Usagi Yojimbo. Artist: Stan Sakai.

USAGI YOJIMBO

Original Medium: Comic Books
Published by: Thoughts and Images
First Appeared: 1985
Creator: Stan Sakai
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Even after a couple of decades in comics, cartoonist Stan Sakai has relatively few credits in the field. But that's how it is with people who stick with what they do — their sparse resumes belie their actual accomplishments. Sakai was the letterer on the first appearance of Groo the Wanderer (1982), and has continued …

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… in that capacity through no less than five publishers; and in 1985 he created Usagi Yojimbo. It's the latter that assured his fame.

Usagi Yojimbo (Japanese for "rabbit bodyguard") began as a whimsical design — a rabbit with his ears tied up in a samurai-like topknot. In 1985, Sakai starred his rabbit, whose actual name is Miyamoto Usagi, in a short story in the second issue of a black and white anthology comic titled Albedo, published by a minor outfit that has since gone out of business. Usagi made two more Albedo appearances before Sakai's clear, clean storytelling ability brought him to the attention of a larger publisher.

In 1986, Fantagraphics Books, publisher of The Comics Journal, was developing a line of regular comic books. One of their prominent titles was Critters, a black and white anthology of funny animal stories. Usagi appeared in the first issue, along with Joshua Quagmire's Cutey Bunny, and quickly became a mainstay of the series. Within a year, Usagi had his own regularly-published comic. It was to last 38 issues at Fantagraphics.

It was in 1989 (the same year Usagi was first made into a computer game) that the first of three Usagi Yojimbo Color Specials appeared, and readers got a chance to see how good Sakai's art looks in color. (These specials also provided a color showcase for a less prominent Sakai character, Nilson Groundthumper.) When, in 1993, Sakai moved from Fantagraphics to Mirage Publishing, the regular series switched to color.

Mirage was the publisher of the mega-hit, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, so it wasn't surprising that Usagi met the Turtles immediately upon switching imprints. But it wasn't the first time — he'd guest-starred in two episodes of the Turtles' animated TV series in 1990, and was part of their line of action figures. (That was also the year of Usagi's other minor foray into animation, when Buster Bunny did a samurai schtick, tying up his ears Usagi-style, on Tiny Toon Adventures.) Mirage got out of the comics publishing business in 1995. Usagi's most recent publisher is Dark Horse Comics (Nexus, The American).

While at Mirage, Usagi had a character spun off from him — Space Usagi, also designed with ears as a topknot, is a distant descendant of Miyamoto Usagi, in a setting that seems like a combination of medieval Japan and Star Wars.

Aside from the fact that all the characters are animals, Usagi Yojimbo is very true to history. Sakai based Usagi's life on that of Miyamoto Musashi, a samurai who lived at the turn of the 17th century. It was a time of fierce rivalries between warlords, when a man's worth depended largely on the esteem in which his master held him. Usagi, however, is a ronin — a samurai whose master is dead. His wanderings around feudal Japan give the series a strong sense of place, while allowing him to interact with a variety of characters and settings.

Stan Sakai may not be able to list a wide variety of features he has worked on — but what he lacks in breadth, he makes up in depth. After dozens of stories, over a thousand carefully-wrought pages, Miyamoto Usagi is one of the most finely tuned characters in modern comics — and as time goes on, he only becomes more so.

— DDM

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Text ©2000-10 Donald D. Markstein. Art © Stan Sakai.