Waiting on Wednesday – Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 37: Crossroads 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 check out another awesome entry in one of my favourite comic series with the upcoming 37th volume of the always impressive Usagi Yojimbo series, Crossroads, by Stan Sakai.

Usagi Yojimbo - Crossroads Cover

I must be doing something right with my life because I have just been rewarded with an absolute treat: two Usagi Yojimbo volumes in a single year.  For ages, fans of the series have been stuck with the ungodly pain of routinely having to wait an entire year to get a new collected edition of their favourite comic.  However, it looks like we are getting a reprieve this year as not only did we already get the awesome 36th volume, Tengu War! but now we have the 37th volume, Crossroads, coming out in just a few months.

Many readers of my blog will be familiar with my own all-consuming love for the brilliant Usagi Yojimbo series by legendary writer and author Stan Sakai.  Following a rabbit ronin in an alternate version of Feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals, the Usagi Yojimbo series boasts some outstanding stories, great characters, truly awesome artwork and intriguing Japanese settings, and is easily one of the best, if somewhat underappreciated, comics out there.  I have been a major fan of this series for year, and I have been having a very good time with the current run of the comics published by IDW.  This latest run, which includes the full colour volumes Bunraku and Other Stories (one of my favourite books of 2020) and Homecoming (one of my favourite books of 2021), has been pretty awesome, and I have deeply appreciated some of the cool storylines Sakai has been following.  The other volume of 2022, Tengu War! was also a ton of fun, and was honestly prepared for that to be my primary Usagi Yojimbo fix for the year.  Luckily, with Crossroads coming out soon, I do not have that much longer to wait.

Crossroads, which will contain issues #22-28 of the current run of the Usagi Yojimbo series, is currently set for release in October 2022 and looks set to feature several fantastic stories.  This time Usagi and his newly discovered cousin and fellow samurai, Yukichi, will encounter several dangerous enemies, as well as some old friends, as they continue their travels through the dangerous lands of Feudal Japan.  It looks like Sakai has set up some brilliant stories for this next volume, and I am already extremely excited for all of them.

Synopsis:

The rabbit ronin’s newest adventures continue in this fourth volume that sees Usagi and new companion Yukichi on the road! Thinking their troubles behind them, they find new ones constantly emerging.

In “Ransom,” Usagi and Yukichi meet up with Kitsune, a street performer and thief, who has stolen a ledger recording bribes to local politicians. When Kitsune’s protégé is kidnapped in return, Usagi decides that he must help and get her back. Then, in “Crossroads,” Usagi and Yukichi come upon a group of pilgrims who have been left for dead by a band of cutthroat ronin. Deciding to go after them, Usagi must head back to the province, and the danger, from which he has just escaped!

In “Ghost Story,” Usagi and Yukichi meet Shizuye praying at a shrine to a young woman murdered 50 years earlier by her married lover and who finds herself in the same predicament. They take it upon themselves to be her protectors, but not all is as it seems when a local priest warns them to beware of ghosts!

In the final story, “The Long Road,” Usagi and Yukichi come to the rescue of a famed art dealer and his assistant attacked by bandits on the road. Failing to save the art dealer, they take it upon themselves to complete the delivery, but can the assistant be trusted?

Wow, those are some awesome-sounding stories in Crossroads and I am already in love with all four of them.  Crossroads looks set to have a pretty interesting mixture of storylines, with the most fun one likely to be the Kitsune focused entry, Ransom.  Kitsune, a foxy thief with a propensity for getting into trouble, is always really good fun, especially as her thieving ways often clash with Usagi’s inherent honesty, and it has been a while since we’ve seen her.  I look forward to watching this reunion unfold, and it will be great to see how she interacts with the more naïve and inexperienced Yukichi, as he’ll never know what hit him.  The next story, Crossroads, looks like it will be a more action-orientated romp, especially as the two samurai protagonists are following a band of murderous bandits into dangerous territory.  This sort of tale is Sakai’s bread and butter, so you already know it is going to be pure excitement with a ton of awesome battles, plus it will continue some of the storylines from the last two volumes, with Usagi forced to transverse territory controlled by series antagonist Lord Hikiji.

The other two stories in Crossroads also have a ton of potential and I was very intrigued by the fantastic synopsis that featured above.  The first of these, Ghost Story, appears to be another intriguing tale of Japanese mythology and spirituality, as Usagi and Yukichi encounter a young girl at a mystical shrine.  From the synopsis, it would appear that this mysterious lady would be some incarnation of the murdered woman the shrine is dedicated to, although I have a feeling there might be a twist or two added in.  No matter what, though, Sakai is very good when it comes to the more mystical stories in the Usagi Yojimbo series, and I am sure it will be a thoughtful and thrilling piece.  The final story sees Usagi get involved in another escort mission, this time around some valuable art.  Again, this is a pretty typical sort of story for Sakai (Usagi escorts everyone and everything along the roads of Japan, including melting ice, treasures, legendary swords and even some valuable tatami mats, just to name a few examples), so I am certain that this will be another great story.  The hints about the untrustworthy assistant are interesting, and I imagine that will add some wrinkles to the story, especially if that line is a red herring.  No matter what though, I am sure it will be great, and contain all the samurai action I crave.

Look, let’s be honest here, there is no way I am going to dislike Crossroads when it comes out, mainly due to how good every other single Usagi Yojimbo comic has ever been.  All the above stories sound extremely fun, and most of them have already gotten my imagination pumping as I try to figure out how they will go.  I am particularly interested in seeing how new protagonist Yukichi turns out, and it will be fun to see what Sakai has planned for him.  With Sakai’s usual brilliant storytelling and exquisite artwork, I already know that Crossroads is easily going to be one of the best comics of 2022.  October cannot come soon enough in my opinion, and I cannot wait to get my hands on the latest Usagi Yojimbo volume.

The Sandman – Act 1 (Audiobook) by Neil Gaiman and performed by a full cast

Sandman Act 1 Cover

Publisher: Audible Original (Audio Drama – 15 July 2020)

Series: The Sandman

Script: Neil Gaiman and Dirk Maggs (script adapter)

Director: Dirk Maggs

Cast: Neil Gaiman, James McAvoy, Kat Dennings, Taron Egerton, Riz Ahmed, Samantha Morton, Bebe Neuwirth, Andy Serkis, Michael Sheen, Justin Vivian Bond, Arthur Darvill, William Hope, Mathew Horne, Reginald D. Hunter, Sue Johnston, Paterson Joseph, Josie Lawrence, Anton Lesser, Joanna Lumley, Miriam Margolyes, Tom Alexander, Stephen Critchlow, Blake Ritson, Oris Herhuero, Karen Batke, Ray Porter, Michael Roberts, Kerry Shale, Andrew James, Simon Vance, Sandra Dickinson, Ellen Thomas, Cathy Tyson, Sandra-Mae Luyx, Amaka Okafor, Shey Greyson, Laurel Lefkow, Harry Myers, Mack Keith Roach, Laurence Bouvard, Toby Longworth, Daniel Weyman, Samantha Beart, Cliff Chapman, Felicity Duncan, Julia Winwood, Nicholas Boulton, John MacMillan, Tracy Wiles and Adam Thomas Wright.

Length: 11 hours and 2 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Thanks to a lengthy and productive road trip, I have finally breached the realm of dreams and explored the iconic and powerful creation that is Neil Gaiman’s The Sandman.  In this review I check out the first act of its impressive full-cast audiobook adaptation.

Back in 1989, mind-bending author Neil Gaiman unleashed his most iconic comic creation when he introduced the complex and dark The Sandman.  Centred on the mysterious character of Dream, the anthropomorphic personification of dreams, The Sandman was a clever and intense hybrid of horror, fantasy and superhero storylines released as part of the Vertigo comic imprint, which was associated with the DC Comics universe.  This series was considered a revolutionary success and its unique and colourful story cemented Gaiman’s legacy in comic circles, as The Sandman and its spinoffs are still very highly regarded.

Now I must make a bit of a confession: I have never actually read The Sandman and it is a bit of a gap in my comic book knowledge.  I just never seemed to be in a position to read these comics despite hearing how good they were.  However, with the upcoming television adaptation of The Sandman set for release later this year, I thought that it was about time that I tried to check it out.  Luckily, the good folks at Audible decided to make this rather easy for me as they recently released a full-cast audiobook adaptation of The Sandman.  Not only was this a great opportunity for me to check out this cool comic in my favourite format, but this adaptation featured a truly remarkable cast of actors, with the production pulled together by the highly acclaimed Dirk Maggs.

There are many strange, unusual and powerful creatures inhabiting the universe, but only seven siblings, known as the Endless, are truly immortal.  The Endless, each a personification of a human concept, have their own realms and powers, with the most mysterious and unique belonging to Dream.  Known by many names, including Morpheus, he is the manifestation of all dreams and stories, and governs the Dreaming, the vast realm made up of creation’s collected dreams.  Unchanging since the dawn of time, Morpheus’s eternal life is about to get more complicated than he ever believed.

Summoned by a mystical cult seeking to capture his sister, Death, Morpheus finds himself trapped and powerless on Earth.  Stripped of his tools of office and placed within a magical cage, Morpheus is kept as a prisoner for over 70 years.  When he eventually escapes from his captors, Morpheus returns to his realm only to find it in tatters, with several of his servants missing and his own powers greatly weakened.  To ensure the continued stability of the Dreaming, Morpheus must endeavour to regain his full strength by recovering his lost tools of power.

However, this is no easy task as all three items have been scattered across the world and are now in the hands of several dangerous foes.  To obtain them, he will have to contend with human magician John Constantine, face down Lucifer and battle the malicious Justice League foe known as Doctor Destiny.  From dangerous demons to rogue dreams and even his own siblings, Morpheus will face great challenges and unique creations on his road back from capture.  But even if Morpheus does succeed, is he prepared for the full chaos his absence has wrought on the world?

I’ve been exceedingly foolish by neglecting The Sandman for so long.  This is such a unique and epic tale that contains powerful looks at revenge, change, human perception and the power of dreams and stories, and so much more, as Gaiman cleverly examines elements of the human psyche through the eyes of an elusive immortal.  The impressive and exceedingly memorable story contained within these early entries of The Sandman, are deeply captivating and I found myself really getting drawn into the amazing narrative and distinctive characters.  Throw in an exceptional voice cast and a brilliant audiobook production, and I honestly have no choice but to give this a full five-star review.

When I first heard about The Sandman audiobook I did wonder if it would provide a more abridged version of the narrative.  However, it appears that this production was a pretty faithful and full adaptation of issues #1-20 of The Sandman comic.  As such you get an intense and fully developed story that is guaranteed to grasp your attention and send your imagination into overdrive, especially by the two major storylines contained within these first 20 issues.  The first of these, the “More than Rubies” storyline, examines Morpheus’s capture by human occultists in the early 20th century, his decades-long imprisonment, his eventual escape, and his subsequent attempts to recover his tools of office to regain his lost power.  This storyline serves as a pretty awesome and captivating start to the entire production and it contains several distinctive and addictive chapters.  The initial chapters that deal with Morpheus’s imprisonment set up a lot of major storylines for the rest of the series, give you some fantastic early impressions of this world, introduce some key concepts and provide readers with their first compelling look at the main character.  From there, the story gets even more exciting as you follow Morpheus as he attempts to recover his items of power from some dangerous individuals.  This sets up some brilliant chapters as he deals with everyone’s favourite magician, John Constantine, in a horrific tale that provides readers with their first glimpse at the true danger of dreams.  From there, Morpheus goes straight to hell as he attempts to retain his helm from an army of demons while also dealing with the nefarious Lucifer in what is possibly one of the most entertaining parts of the entire production.  That is then followed by a particularly dark storyline that sees Morpheus forced to contend with damaged DC comics supervillain Doctor Destiny, who is using Morpheus’s own powers to destroy the world.  This initial main storyline is particularly good, with an amazing and captivating flow to it that is guaranteed to make you a fan of The Sandman.

The other major storyline of this first act of The Sandman sees Morpheus attempt to contend with a new dangerous threat impacting the Dreaming.  This threat turns out to be young woman, Rose Walker, who is a powerful Dream Vortex.  To fully understand her, Morpheus finds himself getting involved in her hunt for her missing brother, and soon finds himself in conflict with several of his missing creations, each of whom has their own agenda in the real world.  At the same time, Morpheus must contend with the machinations of his powerful siblings as they attempt to manipulate him for his own ends.  This second major storyline, The Doll’s House, is an extremely good follow-up to the introductory issues and continues several plot points, with several characters returning in interesting ways.  Indeed, as you traverse through this storyline, it becomes apparent how much the author set up in the initial major storyline, and this helps to make The Doll’s House flow extremely well.  This major storyline itself is pretty damn fun, and I liked how it split between Morpheus and several of the other major players, particularly Rose Walker and The Corinthian.  The entire thing goes in some rather interesting directions, from the traumatised dreaming mind of a young boy also containing several lost superheroes, to a serial killer convention where some of Morpheus’s most dangerous creations have arrived.  This entire storyline is pretty damn twisty and trippy in places, but it comes together extremely well and has some amazing high points to it.  I particularly enjoyed the sequences depicting the serial killer convention, which was both entertaining and disturbing in equal measures but which also has an outstanding payoff to it.  The Doll’s House ends the major storylines on an extremely high note and it will ensure that you will come back for the second act desperately wanting more.

Aside from the two main storylines, The Sandman also contains several filler arcs that take place around the main storylines, including all the stories contained in the collected volume Dream Country.  While I would usually be a little disappointed to have a gap occur between some of the main storylines like this, it worked really well.  Not only do these filler chapters serve as a bit of a palate cleanser, breaking up the major storylines, but they also provide a lot of additional context for the wider The Sandman universe by expanding on many of the supporting characters, such as Morpheus’s relatives or some of the strange people he encounters through his travels.  Each of these storylines lasts for a single chapter (an issue from the comic), and are fairly self-contained, coming together and concluding in short order.  Each of these filler stories is quite intriguing in their own right, especially as these stories are a little more metaphysical and often contain a dark, thought-provoking cautionary tale.  There is also an interesting range of settings and time periods for many of these stories, as some occur many years before the events of the major storylines, due to the immortal nature of Morpheus and his siblings.  I honestly enjoyed each of these separate storylines, not only because of the fantastic ways that they expanded The Sandman universe but because of the way that each story hit a different emotional note.  My favourite was probably Men of Good Fortune (issue #13 of the comic), a brilliant story that sees Morpheus and Death encounter a man, Hob Gadling, who is certain of his desire never to die.  Intrigued, Morpheus ensures his immortality and arranges to meet him once every 100 years in the same tavern.  So begins a fantastic story that skips across centuries as you see Hob continue to exist and change through the centuries.  Watching him achieve the highs and lows of an immortal is deeply fascinating, as is his compelling and deeply personal interactions with Morpheus as they discuss his experiences and his desires to stay alive.  The conclusion of this story proves to be particularly moving, and it helps to humanise Morpheus after several issues of him being emotionally distant.  Other interesting filler arcs include Morpheus meeting with Death and following her around in her complex and sad duties, another sees William Shakespeare, who years earlier made a Faustian bargain with Morpheus, debut A Midsummer’s Night Dream to a host of elven nobility in a touching performance.  All these filler arcs, and more, add a certain gravitas to the overall book, and I think that they really helped to enhance the major storylines they were set around.

I was really impressed with all these major and minor storylines, especially as the writing behind them was particularly powerful and brilliant.  Everything flows together extremely well and you can see that Gaiman is setting up a ton of fascinating storylines for the future, while also ensuring that the current plot points stand on their own and are extremely fun.  Everything about this story is interesting, and while the author does occasionally go in some zany, grotesque and unique directions, it generally proves to be entertaining and eventually fits back into the major storylines in a great way.  Gaiman seeks to create a massive and powerful epic that not is not only filled with action and excitement but which causes the reader to stop and think about certain states of being or metaphysical aspects such as dreaming.  This is often achieved, especially in the audiobook format, with distinctive and powerful dialogues that showcase the unique attributes of the characters and the dramatic and dangerous situations they find themselves in.

I personally loved how there were a range of different styles and elements featured throughout the plot as The Sandman didn’t conform to one particular genre.  The story could at any time jump from unique fantasy adventure to a deep character driven narrative or end up being a bleak and deeply disturbing horror tale.  For example, one of the best chapters in this act of The Sandman was a dark, disturbing and somewhat detached horror narrative they fit in right after a chapter involving the Justice League and certain Batman villains.  In this story the deadly Doctor Dee, having stolen Morpheus’s dream stone, holds several people hostage in a diner over the course of a day.  Throughout this day (which is counted down hour by hour for some impressive dramatic impact), Doctor Dee toys with his pets, diving deep into their personal lives and using disturbing elements from their past to manipulate their emotions and their reactions.  This results in several extremely disturbing hours as the bad doctor makes them experience lust, despair, hatred, animalist urges, religious zeal and more to entertain him as he waits, and it turns this chapter into a horrific experience in between some more action packed or fantasy issues.  This frequent change in genre really helps to make this first act stand out, and all the different storylines and elements work well with the overall dark gothic theme of The Sandman.  It also helps to make The Sandman a bit more accessible to different readers as there is something here for all fans of horror, fantasy and comics, although some basic knowledge of DC and Vertigo comics may be somewhat helpful.

This story is greatly helped by the complex and exceedingly memorable characters featured throughout.  The most notable of these characters is the titular Sandman himself, central character Dream/Morpheus, an immortal anthropomorphic personification who lives in creation’s dreams and serves as their lord and master.  I loved how Morpheus is portrayed in this first act as the reader really gets to sink their teeth into the character and find out what makes him tick.  Gaiman ensures you get the most out of Morpheus by immediately showing him at his worst, imprisoned for decades by humans with his powers stolen from him.  While you don’t get a lot of insight into who or what he is at the beginning, once he escapes you find out everything you need about his motivations, responsibilities and personalities.  Gaiman initially paints Morpheus as a callous and detached being, removed from humanity and more concerned with his own needs and realm than the people he interacts with.  While it does make it a little harder to root for him in some of the earlier storylines, I think this coldness helped to stoke some real mystery around the character and you wanted to find out more about him and his past.  Once the first major story arc ends and you get into some of the filler stories, especially the one involving the interaction with his sister Death, you start to understand him a lot better and soon see that his a basically good person, just with some major personality flaws brought on by his immortal existence and purpose.  Don’t get me wrong, at times he is still a pretty hard character to like, especially when details about his love life are revealed, but he is generally a lot more likeable than most of the other immortal or non-human characters you encounter, and you get really invested in his continual struggles.  By the end of his first act you will become extremely addicted to his story arc, and I cannot wait to see how Morpheus’s narrative continues in the future.

Gaiman has come up with an eclectic and distinctive group of characters to support the story, with a fantastic combination of original characters, mythological figures and even a few established DC and Vertigo comic characters.  These great characters are featured to various degrees throughout the story, with some being continuously used, while others only get brief flashes.  All of them are pretty fantastic, and I loved seeing how Gaiman worked them into his brilliant narrative.  There are so many notable characters throughout this first act to talk about, especially as they were portrayed by some outstanding actors (more on that later), and I could honestly spend pages talking about all of them, however, in the interests of saving time I might just limit it to my absolute favourites.  I must highlight Dream’s sister Death; rather than a traditional mournful or skeletal figure, Death is shown as a cheerful young woman who bears great compassion and kindness to those she reaps.  This is a really interesting change to the usual personification of Death you see in fiction, and it works really well, especially as Death here serves as a great positive foil to her dour brother Dream and the other Endless.  As such, she swiftly becomes a favourite character to follow, especially with her many different appearances.  I also must mention Gaiman’s great use of John Constantine, everyone’s favourite drunk English wizard, who has a notable chapter towards the start of the story.   Lucifer himself is also brilliant as a brief secondary antagonist, and Gaiman lays some interesting story seeds here for him.  The comedic duo of Cain and Abel brings some fun to several stories, as does Morpheus’s servant, Matthew the Raven.  Rose Walker serves as an excellent protagonist of the second major storyline, and I enjoyed her very English protector, Gilbert, who has some intriguing scenes.  Finally, I was rather impressed with the great early antagonist Doctor John Dee, better known as the Justice League villain Doctor Destiny.  Gaiman went out of his way to make Doctor Dee as creepy and deranged as possible in this comic and he has some outstanding, if shockingly horrifying, scenes throughout the More than Rubies storyline.  He, and other great villains like The Corinthian, add some intriguing danger and a ton of depravity to the story, and I had an absolute blast getting to know all these great characters.

As I mentioned before, I chose to check out the full-cast audio adaptation of The Sandman rather than reading the original comics, and this greatly impacted my experiences of how I absorbed this unique story.  However, while I probably missed out on some brilliant artwork, I think that this audio adaptation was the perfect way to enjoy this elaborate and massive story.  As far as I can tell, the audio production faithfully adapts all the comic storylines throughout its run, with the movement and action of the comic page replaced with narration, sound effects and probably altered dialogue where necessary for the benefit of the listener.  While this is probably a little different than the comic, I think that it captured the tone, characters, and intent of The Sandman exceedingly well, and the resulting production is pretty damn impressive.  Not only does it feature some brilliant acting, but the production team makes outstanding use of a ton of cool sound effects and some moving music to create something extremely special.

While this audio production has many great features, without a shadow of a doubt its most defining aspect is the incredibly stacked voice cast who bring the various characters to life.  Someone clearly sold their soul to get the eventual cast for The Sandman, as some exceedingly talented actors are featured here giving some intense and powerful performances.  These great performances deeply enhance the entirety of The Sandman and turn this already outstanding story into something that you will listen to again and again.  This voice cast is led by the insanely talented James McAvoy, who voices main character Morpheus.  McAvoy is extremely good in this production, showcasing all his acting range to bring this complex character to life in all his dark, gothic and detached glory.  Thanks to the way he voices the character, listeners really get a sense of how ethereal and distant Morpheus can be, as well as the intense weight of the events of this story and the relationships he has formed.  You really get the full gambit of Morpheus’s emotions during this first act and McAvoy covers them all perfectly, embodying the character’s rage, sorrow, impatience and intense regret extremely well.  This performance really serves to enhance the character of Morpheus in this production of The Sandman, and McAvoy was the perfect actor to helm this entire series.

The rest of the voice cast is just as impressive, with several major celebrities featured here.  Taron Egerton has a notable time voicing the iconic John Constantine and his pretty damn good here, bringing the distinctive magician to life extremely well.  Edgerton brilliantly brings forth Constantine’s full emotional range throughout The Sandman, and you get a great sense of his cheeky demeanour which overlays his insane amount of guilt and despair.  This was a very good version of Constantine, and indeed after listening to this production, Edgerton would be my choice for Constantine if they chose to do another major movie with him.  In addition, Kat Dennings has a major role in this audiobook as Death.  Dennings is pretty amazing here, and she brings some real life (pun intended) to this major role, showcasing this character’s intense warmth and friendliness, as well as her exasperations when it comes to her brother.  Dennings really made this unique character her own, and I deeply enjoyed her performance.  I also had a lot of fun with Andy Serkis who voices Matthew the Raven, Dream’s messenger and servant.  Matthew is a fairly comedic role which Serkis fills perfectly, giving the raven a sarcastic and everyman feel that fit the lines really well and helped to make him a very distinctive and fun figure.

Other big-name actors include Bebe Neuwirth, who perfectly voices a prophetic cat with aspirations to change the world through dreaming.  Riz Ahmed is pretty terrifying as The Corinthian and you get some major serial killer vibes from his performance.  Arthur Davill has a great couple of appearances as William Shakespeare, while the legendary Joanna Lumley has an unfortunately short appearance as Lady Johanna Constantine, although she gets her time to shine in future productions.  Likewise, Michael Sheen has only a short appearance as Lucifer Morningstar, although he brings some incredible flair to the character, dripping style, venom and power.  Like Joanna Lumley, Sheen will get his time to shine in future instalments of this audio series, so don’t be too disappointed with his limited appearances here.  I loved William Hope as Doctor Dee, as he gives the villain some deep malevolence and insanity.  Michael Roberts and Kerry Shale are fun as Cain and Able respectfully, while Paterson Joseph has a great sequence as The Demon Choronzon.  I was also very happy to see that one of my favourite audiobook narrators, Ray Porter, was featured here, voicing multiple supporting characters.  All of Porter’s portrayals were very fun, although I think he was best as Gilbert, providing some fun British pomp to the character.  Finally, Neil Gaiman himself has a massive role in this production as the Narrator, which is pretty damn appropriate.  Gaiman is great as the narrator, with his distinctive voice perfectly moving the story along, as he describes events, actions and settings, as well as providing a massive dose of exposition.  I was really impressed with Gaiman’s continued performance here, and I honestly don’t know if anyone else could have done such an impactful and meaningful job of it.  I am honestly only just scratching the surface of this cast, as there are a ton of other actors featured throughout The Sandman in some way.  However, all of them are extremely good and their work on this show is just superb.

As you can no doubt tell from the elaborate and long-winded review above, I had an outstanding time with this audio production of The Sandman, and I am so very happy that I got to finally experience Neil Gaiman’s amazing series.  Everything about this audiobook was impressive, with an elaborate and dark narrative, gritty characters, fantastic performances and some incredible world building.  There is truly something for everybody here, as readers unfamiliar with The Sandman can easily jump in and learn everything they want to know about the series (I’m now ready for that upcoming Netflix series), while established fans will no doubt enjoy it performed by such a talented team of actors.  I had such a good time listening to this first act that once I finished, I immediately jumped into listening to the second act, which has an even better and expanded voice cast.  I will hopefully review that in a few weeks, but in the meantime do yourself a favour and listen to this incredible audio production of The Sandman, as you will not regret it.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 36: Tengu War! by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Tengu War!

Publisher: IDW (Paperback – 22 March 2022)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 36

Writer and Artist: Stan Sakai

Art Assist: Randy Clute (The Master of Hebishima)

Colourist: Hi-Fi Design

Length: 192 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Usagi IDW #15

It is that amazing time of the year when I finally get my hands on the brand-new volume of the long-running Usagi Yojimbo comic series, written and drawn by the legendary Stan Sakai.  Fans of this blog will be well aware of my all-consuming love for this amazing series that follows a roaming rabbit ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, as he traverses an intriguing alternate version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.  Not only is this one of my favourite all-time comic book series but I have been steadily reviewing some of the older volumes as part of my Throwback Thursday series (see my recent reviews for Volume 12: Grasscutter, Volume 13: Grey Shadows and Volume 14: Demon Mask).  Unfortunately, Sakai only releases one volume of this epic series a year, so it is a very big deal when I finally get my hands on the latest volume (this latest volume has been one of my most anticipated releases for 2022 for a while now).

Usagi IDW #15b

This latest volume is Tengu War!, an intriguing and powerful comic that contains some awesome and clever new tales.  Tengu War! is the 36th overall volume in this series as well as the third volume printed by the publisher IDW (other IDW Usagi Yojimbo releases include Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories and Volume 35: Homecoming).  I have been rather enjoying these more recent Usagi Yojimbo volumes from IDW as not only do they contain Stan Sakai’s usual impressive storylines, characters and artistic work but they are also packaged into a fantastic new format of booklet, which is slim and more aesthetically pleasing.  In addition, the IDW volumes are also released in colour, which is an interesting change of pace from the previous volumes, which were initially released in black and white.

Usagi IDW #16

Tengu War! ended up being another great volume that makes use of Sakai’s skill and art to tell several complex and entertaining tales.  Set immediately after the final comic of the previous volume and continuing several overarching storylines and themes, Tengu War! contains four unique new stories which were set out in issues #15-21 of the IDW run on the Usagi Yojimbo series.  All four stories are fun and compelling new additions to the series that each present the reader with something different and distinctive.

Usagi IDW #16b

The first entry is the volume’s main multi-issue story that sees Usagi return to visit an old teacher only to find himself embroiled in a deadly supernatural war.  Made up of the first four issues of the volume, this entry actually consists of two stories, Sojobo and Tengu War!, which act together to tell one entire story, with Sojobo containing flashbacks to Usagi’s past, and Tengu War! featuring the current issue he and his friend are facing.  Due to how closely linked these two stories are, with Sojobo providing the background to the longer Tengu War! story, I decided to talk about them as a single entity in this article.

Usagi IDW #17

These stories are set right after the events of the last volume, and swiftly tell the story of Usagi and his mostly hidden second sword master, the tengu warrior Sojobo.  Years after his first meeting with Sojobo (see Volume 18: Travels with Jotaro) but before the events that would see him become a wandering ronin, a young Usagi returned to the tengu and convinced him to take him on as a pupil, enhancing his knowledge of the sword with Sojobo’s unique teachings.  Now, years later, Usagi returns to Sojobo’s clearing to pay his respects, only to discover his former master in grave danger.  A horde of guhin (lesser-tengu) are ravaging the mountainside, determined to claim the territory for themselves, and they have Sojobo and Usagi in their sights.  To survive, Sojobo is forced to return to from his self-exile and reclaim leadership of his clan.  But even with a tengu army at their back, can Sojobo and Usagi survive the onslaught of the guhin?

Usagi IDW #17b

These two stories were an excellent start to this volume, especially as they contain all the best elements of a great Usagi Yojimbo story, with great new characters, compelling Japanese supernatural elements, and another intriguing glance at Usagi’s complex past.  The first story, Sojobo, serves as a great introduction to the entire volume, perfectly continuing from the previous Sojobo story, and redefining the relationship between the two characters, showing their mentor-mentee bond.  This sets up the rest of the Tengu War! story extremely well, as you have a good basis for Sojobo’s and Usagi’s stakes in the narrative.  From there the story evolves into a classic Usagi Yojimbo tale, with Usagi getting involved in someone else’s fight, this time involving some unique and compelling supernatural foes.  This extended story continues some brilliant character moments as Sojobo becomes reacquainted with his wife and clan, while also showing off the intractability and intense honour of the tengu.  You also get to see the evolution of the bond between Sojobo and Usagi, and there are some great discussions as the wiser and battle-hardened Usagi discusses some recent changes in his life, such as the discovery of his son.  It was also quite fascinating to see the apparent impacts that Sojobo’s training had on Usagi’s skill as a warrior, and I found it fascinating that Usagi’s fighting style is described as a combination of mortal and tengu techniques.  The subsequent fights are pretty awesome and you get some fantastic and intense battle sequences that really highlight Sakai’s artistic skill.  This all leads up to the big conclusion which contains a great mixture of action, satisfaction, camaraderie and tragedy, as victory is achieved at great cost, and the reader is left extremely satisfied with how this story turned out.

Usagi IDW #18

I have said many times before that some of the best Usagi Yojimbo stories are those where Sakai makes brilliant use of monsters, creatures or spirits from Japanese culture or mythology, and Tengu War! is a great example of this.  This cool story provides one of the best looks at the tengu, a fantastic and unique Japanese yokai (supernatural entity), in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series, and I really enjoyed the cool dive into the mythology surrounding them.  This story contains multiple different types of tengu who act as either allies or enemies, depending on their caste.  This includes the main supporting characters, Sojobo and his wife, Nozomi, who are dai-tengu, with the classic long-nosed, red-faced, humanoid-appearance that most people would associate with tengu, and who act as master warriors and wise sages.  These tengu are supported by their followers, the ko-tengu, bird-like creatures who act as samurai retainers in this comic, and I loved the cool combination of corvid features and samurai garb and mannerisms.  The final group of tengu featured within this comic are the guhin, a lesser form of tengu who act as mysterious spirits of the hills and lesser peaks.  Sakai depicts the guhin in this story in the more recent style of giant dogs (they are traditionally unseen spirits, but many modern depictions give them a canine physical form), and they come across as werewolf-like creatures, determined to take their rightful place at the top of the mountain.  These different form of tengu are explored in compelling detail, and I loved seeing the awesome scenes featuring all of them, especially as it results in some excellent fight scenes between classic tengu goblins, sentient samurai crows, and giant werewolves.  I loved this brilliant exploration of this unique part of Japanese culture (especially with the author’s comprehensive summary at the end), and it helps to enhance the outstanding overall story.

Usagi IDW #18b

We next have the dark and captivating tale, The Master of Hebishima, which provides a chilling look at the evils of revenge, obsession and fear.  In The Master of Hebishima, the wandering Usagi chances across a couple of peasants who specialise in trapping and removing the local pests, the tokage lizards.  Upon meeting them, Usagi is intrigued to discover that the trappers sell most of their catch to a mysterious hermit on the island known as Hebishima (snake island), who lives amongst the local snakes.  When one of the trappers is injured, Usagi volunteers to transport the captured tokages to Hebishima for them.  However, what he finds there will shock and haunt him, as the hermit has a surprising history with Usagi, one that lies all the way back in the infamous battle of Adachi Plain.  Faced with this surprising threat from his past, Usagi is unprepared for just how dangerous his opponent is, or what they are truly capable of.

Usagi IDW #19

The Master of Hebishima is a tight and powerful one-issue comic that may be the best entry in the entirety of the Tengu War! volume.  Perfectly set up and executed, this tale is deeply interesting and powerful, especially with its unique and intense focus.  Sakai has come up with an excellent story for this entry that not only ties into one of the key moments of Usagi’s life but which also shows the full impact of someone’s obsession and desire for revenge.  The introduction of a mysterious stranger who has a connection to Usagi and the battle of Adachi Plain (which has been such a cool part of several volumes, including Volume 2: Samurai, Volume 11: Seasons and Volume 34: Bunraku and Other Stories), is handled perfectly, and I loved his unique backstory and the fact that you never actually find out his name.  This villain’s entire history is tied to Usagi’s, and I liked the interesting symmetry in their loyalty, sense of honour and desire to serve their respective lords.  The horror elements around this mysterious hermit are just great, especially with that snake reveal, and he proves to be an excellent opponent for Usagi, who could potentially come back in some future comics (I’d be keen for that).  I was slightly disappointed that this story had nothing to do with distinctive Usagi Yojimbo villain Lord Hebi, a giant snake who serves as the principal lackey to the series’ main antagonist, but Sakai more than made up for this with all the other inclusions.  This was an extremely well-paced story, and Sakai manages to do a lot with a single issue, producing one of his more memorable stories in recent years.

Usagi IDW #19b

One of the most notable things about The Master of Hebishima is its exquisite art, some of which bears a slight difference to Sakai’s usual work.  Parts of this issue are drawn sharper and in a slightly different style to the rest of the Tengu War! volume.  This is particularly clear in the earlier panels of this issue, with some noticeable and intriguing stylistic changes to the characters and landscapes, which I thought looked like a well-enhanced version of Sakai’s usual drawings.  I assume that this is because of the influence of artist Randy Clute, who is credited as giving “art assist” for this issue.  Whatever the reason, I quite liked how this comic looked very early on, and it was interesting to see it change back to Sakai’s more typical style as the comic continued.  The rest of the art in the comic also really needs to be highlighted though, as there are some extremely memorable and shocking moments drawn within.  Not only do you get a notably spooky island of snakes for the main story but The Master of Hebishima also features a detailed flashback sequence that looks awesome, especially some of the battle sequences.  I particularly liked how the antagonist’s face was constantly obscured by shadow during these flashbacks, as it helped to make them seem more sinister and mysterious while also ramping up anticipation for the final reveal, the best part of this story.  This extended panel reveal is pretty damn freaky as the artists present a gruesome visage, accompanied by a Medusa-esque twist.  This shot of the face is particularly well drawn in impressive detail and ends up being one of the most haunting panels I have ever seen in a Usagi Yojimbo comic.  All this beautiful, if somewhat creepy, art really works to enhance this brilliant story, and it ensures that The Master of Hebishima really sticks in the mind and is well worth checking out.

Usagi IDW #20

The final story in the volume is the two-issue long story, Yukichi, another excellent character-driven narrative that introduces a fantastic new supporting character for the series.  In this story Usagi encounters a fellow rabbit samurai, Yukichi Yamamoto, on the road.  It is quickly revealed that, years ago, Yukichi was a disrespectful student at a prestigious sword school who insulted Usagi when the ronin attempted to meet his master.  Now a more mature warrior, Yukichi is delivering the sword of his dead master to the school’s successor and, after he apologises to Usagi, the two decide to travel together.  However, a rival school is determined to stop them delivering the sword by any means necessary, and they will use Usagi’s recent misadventures to justify their actions.

Usagi IDW #20b

Yukichi is an amazing and fantastic story that serves as a great ending to the Tengu War! volume, especially as it combines an excellent Usagi Yojimbo story with some cool new character introductions.  This story is another one with an excellent pace to it, smartly bringing in Yukichi, revealing the history between him and Usagi, before revealing the story’s villains, the members of a dishonourable sword school.  From there the story intensifies as, after an initial confrontation, the students and instructors from the rival school attempt to kill Usagi and Yukichi, while also trying to claim a bounty on Usagi (a consequence of the main story in the previous volume, Homecoming).  This results in a brilliant climatic scene where the two protagonists take on a horde of underlings before Yukichi engages their leader in an intense duel.  This duel comes across as pretty awesome in the artwork, and you get the sense it is a real battle between master swordsmen.  The conclusion of the fight, which highlights Yukichi’s naivety compared to the more jaded Usagi, is very cool, and I liked the conclusion of the story, where Yukichi is forced to make a big decision and eventually decides to travel with Usagi.

Usagi IDW #20c

While the action, artwork, and story are great, the real highlight of this comic is the introduction of new character Yukichi, who Sakai is obviously setting up to be a big supporting figure in the overall series.  Yukichi gets an excellent and comprehensive introduction here, and you swiftly get a grasp on his personality, history and relationship with Usagi.  I mostly liked this character and his design, especially as he is a good foil to Usagi, given their divergent training history and life experiences, and his fighting style is awesome as well.  His strong sense of honour, especially when faced with the poor successor to his master, was a great inclusion, and it does bring in some similarities with Usagi.  I did think that the sudden realisation that they were cousins was a tad too coincidental, and wasn’t particularly necessary, but it does bring in a certain connection between the two which will bond them for the rest of the series.  I wasn’t the biggest fan of Yukichi’s facial design either, especially those overly large and expressive eyes.  It kind of made him look cartoonish and somewhat undercut the seriousness of some scenes.  Still, this was my only real complaint about this new character and I am very curious to see what happens with him in the future Usagi Yojimbo volumes.  I am predicting similarities to Usagi’s previous travels with Jotaro in volumes 18 and 19, and it will be interesting to see Yukichi interact with the other supporting cast members like Gen or Kitsune.  An overall excellent and impressive end to this amazing volume that wraps everything up nicely.

Usagi IDW #21

As always, I really need to highlight the fantastic and awesome artwork featured with this incredible volume as Sakai continues to enhance his excellent stories with some gripping and powerful scenes.  I have already discussed some of the best bits of art of each respective story, especially the amazing art of The Master of Hebishima, but every panel in this comic is drawn in exquisite detail.  Not only does Sakai present some great character designs, especially around the new supernatural creatures in the Tengu War! story, but you have his always impressive setting shots that perfectly highlight the beautiful Japanese natural landscape or the historical buildings.  You also must love the excellent battle sequences scattered throughout the stories.  Sakai has always excelled at conveying movement and combat with his minimalistic style, and this is brilliantly highlighted in the various comics of Tengu War!, including in elaborate group fights or one-on-one duels.  I am also really enjoying seeing these stories in colour from the get-go as part of the IDW release.  While I will always be extremely fond of Sakai’s usual black and white style, having these adventures appear in colour is also amazing, and I feel that the colour enhances some of the art, especially in The Master of Hebishima, which came up beautifully.  All this art brilliantly combines Japanese influences with western art styles and is such a joy to behold, especially as it always makes everything about the Usagi Yojimbo comics just a little bit better.

Usagi IDW #21b

Another year, another exceptional Usagi Yojimbo volume as Stan Sakai once again produces a masterful and impressive new comic.  Tengu War! is another awesome volume that presents the reader with three excellent stories that combine brilliant character work with unique narratives and outstanding artwork.  I had so much fun reading this excellent comic, and it gets another easy five-star rating from me and comes very highly recommended.

Throwback Thursday – Identity Crisis by Brad Meltzer, Rags Morales and Michael Bair.

Identity Crisis Cover

Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback – 1 October 2005)

Series: Identity Crisis Limited Series

Writer: Brad Meltzer

Penciller: Rags Morales

Inker: Michael Bair

Letterer: Ken Lopez

Colorist: Alex Sinclair

Length: 288 pages

My Rating: 5 out 5 stars

Welcome back to 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.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I take a look at one of my absolute favourite comic book limited series, the epic 2004 DC Comics event, Identity Crisis.  (Quick warning, there are spoilers ahead).

Identity Crisis #1

It is fair to say that the early to mid-2000s was one of my favourite periods of comic books, with some truly cool and epic ongoing and limited series being released.  This was particularly true for DC Comics, who produced some of their best work during this time, many of which rank amongst my all-time favourite comic series.  This easily includes the exceptional and brilliant crossover event, Identity Crisis, which to my mind is one of the best limited series ever written.

Made of seven issues, Identity Crisis combines the unique writing talent of thriller author Brad Meltzer with the artistic stylings of veteran DC Comics collaborators Rags Morales and Michael Bair.  This ended up being a near perfect combination of talents and skill, and I have a lot of love for the exceptional story, which absolutely hooks me every time, and its outstanding associated artwork.  I particularly impressed with the addition of Meltzer, who, despite his more literary background has written some of the absolute best and most human comics I have ever had the pleasure of reading, including Green Arrow: The Archer’s Quest and the two Justice League of America storylines, The Tornado’s Path and The Lightning Saga.  However, his story in Identity Crisis is particularly powerful and thought-provoking, and it ends up being a comic that completely changes everything you knew about your favourite heroes.

For years the members of the Justice League of America have protected the world from all manner of evil and destruction, always prevailing no matter the odds.  But who can protect them when someone goes after those closest to them?  And what if they actually deserve the punishment being visited upon them?

On an unremarkable night, a mysterious attacker breaks into the home of long-serving Justice League associate, Ralph Dibny, the Elongated Man, and commits a terrible crime, the murder of Ralph’s beloved wife, Sue Dibny.  With no evidence about who the killer is and no idea how they breached the Dibnys’ impressive security, the superhero community rallies behind their bereaved friend and seeks to find the killer by any means necessary.

As the rest of the heroes seek answers at any potential suspect within the supervillain community, the Elongated Man and a small group his closest friends hunt for a minor villain, Dr Light, whose secret connection to the League’s darkest moment may hold the answers they seek.  However, when a second attack occurs on another publicly known relative of a superhero, Jean Loring, the former wife of the Atom, it soon becomes clear that someone else is targeting the heroes and their loved ones.

Identity Crisis #1b

As Batman, Superman, Green Arrow and others attempt to get to the bottom of the case, cryptic threats to one hero’s relative reveal that whoever is targeting them knows all of the League’s secrets, including their hidden identities.  As even more tragedies befall the superhero community, dark secrets from the League’s past are brought into the light and no-one will be prepared for the terrible truth behind these brutal murders.  Can the League weather this latest attack, or is this the beginning of the end for the world’s greatest heroes?

Damn, no matter how many times I read this comic, the tragic and powerful events of Identity Crisis still really get to me.  This exceptional comic contains one of the most impressive narratives I have ever seen in a limited series, taking the reader on a captivating and emotional dive into the world of your favourite heroes.  Perfectly combing a dark, mysterious narrative with incredible character work and some truly amazing artistic inclusions, this comic gets an extremely easy five-star rating from me.

For Identity Crisis, Brad Meltzer really went to the well, producing an insanely compelling and moving story that relentless drags you in and introduces you to a completely new side of your favourite heroes.  Utilising his experience as a crime thriller writer, he produces a powerful, character driven superhero narrative with detailed crime fiction elements to create an exceptional and unique story.  Identity Crisis has an amazing start to it, which not only carefully introduces several key figures but also installs some dark tragedy, as the wife of a superhero is killed off.  The subsequent investigation into her murder by the enraged superhero community is extremely compelling and intense, as the emotional heroes turn over every rock and stone, much to the horror of the villains.  However, it is soon revealed that several members of the Justice League are harbouring a devastating secret, one that could reveal the identity of the killer.  This secret becomes one of the most important parts of the first half of the series, and it leads to an epic, action-packed fight sequence against a particularly dangerous foe.

Identity Crisis #2

The story starts to go in a bit of a different direction at this point, with the above secret not really panning out regarding the investigation.  However, other superhero relatives, both public and secret, are targeted, resulting in pandemonium around the characters.  I loved the narrative’s move to a more classic investigation at this point, as the heroes start following every lead they can, while more character development and big moments are explored.  This all leads up to the defining moment when another superhero loses a loved one and the identity of the killer is seemingly revealed.  However, this turns out to be a bluff, as the real killer is still hidden.  The reveal of who did it and why are revealed pretty suddenly towards the end, with some curious and clever motivations exposed.  This leads to a tragic and heartbreaking conclusion, as more secrets are revealed, dangerous lies are uncovered, and several characters leave the story more broken and destroyed than ever before.  You will be thrown through the emotional wringer as you check this comic out.

I deeply enjoyed the way that Meltzer told Identity Crisis’s excellent story, especially as it quickly and effectively engrosses the reader and ensures their undivided attention.  The author utilises a mass-character narrative that follows a substantial collection of heroes and villains, many of whom have distinctive or semi-separate storylines.  This works to tell an intriguing, rich narrative that not only has some clever dramatic components but also allows for some intriguing and compelling retcons and expansions to the already elaborate DC universe.  It is very cool how the story developed into more of a murder mystery/thriller story as the comic progressed, and this really played to Meltzer’s strengths.  The investigation is handled very well, and I liked how the superhero elements altered and enhanced it in some clever ways.  The mystery itself is complex and clever, with Meltzer adding in some great twists, false leads and compelling surprises to keep the reader guessing.  The twist about the actual killer is pretty good, and Meltzer did a great job layering in hints and clues throughout the rest of the story while also introducing a few good alternative suspects.  While the motivations and complexities surrounding the killer’s actions are great, I did think that how the protagonists worked it out was a little abrupt, and it might have been a little better if they worked it out from some earlier clues.  The use of female characters wasn’t the best either, especially as most of them are there simply to be victims in one shape or another.  Having a long-established character getting both raped and murdered in a comic as a plot device is pretty unfortunate, and some stronger female figures might have helped balance this out.  Still, this ended up being an awesome read and I deeply enjoyed how it turned out.

One of the things that I really enjoy about Identity Crisis is the interesting examinations that were included as part of the plot.  Meltzer and the artistic team obviously had a lot of fun exploring or introducing some cool aspects of the DC Universe in this series, especially when it comes to the secret or hidden lives of superheroes and supervillains.  I particularly loved the in-depth examination about how both groups are officially or unofficially organised, and there are some very intriguing views of them socialising or working together.  The inclusion of a highly organised superhero death investigation squad, made up of a range of random heroes (the Ray, the Atom, Animal Man, Mister Miracle and two of the Metal Men) is particularly clever, as is the way the various heroes organise into a vengeful posse to question potential suspects.  The deep dive into the importance of a superhero secret identity also becomes an important part of the story, especially as the loss of the secret brings pandemonium thanks to the killer stalking them.  I also loved the counterbalance look at organised villainy, and there are some excellent scenes that see the villains gathering to socialise or talk shop.  Having an organising force like the Calculator, as well as a secret space station hangout, is pretty elaborate, and the deeper look at the villains of this universe, definitely gave Identity Crisis a compelling and intricate edge.

Identity Crisis #3

However, easily the most groundbreaking and compelling new inclusion to the universe is the reveal about the unofficial league within the Justice League who have some dark secrets.  Made up of heroes Green Arrow, Black Canary, Hawkman, Zatanna and Atom, as well as the Silver Age Green Lantern and Flash, this group of heroes apparently operated separately of the main Justice League during their classic Silver Age adventures, acting as their clean-up crew.  This retcon by Meltzer provides an interesting explanation for why villains never remember the secret identities of the heroes they switch minds with or whose dreams they invade, namely they have their mind erased by Zatanna’s magic after being captured by this inner-League.  While this is already a dark move by these established heroes, it gets even worse when they are forced to reveal that they intentionally destroyed Dr Light’s brain to make him less of a threat.  This and other revelations, acts to make many of your favourite heroes appear much more morally grey and fallible, and it was a particularly impressive and monumental inclusion, that will have grave consequences down the line for the entire universe.

Unsurprisingly for something written by Meltzer, Identity Crisis contains some insanely complex and impressive characters who form the heart of the tale.  Due to the way the story is told, Identity Crisis follows a massive cast of comic characters, including several obscure or underappreciated figures.  Meltzer does a brilliant job of utilising all these established characters throughout his story, with nearly every major cast member getting a moment to shine in some way or another, and multiple figures who were underutilised or unappreciated before this comic were given brilliant and defining second chances here.  While the use of multiple focus characters had the potential for a scattered narrative, Meltzer was able to direct the flow of the story around all these various protagonists and antagonists perfectly, and you still get a tight and concise story, which also takes the time to dive into each of these figures and showcase them to their greatest degree.  As I mentioned before, there is a real focus on highlighting the darker side of the superhero characters throughout Identity Crisis, and you end up really seeing these fantastic figures in a whole new scary light.

Let’s start with Ralph and Sue Dibny.  I must admit that the very first time I ever read Identity Crisis, many years ago, I honestly had no idea who Elongated Man and his wife were, as they were a little obscure.  However, Meltzer really goes out of his way to feature them in this story (even adding in a few retcons) and you are given a great introduction to them at the start.  In just a few panels, you understand who these characters are and what they mean to each other and the other superheroes, as well as some unique characteristics and relationship quirks.  This excellent introduction makes you start to care about them just as Meltzer brings the hammer down and kills Sue.  The subsequent grief, rage and despair from Elongated Man is just heartbreaking, and you go through the rest of the comic seeing him attempt to recover from these terrible events.  This amazing use of characters at the start of the comic has a great flow-on effect to the rest of the story, and you become exceedingly invested in finding the killer as a result.

Identity Crisis #4

From there, a lot of the superhero focus goes to the surviving members of the Justice League who formed the league within the League I mentioned above.  There is some exceptional character work around some of these team members, especially as they come to terms with the decisions they made in the past and how they are impacting them now.  I loved seeing them attempt to justify their actions to the other heroes, even their darkest decisions, especially as you can understand why they did what they did, while also feeling disappointed in them.  You really get a sense of determination and shame from them as the story continues, and you see all of them go through a lot in both the past in the present story.  Despite multiple differences, this team are still friends and comrades, and watching them come together to brawl with some of the most dangerous characters is pretty heartwarming, even if darker elements lie just beneath the surface.

While there is a focus on these inner-Leaguers, some of them are utilised a lot more frequently than others, particularly the original Green Arrow, Oliver Queen.  Green Arrow is an excellent figure in this comic and is probably the closest thing to a heroic narrator/central protagonist the story has.  His unique perspective on the events acts as a good foil to many of the other characters, such as Batman and Superman, and he proves to be a calm, if potentially vengeful figure for much of the story, organising many of the League actions and forensic investigations.  He also proves to be the voice of reason for the inner League, calmly justifying many of their actions and serving as a bridge between this existing group and the newer Flash and Green Lantern.  Despite his belief that they are doing the right thing, you can see some real emotion and regret in his face, especially when the further revelations about Dr Light and Batman come out.  I also appreciated the deeper look into his antagonistic relationship with Hawkman, which partially originated in the past events mentioned here, and it is interesting to see how the events of this comic impact future Green Arrow storylines.

Aside from Green Arrow, other members of this secret League who get an intriguing focus include the Atom, Ray Palmer, and his ex-wife, Jean Loring.  Due to his status as another public hero, Atom and Jean are also targeted throughout the story, and you end up getting a rather intense and fascinating look at both.  Watching their failed relationship rekindle is a nicer part of most of the comic, although eventual reveals and tragedies naturally ruin it and smash everything around.  Still, their complicated emotions and issues surrounding their fractured relationship make for some of the best parts of the comic.  I liked the interesting look at Zatanna throughout the comic, especially as she is largely responsible for some of the worst moments of this group of heroes, as she clearly feels guilty about her magic messing with the villain’s minds.  I also need to highlight the younger Flash, Wally West, who finds out about the actions of the other characters during the current events of the comic.  It is absolutely heartbreaking to see Wally learn that his mentor and predecessor, Barry Allen, was not as perfect as he imagined, and actually participated in some of the team’s worst events.  The distress he exhibits with every subsequent reveal is showcased through the comic’s art extremely well, and his subsequent guilt as he is forced to keep it secret from other Leaguers like Batman is quite noticeable.

Identity Crisis #5

As you can expect from any major DC Comics crossover event, members of DC’s Big Three are strongly featured throughout Identity Crisis.  While Wonder Woman only has a few intriguing scenes, in which you get to see both her ferocity and her kindness, there is much more of a focus on Superman and Batman.  Superman gets some great sequences throughout Identity Crisis, especially as the creative team sinisterly focus on his family and friends, all of whom are potential targets.  Watching Superman slowly get frustrated with the investigation, especially when Lois is threatened, helps to enhance the seriousness of the story, and he has some powerful moments here.  I did appreciate the way in which Meltzer attempted to paint the big blue Boy Scout in a darker light, as it is revealed that even the supposedly righteous Superman is not as innocent as you’d believe.  It is subtly implied that Superman always knew what the inner League was up to (yay for super hearing), and chose to ignore it for convenience.  This brilliant and dark suggestion that even Superman isn’t infallible is a pretty weighty one that  helps to enhance the weight and power of Identity Crisis’s narrative.

Batman is a lot more involved in the story and leads his own investigation into who is behind the killing.  Even though he does not actually appear until halfway through the comic, he is a heavy presence throughout Identity Crisis, both because of his brusque, loner ways of trying to solve the crime, but because of the dark shadows of the past.  There are multiple moments that revisit his childhood and the death of his parents, which parallels some of the other losses in Identity Crisis, and you get to see the human side of grief impacting this usually stoic character.  Batman’s storyline gets even more intense when it is revealed that part of his memory was erased by his fellow Leaguers to cover up their actions surrounding Dr Light, which is a very haunting inclusion.  Meltzer makes this even more intriguing by having Green Arrow suggest, mostly out of guilt, that Batman likely has done something similar in the past, while also acknowledging that he has likely already deduced that his memories were erased.  This really makes you consider Batman’s relationship with the rest of his heroes, and it certainly has a big impact on future Batman storylines.

The Batman impact on this story is also felt through the great focus on the current Robin, Tim Drake, who plays a surprisingly big role in the events of Identity Crisis.  At the start of the comic, Tim is one of the few members of the Bat-family who still has a father, which puts him at odds with Batman and the Robin predecessors.  As his father has only just discovered his dual identity as Robin, he becomes one of the more interesting protagonists, as the comic explores the stress of the superhero lifestyle on family.  Tim’s storyline ends up being extremely tragic when his father is murdered.  Watching Robin talk to his father over the phone as he’s about to die is just damn horrific, and your heart can’t help but break during that epically drawn-out scene where he and Batman arrive too late.  The subsequent parallel between him, Bruce Wayne and previous Robin Dick Grayson during this moment is particularly poignant, and it results in a whole new chapter of this amazing incarnation of Robin.

Identity Crisis #6

While there are a few other interestingly featured heroes in Identity Crisis, I’m going to start talking about the villains, as many of them have a brilliant role in this comic.  Thanks to Meltzer’s fantastic writing, Identity Crisis proves to be just as much about the villains as the heroes, as many of them are deeply impacted by the events disclosed here.  While I won’t reveal the identity of the killer here (I’m keeping some spoilers locked up), I will say that their motivations are pretty fascinating and provide a compelling insight into the super lifestyle.  The rest of the villains in Identity Crisis are fair game for discussion, though, and I deeply loved the creative team’s excellent examination of them.

Easily the villain I need to talk about the most is Dr Light, an old school Justice League villain who had not been really utilised in recent years.  Mostly known before this comic as the Teen Titans’ punching bag, Meltzer completely revitalised the character in Identity Crisis and, with a stroke, turned him onto one of the most deranged and dangerous figures in the entire universe.  It is revealed throughout the comic that Dr Light used to be an extremely powerful villain, but after invading an empty Watch Tower and raping Sue Dibny, the League brutally took him down, erased his memory of the event and then magically lobotomised him.  This resulted in him becoming the moronic and weakened villain who was routinely taken down by the teenage heroes and other embarrassing foes.  This entire reveal is pretty damn epic and horrifying at the same time.  Not only does Dr Light seem excessively evil and deranged in the flashback scenes, but the shocking revelations of his actions immediately make you hate him.  Meltzer’s explanation for why he turned into such as pathetic creature (aside from the real reason of capricious authors) really hits home hard, and even though Dr Light is a terrible person, you can’t believe that members of the Justice League went so far.  The subsequent scenes where Dr Light regains his memories and his powers feature some of the best artwork in the comic, and while he doesn’t do much here, the scenes with him brooding and plotting hit at his returned and future malevolence.  I deeply appreciated how much Meltzer was able to morph this villain, and while the reliance on rape for antagonist purposes is a bit low, he succeeded in making him a very hateful and despicable figure.

Aside from the killer and Dr Light, several other villains hold interesting and significant roles in Identity Crisis, and I deeply enjoyed how they were portrayed.  This includes Green Arrow villain Meryln, who serves as an interesting shadow to Oliver Queen throughout the comic (more so than usual).  While Green Arrow provides the superhero community’s viewpoint on events, Merlyn’s narration examines the supervillain community and their various reactions.  I loved his fun insights into his fellow villains, and he ends up being an interesting inclusion to the cast.  The same can be said for the Calculator, a formerly silly figure who has turned himself into a non-costumed villain who acts as an anti-Oracle, providing the villain community with tech support and intelligence by charging them $1,000 per question.  I loved this interesting revamp of this minor character, especially as this suave, behind-the-scenes information broker became his default look for years.  Calculator’s conversations and business dealings offer some compelling insights into the superhero community, and I loved the occasional jokes about his old costume.  Meltzer also makes exceptional use of one of my favourite villains, Deathstroke, who once again shows why he is the DC universe’s ultimate badass.  Hired by Dr Light to protect himself from the League, Deathstroke takes on an entire team of heroes single handily and essentially spanks them.  I love how the creative team not only showcase his insane physical abilities, but also his tactical knowhow, as he expertly takes down major heroes in brilliant ways (he takes down the Atom and Hawkman with a laser pointer, true story).  His scene in the centre of the comic is the best action sequence in Identity Crisis, and it perfectly showcased this awesome villain (seriously, give this man a movie), while also hinting at some future grudges.

Identity Crisis #7

The final character I want to talk about is the lecherous and always entertaining Captain Boomerang, who has a major role in the plot.  I absolutely loved the exceptional story that Meltzer wrote around this infamous villain, and it is easily one of his most defining depictions.  Captain Boomerang has always been shown as a bit of a joke, but this comic shows him as a fat, washed up has-been, who leaches off his fellow villains and is generally looked down upon by them.  However, he gets a very intense and emotional story in this comic, as he meets his long-lost son and starts to develop a relationship with him.  The father/son moments add a rather interesting and nice edge to the main story and seem slightly disconnected from the rest of the plot.  That is until the final killing, when it is revealed that Captain Boomerang has arrived to kill Robin’s father.  The implied suggestion that Captain Boomerang of all people might be behind the killings is pretty iconic, and I loved the split panels that contrast his phone call to his son with the phone conversation between Robin and his father.  The subsequent results of the attack, as well as the reveals in the aftermath are pretty awesome, and I really appreciated the fun second chance that Meltzer and the artistic team gave to this iconic, old-school villain.

While I have gone a lot about story elements and characters, I also really need to highlight the incredible artwork featured in Identity Crisis.  The artistic team of Rags Morales and Michael Bair did an outstanding job in this limited series, producing some of the absolute best artwork from this era of DC Comics which perfectly enhances Meltzer’s epic storytelling.  There are so many impressive and memorable artistic moments and sequences throughout Identity Crisis, and I loved the various ways in which the artists convey movement, action, and emotion in their detailed and captivating panels.  There are so many brilliant action sequences in this comic, with my favourite being the Deathstroke vs Justice League fight I mentioned above, although a few others are also very cool to see.  I also loved the character designs featured throughout Identity Crisis, especially as the creative team took the opportunity to seriously reinvent several heroes and villains.  The streamlined look of the Calculator is particularly fun, and I also loved the balding and fat version of Captain Boomerang.  While I didn’t love how a couple of characters looked (what was with the hair on Connor Hawke?), most of it was pretty exceptional, and I love how it was later reutilised by other artists.

There are multiple truly brilliant and eye-catching artistic highlights of Identity Crisis that I must highlight, including the massive and powerful funeral sequence that takes place in the early part of the series.  There is an incredibly elaborate double-page public funeral spread that shows every single emotional superhero in attendance, with the various heroes organised by team or connection to the grieving family.  The use of the multiple heroes and associates is pretty awesome, especially as there are a range of character-appropriate reactions, and I loved seeing the whole costume crowd surrounded by members of the press and public as they mourn.  You also get also some excellent and heartfelt sequences in the subsequent scenes which show the eulogies, especially when Elongated Man starts to literally deteriorate due to his grief, which is just so powerful.  Other great examples of the artist’s work include the fun flashback scenes that allowed them to draw events in various classic comic styles, that offer a little bit of simplicity compared to the darker modern spread.

I particularly loved some of the brilliant sequences that are set around Dr Light, as not only do you see him at his most dangerous in the past but you also have some outstanding scenes when he regains his memories and powers.  The excellent parallels between the Justice League’s takedown of Dr Light and their attack on Deathstroke are incredible, and the subsequent massive panel of blinding light around Dr Light’s face is perfection.  However, the absolute best-drawn sequence in Identity Crisis must be the panels leading up to the death of Robin’s father.  Watching the insane amount of emotion on Batman and Robin as they realise that Robin’s father is about to die is so damn moving, especially the anguish on Robin.  The most moving of these panels is the one that focuses on Batman’s face after Robin begs his mentor to save his father.  The look of pure dread, fear and despair on Batman’s face takes my breath away every single time I look at it, and it perfectly conveys all of Batman’s repressed feelings as he realises that history is once again going to repeat itself.  While there are some other great scenes, the above are easily the cream of the artistic crop and definitely make this comic stand out.  I have so much love for the artistic work of Morales and Bair here, and it markedly enhances the already exceptional story, turning Identity Crisis into a true epic classic.

Well, that’s pretty much everything I have to say about Identity Crisis here.  As you can no doubt guess from the excessive way I have waffled on, I have a lot of love for this exceptional comic and I’m not afraid to show it.  The brilliant creative team behind Identity Crisis did an incredible job with this comic and they really turned out something special.  Perfectly bringing together a deep and clever story with impressive artwork, amazing characters, and so much damn emotion, this comic has something for everyone and is so very highly recommended.  I deeply enjoy everything about Identity Crisis, especially how it leads to some other epic comic books (the continuation of the mindwipe stuff in Justice League of America, Green Arrow, Teen Titans and more is particularly good).  One of the most distinctive and amazing comics ever and a must read for all DC Comics fans.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 14: Demon Mask by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Demon Mask Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Paperback – March 2001)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 14

Length: 224 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to 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.  In this latest Throwback Thursday I once again dive into the awesome and elaborate world of Usagi Yojimbo as I check out the 14th epic volume, Demon Mask.

It feels good to be on a Usagi Yojimbo review streak here at The Unseen Library, and I have been having a lot of fun diving into some of the awesome middle volumes of one of my absolute favourite comic series.  My last two Throwback Thursday reviews of the 12th Usagi Yojimbo volume, Grasscutter, and the 13th volume, Grey Shadows, were really fun to pull together, and I really had no choice but to also have a look at the 14th volume this week with Demon Mask.

Usagi #31

Demon Mask is another excellent addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series that unsurprisingly gets a full five-star rating from me.  Exclusively written and drawn by Stan Sakai, this impressive entry once again follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi as he continues his action-packed adventures through the anthropomorphic animal filled version of feudal Japan this series is set in.  Containing issues #31-38 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the series, as well as a few additional issues from associated magazines, Demon Mask continues the trend of featuring several shorter stories, while also leading back towards the next volume, Grasscutter II, which will contain a big crossover story.  I deeply enjoyed all the cool stories in this volume, and there are some real classics here.

The first story contained within Demon Mask is the entertaining and elaborate tale, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill.  In this story, a travelling Usagi comes across a mysterious inn surrounded by strange sights and an unusual group of patrons.  The land surrounding the inn is apparently haunted, filled with all manner of monsters, demons and obakemono (haunts), which attracts many wealthy individuals to the safe inn to watch.  However, Usagi is soon drawn into a hefty wager with an arrogant merchant and must travel outside the inn to encounter the haunts and the forces behind them.

This is quite an amusing story that perfectly combines Sakai’s fantastic humour with his love of classic Japanese monsters and haunts.  The entire story comes together really well, first introducing the situation, and then forcing Usagi outside to face the ghosts after making a bet.  The subsequent reveal of the various monsters and creatures is pretty spectacular, and Sakai goes out of his way to include as many uniquely Japanese legendary creatures as possible, especially in one breathtaking and elaborate panel.  I really enjoyed the fun twist that occurred here, especially as it allowed Usagi to win his bet with the merchant, and his over-the-top explanation of what he experienced was pretty damn amusing with all the exaggerated facial expressions and reactions from Usagi and his audience.  This ends on a very satisfying and entertaining note, and The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill ended up being a fantastic and light-hearted start to the entire volume.

Usagi #32

Following on from the first fun story is the touching tale, A Life of Mush.  In this story Usagi encounters a brash peasant boy, Eizo, who wishes to become a warrior to avoid the farmer’s simple lifestyle (a life of eating mush).  However, Eizo soon grows tired of Usagi’s honourable warrior philosophy and attempts to befriend a group of bandits, only to discover that there is more to life and battle than brashness and toughness.  This was a great shorter story that presents an interesting outside perspective on the life of a warrior in this setting.  I liked the comparison between a child’s view of a warrior to Usagi’s intense dedication and spiritual thoughts, which in fairness, does seem a little more boring.  The subsequent events provide a fantastic lesson on perception and life choices, as Eizo and the bandits he encounters discover just how tough a true warrior like Usagi can be.  A compelling and thoughtful addition to the volume, A Life of Mush was a powerful and clever read.

The next story is a shorter entry, Deserters, which brings us back to the iconic Neko Ninja and their leader, Chizu.  Deserters examines a tragic tale of two Neko Ninja, Take and Saruko, who attempt to leave the Neko Ninja and start a new life together.  Captured by their fellows, they are taken before Chizu for trial, and must soon face the treachery and manipulation of Chizu’s ambitious second in command, Kagemaru.  This was another excellent shorter entry in Demon Mask, especially as it combines some quick, but efficient, character introductions, with some inherent tragedy and betrayal.  The result of the story, while a little predictable, ends up being very moving, and you can’t help but feel for the star-crossed lovers.  I also really like how this shorter entry turns out to be an interesting bridging story between several of the plot lines in the 11th volume, Seasons, and some of the big storylines in the next few volumes.  A surprisingly important and powerful story, Deserters is a great read that adds a lot to the overall volume.

Usagi #33

Up next, we have the rather entertaining and fun story, A Potter’s Tale, which makes great use of amusing coincidences to create a fantastic and hilarious story.  A Potter’s Tale sees the notorious thief, Samo, steal a precious jewel from a wealthy merchant and have to stash it.  Choosing an unfired pot in a small pottery shop, Samo makes the vessel distinctive before he is brought in for questioning.  Unfortunately, Usagi is staying with the same family of potters and chaos ensues when Usagi and his friends take a liking to Samo’s inadvertent innovation.

This is a great story that always gets a good laugh out of me when I read it.  While a rather quick story, Sakai manages to achieve a lot with it, setting up the base of the humour quickly and ensuring that the reader becomes invested with both the potters and the caddish thief.  The subsequent fantastic use of surprises, reveals and coincidences results in some amusing scenes, especially when the unlucky thief discovers that he must give up all his ill-gotten loot to fix his mistake.  The reveal that all his endeavours are for naught and his loot has returned to its original owner, in a roundabout way, is pretty entertaining, as is the ironic comeuppance he gets for his actions.  Sakai makes sure to enhance this story by featuring a compelling look at traditional Japanese pottery making (I love it when he examines authentic Japanese industries or art forms), and there are some beautiful sequences drawn as a result.  Easily one of the most entertaining stories in this volume, I deeply enjoyed A Potter’s Tale, and it is always guaranteed to crack me up.

Usagi #34

Sakai follows this funny story with another shorter entry, The Missive, which sees Nakamura Koji’s request for a duel reach Usagi’s master, Katsuichi.  Reflecting on the matter of honour brought before him, Katsuichi remembers a moment from Usagi’s childhood and the lessons it contains.  This was another quick but excellent entry from Sakai, which once again highlights how much he can do with only a few short pages.  Not only do we get an excellent bridging storyline between a good entry in the 11th volume, Seasons, and another future volume, but you also get an interesting reveal about a major supporting character.  Throw in an amusing childhood tale about a young Usagi, and you have an entertaining and unique entry that helps to break up the flow of the overall volume.

Now we get to the main event of the volume, with the three-issue story, The Mystery of the Demon Mask.  After receiving a dire warning about his future, Usagi ventures into a new town, only to witness a deadly duel between a fellow ronin and a mysterious opponent wearing a demon mask.  Encountering the police, including the venerable Inspector Kojo, Usagi soon learns that the killer, known as Demon Mask, has been targeting and killing ronin around town.  Helping with the investigation, Usagi encounters all manner of potential suspects as he also finds himself firmly in Demon Mask’s sites.

Usagi #35

The Mystery of the Demon Mask is probably the best story in the entire volume, and Sakai has put a lot of effort into developing a powerful and elaborate murder mystery storyline in this unique Japanese setting.  The entire story has a great flow to it, quickly introducing the villain, the murderous Demon Mask, and then introducing Usagi to the various players involved in the investigation.  From there Usagi is thrust into several dangerous situations as Demon Mask stalks him and other masterless samurai around the town.  There are several complex and intriguing characters introduced during this story, each of whom is a potential suspect.  This story ends on a big finale, with Demon Mask exposed as he faces off against Usagi in a deadly duel.  Sakai does a brilliant job of revealing who the killer is, and I really appreciated the various subtle clues scattered throughout the story to set this up.  This ended up being quite a fantastic murder mystery story that works extremely well despite the limitations of the shorter comic form.  The motivations behind the killer are pretty heartbreaking, and I really appreciated Sakai’s portrayal of their madness and grief.  There is an excellent focus on fighting and duels throughout this story, especially as Demon Mask engages several skilled samurai in personal combat, and I loved seeing all these fights unfold.  An excellent entry that has a brilliant balance of mystery, complex characters, classic Japanese elements and comic book action.

Following on from this awesome murder mystery story, we have another intriguing dive into Japanese mythology and monsters with the spooky story, Kumo.  In this story, Usagi, who is eager to reach his friends, takes a shortcut across the mountains and finds himself in an isolated village, surrounded by an unusual number of spiders and an insane amount of webbing.  When the innkeeper’s daughter is kidnapped in an improbable attack, it becomes apparent that something more is haunting the village, and that Usagi’s only hope might be another traveller in town, Sasuke.

Usagi #36

This was another particularly good entry in Demon Mask; I always love Sakai’s more supernatural narratives.  The story premise is somewhat typical, with Usagi arriving in a troubled town that needs his help, this time in defeating the monsters haunting them.  The subsequent conflict with this threat gets pretty wild, not just because of the cool monster (in this case a Spider Goblin and her giant spider minions), but also because it introduces the intriguing side character of Sasuke.  Sasuke, also known as The Demon Queller, is a mystical monster hunter who travels around Japan taking down supernatural threats (no doubt with Kansas blaring in the background).  Sasuke goes on to become a major recurring character within this series, having most recently appeared in the 34th volume, Bunraku and Other Stories (where he does some cool Demon Slayer-esque sword fighting).  However, he gets a very awesome introduction here in Kumo, with Sakai perfectly setting up the character’s mystique, as well as his powerful magical abilities.  This story literally sees Sasuke summon up a giant frog to fight a Spider Goblin, which has so many levels of awesome to it, and I loved seeing the magic on monster fight that ensures.  Another fantastic story that makes excellent use of Japan’s rich spiritual and mythological past, I always have an outstanding time reading Kumo.

The final major story in this volume is the intriguing tale, Reunion.  Usagi returns to the monastery of his friend, priest Sanshobo, only to discover it under attack by brigands, apparently after a rich merchant sheltering inside.  Working with Sanshobo and a recovered Gen, Usagi must find a way to overcome the brigand horde and save the monastery from attack.  However, the real threat may already be inside the walls, and soon Usagi, Sanshobo and Gen must overcome a dangerous enemy determined to take the most precious treasure, the legendary sword Grasscutter.

Usagi #37

Reunion was another fun entry which ended the main Demon Mask stories on a compelling and interesting note.  While a distinctive story itself, Reunion is primarily focused on setting up the events of the following major volume, Grasscutter II.  This presents a fun scenario where Sanshobo’s temple is attacked (again, it honesty gets attacked a lot), while the real danger remains inside the wall.  There are several fun parts to this story, from Usagi’s attempted infiltration of the gang, the many fight scenes against to the bandits, to the dangerous confrontation against the disguised adversaries within the temple.  This proved to be an excellent story, and it was great to see Sanshobo and Gen again, especially as they prepare for their next epic adventure.

While Reunion concludes the main stories, this volume also has a couple of shorter stories that were contained in other publications, such as Dark Horse Presents (vol. 1) #140, Dark Horse Presents Annual #3, Wizard Magazine #3, Oni Double Feature #11, and Dark Horse Extra #20-23.  These short stories provide a couple of quick, highly amusing tales which leave the reader smiling as they close the volume.  Sakai achieves a lot in these shorter stories, and each has an entertaining or moving story, even if they only last for only a page.  The most detailed of these was the entertaining Death and Taxes, which sees Usagi fighting bandits for a conniving and amusingly clever peasant.  There is also the sweet little story, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Tournament, which shows a young Usagi meeting his future friend (and love interest) Tomoe Ame when they were children.  The short but powerful Netsuke sees Usagi reflect on a former comrade, while The Leaping Ninja has a hilarious one-page tale about an acrobatic infiltrator who leaps before he looks.  The final story was the intense Tsuru, which sees Usagi encounter a member of the Koroshi assassins with a love for paper cranes, who has a contract out on Usagi, resulting in a fantastic duel.  Despite their length, each of these stories features all of Sakai’s usual attention to detail and excellent story writing, and it was great to see these excellent examples of the creators shorter writing style.

Usagi #38

I must once again highlight all the incredible artwork featured in this impressive volume, as Sakai continues to showcase all his amazing artistic talent.  Pretty much every panel in this volume is filled with some excellent and powerful art, as Sakai tells his complex tales.  There is the usual brilliant focus on Japanese landscapes and towns, and Sakai has such a talent for capturing all the elaborate cultural elements of the period, as well as the beautiful locations that dotted Japan.  While all the art is really well drawn in this volume, I definitely have to highlight a few panels in particular.  The first story, The Inn on Moon Shadow Hill, has so many great drawings of creatures and haunts from Japanese folklore, and there is one brilliant panel were all of them are they facing Usagi at once.  The spider goblin and her minions in Kumo are also very cool and spooky, and the various scenes where they fight a samurai like Usagi and the magical Sasuke are pretty extraordinary.  I also loved the awesome character design on the antagonist Demon Mask from the main story.  Not only does it bear an interesting similarity to Usagi’s main foe, Jai (who himself is based on a character with distinctive mask), but it looks so dangerous and intimidating, especially when they silently engage in battle.  I deeply enjoyed the exceptional artwork in Demon Mask, and Sakai has once again shown how much feeling and emotion he can portray with his brush and ink.

Another week, another epic and incredible Usagi Yojimbo volume reviewed on my blog.  The 14th volume of this outstanding series, Demon Mask, was another awesome comic as Stan Sakai provides his usual blend of impressive writing, stunning artwork, and powerful characters.  Featuring several memorable and exciting short stories, Demon Mask serves as an excellent and wonderful entry in this wider series, and it is one that I always look forward to reading.  A highly recommended read, Sakai really can do no wrong with this exceptional series.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 13: Grey Shadows by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Grey Shadows Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Comics (Paperback – March 2000)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 13

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out 5 stars

Welcome back to 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.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I check out another epic entry in the amazing Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai with the 13th volume, Grey Shadows.

Usagi #23

I had a lot of fun reviewing the 12th volume, Grasscutter, last week and it set me down a bit of a reread journey which saw me revisit several other Usagi Yojimbo volumes.  As such I thought I would take the time to do another review of one of Stan Sakai’s comics, and luckily the next one on my list, Grey Shadows, is a particularly good one.

Grey Shadows takes place immediately after the massive events of Grasscutter and details several adventures that rabbit ronin protagonist Miyamoto Usagi goes on during this period.  Made up of issues #23-30 of the Dark Horse Comics run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, Grey Shadows returns to the series norm of featuring several shorter stories, each of which pit Usagi against a new threat or opponent.  Grey Shadows have several excellent stories, including some that focus on fantastic murder mystery elements while simultaneously introducing interesting new characters.

The first story in this volume is the intriguing and touching entry, My Father’s Swords.  This single-issue story first sees Usagi at the temple of his friend priest Sanshobo recovering from his deadly duel with the demonic spearman Jei at the end of Grasscutter.  Still troubled by the disappearance of Jei’s body and the sudden burden of being responsible for the legendary Grasscutter sword, Usagi journeys out from the temple to scout the surrounding area and determine if it is safe to move the divine blade.  His journeys eventually lead him to meet young wandering samurai, Donbori Chiaki, whose father was an old friend of Usagi’s who served with him under Usagi’s former lord.  While travelling with Chiaki, a chance encounter reveals secrets that will rock Usagi’s soul as a samurai.

Usagi #24

This was an interesting first story for Grey Shadows and it is one that I really appreciated.  I liked the excellent start that revisited key events of the previous volume and examined the burden that Usagi, Sanshobo and Gen now bear.  Not only does Sakai use this opportunity to inform the protagonists about some of the other events of Grasscutter that they were unaware of, but it also helps set up the future 15th volume, Grasscutter II, which will end this overall storyline.  Sakai also takes a little time to showcase Usagi dealing with the dark details of the defeat of his adversary Jei, especially after Jei’s body disappeared upon his defeat.  There is a great scene where a clearly shaken Usagi destroys Jei’s fallen black spear to convince himself that his foe is truly dead, although you can tell he doesn’t believe it.  I am rather impressed that Sakai manages to do such a comprehensive wrap up of the events of the previous volume in such a short amount of time, while also leaving room for another interesting story.

The main story of My Father’s Swords is pretty moving, as Usagi is immediately brought back to another trauma, his service to Lord Mifune and the Battle of Adachi Plain (see Volume 2: Samurai and Volume 11: Seasons).  Travelling with the son of an old comrade lets Usagi briefly relive his glory days, before the past is once again thrust upon him when it is revealed that his friend, Donbori Matsuo, is still alive, following his son anonymously as a cripple.  The reasons for Matsuo hiding his existence from his son and the burden he then places on Usagi to keep this secret for him is a little heartbreaking, and it provides more context about the samurai way of life Usagi is bound to.  The entirety of this storyline is handled perfectly, from the great introduction to Chiaki, the fun remembrances of Usagi’s past, to the final revelation about Matsuo that ends the story on a poignant note that will leave you very thoughtful and moved.  I enjoyed some of the clever artistic tricks in this story, such as the dark shade around Usagi when he deals with Jei’s spear, and the fun way in which Sakai slips in the beggar Matsuo into the background of several scenes, revealing his subtle surveillance of his son.  An excellent entry that not only references the events of Grasscutter but also features a powerful story of its own, My Father’s Swords proves to be a great start to this entire volume.

Usagi #25

Sakai follows up the moving first story of Grey Shadows with the dark second entry, The Demon’s Flute, a clever and memorable horror story.  The Demon’s Flute sees Usagi traversing some remote hills only to be drawn to a small town by the haunting melodies of a flute.  Once there, he discovers that the village is under attack by a mystical menace which kills villagers in utter darkness while the sound of a flute plays.  Believing it to be a ghostly figure of a flutist who wanders around with a white tokage (the dinosaur lizards that serve as this world’s main animals), the villagers implore Usagi to help save them.  However, the true evil attacking them proves to be more complicated and sinister than anyone of them believed.

The Demon’s Flute is a great story that shows just how haunting a Usagi Yojimbo story can be, especially when Sakai utilises some of the creepiest elements of Japanese mythology.  While some of the elements of the story are slightly predictable (Usagi has rocked up to save a lot of random villages over the years), the story has a great pace to it that sees Usagi attacked by dark forces he cannot overcome.  The various scenes where Usagi runs around the village chasing the darkness and the sound of a playing flute are extremely tense, and the sudden reveal of the story’s monster proves to be very thrilling.  I loved the great art that surrounded this part of the story, especially as Sakai makes great use of pure blackness to enhance the tension and threat of a scene, with Usagi often only illuminated by a small hand torch.  The final reveal of the monster and the reason for the haunting flute is pretty cool, and I liked the dark sense of honour and duty that drives even the evil and dead of this realm.  While parts of the story are wrapped up a little too neatly, this was still a brilliant entry which reaffirms my love for Sakai’s horror stories.

The next entry in Grey Shadows is the wholesome and enjoyable Momo-Usagi-Taro, which sees Usagi arrive at a large town.  However, he is almost immediately accosted by a group of orphan children who wrangle him into accompanying them to their orphanage, where he tells them an epic tale to keep them entertained.  This is a genuinely nice entry in this volume, which helps to break up the tension and serves as a gentle buffer between the darker stories in the volume.  While Sakai does take the time to do a little set up for the upcoming stories, most of Momo-Usagi-Taro is dedicated to Usagi’s story to the children, which is a retelling of the classic Momotarō folk story.  I always love it when Sakai tells traditional Japanese stories in his comic, especially as you get to see his artistic take on the legend (which usually results in the protagonist being altered to resemble Usagi), and it was great to see this classic tale brought to life in a new way.  Readers are in for a nice story here, and I loved the fun revelation at the end that the orphanage is the same one shown in Daisho, which is supported by the bounty hunter Stray Dog.

Usagi #26

Now we are getting to some of the main stories of Grey Shadows with The Hairpin Murders.  Set across two issues, The Hairpin Murders sees Usagi get involved in a murder mystery case in town when several prominent merchants are killed using a woman’s hairpin.  Teaming up with the brilliant detective, Inspector Ishida, Usagi helps with the investigation and is soon thrust into a long-hidden conspiracy that bind the victims together.  However, the closer they get to the truth the more resistance they encounter from Ishida’s superiors, forcing them to decide just how far they want to go to get justice.

This was an excellent and intriguing story that serves as one of the more impressive entries in this entire volume.  While still maintaining its comic style and focus, The Hairpin Murders reads just like a classic murder mystery story and sees the protagonist involved in a constricted investigation to find the truth.  Sakai sets up this mystery perfectly, and you are soon racing along to find out who is responsible and why.  There are a couple of great twists here, as well as some interesting connections to kabuki theatre, with the eventual reveal of the murderer and their motivations is handled really well.  The story ends on a pretty satisfying note, and it proves to be quite an intense and intriguing story.

Usagi #27

One of the best things about The Hairpin Murders is the introduction of new character Inspector Ishida, who serves as a supporting figure in the rest of Grey Shadow’s stories.  Based on real-life policeman Chang Apana (the inspiration for fictional detective Charlie Chan), Ishida is a hard-boiled police inspector who is tasked with investigating various crimes around his town, mostly murders.  Despite being restricted by feudal Japanese practices (he can’t do a proper investigation of a body), and the interference of his corrupt superiors, Ishida is a brilliant detective, able to solve complex crimes with the most basic of clues.  Ishida gets a great introduction in The Hairpin Murders, as not only do you see him investigating a tough case but you also learn more about his personality, dedication to justice and elements of his tragic past.  It is so fun to see him in action in this story, especially as he has that great fight scene that shows of his unconventional fighting style (which is surprising considering his small, hunched stature), as well as his excellent use of the cool jutte weapon (I love the jutte so much).  However, the real hint at just how complex and fascinating a character Ishida is occurs at the end of The Hairpin Murders when Ishida is presented with a massive dilemma of justice.  It is strongly implied that Ishida, who spends most of the story sticking to the rules, takes justice into his own hands, and I think it fits perfectly into his character arc, while also leaving some ambiguity about how far he went.  This really was one of the best character introductions of the entire Usagi Yojimbo series and it was so successful that Ishida would become a major recurring character in future volumes (such as Volume 32: Mysteries and Volume 33: The Hidden).

The other two-issue long story in Grey Shadows is the compelling and moving tale, The Courtesan.  In The Courtesan, Usagi runs into the scared young woman he has noticed multiple times in the last few stories and saves her from a group of masked attackers.  His actions lead to him gaining the attention of the town’s leading courtesan, the alluring Lady Maple, who begs Usagi to help save the life of her young son, who is the legitimate heir to the local lord.  However, dangerous forces within the lord’s court see Lady Maple kidnapped and her son in danger, with only Usagi able to help.

Usagi #28

This was another powerful story that really helps to make this volume stand out in terms of story building and character work.  The Courtesan is a particularly well-paced story that ties in well with the other entries of the Grey Shadow’s volume.  Sakai has come up with a pretty compelling narrative here, and the secret battle for control of the lord’s inheritance is played out with some awesome elements, such as a dive into the world of Japanese courtesans and including several great fight sequences.  The character of Lady Maple is particularly strong, as not only does Sakai make a lot of effort to highlight her elaborate beauty with his artwork, but he also shows the mother hidden underneath the fancy makeup and costume, one who is concerned solely for the welfare of her child.  This leads up to an epic and tense conclusion, as Usagi faces down all the conspirators, only for his victory to be marred by tragedy.  I loved the powerful ending this story contained, which, while sad, also ensures that several worthy characters get what they most wanted in life.  Easily one of the strongest tales in the entire volume, I always enjoy reading this impressive story.

The final entry in Grey Shadows is the fast-paced and action-packed single-issue story, Tameshigiri, which serves as an excellent conclusion to the entire volume.  Tameshigiri is another mystery story that sees Usagi assist Inspector Ishida to investigate some murders around town.  This time the two friends are looking into a series of random killings by mysterious masked samurai.  The attacks seem extremely random and lacking in motivation, but the two are soon drawn towards the acolytes of a failing sword testing school who may have a dark reason for dropping bodies around town.

Usagi #29

This was a pretty fun and cool final story for the volume, and it leaves an exciting end note for the reader.  Sakai pulls together a fantastic and compelling shorter story here that once again combines murder mystery elements with the traditional comic book action.  While the culprits of the murder are quite clear from the outset, it is pretty fun to see their plan unfold and the protagonist’s subsequent investigation into it.  The reasons behind the antagonists’ actions are pretty fascinating, and the author paints an outstanding picture of desperation and duty that drives them to kill.  I also quite liked the intriguing investigation into traditional sword testing, which ties into the story extremely well and proves to be a fascinating addition to Tameshigiri’s plot.  The entire story leads up to a massive action sequence that sees multiple participants on both sides engage in a deadly battle to the death.  Not only doe we get to see more of Inspector Ishida’s unique fighting style, but Usagi also shines in an awesome duel.  Throw in the amusing jokes about the events of the preceding story, where Ishida clearly knows Usagi is behind some of the mayhem, and you have a very entertaining entry that not only wraps up the Ishida-based storylines extremely well, but also ensures that the reader has some fun on the way out.

I must once again highlight Sakai’s brilliant artistic work in this cool volume, as Grey Shadows contains impressive examples of Sakai’s amazing style.  There are so many beautiful and intricately detailed drawings throughout this awesome volume, and I love how perfectly it enhances the already great storylines.  I particularly love the amount of detail that he throws into the various panel backgrounds, ensuring that the reader sees both the full breadth of Japan’s majestic natural landscape and the traditional feudal style buildings in the towns and villages Usagi visits.  Sakai also does incredible justice to the many battle sequences scattered throughout Grey Shadows, perfectly portraying the intricate deadly movements that make up the character’s sword play.  You always get an impressive sense of how the characters moved as they battled, and I deeply appreciated all the brilliant and brutal fight scenes.  This incredible artwork always pairs so perfectly with the written story, ensuring that this 13th volume was very spectacular and awesome to look at.

Usagi #30

As you can see, I had a lot of fun with Grey Shadows, and it proved to be another excellent entry in Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo series.  This 13th volume features several outstanding stories, which really dive into their unique protagonists and antagonists and show the full majesty of this version of feudal Japan.  Serving as a key entry in the overall series thanks to the introduction of a cool new character, Grey Shadows is a must read for all Usagi Yojimbo fans and it gets another five-star rating from me.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 12: Grasscutter by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo - Grasscutter Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1999)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 12

Length: 255 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to 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.  For my latest Throwback Thursday I return to my very favourite comic book as I look at the 12th volume in the epic Usagi Yojimbo series by Stan Sakai, Grasscutter.

Usagi #13

It has been a little while since I covered one of these Usagi Yojimbo volumes in a Throwback Thursday article.  I had a bit of trouble getting this specific volume, which kind of put everything on pause.  Despite my belief that I had a whole collection of the Usagi Yojimbo comics, it turns out I was missing the 12th volume and I honestly have no idea how I could have misplaced my copy (or did I ever really own it? Who knows?).  To fix this oversight, I recently ordered a second-hand copy from Amazon and managed to get it shipped down here from America.  Now that I finally have a full collection, I can get back to reviewing this entire epic series, which is proving to be so much fun.

A quick refresh about this series before we start: the Usagi Yojimbo comics are the incredible work of legendary comic author and artist Stan Sakai, who has been working on this series for nearly 40 years.  Made up of a ton of amazing volumes, the comic is set in an alternate version of feudal Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals.  The series follows the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering bodyguard and adventurer who gets involved in all manner of troubles as he faces off against criminals, bandits, ninja, monsters, psychopaths and ambitious lords.  Combining brilliant stories with complex characters, cool action, elaborate scenarios and outstanding artwork, this series is an absolute masterpiece and it is one that I have adored for years.

Usagi #14

The 12th volume of this series is Grasscutter, which serves as a particularly major entry in the entire Usagi Yojimbo line.  Containing issues #13-22 of the Dark Horse Comics run, this volume unusually contains a single story, rather than the multiple shorter, episodic tales typical of this series.  Bringing together several intriguing story threads from previous comics and reuniting several of the more distinctive supporting characters, Sakai tells his most ambitious tale, and the results is absolute magic.

Following a destructive war centuries ago between two rival houses, the nation of Japan is now firmly controlled by the shogun and his court, while the emperor rules only as a symbolic figure, detached from the politics of the realm.  While many are content to live within the shogun’s peace, there are some who seek power and prestige through the return of the imperial family to true power.  But with the full might of the military and the samurai behind him, only one thing could possibly inspire the people to revolt against the shogun: the legendary heaven-forged sword, Kusanagi the Grasscutter.

Usagi #15

However, this divine sword was lost generations ago in the battle that saw the Imperial family overthrown, and it now rests at the bottom of a watery strait, impossible to recover.  Undeterred by the odds against them, a small contingent of rebellious lords have initiated a conspiracy to overthrow the shogun by any means necessary.  Calling upon the powers of a mysterious witch, the conspirators hope to obtain the sword through sorcerous means.  While they succeed in freeing Grasscutter from its watery tomb, fate ensures that the sword ends up in the mostly unlikely of hands, that of the wandering samurai Miyamoto Usagi.

Unsure what to do with the legendary sword, Usagi soon finds himself pursued by the forces of the conspirators and must fight with everything he has to keep it out of their hands.  But the events of this conflict spread far beyond Usagi, and soon everyone he knows is in danger as the conspirators attempt to kill his friends Tomoe and Lord Noriyuki to stop them bringing Grasscutter to the shogun.  At the same time, the bounty hunter Gen and the rogue swordswoman Inazuma as drawn from their own scuffles into the greater battle for Grasscutter, especially when they encounter the feared demon-spearman Jei.  Can Usagi and his friends survive the overwhelming forces arrayed against them, or will the nation be thrown into war once again with the resurgence of the Grasscutter?

Usagi #16

Wow, just wow!  This is such an impressive comic that is so very epic in scope, storytelling and major character moments.  Sakai has done a brilliant job with this cool volume, and I loved the brilliant narrative he cooked up for Grasscutter, especially as it ties into so many major moments from the previous volumes.  Filled with intense action, brilliant set pieces and some beautiful art, Grasscutter is an incredible volume that, unsurprisingly, gets a full five-star rating from me.

I loved the incredible story that Sakai has featured in Grasscutter, especially as, in a departure from the series’ usual style of short stories, this volume features one massive and complex story.  This change in story length works extremely well and ensures that this volume stands out as a major entity in this epic series.  Sakai sets his narrative up carefully, with the initial issues of the comic dedicated to explaining the importance of the sword Grasscutter and how it was lost during a deadly civil war.  After establishing the significance of this weapon, the main narrative quickly gets into full swing, continuing one of the storylines from the previous volume, Seasons, and showing the members of the Conspiracy of Eight working to summon the sword from the bottom of the strait using possessed crabs (it makes sense in context).  As this is occurring, several other intriguing storylines are set up and you are soon following Usagi as he does his usual wandering routine, as well as other great side characters like Gen, Inazuma, Tomeo and Lord Noriyuki, as well as the deadly villain Jei.  Having all these characters caught up in these events makes for quite an interesting and elaborate tale, with each of them getting their own distinctive storyline that slowly merges with the others.  For example, Usagi finds himself in a desperate battle against the forces of the conspirators, Gen attempts to hunt down Inazuma for the big bounty on her head, only to run afoul of bandits and police, Tomoe attempts to save Lord Noriyuki from a treacherous ambush only to run into a far more dangerous foe, while Jei finds himself drawn towards the power of the divine sword.

Usagi #17

All these storylines come together extremely well as the story proceeds, often in some explosive and action-packed ways.  Usagi, in his pursuit of the sword, finds himself once again teaming up with Gen, only to run right into Jei when he is at his most dangerous.  Meanwhile the intense storyline surrounding Tomeo and Noriyuki has some large set pieces as the two attempt to escape the army chasing after them.  While mostly separate, these two storylines complement each other nicely, especially as the ambush on Tomeo and Noriyuki is due to the conspirators searching for Grasscutter, and it serves as a dramatic side adventure to the main story.  There are some amazing moments here, and I was particularly impressed with the storyline that saw Noriyuki come face to face with his father’s worse enemy in a complicated manner.  The big finale involves the final fight between Usagi and his mortal enemy, Jei, which sees some absolute carnage.  The subsequent damage and the impossible consequences will leave you reeling, and this entire story concludes perfectly, not only bringing the impressive narrative around Grasscutter to a satisfactory end, but also setting up some additional interesting storylines and character arcs.  This entire volume is just so damn epic, and I really appreciate the way in which Sakai journeys back to many of his previous storylines and utilises elements from them here, although it does mean that Grasscutter isn’t a great entry for first-time readers to check out.  The great combination of action, character development and intriguing world-building elements is just exceptional, and this entire comic is brilliant from start to finish.

Usagi #18

One of the main things that I always love about the Usagi Yojimbo comics is Sakai’s use of intriguing elements from Japanese culture and history to compliment his excellent original storytelling.  This is particularly true in Grasscutter as Sakai utilises some of the most iconic parts of Japanese mythology and history as the basis for much of the plot, particularly around the legendary sword Kusanagi-no-Tsurugi (Grasscutter or Grass-Cutting Sword).  Sakai, who has clearly done a ton of research here, produces an amazing interpretation of the origins of the sword, going all the way back to the Japanese creation myth and showcasing the origins of the Kami and their many descendants.  He then goes into the history of the sword, showing its discovery of the sword, the events that resulted in the name change to Grasscutter, before going all the way to the Japanese Civil War (the Genpei War), that saw the rise of the shogunate and the decline of imperial authority.  This ends with a brilliant showcase of the massive and destructive naval battle between the two factions which led to the death of the young emperor and the loss of the sword.  The loss of the sword, as recounted in The Tale of the Heike, becomes a key part of this narrative, and it is so fascinating to see its sudden return be used as a major story element.  Readers unfamiliar with Japanese history or mythology get a brilliant understanding of these cultural elements at the start of the book, and this allows the rest of the story to flow perfectly.  I deeply enjoyed how Sakai brought all these cool moments to life (even if he does simplify it in places for narrative reasons), and it ended up being an exquisite and clever start to the book.  Throw in a very detailed and fascinating notes section at the back from Sakai, explaining his research and how it influenced his story, and you have some exceedingly cool historical elements that are expertly utilised to create an epic Japanese tale.

While I had a lot of fun with the story, action and Japanese cultural elements, one of the main highlights of Grasscutter is the substantial character work that occurs within.  Due to its length and scope, Grasscutter serves as a major part of the Usagi Yojimbo series and as such, it features many of the best supporting characters from the previous volumes.  All these characters get some substantial storylines in this book, either as protagonists or villains, and it was extremely fascinating to see what happened to some of them.  Sakai melds the unique character storylines together into one cohesive and powerful narrative which does an excellent job exploring each of the characters and giving them key moments in their storylines.

Usagi #19

Unsurprisingly, much of the story focuses on the character of Usagi, who serves as the main protagonist of the story.  Thanks to his usual luck, Usagi winds up finding the blade immediately after it emerges from the water and is soon thrust into the midst of the conflict surrounding it.  This immediately puts him in a major dilemma as he is uncertain what to do with the sword, as all the sides who would claim it (the shogun, the emperor, even some of his own friends) would all use it for their own benefit and the nation would likely suffer as a result.  As such he fights incredibly hard to hold onto the blade for everyone’s good, and this forces him into some increasingly desperate battles.  Usagi gets pretty beat up and exhausted throughout this entire ordeal, and his final match with Jei pushes him to the limit and strikes him at his very core.  While he doesn’t get a major amount of development in this story, he still served as a great centre for the plot and it is always fun to follow along on one of his adventures.

You can’t have a major Usagi story without his friend, Murakami Gennosuke (Gen) showing up and trying to get paid.  The rhino bounty hunter has an excellent story which starts when he unsuccessfully tries to claim a bounty on some dead criminals he discovers in the woods.  This almost immediately backfires on him and forces him to deal with all manner of corrupt cops and murderous bandits as he attempts to make a little money.  His misadventures lead him to face off against Inazuma, the deadly swordswomen who Usagi encountered in the 10th volume, The Brink of Life and Death.  Inazuma, a former innocent girl turned sinister killer, is still being pursued by assassins and bounty hunters who want the massive price on her head.  Naturally Gen decides to chase after her, and this results in a pretty brutal fight between the two, which really showcases just how dangerous Inazuma can be.  The subsequent storylines are also fascinating as Gen gets dragged into the fight for Grasscutter by Usagi and Inazuma goes deep into her own soul when she encounters Jei.  This results in some extremely dark moments for both characters, and it was captivating to see what happened to them throughout the volume.  The final reveals about Inazuma and her future are very grim, and it sets up some excellent storylines in the future.

Usagi #20

There are also some brilliant storylines going on around the characters of Tomeo and Lord Noriyuki.  While primarily separate from Usagi and his adventures, Tomeo and Noriyuki find themselves under attack and are pursued throughout the land by murderous assassins and samurai (much like in their first appearance in Volume 1: The Ronin).  Their dangerous journey becomes even more perilous when they run into a familiar face, General Ikeda, the character so perfectly featured in the short story The Patience of the Spider from the previous volume.  Ikeda is a great character in that he is a former general who, after failing to kill Noriyuki’s father in a revolt, has spent the last several years living as a peasant, a simple life he became content with.  However, when he suddenly finds the son of his mortal enemy in his house, he must choose whether to take up the old grudge or forge a new path for himself.  Watching the internal struggle that occurs within Kieda is pretty awesome, and his interactions with the suspicious Tomeo and Noriyuki are just wonderful.  I deeply enjoyed how this story unfolded, and it was some of the best character work in the entire volume, not to mention the most action-packed.

The final major character I really to talk about is the infamous Blade of the Gods, Jei.  First appearing in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road, the crazed killer Jei has been one of the best villains in this series, constantly following Usagi and trying to kill him (another good story was in the sixth volume, Circles).  Jei and Usagi finally come face to face again in Grasscutter when Jei recovers the sword and attempts to use it for his own dark purposes.  Sakai really goes out of his way to make Jei appear as a deadly badass in this comic, with his first appearance shows him killing an entire detachment of samurai by himself.  His subsequent wanderings see him interact with several other side characters for the first time in the series, and their reactions to his weird aura and power are brilliant.  I loved how the dark Jei is perfectly offset by his companion, the young, innocent girl Keiko, who is the only person Jei cares about and will not hurt.  They have some great moments in this comic, and it is fascinating and troubling to see the interactions between them.  However, Jei’s big moment in Grasscutter is his rematch with Usagi, which has been brewing for ages.  Watching these bitter enemies face each other again is pretty fantastic, and you get some amazing moments during their duel.  The conclusion of their fight is very clever and really alters your opinion about both Jei and Usagi, while also seeming to confirm Jei’s supernatural background.  Watching the pure fear and shock on the usually unflappable Usagi when he encounters the many mysteries of Jei is so awesome, and Jei continues to shine as a brilliant antagonist in this volume.  His intriguing final fate will leave you shocked and surprised as a new version of the character emerges.  All this character work and more really helps to turn this outstanding comic into a true masterpiece, and I have so much love for Sakai’s ability to create such amazing and iconic figures.

Usagi #21

The final thing that I want to highlight is the impressive artwork contained within Grasscutter.  As with all the Usagi Yojimbo volumes, all the art of this comic has been drawn exclusively by Sakai, which is exceedingly impressive.  His drawing skills are amazing on multiple levels as he portrays such complex adventures with a simple yet beautiful style which I have so much love for.  As with most Usagi Yojimbo comics, Grasscutter is filled with stunning drawings, from amazing landscape shots that show off the beauty of the Japanese wilderness, to close-up shots of the deadly battle sequences.  There are some amazing scenes throughout this book, although I personally really enjoyed the fantastic and powerful renderings of key moments of Japanese history and mythology that were featured in the volume’s first two issues.  Everything from the formation of the lands to the events that gave Grasscutter its name is very cool, and Sakai expertly imparts his own style into these intriguing spiritual stories.  The massive battle that ended the civil war is shown in some exquisite detail here, and I loved how he showcased this elaborate and deadly naval fight.  Of course, you cannot forget the brilliant final duel between Usagi and Jei, which was such a highlight of the story.  Sakai goes out of his way to make this fight as epic and as brutal as possible, and you get a real sense of both participants skill and determination to win.  The mystical aftermath of their fight looks extremely awesome as well, and I loved all the intriguing and unique detail Sakai featured here, including the spooky alterations that happened to one of the characters.  Another brilliant artistic outing from Sakai that perfectly supported his incredible storytelling and character work and is some must see drawing.

Usagi #22

As you can no doubt tell from the glowing descriptions above, I deeply enjoyed this 12th volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series.  Stan Sakai was in excellent form when he created the powerful and exciting Grasscutter, which features one of the author’s most impressive and extensive stories.  Featuring all his best characters, his great love of Japanese culture, as well as some impressive artwork, Grasscutter shines as an outstanding entry in this brilliant series, and it is one that cannot recommend enough.

Throwback Thursday – X-Factor: Volume 1: The Longest Night

X-Factor - Volume 1 - The Longest Night

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 7 March 2007)

Series: X-Factor (Vol. 3) – Volume One

Writer: Peter David

Pencils: Ryan Sook & Dennis Calero

Inks: Wade Von Grawbadger & Dennis Calero

Colour Art: Jose Villarrubia

Letters: Cory Petit

Length: 144 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to 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.  For this Throwback Thursday I look at the start of one of the best comic series I have ever had the pleasure of reading, with The Longest Night, the first volume in Peter David’s impressive and incredible X-Factor series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 2 Cover

There are many awesome comic series that I have a great appreciation for, but to my mind one of the most entertaining, clever and captivating series I have ever had the pleasure of reading has to be the third major version of the X-Factor title that ran between 2005 and 2013.  This series span off the limited series, Madrox: Multiple Choice, with its entire run written by Peter David, with a rotating team of talented artists.  Also known as X-Factor (Vol.3) or X-Factor Investigations, this long-running series focused on a team of mutants who formed a detective agency after the events of House of M.  Calling themselves X-Factor Investigations and led by Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man, this series followed the team as they investigated mutant related crimes, protected the area of New York formerly known as Mutant Town, and did general superheroics, often for a fee.  Despite its odd-sounding plot, this was an incredibly good series, and it is one of my all-time favourite comic series.  I have recently done a bit of a re-read of this series and thought that it would be a good time to talk about it on my blog, starting with this first volume, The Longest Night.

X-Factor is back, and this time they are in business for themselves as X-Factor Investigations, the weirdest and only mutant run private investigative agency in New York.  Led by Jamie Madrox (the Multiple Man), made up of the ragtag group of heroes including, Strong Guy, Wolfsbane, Siryn, Rictor and Monet, X-Factor investigates the cases no-one else will, especially if it helps current and former mutants.  However, X-Factor are about to find themselves investigating the most sinister case of their brief tenure, when a new client walks in the door, accompanied by the mysterious Layla Miller.  Following the breadcrumbs given to them by Layla, X-Factor begins looking into the rival organisation, Singularity Investigations, who have dire plans for the future of all mutant kind.  At the same time, X-Factor finds itself in the middle of the deteriorating conditions in Mutant Town, as they start their own investigation into what really depowered most of the mutant species.

As their investigations continue, X-Factor find themselves encountering crazy events and dire obstacles from all sides.  Forced to protect their client from being arrested for murder, as well as the deadly attentions of Singularity Investigations, X-Factor struggles to solve the case before it is too late.  However, their actions have awoken a dangerous enemy whose knowledge of time could prove disastrous.  Can X-Factor succeed and become the team the world needs, and what role will Layla Miller play in their future, especially as she actively attempts to hide the events of House of M and Decimation from her new friends?

X-Factor - Vol3 - 3 Cover

The Longest Night is a brilliant and intense comic volume that serves as the perfect introduction to this outstanding X-Factor series.  Containing issues #1-6 of X-Factor (Vol. 3), The Longest Night contains an incredible and epic story by Peter David that expertly introduces the new team and sets up many of their future adventures, perfectly accompanied by the excellent art of Ryan Sook and Dennis Calero.  This incredible comic will really start your fall towards X-Factor obsession.

To start this amazing series off, David has come up with an impressive narrative that not only introduces the team but also contains several clever mysteries and dangerous threats.  The Longest Night starts off in a very interesting way, with Madrox attempting to save the life of a suicidal Rictor, while other members of the team find themselves under attack from sinister forces.  The story quickly develops, with new player Layla Miller directing X-Factor Investigations towards the mysterious Singularity Investigations, while also implementing her own mysterious agenda.  This sets the X-Factor team down a dark path as they contend with the corrupt and deadly Singularity employees as well as other malicious threats that pop up.  I deeply enjoyed the main storyline, especially as the protagonists are forced to intervene in a murder case to prove that their client is innocent, despite dangerous interference from their competitors.  This leads to some dark consequences, as one of the team is attacked and then kidnapped in scenes that strongly remind you of a dark thriller.  The new villains of this early part of the series, Singularity Investigations and their management team the Tryps, prove to be pretty sinister, and I liked some of the unique storylines that are started up around them.  There are also some impressive and clever sequences that explore the aftermath of the Decimation, as well as the current mental states of the various team members, which is extremely powerful and deeply moving.

I loved the cool style that this comic had, especially as the creative team were trying to give it a classic noir detective vibe at times.  While some of the best themes from the X-Men comics are featured within this volume, such as prejudice, dual self-hatred and love of mutant abilities, and the fallout from the House of M limited series, this comic really stands on its own, and I loved the combination of mutant issues and crime fiction.  There is a certain dark edge to many of the storylines, with the character dealing with brutal murders and attempted killings.  While much of the focus is on the darker and more mature vibes, this comic also has a wicked sense of humour behind it which I deeply enjoyed.  All the characters are pretty fun, and there are some dark and clever jokes sprinkled throughout the story, especially when it comes to group clown Madrox and resident mystery girl Layla Miller.  This combination of superheroics, dark humour and crime fiction makes for quite an impressive read, and I always find myself getting really drawn into it.  Due to how many times I have read this series of the years I also really respect The Longest Night as a first entry in the overall X-Factor (Vol.3) series.  While all the best elements haven’t been introduced yet, this comic is still off to a brilliant start, and I loved all the hints and brief mentions of the events yet to come.  Multiple storylines are perfectly set up here, and there are some great references to upcoming events and some key moments from recent comics.  This proves to be an exciting and impressive first entry in this series, and I love how it spawns so many awesome moments in the future.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 4 Cover

One of the things that has always impressed me about this version of X-Factor is the excellent cast of characters featured.  The team is an intriguing combination of some of the more unique and enjoyable characters from the various X-Men comics.  The initial line-up featured in The Longest Night is a great example of this, as David has featured several previous X-Factor members alongside some interesting new choices.  There is a real mismatched feel to the characters, as not only are they angry and discontent, but there is some thinly veiled antagonism going on between them, despite them all being on the same team.  On top of that, they end up being some of the most damaged and complex figures you can expect to find in Marvel comics, as they are all dealing with unique personal issues.  This results in some major personality clashes and great internal struggles that really enhances the drama of the narrative and results in some brilliant storytelling.

The main character of this series is team leader Jamie Madrox, the Multiple Man.  Jamie is a very interesting figure in this series, due to the many divergent and tragic issues that result from his ability to create duplicates of himself.  Attempting to be a grounded and calm figure for the team, Jamie often finds himself undermined, not only by his time but also by his own dupes, which proves to be both entertaining and occasionally emotionally powerful.  A lot of these great elements are explored in The Longest Night, and you get a great sense of who the character is and his complex feelings, even if you haven’t read the lead-in limited series, Madrox: Multiple Choice.  Jamie cuts a great figure as a noir-inspired private detective leading a team of misfits, but in reality, he is scared and emotionally drained, even before the series starts.  Jamie ends up spending most of this comic battling his own inner demons and indecision, while also having difficulty controlling his team.  While in many ways Jamie is a tragic figure, he also serves as one of the main comic reliefs, and his smart-assed comments and dark jokes add a lot to the narrative, while barely hiding his struggles within.  I really liked how this comic spent significant time exploring Jamie’s power to create duplicates, as well as the many problems associated with it.  What makes this power very unique is the way that each of his dupes has their own personality, most of which are a manifestation of his own fears, internal struggles, inner dark side and more.  While this is often played for comedic effect, especially as his crazier dupes say some very random stuff, certain dupes show off a real mean side, such as one who pretends to be Zen, but is actually Jamie’s unpredictable side, his “X-Factor”.  This was an overall incredibly impressive introduction to Madrox, and it serves as a brilliant base to his various follow-on storylines that are such an impressive feature of the rest of this series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 5 Cover

Aside from Madrox, the team is made up of former X-Factor members Julio Richter (Rictor), Guido Carosella (Strong Guy) and Rahne Sinclair (Wolfsbane), as well as X-Factor newcomers Theresa Cassidy (Siryn, daughter of Banshee) and Monet St. Croix (M from the Generation X comic).  I really liked this great blend of figures as it produces some awesome and entertaining team dynamics, such as having the arrogant party girl, Monet, getting into various disputes with the other characters.  All five of these characters have some interesting moments in this volume, such as Strong Guy and Wolfsbane’s interference against an anti-mutant riot, or Monet’s brief emotional breakdown after telepathically experiencing the murder of a young woman.  However, I the best moments of this volume probably occurred with Siryn and Rictor.  Siryn, who serves as a bit of a second-in-command, has several key storylines around her, and she ends up being the one most obsessed with the actions of Singularity Investigations.  The subsequent brutal attack and creepy hostage situation she suffers from is pretty horrifying, and the resultant mental and physical damage makes for some harrowing moments.  Rictor also has a great storyline in this series, as he is the only character on the team who lost their powers in the Decimation.  This leads him to some serious depression, especially as the first scene in the comic involves his attempted suicide, which is only just stopped by the rest of the team.  The author’s compelling and thought-provoking dive into Rictor’s feelings of loss and uncertainty is pretty heartbreaking, and I loved this complex look at the terrible impacts of the Decimation.  Despite his lack of powers, Rictor still serves as a great member of the team, and his involvement in saving Siryn from a terrible situation is extremely cool and very intense.

However, my favourite member of this new version of X-Factor had to be the young and mysterious Layla Miller.  Layla was first introduced as a unique character in House of M, as she could remember the real world and bring the memories back to the various heroes.  She reappears in this volume right in the first issue, walking into office, providing information and declaring herself a member of the team.  Despite the confusion of the other people on X-Factor and the fact that she’s a child, Miller manages to stick around on the team, mainly due to her uncanny insights into the future.  This results in some brilliant and hilarious moments, especially as she can manipulate everyone around her and change events to match what she wants.  Her sarcastic manner and funny reactions really help to enhance the humour of this entire comic, and I loved seeing her change future events in the most amusing ways.  The cloak of mystery and uncertainty that David brilliantly builds up around her is very impressive, and you have no idea the real reason why she is there or what she can do, with her only explanation to that being her favourite saying: “I’m Layla Miller, I know stuff.”  Despite this secrecy, the reader ends up getting some interesting reveals about her, such as her past in the orphanage, her secret mission to stop X-Factor finding out about House of M, and her tragic self-description as the Chaos Theory butterfly, which are pretty cool, even if they result in more questions than answers.  I really loved how dark the creative team made her at times, especially in that brilliant scene where she kills a Singularity Investigations assassin by simply taking screws out of a bath.  Her confession about her motivations to the assassin just before he gets killed is pretty heartbreaking as you can sense she’s revealing a deep secret that is eating her up.  The subsequent conversation as the assassin lies dying is just so damn dark that I love it, especially as she follows up the dying man’s question about who she is with another grim “I’m Layla Miller, I know stuff.”  Throw in that final scene where Rictor confronts Layla about her manipulations, only to completely miss her bringing a dead butterfly back to life, and you have such an impressive sequence of character moments.  I have so much love for this brilliant character, and while the rest of the team is good, Layla Miller is the real X-Factor of this series.

X-Factor - Vol3 - 6 Cover

The cool story and awesome characters are very well supported by the incredible artistic work of Ryan Sook, Dennis Calero and their team.  These great artists give The Longest Night a darker feel that fits into the noir-inspired narrative extremely well.  There are brilliant examples of shading and shadow throughout the comic, and you get a real sense of the dingy nature of the story and the depressed location of Mutant Town.  I deeply enjoyed the cool character designs featured throughout The Longest Night, especially as there is an interesting combination of new styles and classic looks from other X-Men comics.  You get a real sense of the dark emotions hiding within many of the different characters, especially around the various duplicates of Madrox, who run the gauntlet from depressed, to scared, to utterly insane.  However, I felt that the best artwork was utilised around Layla Miller, and perfectly helped to capture her true nature.  I particularly loved that brilliant scene where she killed the assassin in X-Factor headquarters, especially the final few panels.  Due to her machinations the power is out, resulting in her lighting the scene of the dying man with a torch.  The first appearance with her face completely black is just so fitting, especially given her death proclamation to the killer in the panel: ‘Your heart’ll give out in about five seconds.  Your mother will mourn you … but your wife won’t”.  The following two panels with her face in the light highlights her dark expression, followed by a perfectly set up final black panel that could either represent her turning the torch off or the death of the assassin.  I also loved all the panels focused on Layla in issue #6, especially it shows her at her most emotionally compromised as she tries to describe her various issues.  Throw in the reoccurring butterfly that is both dead and alive, and you have an excellent bit of art that emphasises just how complex this figure is.  The villains of this comic are also perfectly shown in this cool artwork, and I was especially impressed with how sinister and disturbed they made the crazy kidnapper in fifth issue.  I deeply enjoyed this and so many other aspects of the art in the volume, and I think it perfectly emphasised the darker nature of this incredibly cool comic.

Overall, The Longest Night was an incredible comic that I would strongly recommend.  The awesome team of Peter David, Ryan Sock, Dennis Calero and the other artists did a fantastic job combining exquisite storytelling with outstanding characters, darker themes and wonderful artwork.  Not only does it stand on its own as an excellent read, but it also works to introduce this superb run of X-Factor and its crime-fiction related storylines.  I have so much love for this series, and I will always appreciate the way in which The Longest Night sets everything up, especially its brilliant characters.  This first volume (and indeed every volume in this series) gets a full five-star rating from me and it comes very highly recommend to anyone wanting to find a unique and powerful comic series to get into.

Throwback Thursday: Green Arrow (2001): Volume 3: The Archer’s Quest by Brad Meltzer, Phil Hester and Ande Parks

Green Arrow Archer's Quest

Publisher: DC Comics (Paperback – 1 September 2004)

Series: Green Arrow Vol. 3 – Volume Three

Writer: Brad Meltzer

Penciller: Phil Hester

Inker: Ande Parks

Colourist: James Sinclair

Letterer: Sean Konot

Length: 175 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Welcome back to 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.  For this week’s Throwback Thursday I check out an all-time favourite comic of mine, the third volume of the epic 2001 Green Arrow relaunch, The Archer’s Quest.

The late 1990s and early 2000s were an outstanding time for DC Comics, who produced an amazing number of epic and fascinating comic series that combined brilliant storytelling with fantastic artwork.  While there are several great series I enjoy from this period (Teen Titans comes to mind), one of my absolute favourites was the awesome 2001 relaunch of Green Arrow.  Also recorded as Green Arrow Vol. 3, this series resurrected the original Green Arrow, Oliver Queen, some years after his death.  I have an amazing amount of love for this comic; not only was it one of the first series I ever really got into but it still really stands up after all this time.  This is easily one of my all-time favourite comic book series, and the absolute pinnacle of this series was the simple, yet amazingly effective fourth volume, The Archer’s Quest.

While I probably should review some of the proceeding volumes of this series first before talking about The Archer’s Quest (such as the first volume, Quiver by Kevin Smith), I recently re-read this fantastic comic, so it has been on my mind all week.  Containing issues #16-21 of this outstanding series, The Archer’s Quest is a brilliant and captivating comic tale that really gets to grips with the protagonist as he embarks on a journey vital to his identity and history.  Featuring the brilliant writing of bestselling author Brad Meltzer (author of several amazing thriller novels, as well as some impressive DC Comics), and the artistic stylings of Phil Hester and Ande Parks, this is an exceptional comic which gets a five-star rating from me.

Green Arrow - #16

Following his unexpected resurrection after his violent death, Oliver Queen, the Green Arrow, has been returned to Earth, ready to continue the good fight.  However, no man can come back from the grave without a heavy heart, and Oliver Queen has more skeletons in his closet than most of his fellow heroes.  A chance discovery that the villain, Catman, attended his funeral leads Oliver back to his old friend, Shade, the immortal being Green Arrow trusted to round up certain artefacts of Oliver’s superhero career that could reveal his secret identity. 

Discovering that Shade failed to get several of Oliver’s most precious keepsakes, Oliver embarks on a cross-country road-trip to recover them himself.  Accompanied by his former sidekick, Roy Harper, Oliver begins visiting some of the locations most important to himself and his career as a superhero.  From the ruins of the Arrowcave to the Justice League’s orbiting Watchtower and even the Flash Museum in Central City, Oliver and Roy will attempt to find these items from the past in order to safeguard their future.

However, this will be no simple road trip, as the two heroes encounter some unexpected dangers and surprising opposition, including fellow hero the Flash and the angry zombie Solomon Grundy.  Worse, this journey will uncover some dark secrets from the past that Oliver has long hoped to keep quiet.  Can Oliver recover his treasures without his friends and family discovering who he really is, or has the past finally come back to destroy this resurrected hero?

Green Arrow - #17

The Archer’s Quest is a fantastic and powerful Green Arrow comic that takes the protagonist and his former sidekick on a wild and extremely personal adventure.  Before reading this, if you had ever pitched me a comic based around the idea of a recently resurrected superhero going on a road trip, I might have been a little dubious.  Well, it turns out that I would have been dead wrong, as Brad Meltzer produced an intense, captivating and emotionally rich narrative that is not only extremely entertaining but which contains some excellent character work, some brilliant references to the classic Green Arrow comics, and which dives deep into the psyche of a troubled and complex protagonist. 

The narrative of The Archer’s Quest starts extremely strong, with Green Arrow meeting Superman at Oliver Queen’s grave.  This is a fantastic opening scene, especially once Superman hands over a series of photographs of the funeral, and I loved the focus on the harrowing realities following a resurrection.  The sombre mood is broken when Green Arrow notices a stranger in his photo amongst his closest friends.  This leads him to hunt down Catman, which also reveals the hand of Shade and the revelation that certain items from Oliver’s past are still out in the open.  This forces Green Arrow into a road trip, hunting for his artefacts and dealing with friends, enemies and family.  The first chapter packs in some much-needed action, as Green Arrow goes toe-to-toe with Solomon Grundy in an epic and brutal fight, that ends with a surprising, and gruesome, win from the protagonist.  From there, Meltzer and the artists pile up the emotional and the feels by having Oliver encounter several fellow heroes who he has complex relationships with, while also building up the nostalgia factor, with the reveal of classic Green Arrow items, locations and characters.  All this leads to some major moments, from an attempted proposal to a moving and long-awaited conversation between father and son.  However, Meltzer saves the absolute best for last with a startling revelation about the past that shows Oliver’s true character and serves as a powerful end to the entire story.  This was a beautiful, character driven story, and I think Meltzer hit all the right notes.  The pacing is perfect and there is a fantastic blend of action, character development and emotional discovery, which all comes together into one outstanding story.  The Archer’s Quest is addictive and dramatically intense from start to finish, I can read and re-read this comic for years (and I probably will).

Green Arrow - #18

One of the things that I really enjoyed about this amazing comic is the way in which Meltzer and the artists turned it into a homage to the Green Arrow comics.  The creative team spend a substantial amount of time diving back into the history and lore of the character and his comics, working them into the story in very meaningful ways.  So many key aspects of the Green Arrow comics are referenced or alluded to in some way, as the characters journey around some iconic locations, including the Arrowcave, to obtain the artefacts.  Through this dive into the past, the creative team manage to perfectly capture the various eras of Green Arrow, including the classic Golden Age comics, the grittier Silver Age comics, the road trip era with Green Lantern (which this comic really tries to emulate), and The Longbow Hunters period.  This wide range of references makes for a very intriguing and compelling comic, and it helps turn The Archer’s Quest into a must-read for all Green Arrow fans.  I loved the clever range of different artefacts that protagonists are trying to recover, including the diamond-tipped arrow from Green Arrow’s first appearance in Justice League of America, his official invitation to the Justice League, and the truck that he and Green Lantern used in their iconic road trip.  These cool artefacts really help to ramp up the nostalgia while simultaneously including key modern story elements hidden within.  The cool funeral sequence at the start of the comic also allows the creative team to reference and include a vast range of supporting characters and allies from the original comics, with a range of different figures from Oliver’s career appearing to pay their respect.  I deeply appreciated the modern analyses and descriptions of the items, locations, complex relationships, character designs, weaponry (why all the boxing gloves?) and prior adventures included in this comic, and it helps to produce a comprehensive account of these iconic events, while also bringing them up to speed with more modern comic lines.  You can really tell that the creative team behind The Archer’s Quest had a lot of affection for the preceding Green Arrow comics, and this outstanding comic proves to be an amazing and captivating love-letter to the Emerald Archer.

I deeply enjoyed the epic characters that this amazing comic followed, especially as Meltzer uses this story to dive deep into the psyche and relationships of the protagonists, especially Oliver Queen, the titular Green Arrow.  This version of the character is only recently returned from the grave, and this becomes a major part of his identity throughout the comic, driving him to fix some of the mistakes of his past while also ensuring that he never hurts his family again.  Thanks to the entire comic being narrated by Oliver, you get some very intriguing insights into Green Arrow’s mindset during this period, and you really get to know who he is and what his motivations are.  Rather than some of the typical portrayals of him as a liberal, generic arrow slinger, the creative team attempt to show him as a complex veteran hero, still deeply impacted by his resurrection and uncertain about his place in the world.  A lot of The Archer’s Quest’s narrative involves Green Arrow attempting to find pieces of his past that are significant or potentially damaging to him, and as such you get an amazing look into key events of Oliver’s past, as well as his current priorities and concerns.  I really enjoyed the storylines involved with him trying to reconcile or repair relationships with his former friends and allies, as well as an interesting development in his romantic partnership with Black Canary.

Green Arrow - #19

One of the best things about this comic is the way that Meltzer portrays Oliver as a more morally ambiguous figure, willing to make a deal with a supervillain, lie to those closest to him, and initiating undercover actions to protect identities.  There is also some great evidence of the self-destructive tendencies that would be a major defining feature of this series, as well as the complex decisions that affect those closest to him.  As such, he keeps many secrets, even from his former sidekick, such as his main motivation for recovering his old truck is to secure the Green Lantern ring Hal Jordan hid in there years ago.  However, the biggest secret involves the revelation that he always knew that his son, Conner, existed, and that he pretended he did not know who he was when they first met.  This revelation is slowly and cleverly revealed throughout the comic, first with Oliver subtly making the recovery of its hiding place his main priority, and then in the final scenes after he has a heart-to-heart with Conner, when he reveals the secret photo.  The narration during this scene sums up Green Arrow in this series perfectly: “You’re a bastard Oliver Queen.  You knew.  You always knew.  And the worst part is…. it’s still your secret.” and the entire sequence ensures you will never look at this character again in the same way.  I also musty highlight the great inclusion about Green Arrow secretly coming up with plans to protect secret identities if a hero died.  Not only is this vital to the plot of The Archer’s Quest, but it also hints at the great storyline that Meltzer would eventually use in his epic Identity Crisis, which features a proactive team of heroes mind-wiping villains and destroying personalities.  This outstanding and layered portrayal of Green Arrow in this comic is one of the defining characteristics of The Archer’s Quest, and I am blown away with this brilliant character work every time I read this volume.

The other major character of this novel is Roy Harper, his former sidekick (now Arsenal), who Oliver calls in to help him hunt down Catman.  I really enjoyed the inclusion of Roy in this comic, especially as he had been overly featured in this series (he was mostly appearing in Titans).  As such, we had not really gotten a glimpse at the current relationship between former mentor and sidekick, which has always been strained since the infamous heroine incident.  The Archer’s Quest did an amazing job bringing them back together again, and Roy really gets into the swing of the adventure, with the two characters getting back into their adventuring groove.  However, the comic also deals with the inherent mistrust between the two characters, with Roy upset that Oliver trusted Shade more than him to protect his identity after his death.  The two end up working through these issues throughout this comic, and it ended up being a fun and powerful reunion that long-term Green Arrow fans will deeply enjoy.

Green Arrow - #20

Aside from Green Arrow and Roy Harper, this comic also makes great use of several other supporting character who either bring the protagonist back to his past, or help to add some emotional weight to the story.  This includes brilliant inclusions of two fellow superheroes, Kyle Rayner and Wally West, the versions of Green Lantern and the Flash who were active at the time.  Both these younger heroes bear a major legacy that results in some complicated and moving interactions with Oliver.  One of the most important is Kyle Rayner, who has taken over the mantle of Green Lantern following the corruption and eventual death of Green Arrow’s best friend, Hal Jordan.  Since Oliver’s resurrection, their relationship has been strained, with Oliver having trouble accepting him.  This all finally comes to a head with Oliver travels to the Watchtower and encounters the young Lantern, and they have a massive heart-to-heart.  The revelations that Oliver has trouble accepting a new Lantern instead of his best friend, as well as the emotional burden Kyle also bears, especially around his first loss as a superhero (women in refrigerators man, that stuff will mess you up), all comes out, and leads to an amazingly moving scene.

I also loved the great interaction that Oliver had with Wally West outside the Flash Museum, after Wally is warned that Oliver is planning to break into it.  The two characters have a great stare-down, which sees the usually jovial Flash incredibly serious at Oliver’s attempted trespass.  Oliver’s narration about this event is pretty great, especially noting that Wally’s usual short attention span is overridden by his love of Barry Allen’s memory.  These two interactions with Green Lantern and Flash are short but extremely powerful, and it was amazing to see the strain on Oliver at being still alive, while the roles of his friends have been passed on to the next generation.  Despite the serious nature of these scenes, both had an entertaining ending with Oliver managing to outsmart his younger colleagues: “That old, lying son of a b…”.  I also liked the inclusion of Superman at the start of the comic, which was both entertaining, and played into the resurrection storyline perfectly with Superman feeling guilty about not being able to save Oliver when he died, while also being a bit of an expert on coming back to life himself.  I also enjoyed the fantastic conclusion of the Flash arc, especially as the entire break-in was to retrieve a costume-filled ring that the Flash made for Green Arrow years before, and which was a nice nod to the great friendship they used to have.

While this volume of Green Arrow does not have an antagonist per se (except for Solomon Grundy and Oliver’s self-destructive behaviour), it does feature a couple of great supervillains in a supporting role.  The first of these is Shade, the immortal shadow-powered gentleman who, despite being a villain, gained Green Arrow’s trust years ago, and was entrusted by Oliver to fulfil his post-death wishes (always chose an immortal).  Shade is a fantastic inclusion to this comic, especially as his inclusion enhances the implication that Green Arrow is a much more morally grey hero than you would initially believe.  The interactions between Shade, Green Arrow and Roy Harper are really good, and I liked the explanations for why he was unable to fulfil all his duties (I wouldn’t want to annoy Jay Garrick either).  I also really need to highlight the excellent inclusion of Thomas Blake, better known as Catman, in his first appearance in comic form in years.  Catman has always been a bit of a joke character due to his gimmick (which simultaneously rips off Catwoman and Batman at the same time), but in this comic he is shown to be a shell of even his previous ridiculous self, who is looked down on by the entire supervillain community.  Hired by Shade as his agent, Catman is hunted down by Green Arrow after attending his funeral, only to show him as an overweight and unthreatening loser.  This entire comic paints him as quite the pathetic figure and shows the downsides of being a fourth-rate villain who turned on some very powerful people.  While his appearance in this comic was more entertaining than deep, it does beautifully set up his later appearances in such comics as Villains United and Secret Six and serves as his inspiration for becoming the ultra-badass we see there.  These two villains perfectly rounded out the main cast of The Archer’s Quest, and both inclusions were fantastic and intriguing additions to the overall plot.

Green Arrow - #21

This amazing and complex narrative is perfectly backed up by some excellent artwork from the team of Hester and Parks, who really bring this story to life in exquisite detail.  This entire comic is drawn in fantastic detail with some beautiful scenes, fantastic backdrops (including some iconic Green Arrow locations, lovingly brought to life) and entertaining sequences.  This includes some brilliant and powerful action sequences, and the artists pay particular attention to the flight, movement, and destructive potential of the arrows.  I particularly liked the awesome fight scene between Green Arrow and Solomon Grundy, which was filled with some brutal action in the tight confines of the former Arrowcave and featured some great narration from the protagonist.  I loved the character designs featured in the comic, and the classic look of Green Arrow and his companions was great.  The artists do a great job portraying emotion on the face of the characters, especially surrounding Oliver and his multiple examples of anguish and conflict.  I also appreciated the play of emotion on some of the other characters faces, especially Flash when Oliver arrives at the Flash Museum.  Seeing the grim and dark look on Flash’s face as he tries to stop Oliver is really surprising and impactful, and the artists do a fantastic job of showcasing a tense stare-down between the two as the sun starts to rise.  However, in my opinion, the best drawn sequence in the entire comic occurs at the front of the volume, when Oliver contemplates his funeral.  Shown in a series of polaroids, you see the various grieving mourners and it was fantastic to see several obscure figures from Oliver’s past appear to pay their respect.  This beautifully drawn scene is short, but it sets the scene for the rest of the volume extremely well and is an excellent way to start this fantastic comic.  I loved the way the comics in The Archer’s Quest were drawn, and they ensured that the outstanding story reached its full potential.

Overall, I have an insane amount of love for this third volume of this classic Green Arrow series, and it comes highly recommended.  The Archer’s Quest is a brilliant and powerful comic arc that perfectly combines a clever and nostalgic story, with some intense character development and a fun and enjoyable art style.  Meltzer’s narrative in this fantastic Green Arrow comic so damn amazing, and I deeply enjoyed his take of this iconic character.  I deeply enjoyed The Archer’s Quest, and it easily one of my favourite comic volumes of all time.  I am hoping to review the rest of this Green Arrow series in some future Throwback Thursday series, and I look forward to highlighting all the amazing storylines that were contained in this incredible run.

Waiting on Wednesday – Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 36: Tengu War! 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 week’s Waiting on Wednesday I check out the next upcoming volume in the superb Usagi Yojimbo comic series by Stan Saki, Tengu War!

Usagi Yojimbo - Tengu War!

It is finally that time of the year when I get to gush over the next upcoming entry in the amazing Usagi Yojimbo comic series.  Readers of this blog will know of my great love of the Usagi Yojimbo series, which I consider one of the best ongoing comic book series out there.  Written and drawn by the talented Stan Sakai, the Usagi Yojimbo comics follow Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering rabbit ronin who adventures through an alternate version of feudal Japan inhabited by anthropomorphic animals.  This epic series features some impressive storylines that are filled with cool and complex characters, amazing Japanese cultural elements, intense battle scenes and some outstanding and beautiful artwork.  I deeply enjoy this amazing series, and I have read every single volume multiple times.

The next entry in the Usagi Yojimbo series with be the 36th volume, Tengu War!, which is currently set for release in February 2022.  Tengu War! will be the third volume published by IDW, and will also be the third volume released completely in colour.  I am quite excited by the synopsis that has been released, and I love the cool sounding stories that will be contained in Tengu War!  The stories in this upcoming volume will follow through some of the recent storylines featured in the IDW volumes, Bunraku and Other Stories (one of my favourite books of 2020) and Homecoming (one of my favourite books from the first half of this year), while also calling back to some of the older entries in this series.

Synopsis:

Volume Three collecting Usagi’s newest adventures finds him fighting in a war with an old teacher and strange new allies–and helping a new friend complete a mission!

Usagi seeks out an old teacher, Sojobo, but upon finding him, learns that a new brand of Tengu mountain goblins have invaded the Western Peak. Savage and relentless, they are determined to drive the established Tengu out and prey upon the people of the area. For the first time, Usagi must ally himself with yokai against an even greater enemy, in “Tengu War!”

Then, in “The Master of Hebishima,” Usagi delivers a basket of lizards to an eccentric monk who lives on a remote island infested with snakes, where he learns they share a history that goes back to the Great Wars and the Battle of Adachi Plain where Usagi became a ronin.

In the final story, “Yukichi,” Usagi encounters a young swordmaster carrying out the dying wish of his master. Yukichi must deliver Itsuki-Sensei’s swords to his nephew, Daido, who will take over his school, however, they must pass through the territory of a rival school intent on preventing them from completing their mission.

Collects issues #15–21 of the all-new full-color Usagi Yojimbo series published by IDW.

I really like the sound of the cool stories contained within this upcoming volume.  It looks like Sakai has come up with three great new adventures, and I am sure that I will have a wonderful time with all of them.  The first story regarding the warring Tengu (from which this volume will get its name), sounds pretty interesting especially as it will show some fantastic new elements of Usagi’s early life.  We have had some hints at Usagi’s experiences with the Tengu before, specifically in a story contained in the 18th volume, Travels with Jotaro, which detailed Usagi’s first ill-fated meeting with a Tengu swordmaster.  This new story will no doubt detail his mysterious training under the Tengu, and I am quite intrigued about what happened during these experiences.  I am also excited to learn more about the Tengu, especially as this story will feature two separate varieties of them, and it will be fun to see Usagi, who usually slays all the Japanese monsters (yokai) he encounters, team up with some mystical creatures for the great good.

The other two stories contained within Tengu War! also sound extremely fun, and I am very keen to read them.  The first of them, The Master of Hebishima, sounds like one of the more unique entries in this volume, and I think it will be and interesting blend of drama and comedy.  Usagi forced to deal with an eccentric monk on an island filled with snakes has a lot of potential with fun, but add in a connection to his past and you have a much more serious story.  The Battle of Adachi Plain has been featured in several previous comics, including the main story of Volume 2: The Samurai and the story Return to Adachi Plain from the 11th volume, Seasons, and these prior occurrences have brought great grief and melancholy to Usagi.  This should result in some great, emotional moments, and it will be interesting to see how this ties into some recent storylines where Usagi has been contemplating his continued loyalty to his long-dead master.  I look forward to seeing what sort of tale is contained within The Master of Hebishima, and I am very curious about the whole island of snakes aspect of it (are they sentient, evil, do they have some connection to the mysterious villain, Lord Hebi? I need to know).

The final story, Yukichi, also sounds very awesome, as Usagi and another swordsman are forced to cross a hostile landscape to deliver a pair of valuable swords.  Out of all the stories in Tengu War!, this one has the most potential for intense action sequences, as Usagi and his new friend will be forced to face off against a horde of rival swordsman and students, intent on stopping them.  I imagine there will also be some interesting talk about duty and honour, and I look forward to seeing Usagi lending his experiences to a younger, less worldly student.

As you can from the above, I am extremely excited about this upcoming volume in the Usagi Yojimbo comic series.  I absolutely love the sound all three stories that will be contained within Tengu War!, and I think that they all have an immense amount of potential for impressive action sequences and fantastic character moments.  Based on all my previous experiences with Sakai’s work and this amazing Usagi Yojimbo, I already know that I am going to deeply enjoy this upcoming volume, and Tengu War! will be one of the best things I read in 2022.