Contrary to what's indicated by the number on the cover, "Usagi Yojimbo: Death of a Tea Master" is not the 150th issue. As author (and illustrator and letter) Stan Sakai explains in the letter section, counting various mini-series, specials and other publishers, the samurai exploits of Myamoto Usagi have been going on for well over 200 issues. It's easy to take such a long running book consistently written series for granted, but #150 makes a strong case for this being a mistake. While not a surprise for anyone who has read an issue before, the self-contained "Death of a Tea Master" story exemplifies all of the aspects that have made Usagi a masterpiece for over thirty years. For those who are unfamiliar, "Usagi Yojimbo" follows the exploits of the titular 16th century samurai, who upon the death of his master, became a wandering ronin searching to earn peace and restitution through honorable actions. This journey gives Stan Sakai an excuse to explore a period accurate version of Japan that happens to be populated by talking animals and, in a signature quirky detail, miniature dinosaurs which make up most of the wildlife. While some stories deal with repeated characters and references to past events, most are unconnected, often operating as sparse, subtle meditations on the minutia of ancient Japanese culture.
"Death of a Tea Master" brings Sakai's familiar style to a story about a tense interaction between Japan and the western world. As the issue opens, Rodriguez, a Spanish ambassador, bests a Japanese warrior in a sword fight. The local feudal lord Odo generously, but rashly promises Rodriguez a reward of his choosing, and the man requests to witness the honorable suicide of a local traveling teacher, the afore-mentioned "Tea Master" who happens to be giving a lesson to Usagi. Rodriguez's actions are particularly heinous as he has no motivation beyond witnessing a violent curiosity from another culture no matter what it costs. Lord Odo on the other hand is forced, by the rules of honor Rodriguez continually abuses, to give into his demands.
Thrust into the middle of this conflict is Myamoto Usagi who, despite not being directly involved, reacts violently to the threat to an innocent and peaceful teacher. However, as is typical of the title, Usagi does not actually receive very much focus in the book or any character development. Sakai writes in the style of classic serials like Tintin or Conan the Barbarian where the main character serves a vehicle for the story and not often an emotional center. This is not in fact a problem though it gives the book an air of detachment. Usagi is after all bound by the rules of a ronin and has little say in his own actions even if these rules often put him in the role of a hero. And while this emotional detachment could be a deficit in a lesser book, in this case it only serves to add to the impression of a historical fiction.
Outside of this historical flavor, the most notable aspect of the comic is Sakai's extremely stylized pen and ink art. With no color or even shades of grey, Sakai's brushwork is strikingly clean and emotive recalling classic Japanese brush drawings and somehow also Disney cartoons. As it happens, this contrast between archaic simplicity and pulpy cartoon action is the quality that makes the whole comic work. While the story in "Death of a Tea Master" is entirely, unapologetically predictable, one can't help but admire dialogue that reads almost like haiku and a story that unflinchingly shows the cruelties and wonders of another time period.
In a crowded field of fast-paced, colorful genre comics, "Usagi Yojimbo" becomes truly unique by being reserved and minimalistic. By this same token "Usagi " is likely not a title for everyone. Beyond the themes and setting, there is very little real story to grasp onto and even less characterization. That said, for anyone willing to try something different or simply interested in increasing their comics literacy, "Death of a Tea Master” is a great place to start. Plus, there's a full page of a talking rabbit samurai discussing the art of drinking tea, and I really can't oversell that.
Usagi Yojimbo #150 Creator: Stan Sakai Publisher: Dark Horse Comics Price: $3.50 Release Date: 11/18/15 Format: Ongoing; Print/Digital