfolding rapidly. Usagi Yojimbo also often juggles storylines as it follows several distinct characters unwittingly meandering their way toward their ultimate convergences with one another, and once again I find it’s all to the goodage.

The wanderings of Yosagi & Co., in this little slice of feudal Japan, never seems forced, never seems heavy handed, and it never gets stilted and bogged down. This is where the simplicity is a boon to the storytelling. The storytelling is also benefited, however, by the delightful brush work of Stan Sakai and the incredibly rich and detailed backdrop he’s able to wring out of black and white. Technically…its black ink and the absence of black ink on the page that we’re looking at, but in Stan’s masterful hands it becomes a beautiful display of heavy and fine lines, of intricate patterns, of vibrant flora and fauna and of ornately detailed architecture. The rigid straight lines of Japanese architecture and design are given a soft, bouncy treatment on the pages. Straight lines don’t exist in Mr. Sakai’s world and God bless him for it! I adore his style.

I think panel for panel this book offers more action, literal “mano y mano” combat type action, than 99% of the books out there. And though the life of the sword-swingin’ Samurai (or in Usagi’s case: the life of a Ronin) living by the Bushido code is bound to be violent, when the samurai shit hits the Japanese folding fan the book never goes the grisly gross-out route. Sword slices are more implied than anything, with the poor unfortunate slice-ee simply uttering a “GOO!” or a “HYUK!!” and their face contorts in a grimace. Curvy lines arc from Usagi’s back to his sword, which offers a simple “shnuck”, and the unseen blood is spilt. Seriously guys…with as many sword fight scenes are in every one of these books…I think what if Rick Remender, Tony Moore, or even Eric Powell drew this?! There’d be bone fragments, entrails and brain matter flying every which away. But somehow in some odd way, Stan Sakai manages to stuff his book full with beautifully drawn action and swordfight scenes without once EVER veering into the sophomoric or slapstick avenues most would take it.

Long story short, I recommend picking up the TPBs “Grasscutter” (Vol. 12) or “The Mother of Mountains ” (Vol. 21) and check it out.


Coatesvillain said...

The only reason I ever knew about Usagi Yojimbo was because I had his Ninja Turtles toy. It wasn't until earlier this year that I picked up the first volume from the library and the only thing that stopped me was the missing volumes. Being the completist that I am I had to stop reading.

This write up makes me want to go back and pick up where I left off.

The Cork said...

Its funny you mention the TMNT...the tpb I just finished reading, Vol. 8 "Shades of Death", has them appearing in the opening story. Usagi, Splinter, TMNT, and Usagi's rhino bounty hunter pal Gen team up to defend a village. Great action.

But the main reason I would say this tpb is wirth reading is the fantastic two part story "Shi" later in the book. UY gets nasty in the one. Balls nasty. My mon Usagi don' shiv, he slicer dicer. The story is easily one of Sakai's best what with the crooked town magistrate trying to drive everyone out of a poor farming village because he has been told there is gold there, the poor peasant farmers both oppressed by and loyal to him, the magistrate's equally evil and conniving drunkard brother...oh and the gang of 4 assassins (the shi) hired by the brother to take care of the town's rabbit defender as well as the magistrate. The story and pacing are fantastic and it really shines with a several page sequence of UY alternately being chased by and pursuing the 4 assassins on a stormy night in and out of the houses in the village. Sakai has never portrayed UY this bloodthirsty and serious and I'm glad because now when you see him that way it means so much more.

I cannot recommend this tpb enough.