Review: Usagi Yojimbo #152

It's hard to pinpoint exactly what a given Usagi Yojimbo story is about. Despite being the ostensible main character, Usagi himself is less the focus than the vehicle for a story (in some stories, he does not actually stick around to see the stories resolution). Further, the other characters are often little more than simple sketches, temporarily brought into focus to tell a given story, and then quickly forgotten forever as the issue ends. The stories themselves are typically sparse, occasionally having a villain or a clear moral, but more often than not being slight, poetic stories that land their punches softly.  I would suggest that Usagi issues are about creating an atmosphere and a simple concept with as much subtlety as possible (once again, I am reminded of Japanese Haiku). This focus on atmosphere and detail over story is never more clear than in the excellent issue 152: The Flood. The story begins with Usagi already in the process of helping a small village build banks of mud around their fields, as a rain-engorged river threatens to destroy their crops. Meanwhile, a group of starving beggars in equally dire straits steals what food remains in the village, meaning if the flood is stopped, the villagers will still starve. Caught in the middle, as per usual, is the rain-soaked Usagi who sets out to catch the thieves by himself. It's a good setup to an Usagi story, and starting it in media res allows the issue to get immediately to the action without the usual two-page slow setup.

Usagi-Yojimbo-#152-1While all issues of the series have a sharp, straight-forward sense of characterization, issue 152 is especially noteworthy for Sakai's un-remarking portrayal of human behavior. Instead of making the villagers noble souls and the thieves despicable villains, Sakai portrays both sides as struggling to survive in a world where doing so is very difficult. Both sides demonstrate surprising generosity and overpowering fear in equal parts, and both groups are alternatively victims and transgressors. As such the issue never becomes which side is in the right (allowing the reader to decide this for themselves).

Bolstering the story's subtlety is Sakai's ever delightful black and white (literally, no grays just crosshatching) ink art.  It's easy to discount the art's magnificence due to its cartoony-ness, but this ignores Sakai's brilliant efficiency. No line is wasted, no distracting detail is included, and no detail is over-emphasized. With a few expert brush strokes, Sakai captures the body language of a given character in way that many flashier artists couldn't dream of.

In case it isn't clear, Usagi Yojimbo is a very hard book to review. Not much changes between issues, the plot is slight (bordering on arbitrary), and descriptions of subtlety are not interesting to read or to write. But an issue as good as Usagi #152 reminds me why it's worthwhile to try. No comic fan should go too far without giving Usagi a try. It may not be many people's favorite title, but it remains a workshop in excellent storytelling and beautiful art.

Score: 4/5

Usagi Yojimbo #152 Creator: Stan Sakai Publisher: Dark Horse Comics Price: $3.50 Release Date: 2/17/16 Format: Ongoing; Print/Digital