Nothing on shelves this week feels particularly exciting as I eagerly await the upcoming AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 25. But let’s explore some books I’m not reading and see what they have to offer until next Wednesday comes.
Yoda # 7
Marvel. Marc Guggenheim, Writer. Alessandro Miracolo, Artist. Annalisa Leoni, Colors. Joe Caramagna, Letters. Mikey J. Basso, Danny Khazem, and Mark Paniccia, Editors.
We open in a swamp down and Dagobah, where it bubbles all the time like a giant carbonated Soda…S-O-D-A, Soda. There’s the little runt in his house, talking to a ghost in this comic about Yoda. Y-O-D-A, Yoda.
What a disappointment, man. I love Yoda. This comic gives us nothing of anything that makes the character interesting. This is the second Guggenheim Star Wars title I’ve read and I’m not thrilled by the trend.
As far as accessibility goes, this issue is easy to follow but that’s because it feels like a random episode of a cartoon. There are no stakes to be seen. The big shocking major threat revealed toward the end of the issue is that Count Dooku is going to build a big droid, which just menas more cannon fodder for lightsabers to tear through. We know what happens in the Clone Wars. We’ve got a hundred episodes about that conflict. It’s well-trod territory.
Happy birthday to me, your illustrious guide to the comic books I don’t read, Urbane Turtle. As always, life finds a way to interfere with this hobby. Thank you to the haters who continue to make Spider-Man and Mary Jane a perennial click-machine.
In celebration of my 34th birthday, I’d like to see the site churn out some real work this week. I’ll be working on a new Rearview Mirror piece in honor of the new Joshua Williamson Green Arrow series. I’ve never read Green Arrow before, but have just read through The Longbow Hunters and have thoughts. Something arrow-related should be up by the end of the week. Patreon supporters will get it a bit early.
This last week of April and first of May are fairly light weeks in terms of books out from the big publishers, which made finding issues that fit my admittedly loose criteria kind of difficult. We might hit a point soon where I’ll need to revisit some series that I touched on previously.
What’s the Furthest Place From Here? #12
Image. Matthew Rosenberg, writer. Tyler Boss, artist. Roman Titov/Shycheeks, colors. Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou, letters.
Here’s what I know about this book: it’s written by Matthew Rosenberg, who I’ve never read but had a controversial run on X-Men, with art by Tyler Boss, who drew an extremely cool issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Universe. Also Bendis drew a variant cover for it and they wear pig masks maybe?
Hello Urbane Turtle faithful and newcomers who may have seen this after rage-clicking my last post about the Spider-Man marriage!
Welcome back to another NO CONTEXT COMICS! My semi-regular column where I take a look at 3 new comics I don’t read. Should every comic be written to be someone’s first comic? Does context matter? Is there a good way to lure new readers while catering to longtime fans? These are all the questions one must answer when you’re a big shot comics critic like me.
As I have shared in recent Turtle Club newsletters, it has been a difficult few months to make time for any writing. I am hoping things begin to clear up and I am able to keep doing this more regularly.
But in the meantime, enjoy my rambling about three books I picked at random.
What’s up everybody? Twitter tells me that comic reviews are bad, folks. We don’t know how to write about art. So I guess you probably shouldn’t even be reading this.
But if you are reading, welcome to the regular column! We’re taking a look at 3 books I do not read! The only rules are that these books are something I don’t read every month, it’s not a number one, and (if I am aware of it before reading) it’s not an anthology.
Any comic I read right now has a lot to live up to…I’ve been reading Fullmetal Alchemist which is among the best comics I’ve ever read. I watched the original anime but this is my first time with the actual source material. Hiromu Arakawa can DRAW.
This might be the last No Context of the year. But here’s to many more! And more Urbane Turtle, in general. Viva la tortuga.
I Am Batman #16
DC Comics. John Ridley, Writer. Christian Duce, Artist. Rex Lokus, Colors. Troy Peteri, Letters.
I have not spent any time trying to understand what the deal is with I Am Batman or Jace Fox. It seems weird to me that there’s a mostly unrelated Batman in New York. I guess it isn’t unprecedented given Batman Inc. but seems weird. And after reading this issue I still don’t know how this fits in the larger world of the Batman mythos.
I see a rich kid who feels guilty, fighting some crooks. Ridley has plenty of words throughout this issue but it tells us very little about who Jace is or what he wants out of being Batman. There’s less Batman here and more Iron Man or, in DC terms, Green Arrow. Less justice and more atonement. Jace wants to make right having killed someone when he was young.
Here we have a somewhat belated entry into the semi-weekly No Context Comics! I’ve been busy outside of Urbane Turtle dot com, lately. You can find my spotlight review for this week’s thrilling new series, ALL AGAINST ALL, over at The Comics Beat. I also had the chance to interview TMNT writer Tom Waltz and editor Charles Beacham about the super fun event series, THE ARMAGEDDON GAME.
I also had a couple days off from the day job, but spent them doing nothing productive whatsoever other than watching a few movies and the Rise of the TMNT series on Netflix. You see, I am teetering on the brink of ~*~ burn out ~*~ and some days of total vegging were paramount.
This week we’ve got a new superhero, fantasy misfits, and a longtime pro hero. So let’s get into it, shall we?
Gene Yuen Lang has written some of my favorite superhero stories of the last few years, and DC has seen a dearth of new superhero creations in the last ten years. So I should be excited by the prospect of the Monkey King, which draws from Chinese mythology to introduce a new player into the fold! Yang’s authentic voice deserves to be heard above the din of the corporate cape books. And yet I have been remiss in even looking twice at Monkey Prince, Yang’s latest mainstream series.
Despite Marvel’s reputation as being more “grounded” or “street level,” it has no shortage of characters pulled right out of mythic pantheons. In that way, Monkey Prince as an idea feels more at home in the Marvel U. DC has plenty of godly beings but most of them are DC originals, not pantheons or public domain heroes. Marvel is much more willing to do that kind of thing, historically.
There’s a LOT going on in this issue, and it feels very disorienting as a new reader. There are general ideas that feel familiar–Metropolis, Lexcorp, Bizarro Clones, and even the “Journey to the West” iconography (thanks, Dragonball!), but a lot that took a bit to put together. But everything needed to get caught up is here on the page.
Marcus, the main character’s, parents are two-bit henchpeople, and Marcus has to deal with that while juggling being a normal kid and also learning how to be a hero. His encounter with Supergirl here gives the reader a firm idea of his character, impetuous, petulant, and frankly, kind of unlikable!
There’s a big twist on the last page that gave me a big laugh. The villain of this piece is genuinely creepy and his attack that starts the issue is unsettling.
I get the point of making a young male hero kind of a jerk but it does make it hard to root for him, even if he is trying to learn. I’m certainly willing to give Yang the benefit of the doubt that Marcus is growign and learning, after all, his parents are crooks. It’s not like he’s had a strong role model.
Crossovers can get exhausting but I did get a little bit of a thrill to see this tie-in to the Devil Nezha and Mark Waid’s work over on World’ Finest/Batman vs. Robin/Lazarus Planet. It’s not ridiculously intrusive (yet, anyway; the next issue seems to be a full tie-in) but it makes all of these new elements feel important and tied into the larger DCU. Something a lot of new ideas in superhero universes fail to do authentically.
The art is serviceable if unremarkable all around. There are flashes of inventiveness and humor, particularly toward the end when the hero is transformed, that play into the Monkey Prince’s irreverent personality. I also really liked to see that most of the creative team is of Asian descent and their names credited in script as well as English.
Overall–this felt like a standard issue of a monthly comic book. Neither particularly good nor particularly bad. A perfectly serviceable diversion, with the bonus of introducing new representation.
A caveat that I think is important here: I have never played Dungeons and Dragons or other tabletop RPGs. I have passing familiarity with some of the concepts, which let me generally understand some of the ideas here. I don’t know that the extreme number of word balloons here are specifically referencing Tabletop games but they certainyl seem to be. And boyoboy are there so many words here. And references to concepts that are not explained. And explaining powers and how powers work like it’s a gosh darn encyclopedia.
I found this book so hard to get through that it was a wonder to me that it exists? There is no compelling character within these pages, or even a plot that I can decipher. These characters seem to exist to talk about going on quests and to research magic we mostly do not see. It’s a real slog.
The art is mostly okay with a few truly standout moments. There is a page in here where a character stops time and speeds past other characters that displayed the idea of superspeed or time manipulation better than almost anything else I’ve seen in comics. The first panel is a shot of three characters. That is then cut through by a second panel with another caracter’s face in profile. In the third panel, the one who interrupted is suddenly standing behind the others, far in the distance. The way Romboli depicts the character slicing through the gutter where we usually read the passage of time is shockingly effective. The fight scene on the train toward issue’s end is well-staged and easy to follow (a trait not to be undervalued in comics!) with a dynamic sense of movement.
But beyond that there was nothing much here to draw me in. Romboli does the best she can with some exhausting exposition, giving the characters plenty of emotion as they shout about things I didn’t understand.
By issue’s end I just can’t help but wonder who this is for. I would like to see more of Romboli with something more to work with, though.
Captain Marvel #44
Marvel. Kelly Thompson, Writer. Sergio Dávila, Artist. Arif Prianto, Colors. Clayton Cowles, Letters.
Kelly Thompson is a writer I have heard a lot of good things about that I always intend to look more into. But there’s always more books to read and I never get to it. She’s maintained an impressive run on this Captain Marvel series, which I am sure speaks to the quality of her work.
At 44 issues of a character older than me, I don’t expect to know all the ins-and-outs of what is going on. Particularly when it seems to be a spiritual sequel to an old Claremont X-Men story. I am sure X-Men fans are happy to see this (or maybe not, X-Men fans are never happy). Ever since becoming Captain Marvel it has seemed like Marvel has tried to distance her from the mutants, despite her having had significant relationships with them during Claremont’s tenure.
I’m not an X-Men aficionado, but I am familiar enough with the broad strokes to appreciate Carol’s opening monologue here, about enjoying getting to bust on Rogue and the Brood simultaneously, in another life. I’m also able to appreciate how Thompson effectively builds this grand space drama around decades of publishing history to effectively tell a story of growth and empowerment over past trauma.
In many ways, this issue is a stellar example of how to tell superhero comics in a long-running shared universe. Just enough mentions of the past to orient newer readers while spurring interest in the old stories. It doesn’t spend pages explaining those events in detail, boring die-hards. And it moves Carol forward as a character forward and illustrates how she has grown and changed since she was Binary and Ms. Marvel. She’s no longer the B-List side character in a team book. Now she’s a blockbuster headliner, and how does that change how she approaches the things that have harmed her?
I really enjoyed this, despite being years behind on Captain Marvel. Thompson has a clear vision for who Carol Danvers is and where she has come from. The art from Sergio Dávila is standard superhero fare. I particularly like how he illustrates Carol’s powers and the almost Super Saiyan way it blows her hair around.
Perhaps I need to stop overlooking Captain Marvel, and get down to finally reading more of Thompson’s work in full.
Respect to the creators here on opening up on several wordless pages of action in a row. It would be easy for that to not work but Djet’s manga-influenced action is fluid and balletic. A rush of fluid lines and dramatic, impressionist color that gives an explosive sense of motion and depth.
For my money, Djet is the star of the show here. He makes this spooky world of nightmares and monsters come to vibrant life with rich colors and cartoonish and expressive characters. There are plenty of incredible colorists out in the world but there is often something special when an artist is able to control all aspects of their work. By having total control over all of the art, Djet’s lines and colors work together to blend into something incredibly rich. There’s a dreamlike quality to the brush strokes that make up the backgrounds and panel lines that perfectly suits this surreal world.
The big releases this week were probably the final issue of Chris Cantwell’s Iron Man (which I just started this week), a new Immortal X-Men, World’s Finest, and Nightwing. Of course, I am not talking about any of those. Because I’m reading the latter 3 and I plan to do something more cohesive about Iron Man.
For a look at other books outside the big 2 this week, check out The Beat’s round-up of indie books that came out yesterday, featuring my first contribution to the site.
The biggest news in the comics-related world this week was probably the death of Kevin Conroy, the iconic voice of Batman for more than 30 years. I have toyed with eulogizing Mr. Conroy here on the site but ultimately, I find myself with a lack of words to describe his impact on me, his contributions to the world of animation. Here is what I posted on my personal Facebook page and on Twitter:
Heartbreaking to hear the news about Kevin Conroy’s passing. Because he was most connected to a superhero cartoon, the immensity of his talent as an actor is undervalued and underestimated. Conroy’s performance as Batman is immortal not because of Batman as a concept but because he made Batman so profoundly, painfully human. Kevin tapped into the loss and rage and sorrow that propels Batman. He became the indelible voice of Batman because he recontextualized the character into a complex man with emotional range. Conroy’s Batman could be frightening and intense. He could be soft and compassionate. He could be vulnerable and colder than ice. I have no doubt that Batman has become a cultural icon because of his seminal work. To understand the depth of that humanity I invite you to read Kevin Conroy’s short memoir and reflection on finding Batman in DC’s 2022 Pride Special. A painful, uplifting, and honest reflection. RIP, Batman.
If you’ve not read his contribution to the DC Pride special, DC made it free to read in his memory here.
Kevin’s death, from an aggressive and rapid cancer, hits especially hard given the recent loss in my own family under similar circumstances.
Obviously, my love for Batman and the Animated Series (and the DCAU it spawned) is well-documented. Kevin Conroy is to thank for so much of that. You can read my series of Batman essays from earlier this year at this link. And if you are interested in revisiting the DCAU, you can journey along with my watch-through from about ten years ago on my old tumblr (Which may become a replacement for my Twitter if that place keeps sinking).
Well, let’s get to the funny books.
Star Wars: Han Solo & Chewbacca #7
Marvel. Marc Guggenheim, Writer. Paul Fry, Artist. Alex Sinclair, Colors. Joe Caramagna, Letters. Mikey J Basso, Danny Khazen, Mark Paniccia, Editors.
There’s nothing particularly wrong with this book. But there’s also nothing particularly compelling to sink your teeth into. It does very little to justify its existence and fails to leverage the iconic characters at its center in any meaningful or interesting way. Oh there’s plenty of Easter eggs, we’ve got Ponda Baba and Greedo and Maz Kanata. But none of them do anything that gives us more information about them that fills out this universe.
It’s the worst type of Star Wars publishing. Playing with the old toys and adding nothing new.
This is a prison break issue, which can be a fun trope for a sci-fi story. There have been lots of good ones. God knows I loved the scenes in the Guardians of the Galaxy movie, and the prisonbreak is one of my favorite Outlaw Star episodes. But to make it compelling there needs to be some investment in the stakes. What are the characters going through in this jail? How is the Imperial system degrading the people it incarcerates?
We are set firmly in the darkest moment of the Galaxy’s history, a period being explored brilliantly by the television show Andor, but Han Solo and Chewbacca fails to grapple with any themes at all.
October has been a whirlwind of a month with some intense emotional highs and lows and incredibly heavy workloads and alas, once again, this little website fell to the wayside. The Phillies made an improbable push to a mere 2 games from winning the World Series, which was tremendously exciting and soul crushingly disappointing. We lost my aunt, and spent time with family. The day-job has never been more demanding. It’s all I’ve been able to do to stay afloat!
Outside of this week’s comics I’ve been continuing my reading of early 80s Spider-Man, though I switched over to Spectacular and that is markedly less good than Stern and DeFalco’s top-notch work on Amazing. Black Cat just doesn’t work in these early years, too desperately clingy to Spider-Man as a defining character feature. I’ve also been catching up on the world of Batman, particularly Meghan Fitzmartin’s work on Tim Drake. Belen Ortega, who did the art on the Urban Legends Robin story? Superstar! Need to see more of them stat.
I’ve also gotten all caught up on IDW’s TMNT to prep for an upcoming interview, after being quite behind. The Mutant Towm story and status quo I find, frankly, to be dreadfully boring. But the last few arcs leading up to Armageddon Game have been excellent, particularly the story that introduced Venus. Shout out to letterer Shawn Lee, whose work on TMNT has been nothing short of incredible. Every issue he does something that stops me in my tracks. If there are “superstar letterers”, Lee is definitely one of them.
The Armageddon Game is shaping up to be an extremely fun event, too. The art on the event series is fantastic and they brought in CUDDLY THE COWLICK. What’s not to love?
Enough rambling…Onto the main event: The comic books I’m not reading! I somehow accidentally made this week’s column for MATURE READERS ONLY, so no kids allowed.
The hard part about trying to run a website with no monetary incentive is how often things like a “real job,” or “making sure a child doesn’t starve,” interfere with lofty goals and scheduling plans. So, generally, my brain is mush from a major crunch in the office and various illnesses and a virus parade, courtesy of my wife’s class of first-graders, and my son’s daycare. Essentially all I’ve had the energy to do is catch up on classic issues of Amazing & Spectacular Spider-Man. Where I have discovered that Denny O’Neil’s tenure is among his worst work, and Roger Stern is an all-time great. I’ll be back soon with more breaking news from the late 70s and early 80s.
All that to say–after a missed week last week, and a delayed tie-in to the new Tim Drake series (which I have still not had the chance to read) No Context Comics is back. It’s a fun week with many different feelings.
That Texas Blood #18
Chris Condon & Jacob Phillips, Creators. Pip Martin, Color assists
My favorite part of this column is reading books that are deep into a run. I have much less fun reading a number 2 or 3. Early in the runs books are usually trying to tackle heavy exposition to set up their concept or moving past the initial introductions of their number one. So it’s too soon to subtly catch people up but you don’t have enough information to understand what is going on. That’s not a rule but it is something I’ve already gotten a sense of. First arcs in particular have a rhythm that makes it extremely difficult to understand anything midstream. Many writers are also still feeling out their characters and vision.
But at 18 issues, a series has found its footing and a level of confidence in its storytelling and characters. After the first year, the world begins to feel authentic and lived in, even without heavy or explicit narrations. Even a new reader gets a sense of the creative team’s voice and point of view.
That confidence is evident all over this issue of That Texas Blood which sees what I assume to be a climactic and series-defining moment. Even without the context of everything that has happened to the two pairs of characters at the center of this issue’s murder mystery story, the weight of these events and relationships are excellently crafted. Writer Condon fills the scenes between the two seniors with unspoken emotion and relationship. Jacob Phillips gives the two a tender and subtly intimate physical relationship that speaks volumes about how these two relate to one another. They have both lived a life and, perhaps, are on the cusp of coming together to move beyond past pains to move forward together.
I’m not sure why there is a blizzard in Texas, but the discordant weather provides an unsettling and eerie atmosphere, accentuated by the cool and muted colors. The warmth surrounding our apparent leads for this issue as they relax within the warmth of their home is a flickering thing, marred by tragedy and the crimson of bloodshed.
This is the kind of issue that gives you just enough information through its storytelling–both in script and art–to make the events engrossing while inviting readers to go back to understand more about its characters to fully appreciate.
On its own, though, this is a great example of serialized comic book storytelling. It stands alone while no doubt being even more affecting with full context. It doesn’t punish someone who leafs through it on a whim by rattling off character names or summaries. It presents an intimate portrait of its characters and an emotional fallout. Another to add to my list of books to go back and read.
Captain America: Sentinel of Liberty # 5
Jackson Lanzing & Collin Kelly, Writers. Carmen Carnero, Lines. Nolan Woodard, Colors. Joe Caramagna, Letters. Kaitlyn Lindtvedt & Alanna Smith, Editors.
This issue really doesn’t work for me but it has very little to do with the structure of the story or the storytelling. I think Lanzing and Kelly do a strong job of presenting the stakes–both emotional and global–within the text of the issue itself. Carnero’s art is gorgeous and expressive. I just don’t like this plot. That’s not usually what this column is about, but I am going to go ahead and complain anyway. I think it is silly and undermines Bucky Barnes to have him not a product of Cold War Russian espionage but actually a product of a centuries-old mystery war between a shadowy ur-government controlling world events.
Furthermore, it just contradicts years of Marvel continuity beyond just Winter Soldier’s elegantly simple story.
I don’t think that we add anything by giving Bucky a physical manifestation of his brainwashing to shoot. But we lose plenty–Bucky being warped by the realities of war and violence. It removes an allegory for real world veteran trauma and pain. Men come back from war twisted and broken, unrecognizable to themselves and loved ones.
Perhaps it is an attempt to keep Bucky and Steve on opposite moral ends as Winter Soldier’s rough edges have been shaved off a bit over time. But it just seems tone deaf to what made Brubaker’s reinvention of Bucky compelling. “Secret cabal controlling world conflict” is also a bit tired as far as Marvel plots go. It is also extremely silly to say Captain America’s shield is actually a symbol for a secret cabal…It’s just the American flag.
Plot aside–and it’s a big aside–Lanzing and Kelly’s storytelling mechanics work well here. The Marvel recap page is always appreciated by this writer, and the conflict between our heroes is both logical and seeded naturally from the very first page to make the final moment of the issue feel both inevitable and dramatic.
Carnero gives the whole thing a cinematic flair with harsh lighting and dramatic lens flares. The final conflict, taking place in a hologram projection of a winter landscape, effectively reflects the motif of artificiality and gamesmanship that permeates the issue and, I assume, the whole arc.
I don’t know. If this “Five Points” plot works for you, great. It falls apart completely for me.
Poison Ivy #5
G. Willow Wilson, Writer. Marcio Takara & Brian Level, Pencils. Stefano Gaudiano, Inks. Arif Prianto, Colors. Hassan Otsmane-Elhauo, Letters. Arianna Turturro & Ben Abernathy, Editors.
I find myself tiring of the idea of villains becoming good guys. Not because I don’t believe in the idea of rehabilitation and second chances. No, I just think it diminishes the line because over time it seems like every supervillain slowly becomes a hero, thus dwindling down the hero’s rogues gallery and reducing the potential stories to be told with those characters as villains. It seems to happen any time a bad guy hits a certain threshold of popularity.
Poison Ivy, though? It’s hard to write her as a villain these days. Though her methods continue to be extreme, it’s hard to argue that the woman consistently trying to save the planet from manmade destruction, even using extremist ends, is somehow “the bad guy,” particularly when the target is often the rich or affluent, as has often been the case for Poison Ivy stories. It kind of sends the wrong message…We are on the precipice of global destruction from our wanton destruction of the environment, so painting the most prominent ecological advocate as purely a terrorist rings as tone deaf.
G Willow Wilson here does a strong job positioning Pamela Isley as conflicted by her more deadly whims and her own desire for personal growth. Using Batman as a physical manifestation of her conscience is a great way to show her own moral development. Batman believed in Ivy’s ability to make positive change, and now she hallucinates him as her better angel.
It also seems both inevitable and brilliant to connect Poison Ivy to DC’s concept of “The Green,” the sentient magic/science of the world’s plant life. It gives Ivy both a “higher calling” to redirect her energies from petty crime to true superheroics. I like how conflicted Ivy seems here between her own selfish desires and her yearning for justice. I must admit to being largely ignorant of Ivy’s current origin story, but tying her into the Floronic Man and Swamp Thing helps to make her transition into a semi-mystical anti-hero feel logical.
Wilson gives a good sense of Ivy’s internal struggle as well as the righteous anger she feels toward the Floronic Man even though I don’t know any of what has led up to this fight. One problem often facing villains-turned-heroes is who do they fight if not the hero they have started to help? Giving Ivy the extended world of nature-monsters to play in helps to solve that conundrum.
Like the other books this week, this story gives just enough information to be engrossing without being confusing or overbearing. With the help of the narration and the nature of this issue’s climactic confrontation, we get a lot of what we need to understand what is at stake and why Ivy is doing what she is doing. It’s a strong and confident script from Wilson, aided by the art from Marcio Takara and Brian Level. Both artists imbue the characters with plenty of personality, and Floronic Man (in both human and monster form) is a positively frightening figure.
I appreciate the clarity of vision in this issue from the creators, which overcame my biases against villain-turned-hero stories to tell a compelling, character-centric story.
I first discovered Usagi Yojimbo through my love of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. I knew him first through the action figure. I don’t know if I ever saw the episodes he was in from the original cartoon, but I always had a fondness for the character. In 1998 my family went on a cross country roadtrip to Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado. My brother and I had recently gone to Toy Fair (or a toy convention unaffiliated with Toy Fair) somewhere around the Philly area. He had picked up a couple of issues of Toy Fare Magazine.
These magazines ruled. Filled with retrospectives of classic figures and previews of cool new figures. It was peppered with irreverent humor and the very funny (at the time, for a 10 year old) Twisted Mego Theater.
I poured over those magazines for years until they fell apart. I drooled over the upcoming Toy Biz Classic Avengers and Classic X-Men 5 packs. But my real object of desire was an Usagi Yojimbo, true to the character’s comic book roots (which, to be clear, I had never read). I don’t know why I thought he was so cool. I liked that he came with a lizard.
But I really grew to love the character and his extended world through his appearances in the 2003 TMNT cartoon, where he had several prominent appearances that included extended adventures with his supporting characters and his feudal Japan setting. As a recovering anime fan, this was very appealing to me.
I first started reading Stan Sakai’s actual Usagi Yojimbo comics in early 2008 as my year of working retail following my record-setting one night enrolled in art school was coming to a close.
Usagi immediately drew me in through the strength of Sakai’s confident simplicity. My first Usagi comic was Travels With Jotaro, a volume where the wandering samurai connects with his illegitimate son for the first time. Jotaro does not know Usagi is his true father, and the series balances a somber mix of humor, action, and quiet sadness.
I found my way to the archives and devoured dozens of issues from Usagi’s first publication. Usagi joined me in my first months at college, where I would leave my awful roommates and sit in the common lounge in the residence hall and read. It managed to be a pretty decent icebreaker.
But life eventually took over and after getting through Grasscutter, my reading petered out.
It feels silly, nearly 40 years into its publication history, to even attempt to say anything about the series that hasn’t been said. But, thinking about my recent foray into out-of-context comics, it struck me that Usagi Yojimbo isperhaps the ultimate accessible series. My first time reading the series was Volume 18–well over 20 years after the series started. But everything you need to know is there on the page.
We understand Usagi and his quest for a quiet life in any given issue. His measured and taciturn approach to the high stakes he wanders into makes him a welcoming guide into Sakai’s lovingly researched Japan. The rabbit ronin’s distaste for violence contrasts with his deadly mastery of the sword and quickness with a blade. Sakai’s action is minimalist and never showy, with simple motion lines and clanging metal against metal. There’s no fancy sword tricks (except when an arrogant fool tries to intimidate our hero, to contrast Usagi’s quiet confidence).
Despite the funny animal cast, Usagi deals with the weight and human cost of violence with more compassion and empathy than any other I’ve read. One of the saddest sequences in all of comics history comes in an early issue titled “The Duel,”, where a gambling swordsman pushes his luck to best Usagi in a fight to the death and leaves his wife and young child, standing far on the outskirts of town, abandoned, waiting for a return which would never come.
I’ve been making my way through the archives again in recent months, savoring Sakai’s masterful approach. The fights are fun and the feudal intrigue makes for engaging stories but what truly shines through is how Sakai brings his world to life. We are invited to feel the breeze of the open plains, the cold of the slapping rain, and the vast openness of the dangerous, bandit-filled roads. Usagi is often dwarfed by the world around him, one small detail among the sprawling landscapes. He is our window into this living, breathing history of a time long past.
I thought I might catch up with Miyamoto Usagi in this latest issue, IDW’s #31, and how Sakai’s approach to his stories might have changed. It’s a particularly interesting time to be an Usagi fan – With a new Netflix series loosely based on Sakai’s characters (with his involvement), a new Usagi imprint coming at Dark Horse, and even a new action figure (yes, I finally got my Usagi figure!).
There’s a shaky and lighter quality to Sakai’s line in this new issue, a bit of a softer touch of the brush than his older work. It is likely from age but it gives the story a rough edge that emphasizes Usagi’s tentative and rough collaboration with his ninja companion, Chizu.
Usagi also seems angrier here, a bit more short-tempered and jaded and quick to sever that uneasy alliance. The years of adventure seem to be catching up with him.
As has always been the case, Sakai does an excellent job catching the reader up without laying out expository dialogue. The dialogue, character dynamics, and actions illustrate the characters and their motivations, as well as the stakes of their mission. While much of the issue are scenes of travel, it is peppered with battles with the komori Bat ninja, who are even creepier and more grotesque than when they were first introduced. The ending also provides a compelling conclusion to the ronin’s current journey with an emotional fallout that lands even without seeing all of these characters’ travels together.
The new character, Usagi’s cousin Yukichi, doesn’t add much to the proceedings other than an additional character for dialogue to bounce off of. He is not the focus here, so I will pass no judgment on how well he works without seeing what he has brought to the story before now. The major conflict is between Usagi and Chizu.
The biggest difference is, obviously, the fact that this latest IDW volume of Usagi Yojimbo is in full color, a departure from the series’ historically black and white roots. Sakai has ocassionally dabbled in color but these are the first regular series issues to be colored upon their original publication. The colors here don’t do the story any favors or add any particular depth or dimension to the art. The overly smoothed digital sheen of the work is a bit too rendered to evoke cartoon cel shading but also fails to add any texture to the characters. The end result is a bit of a blurry mess that at times looks amateurish. I don’t find it egregiously distracting but it certainly doesn’t add anything. Particularly given that this issue takes place in the snow, the landscape that Sakai would previously have rendered with minimalist use of inks is instead replaced with a hazy blue that busies up the background.
The charm that defines Usagi Yojimbo remains here in spades. Clearly Sakai has more to explore and the subtle growth in the character’s worldview is notable after so much time between where I left off and picked up here. But most importantly–Sakai keeps the focus on the world and the Japanese countryside, a dangerous and unknowable world the characters must pass through. There is nothing extraneous or indulgent. We are swept along the wilderness along with the cast. That’s what really makes Usagi Yojimbo such a consistently engaging read. The power it has to transport and sweep us up in its grand adventure. That magic remains, all these years later.