Film Review – Batman: Soul of the Dragon

Batman - Soul of the Dragon

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film 40

Director: Sam Liu

Producer: Bruce Timm

Writer: Jeremy Adams

Length: 82 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to dive into an intense and addictive DC Comics martial arts adventure with the latest entry in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range, Batman: Soul of the Dragon, an outstanding and deeply enjoyable film that explores several amazing DC characters in a very unique way.

While The Unseen Library is primarily dedicated to providing book and comic reviews, I have in the last year been experimenting with reviews and articles about another great passion of mine, animated superhero films.  I have always had a lot of fondness for this genre and I started focusing on it more last year when I reviewed Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, and even further when I did an extended Top Ten Tuesday article listing my favourite superhero animated films, which primarily featured DC Universe Animated Original Movies.  DC continues their domination of the animation market with the very awesome Soul of the Dragon film, which serves as the 40th entry in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range.  I had an outstanding time watching this latest animated offering and it is definitely a new favourite film of mine.

Bruce Wayne, Richard Dragon, Shiva and Ben Turner are four of the best martial artists on the planet, utilising their skills and training to become truly elite fighters.  While each of these renowned warriors are now on their own different paths, they shared a similar start on their journey as students at the secret monastery of Nanda Parbat.  Training under the legendary O-Sensei, these four, along with other notable students, not only learned the martial techniques that allowed them to become the fighters they are today but also became a close-knit family, until one terrible night changed everything for them.

Now their paths are about to cross again when Richard Dragon discovers that a fanatical organisation, the Cult of the Kobra, have stolen an ancient and dangerous artefact that Dragon and his fellow former students are intimately and tragically familiar with.  Travelling to Gotham City, Dragon recruits Bruce Wayne, who now fights criminals as the vigilante Batman, to help him stop Kobra and save the entire world.  Attempting to recover another artefact guarded by Shiva, now a feared Gotham crime boss, they soon discover just how long and deadly Kobra’s reach is.

With Shiva and Ben in tow, the four former disciples of O-Sensei prepare for the battle of their lives as they attempt to infiltrate Kobra’s island base.  However, nothing will prepare them for the dangers they will encounter, nor the horrors unleashed from their past.  Can these four dangerous fighters work together to save the world or will an ancient and deadly force be unleashed?

Batman: Soul of the Dragon is an excellent and amazing animated comic book film that proved to be an absolute treat to watch.  This is a standalone film which is directed by Sam Liu, written by Jeremy Adams and featuring Bruce Timm as an executive producer, and together these talented people have produced a fantastic and powerful feature.  Liu and Timm are the genius behind some of the best animated comic films that are out there, including Justice League vs. Teen Titans, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay and the incredible The Death of Superman, and they have once again done an outstanding job with Soul of the Dragon, creating a unique and entertaining comic book tale.  Making excellent use of an exceptional narrative, a great group of characters and a very distinctive vibe, Soul of the Dragon is an outstanding and wonderful film that is really worth watching.

Soul of the Dragon has a particularly awesome and captivating narrative that follows its four iconic central protagonists on an epic quest to right the wrongs of their collective past.  This movie contains an original tale set in the 1970s that draws heavily from classic DC martial arts comics to create a fantastic film that not only dives into the origins of some amazing DC characters but which also presents an exciting character-driven adventure.  This movie starts off with a captivating bang with Richard Dragon discovering a sinister plot with ties to his time as a student.  The story then quickly starts to reunite the four major characters, with several impressive action set-pieces dominating the early part of this movie, all of which were a real treat to watch.  The story than takes the protagonists to an island fortress where they must face their enemy before he can unleash a terrible force of destruction.

Interspersed with the main story are a series of compelling flashbacks that follow the protagonists’ training under O-Sensei, which provide some excellent context to the main story.  I thought that the flashbacks were a particularly impressive part of the movie and I liked they expertly tied together main narrative with the past, creating a richer overall story.  I also felt that the narrative did an excellent job of introducing each of the characters while also highlighting the differences between their modern appearances and their former lives as students.  I did think that the main story was a little rushed and could have potentially used a little more plot in between the protagonists’ reunion and their arrival at the antagonists’ island.  Still, this did not impact my enjoyment of the movie too much, and the last third of the film is so damn epic and emotionally charged that you forget about this slight misstep of pacing.  All of this wraps up with a memorable and interesting ultimate conclusion, which will leave you wondering about what, if anything, is going to happen next.

Thanks to the standalone nature of this movie, potential viewers do not need to have watched any prior DC animated features to enjoy Soul of the Dragon, and indeed minimal knowledge of the various characters and comic elements is needed to follow along, as the narrative provides a fantastic and detailed introduction to all the relevant parts of the plot.  All of this makes for an epic and just plain awesome story that honours some classic DC characters and comics while also introducing them to a new generation of DC fans with this fantastic adventure.

In addition to the first-rate story, I was also impressed with how well this cool movie was put together.  It contains some outstanding animation, especially when it comes to the impressively exciting action scenes, with a particularly well-put-together car chase halfway through the film being an amazing example.  This proves to be a very action-heavy film, with a huge number of fluid combat sequences that perfectly captures the skill of the combatants and which successfully translates the style of the original martial arts comic.  Parents should be warned that this is not an animated feature for younger children, thanks to some of its over-the-top content, but everyone else is going to love seeing all the exciting fast-paced scenes unfold.  I particularly liked how this animated movie had such a distinctive and entertaining style to it, which really enhanced my enjoyment of the film.  As the story is set in to the 1970s, the creators attempted to replicate the feel and tone of the era in a number of different ways, such as the technology, locations and the animated appearances of the characters.  The creative team also made sure to include a ton of appropriate slang (you haven’t seen anything till you’ve seen Batman say: “Let’s get it on”) and an excellent instrumental musical score that is not only very 70s in its sound but which perfectly fits the movie’s distinctive narrative and tone.  Soul of the Dragon draws a lot of inspiration from classic kung fu films, especially those featuring Bruce Lee, and you can really feel the creators’ love of the genre with all the little details they chuck in.  There are also a number of fantastic allusions to classic James Bond films, including several very familiar musical themes, some entertaining lines from certain characters and even a dangerous car chase with a gadget-laden car that ends with a vehicle getting whisked away on an electromagnet attached to a helicopter (a very fun call-back to You Only Live Twice).  I absolutely loved how well this film came together, and all the exceptional animation and clever tonal shifts combine perfectly with the great story to produce an enthralling and memorable viewing experience.

In addition to have an amazing and entertaining narrative, Soul of the Dragon is backed up by a fantastic roster of characters from across the DC Comics canon, voiced by an exceptional and talented collection of actors.  While this movie contains several great supporting characters, the story is mostly set around Bruce Wayne, Richard Dragon, Shiva and Ben Turner, each of whom are heavily featured in both the main narrative and the flashbacks.  While all four of these main characters are great in their own right, a lot of their appeal lies in fantastic connection they have with each other and with their master, O-Sensei.  These great protagonists have an excellent rapport, and it proved to be really great to see them interact with each other throughout the film.

The lead of the film is probably Batman, who is voiced by David Giuntoli of Grimm fame, who provides a fantastic take on the character with his voice work.  I liked how there were two versions of Batman: the vigilante who featured in the main story and the younger student in Nanda Parbat.  This proved to be an interesting portrayal of this iconic character, as the writers attempt to explore Bruce’s determination, even as a young man, to do the impossible and fight evil no matter the cost.  It was also great to see him evolve from the student in the flashbacks to the vigilante in the main story, and there are some fun scenes that showcase him becoming a more focused and terrifying fighter when he puts on the mask.

While Soul of the Dragon is nominally a Batman movie, Bruce is somewhat overshadowed by some of the other main protagonists.  This is no fault of the character’s portrayal or characterisation; it is just because the other protagonists are just a little more exciting and enjoyable.  Part of the reason why this is the case is that Batman is the least skilled martial artist in what is essentially a kung fu movie, as it is established that his fellow students are better fighters than him (this is true in both the film and in the comics).  While this does mean that some of the other characters’ action sequences are a little more visually impressive, you instead get to see Batman fight in different ways.  There is a great focus on how Batman utilises trickery and fear to supplement his weaker fighting abilities, and there are some excellent scenes around this, including a key one towards the end of the film where he uses a combination of his gadgets, cunning, and even his own cape to defeat a superior foe.  I did think that the version of the character was a bit blasé about keeping his identity secret with his friends, and he didn’t seemed as opposed to people using lethal force as you would expect, but this was an outstanding take on Batman and I really enjoyed his appearance in this film.

One major character who was a true highlight of this movie was Richard Dragon, an iconic character who is widely regarded as one of the best fighters in the DC canon.  Despite his popularity in DC’s martial arts comics, this is the character’s first appearance outside of the comics (the Richard Dragon featured in Arrow is a different character altogether) and he voiced by The Chairman himself, Mark Dacascos.  Depicted as Asian in the film (the comic character is traditionally a red-haired Caucasian), this character looks a lot like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon and is portrayed as an international super spy.  Despite this being a Batman film, in many ways Richard is just as much the main character of this movie, with much of the story revolving around him.  Richard grabs focus right from the start, where he engages in some amusing spy antics, which include outwitting a James Bond-esque character in a fancy casino, effortlessly and stylishly fighting off some goons, and parachuting onto a boat filled with beautiful women (a scene very reminiscent of The Living Daylights, Bond music included), before identifying himself as “Dragon, Richard Dragon”.  Each of Dragon’s subsequent scenes are really fantastic, from the fluid and exceptional action sequences to the fun interactions he has with other characters, including an entertaining scene with a pompous bouncer.  Dacascos does an exceptional job voicing this character and he provides Richard with a confident, intelligent and generally calm air that proves to be extremely easy to enjoy, while also including some vulnerability in several amazing scenes.  All of this helps to produce an exceptional character and I am extremely glad that the introduction of Richard Dragon to a wider media went so well.

The next major character in the movie is the dangerous and delightful Shiva, who was voiced by the talented Kelly Hu.  Lady Shiva, as she is better known, is one of the deadliest assassins and martial artists in the DC canon.  I felt the creative team did an outstanding job showcasing Shiva in Soul of the Dragon, as she is portrayed as a merciless killing machine and living weapon able to destroy her opponents with minimal effort and nothing but her bare hands.  The character has some of the most brutal combat sequences, which were not only beautifully animated but which proved to be extremely entertaining to watch.  I felt that Shiva went through some fantastic character development throughout the film as she transforms from a dedicated student to a ruthless crime lord who even Batman is afraid to deal with: “I’m working up to it…”  I also really loved the choice of voice actor for this character as Kelly Hu does a sensational job bringing Shiva to life.  Hu, who is known for her comic book roles in both animation (as Cheshire in Young Justice and Karai in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and live action (as Lady Deathstrike in X-Men 2 and China White in Arrow), has previously voiced Lady Shiva in the Batman: Arkham Origins video game, and it was great to see her return to this fantastic character.  She gives this version of Shiva a particularly deadly air; you can tell with every sentence just how confident she is in her own ability and lethal potential.  Not only does Shiva have some of the best fight scenes in the movie but she also has some of the best lines, such as when she chooses her opponent in one of the big boss fights: “I’ll take the girl, her look offends me!”  I also absolutely loved one scene which saw the voice of Karai from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles face off against three green-clad ninjas respectfully wielding sai, nunchaku and a bo staff.  The character’s casual comment of “You know how to use those?” followed by her effortlessly taking all three out was just perfect and it has me laughing pretty heavily.  I think that Shiva was probably my favourite character in the entire movie and I am really impressed with how she was written and portrayed.

The final member of the main four characters is Ben Turner, the angry and dangerous African-American fighter better known as Bronze Tiger.  Bronze Tiger is a major martial artist in the DC canon who is probably best known for his run in the Suicide Squad comics.  Bronze Tiger is voiced by Michael Jai White, who recently portrayed the live-action version of the character in Arrow.  I really liked Bronze Tiger throughout Soul of the Dragon, as the film captures a lot of his essence from his original comic appearances and subsequently turn him into a fantastic character in this movie.  Part of the reason why is that he goes through the most development out of all the main characters, especially as several flashbacks bridge the gap between his student days and his current character, showing several pivotal events in his life.  I absolutely loved his look in this movie, as they made the decision to model him on African-American actor and martial artist, Jim Kelly, with some elements of other 70s African-American characters like Shaft and Luke Cage thrown in.  There is a particularly fun joke around this character when Richard misremembers the character’s codename as Black Samurai, a reference to the Jim Kelly movie of the same name, and the subsequent approval of the team at his actual codename of Bronze Tiger was very entertaining.  White does some excellent voice work for Bronze Tiger in this film and he successfully showcases the character’s intense anger at the start of the story before evolving it into a more zen-like persona towards the end.  I would say that Bronze Tiger was a little overshadowed by the three other protagonists, but he was still a great addition to the movie and is a fun character to follow.

Aside from the main four characters, there is a particular focus on the mentor character of O-Sensei, who is voiced in this film by the legendary James Hong.  O-Sensei is a fantastic character with an intriguing history in DC Comics, being a major figure in the lives of Richard Dragon, Shiva and Bronze Tiger.  This is actually O-Sensei’s first named appearance outside of the comics, and he proves to be a fantastic and fun addition to the movie’s narrative.  Hong portrays the character as a wise but humorous kung fu master, offering deep insights and amusing jokes in equal measure to the younger characters, while also forming them into a close family.  O-Sensei proves to be an extremely likeable character, with some deep and powerful moments that ensure that the viewer appreciates and enjoys him.  I particularly loved Hong’s voice work throughout the movie and I felt that he really dived into the character and made him stand out, especially in some later scenes in the movie where there are some intriguing twists around him.  An overall outstanding and exceptional part of the cast, I am extremely glad they got Hong for this movie.

No comic book movie will be complete without some villains, and to my mind this is where Soul of the Dragon falls a little flat.  The antagonists of this film are the members of the Cult of the Kobra (essentially DC’s version of Hydra, both of which were created by Jack Kirby).  Kobra are led by their prophet, Jeffrey Burr (voiced by Josh Keaton), backed up by his henchmen Schlangenfaust (Robin Atkin Downes), Lady Eve (Grey Griffin) and King Snake (Patrick Seitz).  While all of these characters are voiced perfectly and have some cool moments throughout the movie, such as Burr’s creepy introduction, his belief in his prophesised destiny and Schlangenfaust’s hidden abilities, I honestly found each of these villains to be a little underwhelming.  None of them (with the possible exception of Schlangenfaust) really stood out to me and they were all very generic sort of villains to the story.  That being said, Soul of the Dragon did feature two hidden antagonists at different points of film who add some major twists to the tale.  Both of these villains were rather good and moved the story along in some intriguing and entertaining directions.  I particularly loved the appearance of one antagonistic character towards the end of the movie, and while his appearance was slightly predictable, it proved to be a major highlight of the film, resulting in some outstanding scenes.  As a result, it was rather easy for me to forgive some of the downsides of the Kobra villains as the overall antagonists of this film turned out to be extremely good.

Overall, I think that Batman: Soul of the Dragon was an exceptional animated film that was a heck of a lot of fun to watch.  Thanks to its combination of an epic story, captivating and well-written characters and a tone that is a fun nod to classic and campy kung fu movies, this movie gets a full five stars from me.  This is definitely a movie I will watch multiple times in the future, and it comes highly recommended.  I very much looking forward to seeing the next entries in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range (there is a Justice Society movie and an adaption of Batman: The Long Halloween coming out later this year), and I will have to have a go at reviewing them when they come out.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 11: Seasons by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Seasons

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 11

Length: 198 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

It has been a while since I have done a Usagi Yojimbo Throwback Thursday, but after doing a Waiting on Wednesday for the next upcoming volume in this epic series, Homecoming, I was in a Usagi mood and decided to write something extra.  As a result, I check out the 11th Usagi Yojimbo volume by the legendary Stan Sakai, Seasons.

Seasons is a fantastic and spectacular entry in the series that presents the reader with a series of great Usagi Yojimbo adventures that follow the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he traverses his version of feudal Japan during the various seasons of the year.  This is a key entry in the series as it sets up a number of storylines for the next several volumes while also introducing some great new characters.  Needless to say, I had an incredible time reading this volume of the series and I have a lot of love for a number of the stories contained within it.  Seasons contains issues #7-12 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as stories taken from the Usagi Yojimbo Colour Special.  This results in 11 separate stories throughout the volume, made up of single-issue entries and a couple of shorter tales, all of which contain an impressive and deeply enjoyable story with beautiful artwork.

USagi #7

The first story featured within Seasons is The Withered Field, an epic story of samurai honour and the warrior’s way.  In this story, Usagi is visiting a famed fencing school with the hope of challenging some of its instructors to test his skill.  However, before he can issue his challenge, all of the school’s instructors are beaten by another ronin, Nakamura Koji, a skilled swordsman who demands a fight with the school’s master.  As he waits for his challenge, Usagi befriends him and discovers that he was once a famed sword master himself, who began the warrior’s pilgrimage after suffering a humiliating defeat at the hands of a mysterious and unconventional swordsman.  Now determined to find this swordsman and rechallenge him, Nakamura Koji shows great interest in Usagi, especially when they must content with treachery from the fencing school.

The Withered Field is an outstanding story that serves as a compelling and powerful start to this volume.  I really enjoyed the amazing narrative that examined honour and martial prowess, with Usagi encountering a famed warrior who is even better than he is.  This great story does an excellent job of introducing the character of Nakamura Koji, who becomes a major figure in some of the future volumes in this series and who has an interesting connection to Usagi and his past.  The entire storyline around the two ronin facing off against the fencing school is extremely cool and action packed, and it appears to take a lot of influence from the second entry in the iconic 1950s Samurai film trilogy (which follows the adventures of Miyamoto Musashi, the historical samurai who serves as an inspiration for Usagi), Duel of Ichijoji Temple, with the students attempting to stop the wandering ronin from defeating their master.  There are amazing action sequences throughout this story, with Usagi and Nakamura Koji engaging in several awesome duels.  I particularly loved the opening sequence where Koji goes through the pre-fight forms before facing off in his sparring match against a fencing school instructor.  The eventual reveal that the samurai who defeated Koji when he was younger was Usagi’s mentor, Katsuichi, comes as little surprise, but it sets up an amazing story later in the series which makes this great story a must read for fans of Usagi Yojimbo.

Seasons’ second story is the thrilling but haunting A Promise in the Snow, which sees Usagi travelling through a snowy mountain pass during the height of winter.  As he trudges along, he comes across bandits attacking an innocent merchant and his servants.  Intervening, Usagi is able to slay all the bandits, but not before they severely wound the merchant.  Usagi finds the merchant’s young daughter and promises to save her father, carrying him back to his village.  However, the mountain passes are treacherous, and Usagi must contend with harsh weather, a pack of hungry wild tokage lizards and a dangerous avalanche.  But no matter what the mountain throws at him, nothing will prepare Usagi for the great shock awaiting him at the end of his journey. 

Usagi #8

This is a great entry in this volume that features a desperate struggle for survival in a dangerous location.  Sakai came up with an epic story for A Promise in the Snow, and I really love seeing Usagi power through great trials and tribulations to keep his promise to a young girl.  There are some beautifully drawn scenes throughout this story, and Sakai does a fantastic job bringing the snowy landscape to life in all its wondrous, deadly glory.  I also loved the way in which Sakai’s drawings highlighted Usagi’s struggles to get through the tough terrain; you can see him get more and more weary with each obstacle he encounters.  This story has a fantastic ending that is reminiscent of a lot of classic ghost tales, and looking back you see that Sakai set this twist up brilliantly, with tons of little clues.  Overall, this was an exceptional story which is a true highlight of this volume.

Next up with have the action-packed, intriguing story, The Conspiracy of Eight.  In this entry, Usagi is visiting the temple of his friend, priest Sanshobo, when an injured samurai wearing the crest of the notorious Lord Hikiji arrives at the gate.  The samurai bears a dangerous letter that names eight conspirators who are plotting against the Shogun.  As Usagi and Sanshobo debate what to do with the information, a large force of ronin arrives at the temple, determined to claim the injured samurai and kill all witnesses. 

This is another fantastic entry in Seasons that once again sees Usagi drawn into a major conspiracy impacting the realm.  There are a lot of cool elements to this story, such as Usagi and Sanshobo being forced to mount a defence of the temple from a dangerous siege.  This is a great, fast-paced story, and I really liked the unique battle scenes, especially the monks with staffs facing off against sword-wielding bandits.  Many of the plot elements contained within this tale come into play in several later Usagi Yojimbo stories, including one featured later in this volume, and I think Sakai did an exceptional job introducing them in The Conspiracy of Eight.  I also liked seeing the return of Sanshobo, the wise and noble priest and former samurai general.  Sanshobo serves as a good foil to Usagi’s more impulsive nature, cautioning him about acting in the affairs of great lords and counselling him that his proposed actions could lead to the death of many people.  While mainly a figure of wisdom, Sanshobo also serves as a great leader, utilising his experiences as a general to defend his temple and keep his monks alive.  The Conspiracy of Eight ends up being a very solid and enjoyable entry in this volume and I very much enjoyed seeing Sakai solidify a great new side character.

Usagi #9

Right after The Conspiracy of Eight comes another intriguing story that is primarily set within Sanshobo’s temple, Snakes and Blossoms.  In this entry, Usagi tells two short tales to Sanshobo: one that describes a crazy misadventure he had, and another that describes some important lessons from his past.  This two shorter tales work as sub-stories to Snakes and Blossoms and ensures that it is a distinctive entry in Seasons.  The first of the shorter tales is titled Hebi, which is set shortly after the events of the final story in Volume 7: Gen’s Story and sees Usagi and Gen once again lost following one of Gen’s shortcuts.  As the two ronin wander the unused paths, Gen saves Usagi from a wild snake that attempts to kill him.  However, Gen’s heroic actions has unexpected consequences when the two travellers are confronted by a mysterious nun at an abandoned temple later that night.  This was a rather cool horror story that exemplifies the sort of weird situations that Usagi can find himself in.  I loved the way in which Sakai plays Usagi and Gen off each other, and there are some very humorous interactions between this oddball pairing.  There is also some really insane artwork in this short story, and I loved the fantastic and scary sight of a giant snake emerging from its disguise to try and kill the protagonists. 

The other short story contained within Snakes and Blossoms is the cute tale, The Courage of the PlumThe Courage of the Plum takes place during Usagi’s childhood when he is training with his master, Katsuichi.  As the two walk through the snow, Katsuichi attempts to teach his student the various hidden aspects of nature around them, including the trees, each of which can represent human virtues.  The young Usagi is particularly intrigued by Katsuichi’s description of the humble plum tree as brave, and Katsuichi schools Usagi on how this smaller tree can be braver than the mightiest of oaks.  I always enjoy the depictions of Usagi’s unorthodox training under Katsuichi, as the student and teacher have a very amusing dynamic, and The Courage of the Plum turned out to be a delightful shorter entry with some intriguing philosophical discussion and some lovely drawings of the winter landscape.  Overall, Hebi and The Courage of Plum make for a fantastic combination of tales and I quite enjoyed seeing these two unique, short stories come together.

Up next in Seasons is an amazing shorter entry, Return to Adachi Plain, which sees Usagi journey back to the site of his greatest defeat, Adachi Plain, the battlefield where his lord Mifune (named after actor Toshiro Mifune, who starred in multiple classic samurai films that Sakai references in his works, including as Miyamoto Musashi in the Samurai trilogy), was killed in front of him.  Flashing back to tragic events that started his wandering lifestyle, Usagi remembers the battle in greater detail and the reader sees not only the role he played in saving the head of his lord from mutilation but also the first time he came directly in conflict with the villainous Lord Hikiji. 

Usagi #10

Return to Adachi Plain is a fantastic entry in this series as it is essentially one big war sequence, showing Usagi amid a violent battle from his past.  This story expands on the war sequence that was shown in Volume 2: Samurai, and it was really cool to see more of this battle, especially the combat scene between Usagi and Hikiji, which serves as the origin for Usagi’s distinctive forehead scar.  A fantastic shorter story that provides greater depth to Usagi’s role in this major defeat, this battle sequence was later reused in colour in Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories, and the events disclosed within is likely to come up in the upcoming Volume 35: Homecoming.

The next story in this volume is a relatively short entry called The CrossingThe Crossing is set aboard a small passenger ship where a group of rowdy peasants sing and dance to a fun folk song on deck.  However, during the climax of the performance, one of the peasants accidently bumps into an arrogant samurai who takes offence and moves to kill the transgressor, until a fellow passenger intervenes.  Unfortunately for everyone involved, the Good Samaritan isn’t Usagi; instead it is the demon spearman Jei. 

This is a captivating darker story that once again highlights just how dangerous and deranged Jei, one of the best antagonists in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series, is.  Sakai has written an extremely clever tale here that does a wonderful job showcasing Jei’s compelling nature as both a defender of the innocent and a raging psychopath who views nearly everyone as evil in form or another.  It’s fantastic watching the expressions on the peasants’ faces turn from relief to absolute terror as they slowly realise just how crazy Jei is, and you have to love that entertaining ending with the unsuspecting dock worker.  The Crossing serves as an excellent follow-up to several other shorter Jei stories that appeared in recent volumes, including The Nature of the Viper (which appeared in Volume 9: Daisho) and Black Soul (which appeared in Volume 10: The Brink of Life and Death), and this ends up being an impressive and compelling filler story in this volume.

Usagi #11

The shorter entries keep on coming! The Patience of the Spider introduces a new compelling character, General Ikeda.  Ikeda is a famed warrior and general who led a revolt against the Geishu Clan years ago (when the clan was ruled by the father of Usagi’s friend Lord Noriyuki).  When his revolt fails and his army is vanquished, Ikeda and two of his retainers flee to an abandoned farm and determine that their next course of action is to hide and wait.  Using a patient web-building spider as inspiration, Ikeda and his comrades show fortitude and restraint by disguising themselves as peasants and farming the land as they wait for the opportune moment.  However, as the years pass and Ikeda gains a family and faces the many harsh trials and dangers that await a peasant farmer, he begins to see the world differently, until the once notorious general is a completely new person, one with very different desires and dreams.

The Patience of the Spider is an outstanding example of how Sakai can quickly build up an intriguing and powerful character and ensure that the reader is utterly transfixed by their tale.  While this entry is relatively short, it is very impactful and may be one of the best stories in Seasons.  The tale of General Ikeda, as he faces the many different hardships of peasant life, including drought, bandits, floods and great personal loss, while also experiencing great joy and community, is extremely well written.  It proves to be extremely captivating to see this resolute man slowly change his nature as life overcomes him.  This also proves to be an excellent introduction to the character of Ikeda, who will go on to have a substantial role in the two big Grasscutter storylines, and his amazing character arc has an exceptional start here.  A very impressive and powerful tale, The Patience of the Spider is an amazing character-driven narrative from Sakai that is an absolute treat to read.

The next story featured in Seasons is the curious tale, The Lord of the Owls, which sees Usagi encounter a strange fellow traveller.  As Usagi stops at an inn, he witnesses a group of ruffians follow after a mysterious hooded samurai walking the road with the intention of robbing him.  Following them, Usagi witnesses the figure quickly kill the bandits after first startling him with his hypnotic and powerful gaze.  This man is eventually introduced as Oyama Tadanori, the mysterious Lord of the Owls, who reputedly can see the future and who claims that his destiny is intertwined with Usagi. 

Usagi #12

This was an interesting story that presents the reader with a lot of curious and unanswered questions.  While the main story is rather good, especially when it comes to the fate of the greedy bandits, the reader is left extremely mystified by the Lord of the Owls and his powers of prediction.  This entry opens up a rather fascinating storyline that is still not complete; despite an appearance in a later comic, Usagi is still waiting to uncover more about this figure and their combined destiny.  While I am hopeful that this story will pay off somewhere down the line, but in the meantime this particular entry has some great action sequences, a fun new character and some stunning landscape shots, which makes it really worth checking out. 

Up next with have a clever story, The First Tenet, which deals with the machination and inside politics of the Neko Ninja clan.  In this entry, Kagemaru, the second in command of the Neko Ninja, makes a move to betray his commander, Chizu, by reporting some of her recent personal missions to Lord Hebi, Lord Hikiji’s chief advisor.  Hebi, who is enraged by the news that Chizu is moving the Neko Ninja against the interests of Lord Hikiji, considers supporting Kagemura but is reluctant, especially as “deceit is the first tenet of the ninja”.  However, Kagemaru has subtle ways of getting what he wants, and soon Hebi finds himself in a dangerous situation that will change the future of the Neko Ninja forever. 

The First Tenet is a great story that masterfully shows of the duplicitous internal politics of the Neko Ninja and the supporters of Lord Hikiji.  The storyline started here will eventually have some interesting implications for major side character Chizu, and Sakai does a fantastic job setting it up.  I loved all the plotting and subterfuge that appears in this story, and it proves to be a fun and clever read.  I also love the massive battle scene that occurs in the middle of the tale, and it was particularly cool to see Lord Hebi, a massive snake, finally get into a fight.  Hebi is a terrifying figure to behold in combat, and it is worth reading this story just to see that.  An excellent and exciting addition to Seasons, I really enjoyed The First Tenet, especially as it leads to a lot of outstanding ninja storylines down the road.

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Seasons’ penultimate story is The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan, a chilling supernatural tale that sees Usagi and his companions face off against a malignant spirit.  As Usagi draws closer to the lands of his friends in the Geishu Clan, he stops outside a ruined mansion where he suddenly recalls the last time he was there.  Flashing back to shortly after the events of Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, Usagi, Gen and Tomoe are travelling back to Geishu lands and attempt to seek shelter at a beautiful mansion.  The mansion belongs to the Lady Takagi, a mysterious woman who provides them with rooms and food and seems quite happy for the company.  However, as the night continues, Tomoe grows suspicious with their host and attempts to investigate, eventually revealing that Lady Takagi is a demon who is determined to kill and eat her guests. 

This was a very fast-paced and exciting tale that provides an awesome horror edge to the stories contained with Seasons.  I love it when Sakai features iconic Japanese supernatural monsters in his tale as they always prove to be outstanding and fearsome opponents for the protagonists.  The monster featured within The Obakeneko of the Geishu Clan is no exception, and I loved the freaky tale based around her and the desperate fight for survival that Usagi and his friends are forced to undertake.  While Sakai mostly focuses on the horror aspects of this story, I liked how he included a few humorous moments, such as including a great reference to Sakai’s prior comic, Groo the Wanderer: “did I err?”, as well as the funny concluding moment that sees Usagi fleeing in terror from a couple of woodcutters.  This was a really fantastic supernatural tale and it is always cool to see Sakai’s amazing depictions of these inventive Japanese monsters.

The final story in this excellent volume is the intense and action-packed Green Persimmon.  In this story Usagi, who is on his way to the Geishu lands, comes across a dying Geishu retainer who entrusts Usagi with delivering a mysterious package to his lord.  Opening the package reveals a simple and seemingly unremarkable ceramic green persimmon.  However, moments after receiving the persimmon, Usagi is attacked by a band of armed samurai who are desperate to reclaim it at all costs.  Managing to defeat his attackers, Usagi continues along the rough and windy coast road to the Geishu lands, but he encounters even more men determined to reclaim the persimmon and is soon forced to fight for his life as his attackers employ ruthless means to kill him.

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Green Persimmon is an awesome and fantastic story that I deeply enjoyed, and which holds a great deal of significance for me.  This was actually the first Usagi Yojimbo story that I ever read, as a colour version of this story appeared in a magazine aimed at younger teens down here in Australia when I was a lot younger.  This story really stuck with me over the years due to the exciting story and cool action sequences, and it was one of the main reasons (along with Usagi’s appearances in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons) that I decided to check out the Usagi Yojimbo comics in later life.  Needless to say, I am still very impressed with Green Persimmon years later; it is an enjoyable and memorable story to end this 11th volume.  I love the fluid combat sequences in this issue, including Usagi throwing the persimmon into the air and killing all his opponents before deftly catching it, and there are also some great banter scenes between Usagi and his attackers.  I also enjoyed the epic scene where Usagi finds himself trapped within a field of flame thanks to a flurry of fire arrows around him.  Not only is it cool that Usagi successfully survives by utilising the lessons of the legend of Prince Yamato Takeru and the Grass-Cutting Sword (the full events of which are drawn by Sakai in the next volume), but when he emerges from the ground covered in soot and dirt, he looks particularly demonic and enraged as he faces his opponents, making for an epic and amazing scene.  All of this is set to a fantastically drawn background of the rugged coastal landscape, which proves to be a fantastic setting for the various combat scenes.  If I had to offer any criticism about this story, it would be that the conclusion and reveal of the purpose of the ceramic persimmon did not really go anywhere and there were no mentions of this victory over series antagonist, Lord Hikiji, ever again.  However, I still really love this entry as Green Persimmon has so many cool and impressive elements to it and it is a great end note for this volume.

Seasons is another fantastic and incredible comic by Stan Sakai that sees Usagi engage in some captivating and intriguing adventures.  Featuring a cool mixture of different Usagi Yojimbo tales, Seasons is an amazing entry in the series.  I absolutely love a lot of the stories contained within this volume, which are once again anchored by outstanding character and breathtaking artwork.  This volume gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.  On a side note, I am very glad that I decided to do another Usagi Yojimbo comic in a Throwback Thursday article as I have a lot of fun reviewing them.  I might have to skip ahead a volume for my next Throwback Thursday, as I cannot find my copy of Volume 12, Grasscutter.  However, I will either find it or get a new copy soon, as Grasscutter is too major a storyline to miss.  I hope you enjoy the review and make sure to check out some of the other reviews I have done of this epic and amazing series.

Waiting on Wednesday – Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 35: Homecoming by Stan Sakai

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  I run this segment in conjunction with the Can’t-Wait Wednesday meme that is currently running at Wishful Endings.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.  For this latest Waiting on Wednesday I take a look at one of my most anticipated reads for the first half of 2021, the next volume of Stan Sakai’s epic Usagi Yojimbo comic series, Homecoming.

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I have made it no secret that I am a huge fan of Stan Sakai’s long-running and exceptional Usagi Yojimbo series, and it easily one of my favourite comic book series of all time.  The Usagi Yojimbo comics are set in an alternate version of feudal Japan and follow the protagonist, rabbit samurai Miyamoto Usagi, as he adventures through a land populated by anthropomorphic animals.  This outstanding series has been going since the 1980s, and I have had an amazing time reading and rereading this cool comic over the years due to the excellent combination of compelling stories, complex characters and breathtaking artwork.  In recent years I have reviewed some of the latest volumes when they are released (including Volume 32: Mysteries, Volume 33: The Hidden and Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories), and I have also gone back and started reviewing the earlier entries in the series, which has proved to be a lot of fun.  My only regret about being a Usagi Yojimbo fan is that only one volume of the comic is released each year, and once I get a copy, I have to wait an entire year for the next volume.

Luckily for me, my wait is nearly over as the next volume of this series, Homecoming, is currently set for release on 27 April 2021.  Homecoming will be the 35th volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series and will contain issues #8-14 of the current run of the series, which is published by IDW.  This means that the upcoming volume will be printed in colour, which is a relatively new feature that was started in the last volume, and which adds some fantastic visual detail to the story.  In this latest upcoming volume, it looks like Usagi will journey to some of the most important locations from his past and find himself once again involved in the nefarious plots of one of his most dangerous enemies.

Synopsis:

Volume Two of the new series sees Usagi return to his home province to pay his respects, but ghosts from his past have other plans.

In “Tatami,” Usagi returns to his home province only to find intrigue and betrayal! An important tea ceremony is about to take place, but what sinister plan does Lord Hikiji have for it and how are the Neko ninja clan involved?

Then, in “Mon,” long ago, Lord Hikiji defeated Usagi’s Lord Mifune to take control of the Northern Province. Usagi, now traveling through his old territories, still wears the mon (a family crest) of his former lord. But, there are those who still remember the Great Wars with bitterness and threaten to kill any samurai loyal to Mifune. What happens when they come across Usagi?

In “The Return,” Usagi is on a pilgrimage to his late lord’s gravesite, however, wearing the Mifune clan crest in Lord Hikiji’s territory has made him an enemy. Traveling through this dangerous land he has made his way to the one place he had been avoiding–the village in which he grew up. Bittersweet memories awaken with his long-time love, until the village becomes embroiled in a plot to assassinate an emissary of the shogun.

Ooh, now this sounds like it is going to be a rather cool collection of connected stories, and I have a very strong feeling that I am really going to enjoy them.  People familiar with the comic will know that the Lord Hikiji mentioned above is the major overarching antagonist of Usagi Yojimbo; he not only killed both Usagi’s father and his lord in the past but has also been plotting against the Shogun and several of Usagi’s friends in the current plot line.  Hikiji’s schemes have taken a bit of a back seat in recent years, with Usagi dealing with other antagonists and dangers, although he was so well built up in the earlier entries of this series that he is always a lurking shadow in the Usagi Yojimbo universe.  As a result, I am rather intrigued to see an entire volume that is going to be dedicated to Usagi facing off against Hikiji’s minions again, especially as they are going to tie directly into the wars that made Usagi a masterless, wandering samurai.

All three of the stories mentioned in the synopsis sound really cool and I look forward to seeing how each of them turns out.  The first story, Tatami, will apparently revolve around a tea ceremony, with Hikiji and the Neko Ninja operating some elaborate scheme around it.  Sakai has presented some truly masterful depictions of the traditional tea ceremony before, and I imagine that you will see some cool artwork in this upcoming volume, which will no doubt really pop with the added colour.  It will be really interesting to see how this entire story turns out, and no doubt it will serve as the basis for the rest of the narratives contained within Homecoming.

The next story in this volume, Mon, also sounds extremely compelling, and I think it is going to be a fantastic addition to HomecomingMon will apparently see Usagi return to the battlefields of his youth, where he will encounter those who hold a grudge against Usagi’s deceased lord and his now masterless retainers, and who will have issue with Usagi wearing the crest of his lord (the three dots shaped in a triangle that have been part of Usagi’s clothes for essentially his entire run).  There are so many potentially awesome ways that this story can go, and I look forward to seeing how the wars affected other characters aside from Usagi and how running into other veterans or victims will impact him.  In particular, I look forward to seeing Usagi’s role in the battle of Adachi Plain (as shown in Volume 2: Samurai, Volume 11: Seasons and in Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories), once again come to the fore of the story, and no doubt Usagi will have some issues with some of the survivors of these wars.  This entire scenario has a lot of potential to be awesome, and I cannot wait to see how Sakai revisits this integral part of Usagi’s backstory.

The final story mentioned in the synopsis is The Return (which incidentally is the name of a historical fiction book I am reading at the moment), which sees Usagi journey back to his childhood village, where yet another plot awaits.  Out of all the stories that have been mentioned for this volume, I think that The Return is the one that has the most potential for dramatic and emotionally rich moments, as Usagi has so much history waiting for him back at his village.  You have to assume that Usagi will once again encounter Mariko, the love of his life who he can never be with, and Kenichi, his old childhood rival who ended up marrying Mariko.  There is also a chance that he will once again come across Jotaro, his secret son with Mariko, who has previously travelled with Usagi as his pupil.  The two previous stories which saw Usagi return home (as seen in Volume 1: The Ronin and Volume 6: Circles) were loaded with some incredible and heartbreaking character moments, and I imagine a lot of these issues will once again rise to the surface in this latest story.  Throw in an assassination plot and you have the basis for a truly outstanding Usagi Yojimbo story which I cannot wait to read.

I think it is pretty clear after seeing me go on about this upcoming volume that I am really going to enjoy Usagi Yojimbo: Homecoming.  All of the featured stories mentioned in the synopsis sound pretty damn epic, and I love the fact that Sakai is going to dive into some pretty heavy storylines that could have some significant impact on the overall series.  Based on how much I have loved every single other Usagi Yojimbo comic I have ever read, I know well in advance that Homecoming is probably going to get a five-star review from me and it will no doubt be one of the best things I read in 2021.

Star Wars: Darth Vader: Volume One: Dark Heart of the Sith

Darth Vader - Dark Heart of the Sith

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 24 November 2020)

Series: Darth Vader (2020) – Volume One

Writer: Greg Pak

Artist: Raffaele Ienco

Colour Artist: Neeraj Menon

Letterer: VC’s Joe Caramagna

Length: 136 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

One of the first entries in a new set of Star Wars comics is here and it is pretty damn awesome, as Greg Pak, Raffaele Ienco and Neeraj Menon present the first volume of the 2020 Darth Vader series, Dark Heart of the Sith.

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Dark Heart of the Sith contains issues #1-5 of the Darth Vader (2020) comic book series which takes place right after The Empire Strikes Back.  The Darth Vader (2020) series is part of a new range of Star Wars comics which include the Star Wars (2020), Doctor Aphra (2020) and Bounty Hunters series, all of which are set in the year between the events of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  These comics follow on from earlier series which were set between the events of A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back.  This latest round of comics attempts to provide details about what occurred between the events of the second and third films, as well as create some new and exciting adventures.  All of the comics in this range sound fantastic, and I have been eagerly anticipating all of them, especially Darth Vader (2020) due to all the potential for action and drama that it has.

To tell this unique tale, Marvel have utilised the fantastic team of author Greg Pak, artist Raffaele Ienco and colour artist Neeraj Menon.  Greg Pak is a film director and author who has written several amazing comics in his career, with a particular focus on the Hulk and Hercules series for Marvel.  I am somewhat familiar with Pak’s work, enjoying his current run of Firefly comics for Boom!.  I am a little less familiar with Ienco and Menon (although Menon did work as a colourist on the Target Vader limited series), but both are experienced artists who have worked on some intriguing-sounding projects in the past.  This is an intriguing team, and they came together to produce an excellent and powerful Darth Vader story.

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During the climatic events of The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader revealed that he was Anakin Skywalker to his son, Luke, and offered him a chance to rule the galaxy by his side.  However, Luke refused to join him out of fear and disgust, choosing instead to plunge to an unknown fate beneath Cloud City.  Now, rejected and betrayed, Vader finds himself full of rage and determined to seek revenge on anyone who kept his son from him and made him weak.

Tracing Luke’s life before the Rebellion, Vader attempts to find anyone he can take his frustrations out on.  But with everyone in Luke’s past dead and beyond his wrath, Vader decides to investigate what happened to his wife, Padmé Amidala, after their final confrontation on Mustafar.  Investigating a listening device left in Padmé’s apartments on Coruscant, Vader travels to a hidden Rebel base where he makes the startling discovery of a woman with a shocking resemblance to an older Padmé.

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Despite the initial shock, Vader is soon able to determine that this is not his dead wife returned from the grave but the Queen’s Shadow, Sabé.  Sabé was once Padmé’s most loyal friend, handmaiden, bodyguard and double, and her death has haunted Sabé for years.  Determined to use Sabé to find the answers he is looking for; Vader decides to work with the former handmaiden to find out the truth of Padmé’s last moments.  The information that they need apparently resides on Naboo, and Vader is forced to relive the ghosts of his past life as Anakin Skywalker to find the truth.  However, more treachery awaits Vader on Naboo as a secret organisation waits to kill him.  The Handmaidens of Amidala know who truly killed their mistress, and they are finally ready to take their revenge.

What is it about Darth Vader that makes it impossible for someone to create a bad comic about him?  I mean, seriously, all the previous Darth Vader comics in the current canon have been absolute masterpieces, from the epic 2015 Darth Vader series (check out my reviews for Volume One: Vader, Volume Two: Shadows and Secrets and the crossover comic Vader Down), the impressive prequel series Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith (check out my reviews for Volume Two: Legacy’s End and Volume Three: The Burning Seas), the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars series, Skywalker Strikes, or the fun limited series, Dark Visions.  Each of these comics has been impressive in its own way, and in each of them Darth Vader shines as the ultimate badass.  This first volume of the new Darth Vader series is no exception as it follows Vader through a harrowing journey of discovery that takes him back into his tumultuous past and explores the consequences of his actions at the formation of the Empire.

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Dark Heart of the Sith contains an epic and emotional narrative which follows one of fiction’s greatest villains after he encounters one of the biggest setbacks in his life.  Set mere moments after Vader’s final appearance in The Empire Strikes Back, the Dark Lord of the Sith embarks on a deeply personal mission that is half rampage and half voyage of discovery.  After some initial setbacks, Vader eventually finds Sabé, the Queen’s double, whose appearance in the final panel of Issue #1 was a major selling point for the series.  Sabé’s introduction to the plot leads Vader to revisit some of the most important locations from his life as Anakin Skywalker, before an inevitable run-in with Padmé’s former followers, who hold Vader responsible for her death and the death of Anakin Skywalker.  This entire arc is extremely well written, and I absolutely loved the ambitious and clever story that Pak came up with.  The author does an awesome job of combining an exciting narrative made up of several epic and impressive moments and with a deep dive into Vader’s mind, and this results in a captivating and powerful read that serves as a particularly distinctive chapter in the history of Darth Vader.  I really enjoyed where Pak took Dark Heart of the Sith’s amazing story, and while certain elements lose their impact in the internet age of freely available spoilers, there are some big and impressive moments in here that all Star Wars fans need to see.

One of the things I most enjoyed about this comic was the way that the creative team brought in elements from the Star Wars prequel films and inserted them into a story set right after The Empire Strikes BackDark Heart of the Sith takes the reader back to several key locations from the prequel films and reintroduces several minor characters who appeared in them, including Sabé, one of the pilots from The Phantom Menace and Captain Gregar Typho, Padmé’s security guard in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.  This use of these elements from the prior movies works extremely well in the context of this comic’s story, as Vader is forced to revisit his past at a point when he is the most vulnerable in the present.  This makes Dark Heart of the Sith quite an interesting comic for Star Wars fans, who will greatly enjoy the inclusion of elements from two distinctive eras of the franchise.  I felt that Dark Heart of the Sith was a very accessible comic for readers with limited familiarity with Star Wars fiction, and readers only need to check out some of the films to get a good understanding of what is happening. 

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However, as an established fan of the franchise, I was quite overjoyed to see that this comic had an interesting connection to some interesting pieces of Star Wars extended fiction, namely two recent novels by E. K. Johnston, Star Wars: Queen’s Shadow and Star Wars: Queen’s Peril.  These two novels, which serve as sequel and prequel to The Phantom Menace respectively, are set around the lives of Padmé and her handmaidens and provide added details about how they came into her service and the loyalty that they felt to her.  The narrative contained within this comic serves as a sequel to an arc set up in Queen’s Shadow, where Sabé swears to find justice for the death of Padmé, with several of the unique characters who were either introduced or sufficiently fleshed out in these novels also appearing.  This results in several awesome scenes, including one particularly epic sequence in which Vader is confronted by Padmé’s surviving handmaidens, who engage in an all-out brawl against him.  I found all of this to be immensely cool, and I really enjoyed seeing some of the elements from these books concluded in this comic, especially as Dark Heart of the Sith serves as a definitive conclusion to these character arcs.

Unsurprisingly, the standout character of this comic is Darth Vader himself, who goes through a lot during Dark Heart of the Sith.  Pak really turns this first volume into a deep exploration of Vader’s complex psyche, and there is an interesting examination of how Vader is feeling in the immediate aftermath of Luke rejecting him.  Without his usual determination and dedication to the Dark Side, Vader is lost in this comic, acting out of impulse and searching for someone or something to take his rage out against.  The introduction of Sabé and the return to several key locations from his past only adds to his confusion and emotional instability, and it is blatantly obvious that this is not the same Vader we have come to fear and admire.  Instead, this Vader hesitates to do some of his usual acts of destruction.  Certain memories from his past suddenly spring to the forefront of his mind, turning him away from his desired actions, such as sparing Sabé after revisiting his memory of killing Padmé.  Vader is also continually thrown by the return of several figures from his past, each of whom had a connection to both Padmé and Anakin Skywalker, and it proved to be quite fascinating to see Vader interact with them differently, especially as none of them are aware that Vader is Anakin. 

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This comic also contains some key moments of history for Vader; not only does he finally visit Padmé’s tomb but he also admits to her murder, all of which have major emotional implications for him.  I quite enjoyed this dive into Vader’s psyche and I really appreciated the way that the creative team tried to show just how complex and conflicted the character can be.  Based on how Volume One ends, this is probably going to be a recurring theme of the Darth Vader (2020) series and it will be interesting to see the many different changes in the character’s psyche.  I should mention that even though this is a focus on Vader’s mind and his innumerable regrets, the creative team do go out of their way to show just how much of a badass he is and there are several impressive sequences where he doles out death and destruction on an epic level, including killing some of the biggest and most dangerous creatures on Naboo.  All of this results in a deeply impressive Darth Vader comic, and I love the creators’ take on this amazing villain.

Aside from Vader and the returning characters from the prequels, Dark Heart of the Sith also features a fun new posse for Vader in the form of three Death Troopers (the elite Stormtroopers introduced in Rogue One) and the forensics droid Zed Six Seven, who accompany Vader throughout this mission.  While the Death Troopers do have a key role in this comic as Vader’s bodyguards and backup, they are mostly just background characters, without any major defining characteristics or moments.  Zed Six Seven, on the other hand, does a lot of talking, commenting on every event and revelation that occurs within the course of the narrative.  This extra commentary is essential, as Zed Six Seven provides nearly all the necessary exposition within the narrative, as Vader has less dialogue than a typical comic protagonist.  Despite primarily being an exposition machine, Zed Six Seven does prove to be an entertaining character, and I quite enjoyed his reactions to certain revelations or the events, even if his inability to keep his robotic mouth shut does cost him in the end.  Overall, I really liked all the character inclusions and development featured within Dark Heart of the Sith, and it helped to make an epic and powerful story.

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I really must highlight the exceptional art featured within this volume as the two artists, Ienco and Menon, do an amazing job bringing this captivating narrative to life.  I absolutely loved all the art contained within this comic and I felt that each of the scenes was drawn very well, with the various featured characters representing their film counterparts in impressive detail.  I particularly enjoyed the excellent way that the artists recreated a ton of key events from the prequel movies and featured them throughout the comic.  The recreated shots from the films were done with a distinctive red filter and were utilised as Vader’s flashbacks to key events from his life.  These flashback scenes help to highlight just how muddled and conflicted Vader’s thoughts are, and they are utilised to great effect throughout this first volume, often shown side-to-side with current events for some amazing contrasts.  I felt that this excellent artwork really helped to enhance Pak’s clever story, especially as the artwork provides the reader with some fantastic visuals of Vader’s emotional range.  It is a real testament to their drawings that you constantly have an idea of how Vader is feeling even with the mask on, and a lot of this is down to the way that the artists portray his body language and reactions.  I also loved several sequences that recreate Luke’s fall to the bottom of Cloud City at the end of their duel in The Empire Strikes Back.  These sequences are featured multiple times throughout the comic, with Luke replaced with several other characters, including various iterations of Vader himself, reflecting just how fractured or lost Vader feels.  This comic is also filled with some action-packed and explosive moments that see Vader attempt to kill everyone and everything in his path.  These action sequences are an exciting treat at several key points throughout the narrative and it is always fun to see Vader kick ass and take names.  Highlights included several sequences where Vader faces off against the megafauna of Naboo, including one massive leviathan (whose introduction is one of my favourite panels in the entire comic).  There is also a particularly brutal fight sequence towards the end of the comic where Vader releases years of anger and frustration in one destructive flurry.  All this awesome art adds so much to the comic and I cannot compliment it enough.

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Dark Heart of the Sith, the first volume of the Darth Vader (2020) series, is an absolute triumph that may be one of the best pieces of Star Wars fiction this year.  Featuring an outstanding combination of exciting narrative, compelling character development and eye-popping artwork, Dark Heart of the Sith was an absolute treat to read from start to finish.  I loved the way in which the creative team dived into the mind of my favourite Star Wars character, and it proved to be a gripping and powerful read.  This was one of the best things I read all year and it gets an easy five-star rating from me.

Top Ten Tuesday – Favourite Animated Comic Book Movies

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  For this week’s Top Ten Tuesday, participants get come up with a list around Non-Bookish Hobbies, in order for the various participants to get to know each other.  This is a rather interesting idea from The Artsy Reader Girl, and I thought that I would use this topic to talk about something I am quite passionate about, animated movies that are based on comic books.

I am a major fan of both animated television shows and of comic books, so naturally the combination of these two genres is something I am quite keen on.  Over the years there have been a huge number of animated comic book adaptions made and I have gone out of my way to watch as many as possible.  Most of these are pretty good, although several really shine through as the cream of the crop.  Surprisingly, this is one of the few areas where DC Comics really has the advantage over Marvel.  While there are a few good Marvel Comics animated adaptions, DC has more of a monopoly over animated movies, producing a huge range of high-quality and compelling films, mostly as part of their DC Universe Animated Original Movies range.  That being said, I have included a few Marvel movies into my list below, as they have done several good movies.  I am particularly keen to do this list this year as I actually reviewed one of these movies, Justice League Dark: Apokolips War, on my blog earlier this year in what was my first film review.  I had a lot of fun reviewing this animated film and it might be something I will continue to do in the future for some of the better upcoming releases.

In order to appear on this list, the film had to be an adaption of a comic book or be based upon a character or characters who originated in comic book format.  I spent a substantial amount of time going through all the various animated movies that were out there, and I have to admit that my original list was pretty substantial.  I was able to cull it down a little, although I still had way more than 10 entries that I wanted to feature.  In the end I decided to make this a Top Twenty List, which made me a lot happier and allows me to feature several more out-there entries.  I am extremely happy with how this list turned out as every single movie below is well worth checking out for a variety of reasons.

Top Twenty List:

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse

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After talking smack about the Marvel animated films above, it does feel a little silly putting Into the Spider-Verse first on this list.  However, this is without a doubt one of the best, if not the best, animated comic book adaptation ever done, and is probably the one most people have actually seen.  This was an ultra-cool and clever movie that successfully brought the Miles Morales Spider-Man to the big screen, while also featuring an impressive voice cast, a unique animation style and an exceptionally well-written and entertaining story.  A must-watch for any comic book fan out there.

Batman: Under the Red Hood

Under the Red Hood Cover

This second entry is probably one of my absolute favourite animated comic book movies.  An adaptation of the Under the Hood storyline, this movie pits Batman against the Red Hood, a masked vigilante who has a dark connection with his past.  Despite lacking a lot of the surprise about the eventual reveal of Red Hood’s identity that most comic readers had when it was first released, this is still an extremely strong and captivating movie with a number of action-packed and emotionally charged sequences.  Anchored by an especially good voice cast, including Bruce Greenwood as Batman, Jensen Ackles as Red Hood, John DiMaggio as a delightfully evil Joker and Neil Patrick Harris as Nightwing, this is an exceptional movie, especially the end scene which sees Batman have his final dramatic confrontation with Red Hood.

Justice League Dark: Apokolips War

Apokolips War Poster

As I mentioned above, Apokolips War is a more recent release that I reviewed earlier this year.  This was another top-rate comic book movie that served as the epic final entry in the DC Animated Movie Universe, an extended collection of connected animated films all set within the same shared universe.  Containing a dark storyline and a massive cast, this movie successfully concluded the multitude of plot lines featured in the other DC Animated Movie Universe films while also providing the viewer with a number of amazing and moving scenes.  A really awesome animated film to check out.

The Lego Batman Movie

Lego Batman Poster

I could not do a list about animated comic movies without featuring The Lego Batman Movie.  While I could potentially have also used The Lego Movie or its sequel, The Lego Batman Movie is a pure superhero movie that brings a number of iconic Batman characters to life in a fun Lego way.  This is definitely the most comedic movie on this list and features a huge number of excellent jokes and send-ups of the Batman universe.  From the opening line about DC being “the house that Batman built”, to a cheeky takedown at Batman’s weird extended rogues gallery, you’ll be hard pressed not to laugh like crazy the entire way through.

The Death of Superman

Death of Superman Poster

The 1992-1993 comic book storyline The Death of Superman is one of the best-selling and iconic comics in history, and naturally several movies have attempted to adapt it before, such as the 2007 animated film Superman: Doomsday and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice.  However, the best adaption is the 2018 animated film, The Death of Superman, which absolutely blew me away when it came out.  Featuring an extremely brutal fight between Doomsday and Superman (after Doomsday takes down the entire Justice League by himself), and the extremely powerful Superman death sequence (I dare you not to tear up for it!), this movie is easily one of the best animated films ever done.

Batman: Assault on Arkham

Assault on Arkham Poster

This is the Suicide Squad movie we actually needed.  Set in the same universe as the bestselling Batman: Arkham games, Assault on Arkham was released two years before the live action Suicide Squad movie and is substantially better.  While it lacks the all-star cast of the live-action film, Assault on Arkham has an extremely well-written story that effectively captures the heart of the comic book and shows the villains at their worst as they attempt to break into the worst place in the world, Arkham Asylum.  Loaded up with bloody action, great characters and humour that is frankly more adult than its live-action counterpart, you will have an amazing time watching this film.

Justice League vs. Teen Titans

Justice League vs Teen Titans Poster

To me, the DC Animated Movie Universe only started to get really good when Justice League vs. Teen Titans was released.  While there were some good entries in the early going of this shared universe, this one was leaps and bounds above most of them.  Not only does Justice League vs. Teen Titans do a great job introducing my favourite superhero team, the Teen Titans, to this universe but it also presents a really good version of the Trigon/Raven storyline from the Teen Titans comics in a short amount of time.  In addition, this proved to be a key entry in the DC Animated Movie Universe, as it successfully ties into several of the other movies in the series.  An exciting and impressive movie that was great to watch multiple times.

Superman/Batman: Apocalypse

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While I was tempted to add Superman/Batman: Public Enemies to this list, I have more of a preference for the sequel, ApocalypseApocalypse is an excellent adaption of the Superman/Batman comic book arc, The Supergirl from Krypton, which reintroduced the Kara Zor-El version of Supergirl into the DC Comics universe (which eventually led to her current use in popular culture).  Apocalypse features an amazing storyline that sees Supergirl come to Earth, only to be captured by Darkseid, forcing Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman and Big Barda to travel to Apokolips to rescue her.  Not only are there several epic scenes, such as Batman’s badass showdown with Darkseid, or the massive extended fight between Darkseid and the Super cousins that decimates the Kent farm, but this movie features an impressive voice cast.  This includes the dream team of returning Justice League voice actors Kevin Conroy, Tim Daly and Susan Eisenberg (the definitive voices of Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman respectively), as well as Summer Glau as Supergirl and Andre Braugher as Darkseid.  I particularly loved Braugher’s work in this movie and I felt he gave one of the best Darkseid portrayals of all time.  An overall awesome movie, I have a lot of love for this film.

Justice League Dark

Justice League Dark Poster

This is an excellent movie that sees Batman forced to work with a mismatched team of magicians and magical creatures to stop a world-ending threat.  This was an amazing and fast-paced movie that not only serves as a key part of the DC Animated Movie Universe (the final film in the whole series was a sequel to this one), but which contains an outstanding original storyline of its own.  There are so many cool elements to this film, including the excellent reintroduction of Matt Ryan as John Constantine, the original rogue magician and world-class bastard, and it was an incredible film to enjoy.

Teen Titans: The Judas Contract

Teen Titans The Judas Contract Poster

The second Teen Titans movie set in the DC Animated Movie Universe, this film serves as a unique adaptation of the classic Teen Titans storyline, The Judas Contract.  This film sees the Teen Titans under attack from within as the master assassin Deathstroke returns to destroy the team once and for all.  Expertly tying the established comic storyline in with the version of the Teen Titans introduced in Justice League vs. Teen Titans, this was an impressive film that has a lot going for it.  You have to particularly love the complex storyline written around the character of Terra, and Beast Boy shines as not only the comic relief (the way he gets captured is just hilarious), but also as a tragic romantic figure.  Work in a fun Kevin Smith cameo, and The Judas Contract is an absolute must-see film.

Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay

Suicide Squad Hell to Pay Poster

Another exceptional Suicide Squad movie, Hell to Pay sees the titular squad compete with some of DC’s deadliest villains to obtain a “Get out of Hell Free” card.  This is wildly entertaining and surprisingly adult film that has some intriguing connections to some of the previous animated DC films.  One of the film’s advantages is that it does not take itself too seriously and at times it comes across as a gritty grindhouse action movie.  This movie has a very high death count, even amongst its main characters, and viewers are in for a bloody and exciting time.

Batman: Year One

Batman Year One Poster

This next entry was a perfect adaptation of Frank Miller’s iconic comic of the same name, which not only formed the definitive introduction to the modern Batman but which also served as the inspiration for much of Batman Begins.  This film does an outstanding job bringing this story to life, and it is anchored by its two excellent narrators, Bryan Cranston as James Gordon and Ben McKenzie as Bruce Wayne.  Cranston is of course perfect in this, and I love the fact that McKenzie voiced Batman in a movie only a few years before he was cast as James Gordon in Gotham.

Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths

Justice League Crisis on Two Earths Poster

This is another great Justice League animated movie that was originally going to be set between the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited television shows (although it ended up being separate from them).  This is an impressive movie that sees the Justice League follow a heroic Lex Luthor to an alternate Earth (Earth-Three), which is ruled over by evil versions of the Leaguers.  Not only is this a great take on a classic Justice League comic storyline, but it also contains a lot of cool moments.  I particularly liked the sociopathic Batman double, Owlman (voiced by James Woods), as he has one of the best death scenes in an animated comic book movie.

Batman: The Dark Knight Returns

The Dark Knights Return Part 2 Poster

For this entry I am combining two films into one, The Dark Knight Returns: Part One and Part Two.  These two films serve as a close adaptation of the iconic comic book by Frank Miller and feature all the best elements from the comics.  Not only does it contain a great version of the iconic battle between Batman and Superman but it has one of the most disturbing and memorable encounters between Batman and the Joker.  A truly impressive movie in both scope and delivery, it is a great way to check out one of the most revered Batman comics of all time.

Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox

The Flashpoint Paradox Poster

This animated film is an adaption of the key DC Comics storyline, Flashpoint.  While I am not a major fan of what the Flashpoint comic did to the DC Universe (damn you New 52!), the story itself was pretty good and its adaption is also really fun to watch.  Featuring an intriguing time-travel storyline that sees the Flash trapped in a dark alternate timeline, this is a clever and compelling film, especially when some revelations come to light towards the end of the story.  The Flashpoint Paradox is a very close adaption to the comics, although there are a few clever twists here and there.  I was also really impressed in how the events of this film were reutilised in several preceding movies in the DC Animated Movie Universe, and it suggests a lot of pre-planning from the writers of this film.

Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles

Batman vs Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Poster

While I was tempted to include the 2007 TMNT film, I ended up going with last year’s Batman vs. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Based on the very successful Batman/Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comic, this is a fun and more light-hearted film that sees Batman team up with the Ninja Turtles to save Gotham from an alliance between Shredder and Ra’s al Ghul.  I really love the way this film blends together elements and characters from these two iconic franchises and there are some great moments throughout, from Batman absolutely spanking the Turtles the first time they meet, to a wild romp through Arkham Asylum as the heroes encounter mutated versions of Batman’s rogue gallery.  A very funny entry on this list, fans of both franchises are guaranteed to have a good laugh throughout this film.

Justice League: War

Justice League War Poster

The second entry in the DC Animated Movie Universe following The Flashpoint Paradox, Justice League: War is the movie this introduces the details of this new timeline.  Based off the Justice League: Origin storyline from The New 52, Justice League: War showcases the formation of the Justice League as they go from hunted vigilantes to national heroes by facing down Darkseid’s first invasion.  Not only does it do a good job introducing all seven members of the League in this timeline (with Shazam replacing Aquaman from the comics), but it lives up to its title, with a massive war sequence taking place throughout, as all seven members of the League engage in a brutal fight with Darkseid and his minions.

Big Hero 6

Big Hero 6 Poster

While this is more of a Disney movie than anything else, Big Hero 6 is still an adaption of a comic book, as Big Hero 6 are a Marvel Comics superhero team.  While not the greatest Disney animated film of all time, it is a lot of fun to watch and only someone with a heart of stone would fail to fall in love with Baymax.  Also, it has a fun Stan Lee cameo in the end, which carries a lot of weight with me.

Justice League: Doom

Justice League Doom Poster

Justice League: Doom is a sequel to Crisis on Two Earths which sees the Justice League fight another dangerous threat from both within and without.  Loosely based on the JLA: Tower of Babel comic, the Justice League is attacked by Vandal Savage and a cadre of supervillains who are determined to take the League off the board.  However, in order to achieve their goals, they utilise contingency plans originally created by Batman to take down his teammates.  A very smartly written movie with some epic sequences, I personally thought Doom was a little stronger than Crisis on Two Earths, and it is really worth checking out.

Hulk vs.

Hulk Vs Poster

The final entry on this list is a fun entry from Marvel that was released back in 2009.  Hulk vs. is actually a double feature film featuring two shorter movies, Hulk vs. Wolverine and Hulk vs. Thor.  Both these films are pretty much as described, with Wolverine and Thor forced to go up against a maddened Hulk who is lured into their path by their respective enemies.  One of the more brutal animated films from the 2000s, highlights include an entertaining Deadpool and the Hulk smashing through the entirety of Asgard’s armies to get to Thor.

Well, that is my list.  As you can see, I am quite passionate about these animated movies and I clearly have watched them too many times.  I hope the above notes encourage you to check some of them out as each of them are a lot of fun to watch and contain a lot of hidden depth.  Let me know which animated comic book films are your favourites in the comments below and keep an eye out for any future reviews I do of some of these movies.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 10: The Brink of Life and Death by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - The Brink of Life and Death

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 10

Length: 215 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

Another week, another Throwback Thursday review of an early volume of one of my all-time favourite comic book series, Usagi Yojimbo, by legendary author and artist Stan Sakai.  This week I will look at the epic 10th volume in the series, The Brink of Life and Death, which proved to be another amazing and exciting five-star read.

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The Brink of Life and Death continues the adventures of the rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, as he travels throughout the lands encountering all manner people and dangers.  This 10th volume is a fantastic addition to the series, featuring a great mixture of stories, from the tragic to the supernatural, and utilising some iconic recurring characters.  This volume is the third that has been collected by Dark Horse Books, and it features a mixture of issues from two separate publishers.  This includes the final issues of the Mirage Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, with Issues #15 and 16, as well a story taken from Issue #13 (the rest of Issue #13 was used in the last volume, Daisho).  It also contains the first six issues of the Dark Horse Books publication run of Usagi Yojimbo and serves as the starting point to Dark Horse’s lengthy connection to the series.  As a result, the volume starts off with a quick recap of the series (titled Origin Tale), containing some very broad strokes and ensuring that new readers could start on this volume if they wanted (although Sakai does make most of his comics fairly accessible to unfamiliar readers).  This volume also contains Dark Horse’s trademark story notes at the end of the volume, which proved to be a particularly intriguing companion to the excellent stories contained within The Brink of Life and Death.

The first story contained within this volume is the intriguing and exciting Kaiso.  In Kaiso, Usagi encounters a local peasant, Kichiro, while wandering on the coast, and travels with him to his village.  There, Usagi becomes familiar with Kichiro’s family and begins to learn more about the village’s main trade, seaweed (kaiso) farming.  While Usagi enjoys the seemingly simple life of the villagers, he soon finds himself involved in a feud with a neighbouring village, who Kichiro believes are poaching their seaweed fields.  However, not everything is as it seems, and Usagi manages to uncover a conspiracy that threatens to destroy his new friends.

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Kaiso is a fantastic and compelling story that once again highlights a traditional Japanese industry, in this case, seaweed farming.  Sakai does a fantastic job exploring seaweed farming in this story, as he introduces and portrays a number of key tools, concepts and techniques involved with the production of edible seaweed, all the way from harvesting it from the ocean to turning it into its dried form, nori.  This examination of seaweed farming serves as a surprisingly good centre for this story, and it is a testament to Sakai’s skill as a writer that he was able to produce an exciting and intrigue filled narrative around this industry in just 20 pages.  There are some great action sequences throughout this story, and it was cool to see Usagi fighting off a bunch of attackers whilst on a small fishing boat, utilising traditional farming tools as weapons.  There are also several impressive drawings throughout this story, as Sakai seeks to capture the beauty of the Japanese coastline as well as the complexities of the seaweed trade.  Kaiso proved to be an awesome first entry in this volume, and its intriguing story content and premise really helps to draw the reader in right off the bat.

The next story within The Brink of Life and Death is a great entry titled A Meeting of Strangers.  While enjoying a quiet lunch at an inn, Usagi watches as a striking swordswoman, later revealed to be called Inazuma, enters the inn.  Wary of this mysterious woman, Usagi bears witness to her skill and ferocity in combat as she takes down a band of bounty hunters who attack her, before departing into the wilds.  However, Inazuma is not the only person being hunted, and soon Usagi finds himself under attack from a group of killers who have been hired to end him.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #1

This is a really good story that showcases Sakai’s ability to quickly introduce an intriguing new character.  Inazuma goes on to become a major figure in the Usagi Yojimbo series for the next 14 volumes, and she gets an amazing introduction in this story, instantly coming across as something new, due to her striking appearance and her tough mannerisms.  Sakai shows early in the story that she is pretty damn dangerous, as Usagi casually reaches for his sword the moment he sees her, a completely new action from the character, which clearly identifies Inazuma as a major threat.  She quickly backs this up with her impressive swordplay, including slicing up the clothes of a local creep, and then taking out a band of bounty hunters.  She has a brutal fighting style as shown in this comic, and I loved her trademark finishing manoeuvre of completely cleaning the blood off her blade with one deft swish through the air.  In addition to the introduction of this great character, other fun elements of the story include the return of the Snitch (who was introduced in the last volume), who facilitates the hit on Usagi.  The Snitch is such a fantastic minor antagonist, and it is really entertaining seeing him running around doing his thing: “money, money, money!”  There is also a particularly impressive fight sequence in the last half of the story between Usagi and the assassins in the woods.  This scene sees Usagi take on over 20 guys in quick succession and is a real showcase of his ability.  There is a particularly fun panel in this sequence which sees Usagi kill several people at the same time, with his defeated opponents arranged in a semi-circle, all of them dying in dramatic fashion while making a different death rattle (including one guy who goes: “Trout, Trout!” for some reason).  All of this was over-the-top and helped show off just how crazy and action-packed this series can be.

The third story in this volume is the short entry Black Soul, which continues to showcase the return of series antagonist, Jei.  During a stormy night, a young girl and her grandfather have their house invaded by three bandits who steal their food and kill the grandfather.  However, the bandits are far from the only predators out that night, as the mysterious and frightening Jei appears at the door.  This was a great story that added a lot of key elements to the character of Jei in only a few pages.  Jei’s sudden appearance is suitably dramatic, and it shows off how terrifying he can be.  I loved the way that Sakai portrayed Jei’s fight against the three bandits, as all you see is several drawings of the hut’s exterior while terrified screams run out.  The story then returns to the interior of the house, where the bandits’ corpses are strewn around the house, including one guy who is hanging upside-down from the rafters, dripping blood.  Not seeing what actually happened makes the reader imagine the very worst scenario, and it really amps up the dread that this antagonist emanates.  Sakai then continues to hint at Jei’s more supernatural abilities by having him ‘consecrate’ the spear of one of his fallen opponents, with the blade visibly turning black in his hands, matching the soul of the wielder.  Perhaps the most interesting part of the story is the young peasant girl, Keiko.  At first it appears that Jei is going to kill her; however, he stops after not sensing any evil in her.  This is the first time we have seen Jei show mercy, and it is a defining moment for the character, especially as Keiko starts following him as his companion.  Having Jei care for a young girl really adds to the complexity around Jei’s character, and in many ways it makes him seem even more evil, as he is corrupting this innocent with his dark crusade.  Overall, Dark Soul is a great and scary story which leaves the reader wanting to see more of this fantastic antagonist.

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Now we move on to Noodles, the only multi-issue entry in the volume which contains a powerful and impressive narrative that I really enjoyed.  In Noodles, Usagi enters a new town, only to be immediately accosted by the police, who are searching for a thief behind a recent crime wave.  Proving his innocence, Usagi swiftly finds out the source of the recent crimes is his friend Kitsune, who is up to her usual tricks.  Kitsune has a new companion, a soba noodle street vendor and mute giant known only as Noodles, who assists Kitsune to hide from the police.  However, Kitsune has underestimated the deviousness and corruption of the local police administrator who puts a deadly plan into place to save his own skin.

This was an incredible entry in this volume, and I have a lot of love for Noodles’s fantastic crime narrative.  Sakai crafts together a fantastic storyline that follows Usagi as he meets up once again with the entertaining side character Kitsune and intriguing new character Noodles.  Kitsune is her usual fun self, and the introduction of the mute gentle giant Noodle adds a lot of dimensions to her character.  Up to now, Kitsune has been shown to be a generally good person, although she is motivated by greed or a sense of mischief.  However, in this story, she is given someone to care for, and she is determined to protect him no matter what.  Unfortunately, this leads to some great tragedy for her, which I found to be extremely moving, and you cannot help but feel bad for her.  Luckily, this leads to a rather good revenge plot in the second part of the story, which gives Noodles a satisfying and enjoyable ending.  This entire story was extremely well written, combining together humour, intrigue, character interactions and some genuine tragedy to produce an epic and compelling read.  I also really enjoyed Sakai’s amazing depictions of life in a larger feudal Japanese town, and it is clear that he did a lot of research to show what day-to-day life would look like, as well as examining how the criminal justice system worked during this period.  There are some really impressive drawings throughout this story, from the multiple detailed street and crowd views filled with all manner of activities and people (there is a sneaky shot of Jei and Keiko walking through town at one point), to the amazing action sequences, including a great scene where the gigantic Noodles is attacked by the police.  However, I really must highlight a particularly gruesome execution sequence that was a key part of the story.  While this scene is sad and horrifying, it is extremely well drawn, very memorable and it does its job of producing a major emotional response from the reader.  Noodles is probably the best entry in this entire volume, and I cannot praise just how amazing its clever and captivating story is.

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The next story within this volume is the supernatural tale, Wrath of the Tangled Skein, which sees Usagi arrive at a local inn which is experiencing some trouble.  A rich merchant’s daughter has been taken mysteriously ill, and her entourage fear that it is the work of a demon or haunt, picked up from their travels through the dangerous forest known as The Tangled Skein.  Usagi, who has previously travelled through The Tangled Skein (back in Volume 7: Gen’s Story), offers his assistance and takes command of the merchant’s ronin while they wait for a priest to arrive.  It does not take long for events to come to a head, and Usagi finds himself facing off against dangerous and malicious terrors.

I really like it when Sakai does a supernatural tale in the Usagi Yojimbo series, and this one was particularly awesome as the author expertly utilises some fascinating creatures from Japanese mythology.  There are two separate monsters contained within this story.  First you have the nue, a terrifying chimeric creature with the head of a monkey, the body of a badger, the legs of a tiger and a snake for a tail.  Needless to say, this is a particularly weird creature, and Sakai does a fantastic job drawing it and then portraying a chaotic and dangerous fight around it as Usagi attempts to defeat it.  In addition to the nue there is also a tanuki, a shape-changing racoon dog, who manages to trick Usagi and almost costs him everything.  I really loved the designs of both these creatures within the comic, and it was extremely cool to see and learn more about these facets of Japanese culture and tradition.  This story is set up extremely well, and the author has a great blend of action, supernatural intrigue and fun character moments.  Wrath of the Tangled Skein also introduces the character of Sanshobo, a Bonze priest who goes onto become a key recurring character, helping to make this a significant and important entry in the Usagi Yojimbo series.

Up next we have another short character-driven tale, The Bonze’s Story.  In this entry, Usagi travels with the Bonze priest Sanshobo after the events of the previous story.  The two quickly find camaraderie with each other, especially when Usagi realises that his companion is a former samurai.  Sanshobo then relates the tragic tale of how he gave up his warrior ways, which occurred when the young son of his lord accidently died in his care.  This forced Sanshobo’s own son to take his own life to restore his family’s honour, an event that broke Sanshobo.  This was a rather fascinating tale that does a lot to cement interest in a new side character.  The origin tale for Sanshobo is really good, and the whole story of sacrificing a son to save honour is extremely captivating and memorable.  The entire background story is drawn amazingly, and the various expressions of horror, sorrow and pride on the face of participants as they attempt to survive in a storm are quite exceptional.  This was another amazing example of what sort of impressive story Sakai can tell in only a few short pages, and The Bonze’s Story definitely sticks in the mind.

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Following this shorter tale, we have the fun, action-packed Bats, the Cat and the Rabbit.  In this entry, Usagi seeks shelter in an old temple, but his quiet night is ruined when several Komori Ninja arrive, seeking a specific prey.  After they leave, Usagi discovers that the person they are hunting is an injured Chizu, the leader of the Neko Ninja.  Helping her, Usagi learns that she is carrying a valuable and dangerous scroll that the Komori Ninja are desperate to obtain.  Can Usagi and Chizu keep it out of their hands, or will a powerful new weapon be unleashed upon the lands?

Bats, the Cat and the Rabbit was an exciting and entertaining entry that sees Usagi reunited with one of his potential love interests Chizu, who we last saw back in Volume 8: Shades of Death.  This is a fast-paced story that focuses on the conflict between two rival ninja clans, Chizu’s Neko Ninja and the Komori Ninja.  The Komori Ninja, giant bats with blades on their wings who had an amazing introduction back in Volume 5: Lone Goat and Kid, are fantastic antagonists for this story, and it is always cool to see them in action, especially when Sakai draws them slicing through trees to get their prey.  The highlight of this story is the impressive ninja-on-ninja combat, as the more traditional ninja techniques of Chizu and the Neko Ninja go up against these flying opponents, all with Usagi in the middle.  This results in some epic fight sequences which end up being a lot of fun to see come to life.  I also really enjoyed the fantastic conclusion to this story, which not only has a great twist but which also adds a bit of tragedy to the life of Chizu, as she reflects on what constitutes duty for ninja.  An overall awesome and enjoyable story, this was another fantastic entry in this volume.

The penultimate entry in The Brink of Life and Death is the gripping story, The Chrysanthemum Pass.  After humiliating a group of thugs in a town, Usagi obtains a new travelling companion, Icho, a wandering medicine peddler.  The two become friendly as they wander around the mountains, but Icho is not what he seems.  Instead, he is secretly a member of the Koroshi, a notorious assassins’ guild, and is planning to take out a rich lord who is travelling through the Chrysanthemum Pass, and Usagi is also on his kill list.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #5

This was another outstanding story.  I loved the entire cleverly written narrative, which sees Usagi dragged into the middle of another devious plot.  Having his companion, Icho, turn out to be secretly evil was a fantastic choice by Sakai, and he sets it up perfectly, with only minor hints of his true intentions being revealed to the reader until about halfway through the story.  The rest of the story deals with Icho trying to subtly kill Usagi before his assassination mission and failing, allowing Usagi to be in the midst of the events in the pass.  This story then features a number of fantastic twists, including the fact that Usagi suspected that Icho was an assassin the entire time, implying that his reasons for travelling with him was to keep an eye on him and intervene if he was proven correct.  It was great to see the return of the Mogura Ninja, ninja moles with some really cool character designs who were introduced in the very first volume, The Ronin, and they once again proved to be surprisingly effective adversaries.  This story also serves to introduce a new group of antagonists for Usagi, with the first mention of the Koroshi assassins’ guild, whose various members tangle with Usagi multiple times throughout the rest of the series.  The Chrysanthemum Pass is therefore a fantastic and notable entry within this volume, and it ended up having quite an impressive story.

The final story in this volume is Lightning Strikes Twice, a powerful and captivating entry which provides new background for new character Inazuma.  In this story, Usagi once again runs into the mysterious Inazuma after finding several dead bodies on the road.  Encountering her within a temple, surrounded by other travellers, Usagi sits and listens to her tragic tale of love, loss and revenge as she recounts how she became so skilled with the sword, and the reasons why she is constantly being hunted throughout the lands.

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #6

This was another epic story that really helps to build up Inazuma as an impressive and unique character within the series.  Her entire backstory as a girl who followed her heart and then lost everything is really emotional and humanising, adding layers of complexity to her rough exterior.  It was rather jarring to see such a strong woman stay with an abusive and uncaring partner, and it serves as an intriguing starting point for her road to exceptional warrior.  I enjoyed seeing her learning the way of the sword, and Sakai really builds her up as a natural prodigy with the blade.  Despite the humanising aspects of this story, Inazuma again comes across as a major badass within this story, thanks to the bloody fight sequence at the beginning, where she swiftly takes down a band of assassins with some very fancy moves, as well as the sequence at the end of the origin story, where she shows just how dangerous and cruel she can be.  I also absolutely loved the shocking reveal at the end of Lightning Strikes Twice where Usagi discovers that the people who have been quietly sitting through Inazuma’s story with him are all dead bounty hunters, which adds a real edge to Inazuma and her actions.  Lighting Strikes Twice proves to be a truly compelling and exciting tale, and I really liked learning more about this intriguing new character.  I also really appreciated how it tied into the previous Inazuma story and it ended up being a fantastic way to end the entire volume.

This 10th volume of the incredible Usagi Yojimbo series, The Brink of Life and Death, is another outstanding and addictive creation from Stan Sakai that features several impressive stories.  I loved this amazing combination of tales, and it was great seeing both standalone stories and entries that have deeper ties with the rest of the series.  Filled with awesome character moments, stunning artwork, and detailed depictions of feudal Japan, The Brink of Life and Death is a must read for fans of this series, and Sakai should be very proud of what he accomplished with this volume.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 9: Daisho by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Daisho Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 9

Length: 215 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - #7

It has been another good week of reading and reviewing for me, so I thought I would reward myself by doing a Throwback Thursday review of Daisho, the ninth volume in the outstanding, long-running Usagi Yojimbo series from one of my favourite authors, Stan Sakai.

Daisho is an impressive and exciting entry in the series, which unsurprisingly gets a five star rating out of me (full disclosure, every volume of this series is going to get five stars from me, it is just that damn good). This volume contains Issues #7-14 of the second run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, which was originally published by Mirage Comics (Issues #7 and #8 are only partially represented in Daisho as some stories from these issues were used in the prior volume, while a story from Issue #13 appears in the tenth volume that I will review next), and which has been collected into this volume by Dark Horse Books. This ninth Usagi Yojimbo volume is filled with several fantastic and creative stories that follow Usagi as he journeys across the land, getting into all manner of trouble and misadventures in this version of feudal Japan populated solely by anthropomorphic animals. Daisho serves as a significant inclusion in the overarching series, due to its connections to previous stories, and its introduction or resurrection of several key characters.

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This volume starts off with an inspiring and tragic story, The Music of Heavens, which once again sees Usagi traversing the wilderness. His solitude is broken when he encounters the pack of Tokage lizards who he unwittingly befriended in a previous story, The Lizards’ Tale (which was featured in Volume 8: Shades of Death). While Usagi is less than thrilled to see the Tokages, they end up leading him towards another traveller who is making their camp in the woods. The traveller, Omori Kazan, is a mendicant Buddhist priest and skilled musician, who invites Usagi into his camp and talks to him about the various forms of music he studies. However, someone is stalking their camp, determined to get revenge and unafraid to kill an innocent bystander to get it.

I really liked The Music of Heavens and it proved to be a compelling first entry in this volume. The story is based on Usagi’s encounter with a new character, Omori Kazan. Kazan is an intriguing person due to his position as a komuso monk (the monks of emptiness) of a particular sect of Buddhism, which lends him a very distinctive look thanks to the woven basket hat (tengai) he wears on his head disguising his features. Kazan has an amazing arc that delivers a lot in a short while, as he introduces himself to Usagi and the reader, discusses music and religion, and then simultaneously meets his end while also experiencing the divine for the first time. This entire character arc is both beautiful and tragic at the same time, and it provides both Usagi and the reader with some significant emotional moments, especially when it comes to Usagi’s farewell to the Tokages. I also liked how Sakai utilises an antagonist from a previous story, and the fight between Usagi and this character was swift and well-drawn. This was an excellent introductory entry for this volume, and it is a story that I really enjoyed.

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The second story in Daisho is the entertaining and clever entry, The Gambler, the Widow, and the Ronin. This story reintroduces the gambler from the previous story, The Duel (featured in Volume 6: Circles), who is up to his old tricks of organising deadly sword duels and cashing in on the bets of the local townsfolk. After the death of his previous samurai accomplice, Shubo, during a duel with Usagi, the gambler has been forced to find a new partner, the brutish and less skilled swordsman, Kedamono. However, Kedamono’s greed has convinced the gambler that it is time to end their partnership, and he quickly finds the ideal solution when Usagi arrives in town. However, as the gambler plots, he fails to realise that he is being stalked by Shubo’s widow, who is determined to get her revenge for the role he played in her husband’s death.

This was another amazing story that serves as a fantastic follow-up to a great prior Usagi Yojimbo story. I always get a real western vibe out of The Gambler, the Widow, and the Ronin, due to its title and the premise around a duel, it proves to be an excellent entry in this volume. Usagi is once again drawn into the plots of the gambler, and thanks to his humility, honour and good manners, which are mistaken as a weakness, both Kedamono and the local villagers are convinced that Usagi is a poor swordsman. However, the gambler, who has seen Usagi in action before, manipulates the odds so that he wins all the money when Usagi defeats his opponent, in a fun reversal of the events of The Duel. This was an incredibly entertaining scene as Usagi is again forced to deal with a bloodthirsty crowd, while the gambler feigns being saddened by the loss of his companion, despite being secretly delighted. However, the gambler ends up getting his comeuppance, and the widow, whose sad final scene was so memorable in The Duel, finally gets a small measure of justice. This was a very clever and enjoyable story, and I really loved how Sakai dived back to a prior standalone story to provide some closure and a fun continuation.

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The next story is called Slavers, and it is a longer entry made up of two separate issues. In Slavers, Usagi encounters a young boy being pursued by bandits. Usagi defeats them and learns that the boy was attempting to get help for his village, which has been taken over by a gang of bandits who have enslaved the villagers as part of a destructive scam to steal their harvest and make a small fortune. Deciding to help the villagers, Usagi infiltrates the gang and attempts to rally the villagers to his cause. However, the gang’s leader, the villainous General Fujii, discovers the deception and captures Usagi, planning to kill all the villagers to make good his escape. Slavers is an amazing story that is not only intriguing in its own right but which also expertly sets up the series of follow-up stories that make up most of this volume. While the standalone narrative of Slavers gets a bit dark at times, due to an extended capture scene surrounding Usagi, it is a rather compelling story filled with action, deception and struggles against adversity.

Slavers is quickly followed up by three separate but distinct stories that can be combined together with Slavers into one large narrative that wraps up all the loose ends from the initial entry. The first one of these stories, Daisho Part One, sees Usagi in hot pursuit of General Fujii, who is in possession of Usagi’s precious swords. Due to the brutal actions of Fujii, Usagi loses his quarry and is forced into an extended hunt for him, eventually coming to a ransacked village. It turns out that the village had recently been raided by Fujii’s new gang, and Usagi must make a hard choice between recovering his soul or helping those in need.

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I have a lot of love for Daisho Part One; it is probably one of my favourite entries in this entire volume. The story starts out with a magnificent and beautifully drawn sequence that shows the various elaborate processes by which a samurai’s swords are created. This impressive opening sequence is one of my favourite pieces of Usagi Yojimbo art from the entire series, and its creation highlights not only Sakai’s skill as an artist but his ability to research and portray intriguing parts of Japan’s unique culture and heritage. This sequence also shows the important a samurai’s swords to their wielder, as they are reflections of that warrior’s soul. This key concept is then brought to life in the main story, as it sees a somewhat unhinged Usagi risking everything to reclaim his swords from Fujii. Sakai does an outstanding job showing off how frustrated and enraged Usagi is at having his swords stolen from him, and he comes across as being quite frightening several times through the story. Usagi’s anger comes to a head when he reaches the village and his initial decision is to abandon the villagers and immediately follow Fujii and his men. However, a local village girl is able to shame him into thinking of others, and the old Usagi returns, providing aid to the villagers. This was an extremely compelling story that does a wonderful job combining a powerful, character driven narrative, with some exquisite artwork and some intriguing aspects of history, into an exceptional entry in this volume.

The next story in this volume is Mongrels, a quick story about a recurring Usagi Yojimbo side character, the bounty hunter Gen, which occurs around the same time as Daisho Part One. In this story, Gen enters a village and starts asking questions about his current bounty, General Fujii. However, he is not the only bounty hunter in town, as he soon encounters the notorious hunter Stray Dog, who is also hunting for Fujii. After a tense conversation, the two-part ways; however, both are determined to capture Fujii and outsmart their competition. This was a fun story that not only brings Gen into this multi-issue narrative but also introduces a couple of great recurring characters. Stray Dog is a fantastic character in the Usagi Yojimbo universe, and he often appears as a compelling rival (and sometime partner) to Gen (such as in the latest Usagi Yojimbo volume, Bunraku and Other Stories). This story serves as a swift and clever introduction to the character, and it was fun to see the rivalry between Gen and Stray Dog form so quickly. Mongrels also introduces the extremely entertaining side character, the Snitch (also called Toady), a sneaky, greedy character who provides information to the highest bidder. While the Snitch has only a short appearance in this story, he is going to start appearing in a lot of follow up volumes, and it is always fun to see where a character starts out. Overall, this was a great story that fits a lot of significant introductions and events into a few short pages.

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The final story in this arc surrounding General Fujii is Daisho Part Two, in which Usagi and his guide meet up with Gen and Stray Dog right at the end of Mongrels. The three samurai decide to team up to raid General Fujii’s lair, and they engage in an all-out fight for money and honour. However, not everyone on the team is keen to work together, and betrayal is afoot. This was an excellent conclusion to the entire storyline, which I really enjoyed. This is a story chocked full of action, as the entire narrative sets up a massive fight between multiple combatants within an abandoned temple. There is some great character work within this story, not only from the protagonists, who bicker and fight amongst themselves, but also with the major antagonist, General Fujii. There some intriguing scenes that show Fujii’s efforts to lead and control a gang of bandits and cutthroats, and I also liked how Sakai shows him being haunted by thoughts of Usagi, whose swords he is holding onto. Usagi and Fujii finally get their showdown in this story, and it served as a fantastic end to this whole extended narrative. There are also some compelling moments surrounding Stray Dog, as he seeks to cheat the others out of the reward money for Fujii. While this initially paints him in a bad light, the source of his need for money is quickly shown, and it highlights just how complex and multifaceted this new side character is. I really liked how this entire story narrative ends, and Daisho Part Two is an excellent part of this volume.

The next story in this volume is the two-part entry, Runaways. In Runaways, Usagi journeys through a small town, when he finds himself in the path of a procession of the local noble lady. Hearing the lady’s name, Usagi is thrown back into the past as he remembers an adventure that occurred many years prior, when he was in the service of Lord Mifune. After finding out that the love of his life, Mariko, has married another man, Usagi is given a seemingly simple mission as a distraction. His task, to escort the young Princess Kinuko to the lands of her future husband, becomes infinitely more complicated, when their party is ambushed by a horde of Neko Ninja. Escaping with the princess, Usagi disguises Kinuko as a peasant in an attempt to hide her from their pursuers. However, the more time that Usagi and Kinuko spend together, the closer they become, until the lines of duty, honour and station become extremely blurred.

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This was another exceptional story within the volume, and I liked how it flashed back to an adventure during his pre-ronin life. Set during the period when Usagi served Lord Mifune (as shown in Volume 2: Samurai), Runaways contains a powerful and emotional narrative that is actually based on Roman Holiday (Sakai is a massive Audrey Hepburn fan), which sees a princess run away with a strong male protagonist and grow close to him, despite her responsibilities and their differences in station. This proves to be a fun, if extremely loose adaption of the movie, and Sakai builds up a complex relationship between Usagi and Kinuko, as the two characters, both tragic victims of circumstances when it comes to love, grow closer to each other. However, despite their feelings, this relationship is fated to never be, and it ends in heartbreak, with the memories of it haunting both Usagi and Kinuko years later. I really liked how this story played out, and it was interesting to see aspects of samurai honour folded into the narrative from Roman Holiday. Other fantastic highlights of this story include the multitude of impressive fight scenes between Usagi and the Neko Ninja, starting with a major battle between two large groups of samurai and ninja. I also liked the exploration of the traditional Tanabata Matsuri festival that the two characters find themselves attending, especially as Kinuko has fun experiencing local customs, foods and activities that someone of her station will never get to enjoy. It was also cool to see an early adventure from Usagi, especially as this entry foreshadows events that have occurred in other volumes, including the return of several now-dead characters, such as Shingen (future leader of the Neko Ninja, who was introduced in Volume 3: The Wanderer’s Road, and died in Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy). An overall exciting and impressive story, Runaways is an amazing highlight of this volume.

The final entry is the short story, The Nature of the Viper. In this tale, a local fisherman finds the badly injured body of Usagi’s recurring foe, Jei, after he was thrown from a cliff during the climatic events of Circles. Bringing him back to his hut, the fisherman tends to Jei and manages to save his life. When Jei awakens, he shows his gratitude to the farmer be recounting a tale of viper and a peasant (a version of the classic fable, The Farmer and the Viper), before killing him and resuming his hunt for Usagi. This is a good, short entry that shows the fate of Jei after his last appearance. Jei comes across just as villainous and creepy as ever, and it was fun seeing the fisherman slowly realise just how much trouble he is in as the story progresses. While having a villain recount The Farmer and the Viper as justification for why they are killing a person is somewhat cliched at this point (although to be fair, this story was written back in the 90s), it was still a fantastic sequence. I think that this was an excellent way to end the volume, especially as the reader is left knowing that Jei has returned and that Usagi will be encountering him once again in the future.

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Sakai has once again knocked it out of the park with the ninth volume in his series. Daisho contains several outstanding and memorable stories that are all wildly entertaining and contain some clever links to past and future entries in this series. I had an absolute blast reading this volume, and it is an extremely strong addition to the incredible Usagi Yojimbo series that comes highly recommend.

Film Review – Justice League Dark: Apokolips War

Justice League Dark - Apokolips War

Studio: Warner Bros. Animation and DC Entertainment

Series: DC Universe Animated Original Movies – Film 38, DC Animated Movie Universe – Film 15

Director: Matt Peters and Christina Sotta

Producer: James Tucker

Screenplay: Mairghread Scott

Writers: Christina Sotta and Ernie Altbacker

Length: 90 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

For this review I am going to go a little outside my wheelhouse by reviewing the latest animated comic book adaption from DC comics, Justice League Dark: Apokolips War. Fair warning: this is going to be a rather in-depth analysis, so those people who have not seen this film yet might be better served watching it first and then coming back. I will also have a spoiler alert for a key part of the movie towards the end of the review, so keep an eye out for that.

Over the last 13 years, DC Comics have been leading the way over Marvel Comics in the distinctive field of animated movie adaptations of their comic books. While Marvel have produced a couple of decent animated films, such as Planet Hulk and Hulk Vs., the DC adaptations have been leaps and bounds ahead of them. Most of these epic DC animated films have been part of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies project, which has produced 38 distinctive animated films since 2007. There have been some rather impressive and enjoyable releases as part of this project, and I have watched each one of them as soon as they have come out.

While a lot of the DC Universe Animated Original Movies stand alone, 15 films were set within a shared universe, with the same group of voice actors reprising their roles multiple times. This shared universe, known as the DC Animated Movie Universe, started in 2013 with Justice League: The Flashpoint Paradox, and examines an alternate universe inadvertently created by the Flash. This new universe is very heavily influenced by The New 52 continuity of comics (but don’t hold that against it), and features an interesting collection of films featuring a range of different DC characters, although there is a noticeable and understandable focus on Batman and the Justice League. Justice League Dark: Apokolips War is the 15th entry in the DC Animated Movie Universe and serves as the conclusion to most of the storylines that were featured within the preceding 14 movies. This film was directed by Matt Peters and Christina Sotta, and features a story written by Christina Sotta and Ernie Altbacker, with the screenplay written by Mairghread Scott.

Following two previous attempts to conquer Earth by intergalactic tyrant and New God Darkseid, the Justice League is determined to safeguard the planet no matter what. Led by a vengeful Superman, the League launches a pre-emptive attack against Darkseid’s fortress planet of Apokolips, when it becomes clear that he intends to invade Earth again. However, the League’s attack fails miserably as they fly into a trap set by Darkseid, who uses his new troops, the Paradooms, to swiftly defeating the entire Justice League, killing or capturing most of its members.

Now, two years later, Earth has been brutally conquered by Darkseid, who has devastated the planet, and intends to drain it of its magma in order to fuel his future designs of conquest. With nearly all of Earth’s heroes killed during Darkseid’s assault, only a scattered few remain to oppose his plans. At the fore is Clark Kent, the former Superman, who has been stripped of his powers by Darkseid, and who now leads a resistance movement with his wife, Lois Lane. Determined to save the Earth no matter the cost, Clark recruits the surviving members of the League and the Teen Titans: Raven, Damian Wayne and John Constantine for one final mission.

With the help of an odd and violent group of villains, including Lex Luthor, Etrigan the Demon and Harley Quinn’s Suicide Squad, Superman and small team attempt the impossible, a second assault on Apokolips. However, even if they succeed in reaching Apokolips, they will face terrible opposition. Former members of the Justice League, including Batman and Wonder Women, have been converted into loyal soldiers for Darkseid, and they will do everything in their power to defend him. Can Superman and his team defeat Darkseid once and for all, or are these Earth’s final days?

Well damn, now that was one hell of an animated film. As I mentioned above, I have watched a ton of animated comic book adaptations but Justice League Dark: Apokolips War might just be one of the finest and most impressive animated adaptations that DC comics has ever created. This outstanding, five-star film is just plain amazing, and I had an incredible time watching it (multiple times). Apokolips War contains an intense story, pulse-pounding action, an amazing voice cast and a superb connection to prior films and comics, which helps create an epic and powerful animated movie experience. The creative team behind this movie did an exceptional job on this film, turning it into an intense and addictive viewing treat that I absolutely loved. Viewers should be warned, this is not a film for kids, as it has a well-deserved R-rating (MA15+ in Australia), which it earns very quickly and very explicitly.

At the heart of the excellent movie is an exciting and clever story that pits the broken remainder of Earth’s heroes against the ultimate villain in the DC canon. Apokolips War has such a cool concept, starting off with the entire Justice League getting taken out in the first few minutes and then abruptly jumping two years into the future, showing a world devastated by an evil alien invasion. This perfectly sets the scene for a character-driven narrative that follows the last desperate attempt of a handful of mixed protagonists, as they attempt an all-or-nothing mission with extremely high stakes. This results in all manner of character development, tragedy, intense action, and a fantastic smattering of witty humour, which all comes together into a compelling and utterly memorable overall narrative. I was deeply impressed with where the writers took this fantastic story, and I really appreciated all the existing storylines and the substantial character arcs that they were able to explore, expand on and finalise within the movie’s hour and a half run time. This was such a great story, and it worked exceedingly well with the enjoyable characters, eye-catching animation and the awesome team of voice actors to create an amazing overall film.

One of the things that I think I should address first is about whether or not you need to see the other entries in the DC Animated Movie Universe before watching Apokolips War. Due to its cool action and well-written plot, this is a film that is rather easy for viewers unfamiliar with the franchise to follow and enjoy, although a lot of the story elements will make a lot more sense if you are familiar with the DC Comics universe and characters. While you can probably get away without watching any of the previous movies, this is the 15th and final entry in an interconnected universe, so there are obviously going to be some advantages to watching these other films first. For example, you get a much better understanding of the characters, their relationships and their personalities in this universe, and having this knowledge about the characters beforehand can really increase the dramatic punch that a bunch of their actions have. I also personally enjoyed the continued storylines of this film universe, and I liked seeing how this movie wraps up a lot of character arcs and answers some interesting questions. As a result, I would strongly recommend watching some of the other movies first: The Flashpoint Paradox, Justice League: War, Justice League vs. Teen Titans, Justice League Dark, Suicide Squad: Hell to Pay, The Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen as a bare minimum (yes, I know that calling seven movies a minimum is a bit much, but that just goes to show how intricate this animated universe was).

The creators of this movie utilise an intriguing and unique cast of characters, continuing many of the character arcs established in the prior animated movies. Fair warning: quite a few major comic book characters, including some characters who have been key additions to this animated universe, die in the opening moments of the movie, while some others only get a few scenes, often without any dialogue, before they are also killed. While this movie has quite a huge death toll, I think most of the killings do serve a purpose by motivating the surviving characters, highlighting the brutal nature of the film and its antagonist, or providing a real emotional punch to the viewer. While a large number of characters from the DC universe only get small roles, Apokolips War does contain a rather intriguing and diverse group of central characters who are extremely interesting to follow.

The main character of Apokolips War is John Constantine, the rogue magician last seen in Justice League Dark. Ever since his live action television series a few years ago, Constantine has been popping up in all manner of DC Comic adaptions. Constantine is a fantastic central protagonist, constantly moving the plot along and providing entertaining commentary and witty remarks about the events occurring around him. He also has a rather tragic storyline, which sees him full of regret and shame after he let down his love interest, Zatanna. Not only does this result in a conflict with Superman, but it also serves as a driving force throughout the movie as he tries to redeem himself. Constantine also serves as the heart of the entire movie, acting as a confidant to several characters and providing inspiration during key moments, including one impressive speech at the very end. While he is an amazing character, he was a bit overused when it came to solving problems, as he seemed to have a magical solution for nearly every obstacle that the protagonists came up against. While it does show off his resourcefulness, and his jack-of-all-trades approach to magic, I thought that it was a bit of a crutch for the story at times. Still, I loved Constantine as a protagonist, and I cannot think of anyone better to be the main character for this film.

Another character that I really appreciated throughout this movie was Superman/Clark Kent. If the recent live-action DC movies have shown us one thing, it is that Superman is a very hard character to write or portray at times, due to his powerset, his iconic nature and his somewhat dated ideals. However, the DC Animated Movie Universe is one of the few projects which has covered the character perfectly and allowed the viewer to care about him. His use in The Death of Superman and its sequel Reign of the Supermen was particularly impressive, and the creative team have followed that up extremely well with Apokolips War. In the opening scenes, he is an angry and vengeful character, recklessly determined to take the fight to Darkseid and finish him off for good. However, following his defeat, he is cast back down to Earth without his powers and with a painful liquid Kryptonite tattoo to remind him of his failure and to demoralise those people he encounters. Despite this, Superman shows his usual spirit and determination, rallying the remaining heroes to Apokolips, and is a generally fun and inspirational character. The best thing about his character, however, is his relationship with Lois Lane throughout the film. Lois is a major badass in Apokolips War, reverting to the resistance leader persona that she had in The Flashpoint Paradox and leading the various heroes and villains (whom she brings to her side after a boxing match with Harley Quinn in a very fun scene). The relationship between Lois and Clark is one of the major emotional centres of Apokolips War, and it serves as a great continuation of their entire joint character arc from their previous movies. It also leads to the most powerful and emotionally charged scene of the entire movie, which was an extremely touching and memorable moment.

The other major protagonists are the two surviving Teen Titans, Robin and Raven, who both add a lot to the plot. The Robin in this movie is the Damian Wayne version of the character, who has been a focal protagonist of several films in the DC Animated Movie Universe. While Damian Wayne is not my favourite Robin (Tim Drake for the win), he has been a solid part of this shared universe, especially in the two Teen Titans movies. In Apokolips War, Damian is his usual arrogant self, although he has grown and matured since his introduction. However, the events at the start of the film turn him to a darker path, and he ends up leading the League of Shadows like his grandfather before him. While at first reluctant, he is convinced to help their mission by Raven, to whom he had grown close in Justice League vs. Teen Titans and Teen Titans: The Judas Contract. Damian’s major scene is the eventual encounter he has with a Darkseid controlled Batman, and their emotionally charged fight sequence is a great part of the movie. Raven is also a fantastic character as she spends most of the film fighting her literal inner demon, her father, Trigon, whom she has imprisoned in the gem in her forehead. The emotional turmoil of the film and the constant conflict against her father has drained Raven, and she is a shell of herself throughout Apokolips War. Raven has some rather dark moments in this film, and her continued inner conflict is an excellent part of the plot. I really liked that the writers chose to focus on Raven, and it turned out to be an exceedingly interesting continuation of her storyline from the excellent Justice League vs. Teen Titans film. I also really enjoyed seeing the extension of the relationship between Robin and Raven. There had been some hints of a connection between the two in their previous entries in the universe, but the writing team took the time to explore it in more detail in this film. There are some rather nice moments as a result, as well as some heartbreaking sequences (this is a pretty traumatic film after all), and overall, both of them proved to be a great addition to the movie.

While the above main characters are great, I really need to highlight the inclusion of the entertaining side characters, who add an incredible amount of fun and excitement to the movie. At the top of this list is Etrigan the Demon, last seen in Justice League Dark. Etrigan was easily the most amusing character in the entire film, mainly because he is comically depressed following the death of the human he was bonded to, Jason Blood, in his previous appearance. Because of this, he spends most of the film following Constantine, looking for something to break him out of his stupor, and being too apathetic to take anything seriously or even to rhyme (which is a big problem for a rhyming demon). His antics are very entertaining, and every appearance he has is designed to make you laugh, right up to the end. I also loved the fantastic use of the Suicide Squad characters in this film. Harley Quinn is her usual, exceedingly violent and over-the-top self in this film, and it was fun to see her lead the Suicide Squad: “Best boss ever”. Next up you have the always dependable Captain Boomerang, who is at his sleaziest right of the bat. Boomerang is another fun addition to the team, due to his funny jabs towards the other members of the Squad, and he has some great moments, including starting an Australian/British rivalry with Constantine. However, the best member of the Suicide Squad has to be King Shark, who stands out right from his start when Constantine hilariously identifies him as one of his exes (which is a great nod to Constantine’s bisexual orientation in the comics). Unlike the pacifist King Shark we see in the Harley Quinn animated show, this version of the character is a bloodthirsty killing machine who gleefully eats several people. He also appears to only be able to only able to say one phrase: “King Shark is a shark!” which I thought was a nice homage to Groot. Pretty much every scene with King Shark is just great, and you will surprised how much fun his constant declarations of “King Shark is a shark!” becomes, especially as it leads up to an amazing joke with Captain Boomerang. I loved all four of these characters, and their inclusion was a masterstroke from the creators, due to how much heart and humour they add to the film.

No superhero movie would be complete without a great antagonist, and Apokolips War features the biggest bad in the entire DC universe, Darkseid. Darkseid has been the major villain for the entire DC Animated Movie Universe, from his destructive introduction in the Justice League: War, to his manipulations in The Death of Superman and Reign of the Supermen. As a result, Darkseid is an amazing antagonist for this movie, as you get to wrap up his storyline and see how he has been building up to this battle for the entire length of the DC Animated Movie Universe. Darkseid is exceedingly ruthless and destructive in this movie, more than living up to his reputation by brutally taking out the Justice League and killing so many protagonists and heroes. I loved his portrayal as a cold uber-tyrant, and he has some awesome scenes, such as taking out the entire Green Lantern Corp by himself, or facing off against a raft of powerful opponents (including one massive brawl against another major DC antagonist). Of course, his most evil acts revolve around his treatment of the heroes that he captures in the opening acts of the film. I have already mentioned his depowering of Superman, but that is nothing compared to what he does to other members of the League, as he turns them into twisted cybernetic monstrosities, slaved to his will. I was particularly impressed with how he managed to twist Batman’s mind, turning him into his chief enforcer and strategist. Having the ultimate hero become as ruthless as the Batman in this film is a little jarring, and I felt that it was a rather intriguing character arc to explore. I also have to mention Darkseid’s new foot soldiers, the Paradooms. Paradooms are the traditional Apokolipian soldier’s, the Parademons, who have been enhanced with the DNA of Doomsday, making them more than a match for most of the heroes in the Justice League. While the name ‘Paradooms’ is a little uninspired, they do add an exciting new element to the story, especially after the thrashing that the Justice League gave the Parademons in Justice League: War. I did think that their power levels were a little inconsistent at times, as one minute they are killing the entire Justice League, the next they are getting taken out rather easily by the Suicide Squad, but overall they were a destructive addition to the universe. I really liked this collection of antagonists, and I think that having such impressive baddies, really amped up the stakes and my enjoyment of the film.

Apokolips War has a truly impressive voice cast, with most voice actors returning after prior appearances in the DC Animated Movie Universe. At the forefront is Matt Ryan, who once again voices Constantine to perfection in this film. Anyone who has seen any live action or animated feature where Ryan portrays Constantine will know how awesome his work is, and in Apokolips War he once again shines, bringing his brand of charm and roguish appeal to the character. I also must highlight Jerry O’Connell voicing Superman in this movie. O’Connell has been killing it as Superman throughout this shared universe, and Apokolips War is some of his best work. He brings a great deal of passion to the role, and I think that his voice expertly captures all of Superman’s attributes, from his inherent positivity, to his anger at Darkseid and everything that he has done. O’Connell’s Superman also has an amazing amount of chemistry with the film’s Lois Lane, although this is not surprising, considering that Lois is voiced by O’Connell’s real-life wife, Rebecca Romijn. Romijn also does a fantastic job with Lois, and I really like her take on the character, showing of Lois’s boundless confidence and deep love for Clark. Romijn also touches on Lois’s vulnerabilities and doubts in this film, and this helps her produce one of the best and most heartfelt sequences in the entire movie.

I am also a major fan of young voice actor Stuart Allan and his take on Damian Wayne. Allan has been voicing Damian since 2014, and he has always perfectly captured the character’s arrogance and reckless personality. I like how Allan has grown up in step with the character, and his portrayal of Damian in this film adds some more restraint, uncertainty and vulnerability to the character after the opening events. Another impressive young voice actor in this movie is Taissa Farmiga, who returns to voice Raven for the third time. Farmiga has a much younger and more vulnerable take on the character of Raven than Teen Titans fans would be used to, and I think it works extremely well, showing off how scared Raven is of herself and her inherent darkness.

There is also a fantastic group of voice actors voicing the many side characters and antagonists in this movie. Candyman himself, Tony Todd, voices Darkseid, and his deep and callous take on the character, really helps to make the antagonist seem even more menacing and evil. Jason O’Mara does another amazing job as Batman in this film, and I like his more calculating take on the character, especially when he is under Darkseid’s control. Rainn Wilson is also entertaining as Lex Luthor, and he brings a real cowardly, slimy air to his parts of the film. Rosario Dawson is once again cast perfectly as Wonder Woman, and I loved her strong and confident voice for this character. John DiMaggio, Hyden Walch and Liam McIntyre all return to voice members of the Suicide Squad they have portrayed before, and they are all rather entertaining. I have already mentioned how much I loved DiMaggio’s King Shark, and it was fun to see him provide a new voice to the character after portraying him in Assault of Arkham. Walch provides another excellent turn as Harley Quinn, bringing some great energy to the character, and I think I prefer her portrayal to that of her Teen Titans co-star Tara Strong. McIntyre also does an excellent Captain Boomerang, and I personally liked it when they cast an Australian in the role, even if the character is a bit of a silly Australian caricature. While there are a couple of actors who I haven’t discussed, I think I have done enough to show how this movie has an exceedingly strong voice cast, and there was not a single miscast in the entire film.

I also have to praise the amazing animation quality featured within this movie. The animators behind Apokolips War have helped produce an incredibly slick movie with some impressive backgrounds and some fantastic and eye-popping action sequences, some of which were quite brutal and over-the-top at times. Apokolips War also features some cool and unique character designs, as many of the character had new and distinctive looks as a result of the harsh plot of the movie. This includes the depowered Superman with the Kryptonite S on his chest, half-dead cybernetic Justice League members and a whole new evil costume motif for Batman. I also have a lot of love for how the musical elements of this movie fit in with the visuals, and some of the instrumental scores that were featured really helped some key events pop out and stick in the mind, especially when combined with some of the impressive animation. For example, there is a great scene about two-thirds in where the music helps really enhances a major moment around one of the key characters, there is also a bit right at the end of the movie where the score plays extremely well with a really visually impressive moment, creating a fantastic ending for the entire movie. This helps turn Apokolips War in a visual and audible treat, and I thought that the fantastic combination of these elements helped to create an excellent movie.

 

The next paragraph gets extremely plot heavy in its discussion, so I am issuing a SPOILER ALERT.

I need to discuss how the entire movie concludes, mainly because I am in two minds about it. The film essentially ends with the entire DC Animated Movie Universe being erased out of existence, when Constantine talks the Flash into creating another Flashpoint once it becomes clear that the Earth is doomed. While it was an amazing scene, especially with the monologue that Constantine gives to convince Flash to do it and the fade to white that heralded the end of the movie, I thought it was a controversial way to end the film. Not only was it a rather predictable move thanks to several discussions about the alternative Flashpoint universe made earlier in the film (and the fact that time travel was the only obvious way to fix everything), but it also seems to do the rest of the amazing film a disservice by instantly erasing it, and it reminded me of those television episodes where major events turned out to be dream sequences or simulations. That being said, I did think it was a great way to conclude the entire DC Animated Movie Universe, which was created as a result of a Flashpoint in the very first movie, and it keeps the entire plot of this shared universe rather contained. It will be interesting to see what happens next in the DC Universe Animated Original Movies range, and whether they create a new animated shared universe in the future. I also would love if they maybe set another movie in this universe post-Apokolips War, because seeing what happened in the crumbling ruins of Earth with a depleted Justice League has a lot of story potential

SPOILERS END

 

Justice League Dark: Apokolips War is an incredible and highly recommended animated comic book adaptation, which serves as an epic and memorable conclusion to the DC Animated Movie Universe. I had an exceptional time watching this movie, especially as it blended a dark and clever story with amazing characters, impressive animation and a top-notch team of voice actors. This was an overall great film, and it might be one of the best new movies of 2020 so far (which to be fair, might be due to most films getting pushed back this year). I had a great time reviewing this animated film, and I might spend a bit of time reviewing more animated comic book movies in the future. As most of them are adaptions of existing comic books, I think this is close enough to my current focus as a reviewer to fit on this blog, and I look forward to examining some of my favourite animated comic book movies in the future.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 8: Shades of Death by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Shades of Death

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1997)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 8

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed as part of my Throwback Thursday series, where I republish old reviews, review books I have read before or review older books I have only just had a chance to read.

It’s been a little while since I’ve done a Throwback Thursday article so I thought I would go back to the old faithful that is the incredible Usagi Yojimbo series and review the eighth volume, Shades of Death.

Usagi Vol 2 Issue 1

Shades of Death follows on right after the events of the seventh Usagi Yojimbo volume, Gen’s Story, and continues to follow the adventures of the rabbit samurai, Miyamoto Usagi, in this alternate version of feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. This eighth volume of the series is particularly significant as it is the first volume to be published by Dark Horse Comics, who printed the series for over 22 years, and who were only recently replaced by IDW for the latest volume, Bunraku and Other Stories.  However, the issues within this volume were originally printed by Mirage Comics, who did the entire second run of the Usagi Yojimbo series.  The Dark Horse Comics/Mirage Comics printing style is similar to the style used by the previous publisher, Fantagraphics Books. The only major difference is that the Dark Horse Comics volumes come with a story notes section at the back, as well as copies of all the covers for the various issues. I’m actually a big fan of the story notes that they started including in these volumes, as they contain some fascinating background information about some of the stories, including details about the various legends or elements of Japanese culture that Sakai focuses on in his story. Shades of Death contains issues #1-6 of the second run of the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as containing stories from #7-8, and is made up of two major storylines and several shorter entries.

The first story is Shades of Green, and it is probably the most distinctive entry in this entire volume. The story starts with Usagi and his frequent travelling companion, Gen, being ambushed out on the road by a horde of Neko Ninja, forcing them to dive into a river to avoid being killed. Usagi and Gen eventually wash up near a remote village and encounter the mysterious rat mystic, Kakera, who asks Usagi and Gen for his help. Kakera reveals that the Neko Ninja are after him, as they hope to use his abilities to help rebuild their clan’s power after the events of The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy (volume 4). To that end, they have surrounded the village and intend to kill everyone in order to get Kakera, and even the skilled Usagi and Gen will be unable to stand up to their numbers. With no other help on the way, Kakera is forced to use his magic to summon four very special warriors to stand by their sides, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.

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Shades of Green is a fantastic and clever story that also serves as an excellent crossover between two iconic comic book series. Pretty much the big thing about this story is the way that is introduces all four members of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles in the Usagi Yojimbo universe. Fans of either Usagi Yojimbo or the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles franchise will be aware that these two comics have had numerous crossovers throughout the years, with Usagi appearing in three of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated television shows. The Turtles who appear in Shades of Green are the original Mirage Comics versions of these characters, who were created by Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird, and who had their own long-running series during the time this volume was published. Usagi has actually encountered Leonardo from this version of the Turtles several times before, including back in the third volume of Usagi Yojimbo, The Wanderer’s Road, so the two groups of characters were able to team up rather quickly. I thought that this was an incredible crossover, and I especially loved the dynamic between the Turtles and Usagi and Gen. Not only do you get the mutual respect that Usagi and Leonardo have for each-other but there is a rather fun dynamic between Gen and the other Turtles. I particularly liked one scene where Michelangelo questions the logic of the Usagi Yojimbo universe, including why the horses aren’t sentient but rabbits and rhinos are (something I have always wondered), and even asking Gen if he has a tail, which it turns out is a rather personal question. There are also some really fun battle sequences throughout this book, and it was great to see the two samurai team up with the Turtles to fight a whole bunch of ninjas. I really liked this crossover between them, and I also think that Sakai did an amazing job drawing and portraying these characters.

In addition to the crossover elements, Shades of Green also contains a rather intriguing overall narrative, especially the parts of it that examine the leadership of the Neko Ninja clan. The Neko Ninja clan has been in a bit of decline since the fourth volume, when a large number of their ninjas, including their leader, Shingen, died. Much of the plot of this storyline revolves around two high-ranking members of the Neko Ninja, the ambitious Gunji and Shingen’s sister Chizu, fighting for control of the clan, with their battle centred on the hunt for Kakera. This proved to be really exciting, and it was cool to see the internal ninja feud, while the clan is facing off against the protagonists. This book also contained the first meeting between Usagi and Chizu, who goes on to become a major recurring character in the series as well as a potential love interest for Usagi. I quite enjoyed Shades of Green, and it definitely serves as a memorable entry in the Usagi Yojimbo series that showcases how cool a crossover with this series can be.

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The next entry is a short story called Jizo, which only runs for a few pages. Despite its shorter length, this is a rather inventive and surprisingly powerful story that I have a lot of love for. Jizo is set on the side of a road, and features a mother placing a dosojin, a roadside icon, of Jizo-sama, in order to help the soul of her deceased young son who was recently killed by bandits. According to Buddhist beliefs, her son’s soul is attempting to make its way into paradise by piling rocks to cross a river. By leaving the statue to Jizo, the patron and protector of children, by the side of the road, the mother is hoping that passing travellers will place a stone near it, which will help her dead son’s soul in his eternal task. The story than continues without dialogue, as the statue of Jizo watches the road, noting the various travellers who walk across it. This includes Usagi, who runs into the same bandits who killed the child, and his actions seem to provide the statue with a measure of peace. This was a clever and beautifully rendered story, and I loved that Sakai redrew the same stretch of road for every single panel. This was such a fantastic concept, and I loved how he told such a powerful story with a minimum of dialogue, only utilising some exposition from the mother at the start and end of the story. The shots of the same stretch or road were done extremely well, and it was fun to see the various people who walked past the statue during the course of the day. Not only were there some familiar faces but there were several intriguing and distinctive-looking people going about all manner of different activities. It was also cool to learn a little bit about the statues to Jizo-sama, something I saw several times when I went to Japan, and the story notes I mentioned above proved to be really useful and interesting in regards to this. I was really impressed with this entry, and I loved the compelling story that Sakai told with his fantastic drawings.

The third story in this volume is Shi, an action-packed and exciting tale that I really enjoyed. Shi sees a wandering Usagi come to a crossroad, where he lets fate and the gods choose his route (a homage to the start of the film Yojimbo). His chosen path takes him to a market town where he witnesses a peasant being bullied by a group of thugs. Intervening, Usagi chases the thugs off and is invited to the peasant’s village for dinner. However, it soon becomes clear that something strange is happening at the village, as the thugs arrive soon after and appear determined to scare all the villagers away. Investigating, Usagi soon finds himself in the midst of a conspiracy involving the local magistrate and his brother, who are determined to kill Usagi and his new friends. To that end they hire a group of four assassins, who call themselves Shi (a reworking of the Japanese character for Shi turns it into a character for death).

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Shi proved to be an compelling entry that serves as one of the main two stories for this volume (indeed, if you combine the names of the first story, Shades of Green, with the title of this story, Shi, which in this case means death, you get the volume’s overall title, Shades of Death). There are some great elements to this action-packed story: the intriguing conspiracy, Usagi’s mixed encounters with the villagers that he is trying to save, and some funny moments as Usagi effortlessly deals with the initial group of thugs. However, the best part of the book has to be the extended fight sequence at the end as Usagi takes on the four members of Shi, each of whom is master of a different type of weapon (sword, spear, bow and the sickle-and-chain). This was a brutal and exhausting fight for Usagi, and it serves as an impressive main set piece for the entire story. It also results in a rather confronting and memorable sequence where, in the aftermath of the fight, Usagi is challenged by a local peasant who is jealous of the attention Usagi is receiving from his betrothed. The peasant gamely steps up to fight Usagi, claiming not to be afraid, only to be faced by an enraged samurai who is worked up into a blood rage after his battle. The look of anger and hate on Usagi’s face is surprisingly terrifying, and I love how demonic Sakai made him look, showing off a darker side to his complex protagonist. I also really enjoyed the entry’s two shady antagonists in the magistrate and his brother. These two duplicitous siblings make for a murderous team, especially when each of them attempts to betray the other in a fantastic conclusion that showcases the consequences of greed. Overall, Shi was an exceptional story that I had an awesome time reading.

The next story in Shades of Death is a fun entry titled The Lizards’ Tale, which focuses on a group of Tokages, the dinosaur-like lizard critters that infest the Usagi Yojimbo universe. In this story, a group of chilly Tokages attempt to warm themselves up one snowy night by snuggling together in the warmest place they can find, around the sleeping body of Usagi. Awakening the next morning, Usagi finds himself surrounded by the potentially vicious creatures, and only manages to flee by throwing them a bag of food and running for it. However, the Tokages are not that easily escaped, and they continue to follow Usagi hoping to get more food out of him. Despite his comical efforts to get rid of them, Usagi soon grows attached the Tokage pack, especially after they help him out of a sticky situation with some bandits. The Lizards’ Tale is a very fun and humorous story that provides some light-hearted moments in this volume after some of the preceding darker stories. I really liked how Sakai told the story without any dialogue whatsoever, relying on only the exaggerated movements and facial expressions of the various characters and the Tokage to tell the story. This was an incredibly entertaining entry, and I had a great laugh as I went through it.

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The final three stories are a bunch of shorter entries that focus on a younger Usagi as he trains with his sword master, Katsuichi. These three stories include Usagi’s Garden, Autumn and Battlefield, and feature some character-building moments for the protagonist. Each of these three stories is rather good, and it is always interesting to see a younger Usagi when he is a rash trainee, rather than the wiser, battle-hardened warrior that he is in the rest of the series. These three short stories contain a fun mix of narratives, including one about Usagi learning patience and honesty by attempting to grow plants, another where he frees the spirit of Autumn, Aki-Onna (Autumn Women) from a monster, and a final story where he sees his first battlefield and learns that there is rarely glory or honour in the midst of war. These were a great collection of stories, and I liked the moral based narratives that each of them contained. Reading these three shorter stories proved to be a good way to end the volume and it was nice to have some low-stakes entries to wrap everything up with.

As usual, Sakai’s artwork for this volume was deeply impressive for every story, and I loved every aspect of his drawings throughout Shades of Death. While I have already mentioned his fantastic fight sequences, the cool character designs and amazing use of facial expressions while talking about some of the stories above, I also have to highlight the detailed background sequences and depictions of the beautiful, multi-seasonal Japanese landscapes. Every panel of this book is loaded with incredible detail, and I loved examining all the different backgrounds, especially as I see something new and different in this volume every time I read it. Sakai did some outstanding artwork in this volume, and it was a real treat to see his drawings and characters come to life.

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Shades of Death is another incredible volume in the exception Usagi Yojimbo comic book series from the legendary Stan Sakai. Featuring some top-notch narratives, impressive character inclusions and some eye-popping artwork, Shades of Death was an exciting and captivating read. I loved every second that I spend reading this volume, and this eighth volume gets another five-star rating from me.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Bunraku and Other Stories Cover

Publisher: IDW Publishing (Paperback – 21 April 2020)

Writer, Artist and Letterer: Stan Sakai

Colourist: Tom Luth

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 34

Length: 178 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

It is once again that wonderful time of the year when the brand-new volume of the ongoing comic series, Usagi Yojimbo, comes out. Legendary comic creator Stan Sakai returns with the 34th volume in this series, Bunraku and Other Stories, which contains four epic and entertaining stories taking place in the unique setting of a version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.

Usagi Yojimbo #1

Those who are familiar with my blog will know that I am a massive fan of the Usagi Yojimbo series, having read all of the comics that have been released, and this is easily one of my favourite series at the moment. I have been eagerly reading these comics for years, and since starting this blog I have been enjoying reviewing entries in the series, such as the prior two volumes, Mysteries and The Hidden (Mysteries was actually the first comic I ever reviewed on this blog), as well as some of the older volumes of the comic. As a result, I was extremely keen to get a copy of the new volume, and Bunraku and Other Stories was one of the top books I wanted to check out this autumn.

This latest volume is a rather special one, as it contains the first Usagi Yojimbo issues that Sakai has written for IDW Publishing. This series has been published by Dark Horse Comics since 1997, and their style was similar to that of the publisher before them, Fantagraphics Books. This move to IDW Publishing brings with it some very intriguing stylistic changes, namely that fact that each issue is now completely in colour. This is a massive departure from the previous entries in the series, each of which were originally released in black and white, and it brings the stories to life in a whole new manner. In order to do this, the series now employs a colourist, Tom Luth, who previously worked on Groo the Wanderer with Sakai. In addition, this latest volume is also physically different from all the previous volumes, as Bunraku and Other Stories is noticeably taller, which surprised me a bit when I saw it the first time, and which is seriously going to mess up aesthetics of my bookshelf. However, having the taller volume allows for slightly bigger panels than were typically featured in the previous Usagi Yojimbo stories, which I quite enjoyed.

Usagi Yojimbo #2

However, even with some of these physical changes, this is still the same old Usagi Yojimbo. Sakai has once again produced some outstanding and deeply enjoyable stories, equipped with his trademark art style and his fantastic and loveable characters. Bunraku and Other Stories contains Issues #1-7 of the new, IDW Publishing, run on the series, and is made up of four separate stories.

The first of these stories is titled Bunraku, and it is the main story of this entire volume, made up of the first three issues. In this story, Usagi is enjoying a bunraku, a traditional Japanese puppet play, when he encounters an old acquaintance, Sasuke, the Demon Queller. Sasuke’s endless hunt for demons and monsters has led him to the bunraku theatre, where he senses that a new evil has taken hold. Despite his reluctance to get involved in another one of Sasuke’s dangerous missions, Usagi agrees to help, especially after they find a corpse that has been supernaturally drained of its life energy. Together, Usagi and Sasuke find that a dangerous and malevolent being has infected the bunraku theatre, and they must do everything in their power to end it.

Usagi Yojimbo #3

Bunraku serves as an exciting and compelling first story in this volume, and I quite enjoyed its supernatural storyline. The Usagi Yojimbo series has a rich history of featuring Japan’s various supernatural monsters and demons in its narratives, and this is easily one of the better ones they have done. The antagonists of this story are rather creepy, and they serve as extremely deadly opponents to Usagi, who finds himself dramatically outclassed at several points throughout the story. I also liked the return of Sasuke, who has shown up in several supernatural storylines since his first appearance back in volume 14. Sasuke is a rather distinctive and intriguing character in this series, as he has dedicated his life to hunting and destroying demons and monsters, many of whom are opponents far beyond normal samurai like Usagi. Despite his tremendous magical powers, Sasuke often finds himself severely drained after each fight, but his drive to complete his mission spurs him on, despite how weary or physically weakened he becomes. Usagi and Sasuke have some interesting interactions throughout this story, as Usagi has become more wary of Sasuke after their last several encounters. Sasuke insists that Usagi helps him once again, and even guilts Usagi into working with him, which makes for a very unusual team dynamic. I thought it made sense that Usagi would be reluctant to get involved, as he or someone he loves has nearly died each time Sasuke has appeared so far. There was also a rather interesting moment when their antagonist asks Sasuke if Usagi was being groomed to replace him, a question that Sasuke does not provide an answer to, and which makes me think we will be seeing a lot more of this character in the future.

One of the more intriguing aspects of the story of Bunraku is the fascinating examination and depiction of the bunraku puppet shows. I always love it when Sakai highlights cool aspects of Japanese history, culture or industry in his stories, and this entry was really amazing. The whole concept of a life-size puppet theatre was really intriguing, and Sakai did a great job examining it, showing what sort of stories they produced and how elaborate their performances could be. This unique art form also turned out to be an awesome basis for this horror adventure story, and I really liked how Sakai worked it into the plot. I also really enjoyed the artwork contained within this first story, and Sakai has come up with some rather impressive sequences and scenes that not only do a fantastic job conveying the action that is occurring but which really highlight the horror aspect of the narrative. The various supernatural opponents in this book are shown to be quite scary and threatening, and I loved the way that Usagi’s face looked absolutely terrified as he fought against them. The use of colour in this first story is also extremely cool, and I loved how it helped bring the whole story to life. I particularly liked the way that the colour really enhanced all of Sasuke’s magical abilities and made them look that much more distinctive and mystical. There is one amazing sequence in which Sasuke turns his sword into flames, which looked so damn awesome and it put me in mind of that one iconic scene from the recent Demon Slayer anime. All in all, this was an outstanding and enjoyable first story in this volume, and readers are in for a real treat right of the bat.

Usagi Yojimbo #4

The next story that is featured within this volume is the two-issue tale, The Hero. In this entry, Usagi, still journeying across the countryside, has encountered an interesting fellow traveller, a famed author who is journeying to her father’s house. The author, Lady Mura, has written several novels, including a tragic tale of heroism that she lets Usagi read. As the two travel together, Usagi learns that Mura is the wife of a high-ranking samurai who is jealous of his wife’s writing ability, as the fame she gains from that far exceeds his reputation as a warrior. While Usagi is able to protect Mura from many of the dangers on the road, including bandits, how will he react when he encounters her husband, especially as the strict rules of honour that bind all samurai forbids him from interfering?

This is a rather heavy and clever story that I think is potentially the best entry in the entire volume. Sakai has crafted together an excellently written and well-thought out narrative that cuts deep into the reader’s emotional core before the end. The character of Lady Mura is an extremely tragic figure, as even after all Usagi does to protect her, her story still ends in heartbreak, just like all her novels. Despite how her story ends, she is able to pass on some inspiration to Usagi about the true nature of a hero, which is how she sees Usagi. There are some really intriguing discussions about the code of the samurai that binds all the major characters within this story, and the problems and compromises that occur because of it are in full display throughout The Hero. I also think that Sakai came up with a perfect ending for the entire story, which felt extremely satisfying, considering what had happened throughout the course of the narrative. The artwork in this story is also really cool, as not only do you have some of the most impressive depictions of the varied and beautiful feudal Japanese landscape (which look so impressive in colour) but you also have some amazing scenes that show fragments of Lady Mura’s novels. These scenes place Usagi in the role of the hero of the classic story (Sakai has done something similar in prior stories like My Lord’s Daughter in the sixth volume, Circles) and show him taking on an undead horde and their evil master, and they are some amazing drawn sequences. The Hero is a truly great story, and I think that Sakai has done an outstanding job coming up with this tragic and heartfelt tale.

Usagi Yojimbo #5

The next story, Adachi, is one of the more interesting entries in this volume, and it was one that I was curious to check out. This story was actually written in commemoration of the 35th anniversary of the series and features a fresh take on the very first Usagi Yojimbo story, The Goblin of Adachigahara, which I previously reviewed in the first volume, The Ronin. In this new version of the story, Usagi returns to the scene of one of his greatest personal tragedies, the battle of Adachigahara Plain (or Adachi Plain in later Usagi Yojimbo stories), where his lord, Mifune, died after one of his generals betrayed him. In the course of this battle, Usagi, who served as Lord Mifune’s bodyguard, was able to perform an essential service by fleeing the battlefield with Mifune’s head, keeping it out of the hands of the treacherous general and the evil Lord Hikiji. Usagi has journeyed back to this place to pay respects to the place he buried his late lord’s head, which only he knows the location of. However, he senses that he is being watched and continues his journey, eventually seeking shelter at the hut of an old lady, who warns him of a goblin that haunts the mountain. Later that night, the goblin attacks the house, trying to kill Usagi, but Usagi is able to trick him and engage him in a fair fight. The goblin is revealed to be the general who betrayed Mifune, who was disgraced and banished by Lord Hikiji due to Usagi’s actions in denying Hikiji his lord’s head. Now determined to claim Mifune’s head and claim what is owed to him, the goblin seeks to kill Usagi, who manages to win, thanks to the help of the old lady, revealed to be the general’s wife, who has remained in exile with him.

This is a really interesting updated version of the story, which I quite enjoyed reading. The whole story is actually a combination of three prior Usagi Yojimbo stories, with some new elements thrown in. The first part of the story, which shows Usagi reliving the events of Adachi Plain, utilises parts from two stories, including Samurai (which appeared in the second volume, Samurai) and Return to Adachi Plain (which appeared in the 11th volume, Seasons). This combination provided a much richer examination of the battle, especially Usagi’s role within it, and I think the two separate sequences merged together well, while also looking even more impressive in colour. The story then continues to focus on the events that previously occurred within The Goblin of Adachigahara, although there are some interesting additions. This includes the goblin deliberately targeting Usagi, due to his role in his dishonour, and Usagi finding out the identity of his attacker before killing him. Knowing that this is the general who betrayed his beloved lord adds a whole new emotional element to the story for Usagi, and their fight is a lot more vicious and elaborate. I also liked the way that Sakai spent time enhancing the visuals surrounding the goblin. While he looked rather cool in the original story, in Adachi, Sakai has made him look even more awesome and intimidating, especially in colour. I also found it interesting that Sakai has turned this whole event into a more recent story in Usagi’s timeline, rather than being an event that occurred quite early in his adventures. The change in the chronology is intriguing, especially as there is a rather great scene in the middle where Usagi, upon visiting the grave his former lord, begs to be released from his vow of service, perhaps so that he can pledge fealty to his friend, Lord Noriyuki of the Geishu Clan. Overall, I thought that this was a clever new take on a classic Usagi Yojimbo story, and fans of this series will appreciate this anniversary special.

Usagi Yojimbo #6

The fourth and final story in this volume is The Swords of the Higashi, which serves as a light-hearted and entertaining conclusion to this volume. The Swords of the Higashi sees the always amusing Usagi Yojimbo side character, Gen, involved in a whole new batch of trouble. This time, Gen and his occasional partner Stray Dog are attempting to recover two extremely valuable stolen swords from a group of bandits. Killing the bandits, the two bounty hunters run into Usagi, who decides to accompany them back to the sword’s owners, the Higashi clan. However, the three ronin make the mistake of leaving one of the bandits alive, and they must contend with a continued flurry of attacks as they make their way back to town.

Now this was a fun and enjoyable story that I found to be extremely hilarious. There are several great elements to this story that I really enjoyed, including the fantastic use of the three main characters, Usagi, Gen and Stray Dog, and their banter as they wander the wilderness is rather entertaining. There is also the really funny extended sequence which sees the characters come under constant attack from bandits and bounty hunters as they attempt to return the blades. Each of these attacks is led by the same bandit, who finds the three companions, gets his cohorts to attack them, and then runs away in a panic when the protagonists win, only to return with a new group of bandits and repeat the cycle a short time later. This repeated turn of events is extremely funny, mainly due to the ridiculousness of the situation and because of the way that Usagi and his friends get more and more exhausted and exasperated with each new cycle. Sakai does an amazing job of making all three protagonists look scruffier and more dispirited with each new attack, and their reactions each time are deeply entertaining, from the way that Stray Dog keeps yelling at Gen for it being his fault, Gen’s growing resentment and frustration at the bandit whose life he saved, and the usual stoic Usagi getting more and more exhausted with each fight: “I’ve been through battles less tiring than today!”. Sakai wraps this whole amusing episode up with a rather clever conclusion to the story, which sees another classic Usagi Yojimbo side character get the best of everyone, and which makes all of Usagi, Gen and Stray Dog’s effort be for nought, which is just so mean considering all they went through. This was an outstanding story that had me laughing the entire way through, and I thought it was the perfect way to end this entire volume.

Usagi Yojimbo #7

The latest Usagi Yojimbo volume, Bunraku and Other Stories, is another incredible comic from Stan Sakai that I absolutely loved. Sakai has once again produced several exciting and clever stories, filled with great characters, powerful emotional moments, clever examinations of classic Japanese culture and a number of visually stunning sequences, which are so much fun to read. With the comics now in full and glorious colour, this was an outstanding new entry in the series, and is a must read for all Usagi Yojimbo fans. It gets a full five-star rating from me and comes highly recommended.