Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds

Kal Jerico - Sinner's Bounty Cover

Publisher: Black Library (Audiobook – 29 February 2020)

Series: Necromunda – Book 11

Length: 14 hours and 43 minutes.

My Rating: 4.75 out of 5 stars

After enjoying the exciting novel Deathwatch: Shadowbreaker by Steve Parker last year I once again dive into the intricate Warhammer 40K expanded universe with another fantastic tie-in novel.  This time however, I check out the awesome pulse pounding Necromunda adventure, Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty by Joshua Reynolds, which reintroduces the iconic and entertaining bounty hunter Kal Jerico.

Warhammer 40K fiction is a particularly fascinating franchise built around Games Workshop’s tabletop war game of the same name, which follows armies, heroes and monsters as they fight for supremacy in a gothic far future.  While Warhammer 40K started as models and gaming, it has since evolved into a massive expanded universe, featuring comics, video games, board games, a film, an upcoming television show and a vast collection of tie-in novels written by an impressive group of science fiction authors.  This is a really fantastic universe that I have a great deal of love for as I was a major Warhammer nerd when I was younger (heck, I’ll admit it, I’m still a Warhammer nerd).  Thanks to an incredible amount of lore, history and character bios that have been created to accompany the various iterations of the tabletop game, this universe has so much potential for great fiction and stories that are a lot of fun to explore.

While my last dive into Warhammer 40K fiction focused on the wider wars of Space Marines versus aliens, this time I am looking at something very different as I check out my first Necromunda novel.  Necromunda fiction is based around the spin-off Necromunda game which was launched in the 1990s.  Set in the same universe as the rest of Warhammer 40K, this sub-franchise takes place on the industrial planet of Necromunda, a desolate husk of a world devastated by thousands of years of pollution and expansive industrial ambition.  The stories take place within and under the Hive Cities, vast multi-layered industrial hubs resembling termite mounds that reach both high into the sky and deep underground, and which are home to untold billions of inhabitants.  Broken up with the wealthy on the top spires and the poor on the bottom and below (the Underhive), control and influence of these cities is constantly fought over by powerful clans, families, and gangs, resulting in a huge range of different conflicts, which fuel both the tabletop game and the associated fiction.  With Game Workshop’s recent relaunch of the Necromunda game a couple of years ago, several new Necromunda novels have been published, including this novel which focuses on one of the most intriguing characters ever created as part of this game, Kal Jerico.

Kal Jerico, the self-proclaimed greatest bounty hunter in Necromunda, was introduced back in 1998 in the Kal Jerico comic strip, written by Gordon Rennie and drawn by Karl Kopinski, which appeared in the Warhammer Monthly magazine.  The Kal Jerico comic ran for 30 comic strips between 1998 and 2004, although the character subsequently appeared in three Kal Jerico novels written by Will McDermott (with Gordon Rennie co-authoring the first novel), Blood Royal, Cardinal Crimson and Lasgun Wedding.  I am a bit of a Kal Jerico fan, as I was lucky enough to receive several Warhammer Monthly magazines when I was a kid and I used to really enjoy all the cool and fantastic comics contained within.  Out of all the comics, the Kal Jerico ones were always my favourite and I absolutely loved seeing the outrageous and daring adventures of this cocky bounty hunter.  My love for this character is the main reason that I decided to check Sinner’s Bounty out, and I was really interested to see a more modern take on the character years after seeing him appear in comic book form.

In the sordid depths of Hive Primus, the biggest hive city on Necromunda, a daring crime has been committed and all hell is about to break loose in the aftermath.  The infamous and manic preacher, Desolation Zoon, led a brazen robbery on a guilder tithe-hall, stealing vast quantities of weaponry, credits, imported goods and other mysterious treasures.  Now, with his band of fanatical followers, Zoon is heading downhive in an armoured mining hauler, modified with an impressive amount of firepower.  However, these zealots are not the only ones heading downhive as they are being followed by every hired gun and killer in Hive Primus, each of whom wants a piece of the massive bounty that has been placed on Zoon’s head.

At the forefront of the rogues, killers and gangers chasing after Zoon is the infamous bounty hunter Kal Jerico.  Travelling with his faithful sidekick, Scabbs, the murderous woman he was forced to marry, Yolanda, and his cyber-mastiff, Wotan, Jerico is determined to catch up to Zoon and claim both the money and the accompanying reputation boost.  To claim their prize, this unconventional team will need to traverse some of the most dangerous locations in the Underhive and face off against giant monsters, dangerous tunnel creatures and mutant cannibals, as well as all their friendly bounty hunter colleagues.

However, as they get closer to capturing Zoon, Jerico and his cohorts will swiftly discover that is far from the simple bounty mission they thought it was.  Many powerful people, both inside and outside of Hive Primus, have a stake in Zoon’s capture, and soon Jerico will face off against some old rivals who are just as likely to settle old grudges as they are to claim Zoon’s bounty.  Worst, something dark and dangerous is rising in the deeps of the Underhive, and Kal is about to find himself in the middle of a massive fight that even his unnatural good luck may be able to save him from.

Now, that was a fun novel!  Sinner’s Bounty is an awesome read that not only successfully reintroduces a fan-favourite character but which also provides a pulse-pumping science fiction adventure for reader in the mood for an exciting and captivating story.  To tell this impressive new Kal Jerico novel, the Black Library has recruited veteran tie-in author Joshua Reynolds to continue the legacy started by authors like Renni and McDermott.  Reynolds is a talented author who is well-established in Warhammer fiction, having written a substantial amount of Warhammer 40K and Warhammer fantasy novels over the years, following a wide range of different characters and storylines.  I ended up really enjoying Reynold’s Kal Jerico novel and I was deeply impressed with the excellent combination of compelling narrative, great characters, and an iconic setting, all wrapped up with a fantastic sense humour, that helped to turn Sinner’s Bounty into such an exceptional read.

Sinner’s Bounty contains an epic tale of greed, adventure and friendship in the twisting tunnels of the Underhive that provides a ton of action and excitement.  Reynolds starts this story off with a bang (well, several bangs, a multitude of bangs if I am going to be honest), setting up first the main plot catalyst in Desolation Zoon and his mission, before introducing Jerico and his partners as they encounter their first obstacle on their hunt.  This entertaining first encounter serves as a fantastic introduction to the main protagonists, and Reynolds swiftly hurries them on their way, ensuring that they encounter more of the deadly elements of life in the Underhive, such as their lethal competitors.  At the same time, Reynolds starts introducing several additional characters who embark on the same mission of catching up with Jerico and Zoon.  These additional side characters introduce some intriguing alternate viewpoints and opinions, especially as each of them have their own agendas and motivations for being there.  These alternate viewpoints work extremely well in conjunction with the main narrative around Jerico, and Reynolds starts adding more and more in as the novel progresses, with nearly every supporting character and plot point coming together towards the end of the book.  Reynolds writes up a big conclusion with every major character in the same location forced to work together to survive in a scenario that was fantastically reminiscent of The Magnificent Seven.  At the same time, every character attempts to betray each other, resulting in some extremely entertaining and fun sequences, with the reader unsure who is going to end up on top and who is going to survive.  All of this is wrapped up perfectly, with a clever and fitting conclusion to the main story, while several open story threads set up some additional stories for the future.  All of this was deeply captivating, and while I personally got hooked on the cool story within the first few pages, there is so much intense action, clever betrayals and compelling plot points, that most readers will find themselves wanting to see how this awesome book ends as quickly as possible.

While many tie-in novels in the Warhammer 40K range have a somewhat limited audience, often requiring pre-knowledge of game lore, I felt that Sinner’s Bounty was extremely accessible and can be easily enjoyed by anyone interested in a fun science fiction adventure.  Reynolds does an exceptional job introducing all the relevant elements of Necromunda throughout the course of Sinner’s Bounty, and the reader is easily able to understand what is happening and why without any issue whatsoever.  Indeed, Reynolds makes this book so accessible that I would recommend Sinner’s Bounty as a fantastic introductory novel to anyone interested in seeing what Warhammer 40K fiction is all about, especially the Necromunda subset.  At the same time, Reynolds also ensures that Sinner’s Bounty caters for established fans, as there are a ton of references to the Necromunda game, previous Kal Jerico adventures and wider Warhammer 40K lore.  Not only do huge amounts of elements from the tabletop game make it into Sinner’s Bounty’s story, but Reynolds skilfully references events that occurred within both the Kal Jerico comics and novels, recapping them for new readers while also making some jokes about the events that occurred.  This great blend of references and detail makes Sinner’s Bounty an excellent Warhammer 40K novel for all readers and you are guaranteed to have a good time no matter how familiar you are with Kal Jerico or this fictional universe.

Without a doubt one of the best highlights of this entire novel was the incredible setting of the Underhive of Necromunda.  Reynolds goes all out throughout the course of this book to bring this grim, cavernous and incredibly deadly expanded setting to life in all its gory glory, and it is spectacular.  The reader gets a real sense of how life in the dark under a massive hive city must be like and the author has included all manner of details about crumbling façade, the unusual life forms and perilous living conditions that its many, many inhabitants must face.  Naturally, this turns out to be an outstanding setting for this action-packed storyline, and I had an amazing time seeing which horror or unique landscape would appear next.  Reynolds also loads up his novel with a huge amount of additional detail about the various gangs, families, and groups that control Hive Primus and inhabit the Underhive, which proves to be deeply fascinating.  The author really goes out of his way to provide a fantastic introduction to several factions that were featured in the tabletop game, allowing readers with limited knowledge of this universe to easily follow who these groups are and how they relate to wider story and world.  All of this proved to be extremely fascinating and readers are guaranteed to want to dive back into the depths to see more outstanding adventures here.

Another impressive part of Sinner’s Bounty was the extremely likeable and distinctive characters whose adventure the readers follow during this multi-perspective narrative.  Many of these characters were originally introduced in the previous comics and novels and Reynolds does an excellent job revitalising them and fitting them into his fantastic story.  The main protagonist of Sinner’s Bounty is the titular Kal Jerico, the Underhive’s most dashing and fashionable bounty hunter.  I really enjoyed the excellent version of Jerico that appeared in this novel, and the author has styled him as a particularly bold, resourceful, vain, and exceedingly lucky figure who moves from place to place bringing chaos and destruction.  Jerico is a very entertaining character, constantly delivering witticisms and fun one-liners to his compatriots, his enemies and himself, and you cannot help but enjoy seeing everything going wrong around him as he manages to annoy or enrage everyone he comes across.  It was particularly fun to see so many other characters get drawn into the events of this book partially out of spite towards Jerico, after being bested by him in previous adventures.  Despite his outer edge of pragmatism, greed and selfishness, Sinner’s Bounty shows that Jerico has a bit of a soul when it comes to some of the other people he encounters.  Not only is he shown to care about both his companions, despite several discussions where he implies he would sell them for his own benefit, but he also has a deeply ingrained sense of honour that drives him to do the right thing, even if it puts him in greater risk.  This makes for a fantastic and enjoyable character and I had a wonderful time seeing him scamper around in the Underhive making enemies and generally pissing everyone off.

In addition to his own vaunted self, Jerico also brought along two of his long-term associates Scabbs and Yolanda, both of whom have been part of the Kal Jerico series since the beginning (Scabbs appeared in Issue #1, while Yolanda was introduced in #2).  Both characters are heavily featured in Sinner’s Bounty and proved to be an excellent addition to the story.  The most significant inclusion is probably Scabbs, Jerico’s long-time friend and sidekick with a serious skin condition (hence the name Scabbs), who often unwillingly follows Jerico into danger.  Scabbs is a fun character who serves as a great counterpoint to Jerico’s insanity, often complaining about the terrible plans and generally looking for a more intelligent way to complete the mission.  Scabbs has a rather significant character arc within Sinner’s Bounty which forces him to examine his half-ratskin (a gang/clan in Necromunda) past, especially when he encounters Amenute, a ratskin mystic who is inexplicably drawn to him.  This forces Scabbs to re-examine his loyalties to Jerico, and it is intriguing to see this character act rashly as he faces off against powerful gangs to save his new acquaintance.

Next we have Yolanda, the dangerous and unpredictable wild woman who is currently Jerico’s wife (see the previous Kal Jerico novel, Lasgun Wedding).  Despite this marital relationship with Jerico, Yolanda is a just as likely to cut her husband’s throat as she is to help him, as she only serves her own best interest or her desires to kill as many people as possible.  Yolanda is another great character, especially as the reader is constantly left waiting for her inevitable betrayal of Jerico and Scabbs (I also had a good chuckle at an early joke about a poet trying to describe Yolanda, which does not go well for the poet!).  While Yolanda is a tad one-dimensional at times, Reynolds does a good job of trying to explore her inner psyche, showcasing some interesting parallels between her and Jerico, as both fled from a cushy life in the Spire to experience the joys of the Underhive, and there are some hints of some genuine feelings for Jerico, even though the two mockingly reference their sham marriage throughout the book.  I had a lot of fun with both these supporting characters and they proved to be an excellent accompaniment to Jerico’s antics.

Aside from these three protagonists, Reynolds has also loaded up Sinner’s Bounty with a raft of side characters, each of whom has their own agenda or plan, most of which revolve around killing Jerico (the guy is very popular).  The side characters featured within this book are an intriguing combination of established Necromunda bounty hunters and power brokers (I believe several are playable characters in the tabletop game), and original characters.  As a result, the reader gets to follow a range of religious fanatics, outrageous bounty hunters, scheming gangas, deranged mutants (including an entertainingly grandiose queen) and a whole range of other intriguing figures.  Thanks to the author’s excellent use of multiple perspectives, the reader gets a useful and suitable introduction to each of these characters, ensuring that they can be easily slotted into the narrative when necessary and cause their little bit of havoc.

Out of all these supporting characters, one of my favourites had to be the Adjurator (a fancy bounty hunter) Baertrum Arturos III, who serves as a major point-of-view character and secondary antagonist for this novel.  Baertrum is a slippery and treacherous hunter who is drawn into this chase not just for money but for the opportunity to one-up Jerico, who he has a deadly rivalry with.  Baertrum’s scenes are fun to read, especially as he is usually coming up with a new way to betray the other characters, and the reader has a great time hating him throughout the book.  I also liked the character of Desolation Zoon, the mad preacher whose brazen heist is the cause of all the events of this book.  Reynolds creates a particularly intriguing character in Zoon, showcasing him as a tired old preacher who, after a lifetime of piety and bloodshed, is starting to lose his faith and question his past actions.  However, this old dog still has some holy fire in him, and readers are in for a great time seeing him lay into his enemies with sword and blistering verse in equal measure.  Zoon has some particularly fantastic exchanges with Jerico in the second half of the novel, and I really enjoyed seeing this compelling figure come to life and be utilised throughout the book.  Overall, I thought that each of the characters in this exceptional novel were pretty damn fantastic and I had an exceptional time watching them attempt to survive and betray everyone they encounter.

I chose to grab Sinner’s Bounty on audiobook, which ended up being an amazing way to experience this fantastic and compelling novel.  The Sinner’s Bounty audiobook had a decent run time of just under 15 hours, which I managed to get through in about a week with a few extended listening sessions once I really got hooked on its outrageous tale.  I had a lot of fun listening to this audiobook and I found that the cool action sequences and gloriously gory setting of the Underhive were particularly awesome in this format.  A lot of this is down to the excellent narration of the talented Mark Elstob.  Elstob, who has previously narrated a small but interesting collection of audiobooks, has a lot of fun with Sinner’s Bounty as he comes up with some unique voices for this fantastic science fiction adventure.  All of the characters are gifted with a fitting and fun voice that really captures the depth of their personality, whether they be a scheming bounty hunter, a former aristocrat or a fantastical preacher, while also modulating to match their emotional state at that time.  This makes several of the battle scenes particularly fun, especially when you have characters like Desolation Zoon shouting out religious verse during a fight.  I also really appreciated the more nasal or gravelly voices the narrator came up for the various Abhuman or mutated beings featured within the book, and it was great to have some of the more different characters identified differently (I need to give a particular shoutout to one of characters, a mutant pirate captain, to whom Elstob gives a very enjoyable Scottish accent).  Overall, this was an outstanding way to enjoy Sinner’s Bounty and I would strongly recommend it to anyone interested in this book.

Kal Jerico: Sinner’s Bounty is an outstanding Warhammer 40K novel that reintroduces the epic Kal Jerico back to his adoring public after a lengthy absence.  The always impressive Joshua Reynolds has produced another outstanding Warhammer novel, containing an exciting and compelling adventure story, equipped with an incredible setting and some fantastic characters.  This results in an addictive and entertaining novel that I had an absolutely awesome time getting through and which made me so very glad that Kal Jerico is back.  Here’s hoping that we’ll get some more Kal Jerico novels in the future, especially if they feature more of Reynolds’s epic writing.

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

Usagi Yojimbo - The Brink of Life and Death

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 10

Length: 215 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage 15

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - 16

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #1

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #2

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #3

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

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Dark Horse #4

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Usagi Yojimbo Daisho Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (Paperback – 1998)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book 9

Length: 215 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

Usagi Yojimbo Mirage - #7

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 7: Gen’s Story by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Gen's Story

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1996)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Seven

Length: 187 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

For this week’s Throwback Thursday, I once again dive into the wonderful world of Usagi Yojimbo and review the seventh volume of this incredible ongoing comic series, Gen’s Story. I have been really enjoying going back and reviewing the older volumes of this fantastic comic by legendary writer and artist Stan Sakai, and this seventh volume is another excellent addition to the series that I always have a terrific time reading.

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Gen’s Story is an amazing example of a Usagi Yojimbo volume, which contains several short stories, each of which shows a unique tale set within the series’ clever version of feudal Japan populated with anthropomorphised animals. Each of the individual stories in this volume is rather good, and together they form a fantastic volume that not only introduces a recurring side-character but which also explores the backstory of another key character and serves as a perfect end note for one of the series’ best character arcs. This volume is made up of issues #32-38 of the Fantagraphics Books run on Usagi Yojimbo, as well as a story from Critters #38, which makes Gen’s Story a tad longer than a typical volume. All of these issues make for an awesome read, and Gen’s Story is another excellent addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series.

The first story contained within this volume is the fun and enjoyable tale, Kitsune. In this story Usagi encounters a talented street performer, Kitsune, who entertains the crowd with the tricks she can perform with her koma (spinning tops). However, Kitsune is much more than a simple entertainer; she is also an extremely skilled thief and pickpocket who manages to take Usagi’s purse without him realising it. This forces Usagi to stay late at an inn, washing dishes to pay for his meal, which results in him witnessing and intervening in an altercation between a notorious gambler and some local gangsters. Deciding to help the gambler under the mistaken belief that he is an innocent merchant, Usagi attempts to escort him out of town, where the two encounter Kitsune again just before the gangsters attack, leading to a fight in the streets.

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Kitsune is an entertaining story that works well as a suitably light-hearted start to the entire volume (get a fun story in before the feels start). The whole of this story is really amusing from the very start, and it contains some great comedy elements, from Usagi getting taken advantage of by Kitsune and the way he doesn’t initially realise that the person he is helping out is the same gambler who previously led a mob against him in A Kite Story, which was part of the fifth volume, Lone Goat and Kid. This leads to a great scenario where the gambler is forced to rely on Usagi for protection, while silently hoping that he will not remember who he is or what he previously did. Of course, Usagi eventually figures out who he is, thanks to the gambler’s boasting, and this results in a great end to the whole farcical tale. This issue also serves as an excellent introduction to the character of Kitsune, who goes on to become a major recurring figure within the Usagi Yojimbo stories. Sakai does a fantastic job showing off Kitsune’s personality and skills as a thief throughout this story, and I also love all the cool drawings he does of Kitsune’s various tricks with the spinning tops. Kitsune’s entire arc throughout this story is great, and I love how Usagi was able to get even with her at the very end, which is a fun prequel to all their future encounters. The combination of an entertaining plot, a great character introduction and an enjoyable call-back to a previous story helps to make Kitsune an excellent first entry in this volume, and I had an amazing time reading it.

The second story in this volume is the short entry Gaki. Gaki is quick and amusing story that follows a young Usagi back when he was a student under the tutelage of his sword master Katsuichi. After one of Katsuichi’s typical lessons, which sees Usagi receive a smack to the head, Usagi attempts to retaliate, striking a blow that seemingly kills his master and causes his ghost to start haunting Usagi. Of course, it ends up being a whole big misdirection, but it results in a fun sequence in which young Usagi is chased by a vengeful spirit, which all leads to a humorous conclusion. The highlight of this quick tale has to be the amazing drawings of the vengeful spirit and the pure terror that appears on the face of the young Usagi, all of which are way out of proportion to Gaki’s rather innocent story. All of this makes for an entertaining second inclusion in Gen’s Story, and it, together with the first story, provides readers with a fun start to this volume.

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The third story is where we start getting to the heavier narratives of this volume, as the reader is treated to the supernatural tale, Broken Ritual. This story sees Usagi walking late at night through a small village filled with an unnatural amount of fear, especially after a loud and terrifying wail breaks the silence. Talking to the townsfolk, Usagi learns that the village, which is located close to the site of the battle of Adachi Plain, is haunted by one of Usagi’s old comrades, General Tadaoka, who died following the battle in the midst of an incomplete seppuku ritual. Now, due to the shame of having a dishonourable death at the hands of an unworthy and unnamed enemy, Tadaoka’s spectre appears in the spot where he died each full moon, letting out a wail of anguish. Upon hearing this tale, Usagi decided to try and help end the suffering of his former comrade and manages to help the spirt pass peacefully by successfully performing the seppuku ritual on the ghost.

Broken Ritual is an impressive and gripping story of honour and duty which is easily one of the best inclusions in this volume. This is one of those stories that really sticks in the reader’s mind, and the whole concept of samurai honour, even from beyond the grave, is a really fascinating central plot aspect. I loved the exploration of the seppuku ritual, and the supernatural elements of this story play into this really well, as it highlights just how important an honourable death is to a samurai like Tadaoka, so much so that he came back from the grave to ensure it was done properly. Sakai’s art is in top form for this volume, and his outstanding depiction of a wartime seppuku ritual is absolutely incredible. The intense facial expressions of Tadaoka during the seppuku scenes are particularly enthralling, and Sakai does a fantastic job of showing the pain and concentration that would have been on such a person’s face. All of this leads to a deeply captivating story, and it is amazing the sort of gripping tale Sakai can spin together in single issue.

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The fourth story in this volume is the shorter story, The Tangled Skein, which is the story that was originally featured in Critters #38. This is a creepy, quick story that follows Usagi in the immediate aftermath of the battle of Adachi Plain. Fleeing from the victorious troops of Lord Hikiji, Usagi attempts to hide in a dark forest known as The Tangled Skein, which is rumoured to be filled with all manner of haunts. Naturally, Usagi runs into one of these haunts, a demon disguised as a helpful old lady, and he must try to escape her clutches with help from the most unlikely of sources. This was an awesome supernatural storyline that I quite enjoyed, especially as the story once again highlights some of the philosophies surrounding samurai honour and what duties a samurai has to his lord, and vice versa. Fast-paced, exciting and with a surprisingly poignant moral to its story, The Tangled Skein is great entry to the volume, and I am glad that Sakai included it.

The next story in this volume is simply call Gen, and it is the major storyline contained within Gen’s Story. Made up of three Usagi Yojimbo issues, this is an excellent story of revenge and obsession that also continues the theme of the last few stories by looking at samurai honour and obligation. This story also reveals the full backstory of the always amusing and enjoyable recurring side character Gen and shows how he came to be a bounty hunter. The story is broken into three separate parts by issue, with the first part called Lady Asano’s Story, the second part called Sins of the Father and the third and final part titled Lady Asano’s Revenge.

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Naturally, Gen revolves around the character Gen, who Usagi once again meets out in the wilds, and helps him claim his latest bounty. Recovering from this fight in a nearby town, Usagi shares a meal with a destitute noblewoman and her retainer. The noblewomen, Lady Asano, is on the hunt for her husband’s murderer, a former advisor who betrayed him for great reward, and her exhaustive 20-year long quest has left her poor and on her own. The story is interrupted by the arrival of Gen, who is revealed to be the son of the great General Murakami, the most revered retainer of the Asano clan, and whose family owes allegiance to Lady Asano. Gen, bitter at the years his hard and disciplined father spent dragging him and his mother around the countryside hunting the murderer, an event that led to the death of Gen’s mother and Gen becoming a bounty hunter, refuses to help Lady Asano. However, once Lady Asano and Usagi are captured by the murderous advisor, revealed to be the town’s magistrate, Gen attempts to help, leading to an emotional and violent confrontation.

This was another excellent story that had a number of fantastic elements to it. It was great to finally get Gen’s backstory revealed, as Gen promised to tell his story all the way back in the second volume, Samurai. This was actually a rather tragic backstory for Gen, and I really liked seeing it, especially as it fits in really well with Gen’s character, not only explaining why he is so eager to fight for money but also why he is so dismissive and distrustful of honourable samurai, who must remind him of his father. Sakai makes sure to wrap up Gen’s personal history rather well within this story, as Gen gets some closure with his father towards the end of the story in one of the few instances that we see a really serious and emotionally wrought Gen. I also liked how Sakai continued to explore the concept of samurai honour within this story, especially the obsession and hurt that it can cause. We got to see the negative impacts that having an extremely loyal and honourable samurai as a father had on Gen, and Sakai also focused on the obsession for revenge and redemption that existed within Lady Asano, which not only drove her into poverty but also gave her the strength to finally get her revenge. The sequence where the dying Lady Asano slowly advanced towards the target of her wrath was pretty intense, and she almost appeared demonic as she slowly moved to get her revenge. Other cool highlights of the story include the huge pitched battle that occurred between the protagonists and their opponents’ retainers in the magistrate’s compound, and the continued fun banter between Usagi and Gen, which adds some much needed humour into this heavier story. Overall, this is an impressive and addictive expanded story, that achieves a lot of fantastic character development and which serves as an excellent focus of this entire volume.

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The next story contained within this volume is another lighter story, The Return of Kitsune. In this story, Usagi, who is accompanied by Gen, once again encounters Kitsune, who is up to her usual tricks of street performances and pickpocketing. This time, however, she accidently steals a valuable letter meant for a corrupt local merchant, and she is subsequently hunted through the streets until she runs into Usagi and Gen. Usagi and Gen was work together to save Kitsune from the merchant, even if they cannot agree on what the best course of action is.

The Return of Kitsune is probably one of the funniest inclusions in this volume. The highlight of this entry has to be the first meeting between the two fun side characters, Kitsune and Gen. These two characters play off each other extremely well, and you cannot help but chuckle at the exasperated expression on Usagi’s face as the Gen and Kitsune begin to flirt with each other. I also enjoyed seeing the opposing philosophies of Usagi and Gen clash throughout this story, as Usagi wants to intervene to save lives, while Gen wants to stay out of the whole thing and claims that Usagi is too nosey. This whole argument proves to be a rather entertaining part of the story, and it results in some excellent scenes towards the end of the story, especially when Usagi takes Gen’s advice about minding his own business and fails to tell his friend that Kitsune stole his purse.

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The final entry in this volume is the outstanding narrative, The Last Ino Story, which serves as the last appearance of one of the best recurring characters to appear in the earlier volumes of this series. In The Last Ino Story, Usagi and Gen are taking one of Gen’s infamous shortcuts late at night and find themselves ambushed by bandits while traversing a narrow path along the side of a cliff. Managing to outsmart their attackers, Usagi and Gen seek shelter in a nearby abandoned hut, where they find themselves confronted by a young woman who is attempting to defend her wounded husband. Able to make their way inside, they find that the woman’s husband is none other than the Zato Ino, who has settled down and abandoned his violent ways after his last encounter with Usagi and Gen. Gravely wounded by the same bandits Usagi and Gen encountered, Ino appears close to death and the two samurai must work quickly if they are to save him and ensure he gets to live the life he rightly deserves.

The Last Ino Story is an outstanding and emotionally rich story which is an amazing way to finish this entire volume off. This last entry in this volume contains a great story in its own right, especially as it serves as a fantastic conclusion to one of the best character arcs in the series, that of Zato Ino. Ino was introduced all the way back in the first volume, The Ronin, as a blind outlaw who was trying to find a quiet place to settle down and rid himself of his life of violence, but whose efforts were constantly disrupted by his large bounty and the hunters chasing him. However, as the series progressed and Usagi kept meeting him, he grew as a character, from him gaining his first true friend in the third volume, The Wanderer’s Road, to him finally finding a home and family after the events of the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy. This final appearance from him (and it is indeed the last time that you see him), serves as a perfect send off to him, as Usagi and Gen, the only two people who knew his past and gave him a chance, find out that he ended up having a the peaceful life he always wanted and has even more happiness on the way. As a result, this is a perfect story for those readers who got attached to the character of Ino through the first volumes of the series, and it was great to see his story come to a satisfying end.

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I also liked Gen’s character arc throughout this story, especially once he finds out that Ino was the injured man in the barn. Gen and Ino have a complicated past, as Gen was initially trying to hunt Ino down for his bounty during their first encounter, and Ino ended up saving his life. In order to repay him, Gen dragged the injured Ino out of the castle before it exploded and told everyone, including Usagi, that Ino had died, in order to ensure that the blind pig would no longer be hunted and could settle down. In this story, Gen, upon seeing the man he saved once again dying, loses his cool and begins to take his rage out on an owl that has been stalking him throughout the course of the book, which he sees as an omen of death. Watching Gen constantly run out into the rain to chase away an owl is amusing on the surface, but it also reveals his deeper feelings that he usually keeps hidden: “The one decent thing I did was give him his peace, and you won’t take it away!” His determination to keep Ino alive because of this is a real change from his usual behaviour, and it helps underline that deep down Gen is a good character, even if he reverts to his usual gruff self the moment he knows Ino is fine. I also liked how the whole saga with the owl ended up, and it was a fun little turn around on the bird being an omen of death. Other highlights of this story include the cool battle sequence towards the front when Usagi and Gen manage to climb up the cliff and face the bandits trying to kill them. The five panels which show this fight are really cool, from the way that the grim faced Usagi and Gen are framed in the moonlight, the close-up of the bandits faces as they charge, the shot of Usagi’s bloody sword, and the way the fight is only alluded to by the sound effects that have been written in, makes for a great sequence that I really liked. All in all, The Last Ino Story is a first-rate inclusion, and it leaves the reader with a memorable and emotionally substantial ending to this volume.

The seventh Usagi Yojimbo volume, Gen’s Story, is another incredible addition to this awesome and deeply enjoyable series. Each of the entries within this excellent volume are outstanding reads, containing complex characters, fantastic narrative arcs and Sakai’s impressive artwork. Gen’s Story gets another five-star review from me, and Stan Sakai has once again shown why he is one of my favourite creative minds.

Throwback Thursday – Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 1: The Ronin by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Ronin Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1987)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book One

Length: 144 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

We are now less than two months until the next amazing volume of Stan Sakai’s long running Usagi Yojimbo comic series, Bunraku and Other Stories, is released, and I am getting excited. This new volume is set to feature several brand new Usagi Yojimbo stories (including an extended story about a haunted puppet drama), but it is apparently also going to feature a look back at the very first Usagi story as part of an 35th anniversary special. For that reason, I thought that this would be an excellent time to go back and review volume one of the Usagi Yojmbo series, The Ronin, to serve as a good base for the upcoming review.

Usagi Yojimbo is a unique comic book series that Stan Sakai started back in 1984. It focuses on the adventures of Miyamoto Usagi, an anthropomorphic rabbit samurai who lives in a version of feudal Japan (early Edo period) completely populated with other anthropomorphic animals. Usagi is a ronin, a masterless samurai, who wanders the land on a warrior’s pilgrimage, helping those he encounters and occasionally working as a yojimbo (bodyguard) for hire. Throughout his journey he encounters all manner of friends and foes, including a number of creatures from Japanese folklore, and finds himself constantly drawn into the political plots of the land. This series is written and drawn in a more western comic/cartoon style rather than the Japanese magna style. However, the Usagi Yojimbo series is strongly inspired by Japanese history and culture, featuring a huge range of accurate depictions of historical events and cultural icons. This series is currently collected in 33 volumes from several different publishers, with each volume containing a number of different issues from the series. These issues are usually standalone adventures, although a number of longer storylines are continued through several issues or volumes.

I have been meaning to go back and review the first volume Usagi Yojimbo for a while now. The Usagi Yojimbo series is easily one of my favourite comic book series of all time, as Stan Sakai has created a truly epic and compelling series. While on paper a series following a rabbit samurai in a version of feudal Japan populated by other anthropomorphic animals does sound a bit ridiculous, these comics are anything but. Through a combination of outstanding storylines, complex characters, intense action, great uses of humour and an intriguing and compelling look at Japanese history and culture, Sakai has created a comic series that is extremely endearing and captivating. I have been a massive fan of this series for years, having started reading it when I was in high school (thank goodness for my surprisingly well-stocked public library) after I first saw the character in the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated series. I have previously reviewed the last two volumes of Usagi Yojimbo on my blog already (Volume 32: Mysteries and Volume 33: The Hidden), with Mysteries actually being the very first comic I ever reviewed. Both of these previous volumes received a five-star rating from me, which I have also awarded to this first volume.

Unlike the rest of the collected volumes, The Ronin doesn’t actually contain any issues from the Usagi Yojimbo series. Instead, it contains several earlier Usagi stories which were part of other publications, such as Albedo Anthropomorphics, Critters, Doomsday Squad and Usagi Yojimbo: Summer Special. All of these were collected together for the first time in 1987 into this volume (I have the 2007 reprint), and appear in chronological order. The Ronin contains 10 separate chapters of various lengths, each with their own story. These include:

  • The Goblin of Adachigahara: the very first story to feature Usagi, and the one that the upcoming Bunraku and Other Stories is going to revisit. This initial story features Usagi returning to the area near the battlefield of Adachigahara, where he lost his lord, Mifune, in a battle, forcing him to become a ronin. Seeking shelter in the hut of an old lady, he recounts his story of the battle to his host, including the betrayal of one his lord’s generals which cost them the battle. Later, Usagi battles a flesh-eating goblin, revealed to be not only the treacherous general but also the husband of his elderly host, and manages to defeat him, sparing the old lady who was going to allow him to be eaten. This was an excellent introduction to Usagi, as you got some vital information about his history, his status and his skill as a warrior. You also got a great look at his moral character, as he chooses to spare a woman who would have let him be eaten, and instead instructs her to perform funeral rights on the man who cost him everything.
  • Lone Rabbit and Child: this second story involves Usagi getting involved in the politics of the nation, as he comes to the aid of a young lord, Noriyuki, and his retainer the swordswoman Tomoe Ame. Noriyuki and Tomoe are being hunted by the agents of the evil lord Hikiji, who was also responsible for the death of Usagi’s previous lord years ago (it is later revealed he also killed Usagi’s father). Usagi agrees to escort them to safety, and they must contend with mercenaries, assassins and ninja on their quest. This is an amazing second outing, which expands on the world the series is set in, continues to show off Usagi’s skill, and sets up Hikiji as the main antagonist of the series (even if you see very little of him later on).
  • The Confession: This story follows on directly from the events of Lone Rabbit and Child, and features Usagi in the possession of a vital letter implicating Lord Hikiji in the attempt to kill Noriyuki. Usagi is ambushed by the Neko Ninja, who seek to reclaim the letter, leading to a prolonged and desperate fight in the woods. This proved to be an awesome follow-up to the previous story, which continued to highlight Usagi’s skills in combat and Sakai’s ability to drawn excellent, high-stakes fight scenes. It also showed just how nefarious an opponent Hikiji and his advisor Counsellor Hebi (a big terrifying snake) can be.
  • Bounty Hunter: Usagi is hired as a Yojimbo by the bounty hunter Gennosuke as he attempts to claim his latest bounty, the leaders of a local gang. Engaging the gang in a fight at a temple, Usagi and Gen are an effective team, eventually getting their targets, although their partnership ends on an interesting note. This was an entertaining story that served as a perfect introduction to a great character. Usagi and Gen have amazing chemistry together and Gen is an awesome side character. This is also one of the first stories to feature some more humour in the story, especially in the end, which turns out to fit in well with the overall feel of the series.
  • Horse Thief: Sakai features a lot more humour when Usagi, after interfering in a robbery by a gang of bandits, takes one of the bandit’s horses. He attempts to sell the horse in town, only to discover that it was stolen from the local magistrate, who chases him into the woods. Usagi’s problems only escalate from there, when he and his pursuers run into the bandits, prompting a massive battle in which Usagi is everyone’s enemy. The story has a great ending, steeped in irony which leaves Usagi and the reader laughing hysterically. I loved the author’s use of coincidence and bad fortune in this story, and it was fantastic to watch Usagi go from one bad situation to the next.
  • Village of Fear: This is a bit more of a horror story, as Usagi comes across a village held captive by a fearsome monster. This horror is compounded when it is revealed that the monster is a shapeshifter who has taken the form of one of the villagers. This was a relatively brief story, but it is set up and executed very well, with several great character moments, and there is even time for a quick Gone with the Wind
  • A Quiet Meal: This is another of the more humorous stories in the volume, which features Usagi trying to have a quiet meal in an inn. Unfortunately, a gang of rough gamblers are causing trouble, throwing the other patrons out and trying their luck with Usagi. Usagi quickly shows them the error of the ways with some extremely fancy sword work, which causes them to flee in terror. The most noticeable feature of this entry is the fact that Usagi doesn’t speak once during the entire issue (he’s trying to have a quiet meal), and it’s up to his body language and the other characters to tell the story. This works extremely well and really helps to uplift the overall humour of the story. The way in which he sees off the ruffians is absolutely fantastic, and their absolute fear and disbelief at his skill, “this one’s been filleted”, is just great.
  • Blind Swords-Pig: This is a somewhat sadder and more dramatic story which features Usagi encountering and quickly befriending the blind pig, Zato Ino, who is seeking a peaceful place to settle down. Ino, however, is an extremely skilled warrior and wanted outlaw. Constantly hunted for his bounty, he relies on his sword skills and his ability to ‘see’ with his sense of smell. When Usagi finds out his true identity, the two engage is a fierce duel in which Ino loses his nose, truly becoming blind. This is one of the best stories in the whole of The Ronin, mainly because of the complex character that is Ino. He has a true desire for a peaceful life, but his past ensures that this can never happen, as even friendly characters like Usagi turn against him. This has turned him into a somewhat bitter creature, quick to hate those he meets “and what I hate, I kill!”, and the events of this first story help turn him into something even more angry, especially when it comes to Usagi.
  • Homecoming: This story sees Usagi return to the village of his childhood, but his return is not a peaceful one, as his village is under attack by the Mogura Ninja. Usagi must work with his childhood rival, Kenichi, to save the village; however, there is much enmity between Usagi and Kenichi, mainly because Kenichi married Mariko, the love of Usagi’s life. The two rivals must move past their differences, especially when Kenichi and Mariko’s son, Jotaro, is kidnapped by the Mogura Ninja. This was another exceptional entry in the volume, as it blends together tight action sequences with a deeper dive into Usagi’s past, including his complex and dramatic history with Kenichi and Mariko. The final pages of this issue are just heartbreaking, as it is revealed that Usagi and Mariko both kept the mementos they gave each other as young lovers, and they are both clearly in love with each other, even though they can never be together. I also really liked the Mogura Ninja in this book, especially as moles apparently make effective and deadly ninja.
  • Bounty Hunter II: This final story sees the return of Gen, who once again convinces Usagi to work with him to collect another bounty. Gen of course manages to complicate the job, and his actions backfire on Usagi, resulting in him getting into a major scrape. Despite Usagi’s understandable rage towards Gen, the two are able to part amicably, although Usage gets a small measure of appropriate revenge at the end of the story. I think that Sakai really hit his stride with the Usagi/Gen friendship in this second story, and the two of them play off each other extremely well. I really loved the end of this story, and it definitely got a big laugh out of me.

Overall, I felt that this volume contained a perfect blend of stories, and I really liked how Sakai jumped between action-based stories, to comedies and then to more dramatic tales, which helped produce a range of different emotional reactions. I did appreciate that the different issues also featured a range of different opponents and story basis, allowing the reader to understand that this series is going to focus on everything including banditry, ninja attacks, political intrigue and even the supernatural. I also think that the stories in The Ronin contained the right amount of character background for Usagi, providing enough for the reader to understand his motivations, while not being too overwhelming. This great blend of storylines and character arcs works extremely well together, and it makes for one heck of a complete volume.

The Ronin serves as an excellent introduction to this series, and I would strongly recommend that anyone interested in Usagi Yojimbo start with this volume. The stories within do a wonderful job of setting up the alternate version of historical Japan that this entire series takes place in. I absolutely love the combination of vibrant animal characters with feudal Japanese settings, and it works really well as the backdrop for an action series, especially with the political uncertainty and mass of unemployed samurai that accompanied the early years of shogunate rule. That being said, it is never quite explained why certain animals (horses and small dogs) are non-sentient, or why there are packs of dinosaur-like lizards (tokage) roaming the wilderness, although I kind of like the mystery. This volume also contains fantastic introductions for so many characters who are vital to the series, such as Gen, Tomoe, Mariko and more, and you get great insights into their characters, which are built up with each appearance they make. A lot of key character arcs or storylines start in the stories featured within this volume, and as each volume of Usagi Yojimbo is sequential, readers of the series are best served starting with this first volume. Luckily, The Ronin is a really good first entry in the series, and it is definitely worth checking out.

One of the most charming things about the Usagi Yojimbo series is the way in which Sakai sneaks so many different historical and cultural references into his stories. Most of the characters are either inspired by a real-life historical figure or a fictional character from Japanese or western culture. For example, Usagi himself is based on one of the most famed samurai of all time, Miyamoto Musashi, who is often credited with creating the two-sword fighting technique that Usagi utilises in the series, while Tomoe Ame is based on famed female samurai Tomoe Gozen. Other characters however are based on Japanese movie characters, such as Zato Ino who is a clearly a pig version of Zatoichi, the blind swordsman protagonist of a series of popular Japanese movies and televisions shows. Gen is based on the character that Toshiro Mifune portrayed in samurai films such as Yojimbo (which was later adapted into A Fistful of Dollars), and Usagi’s former lord Mifune gets his name from the actor. Other references include the title of the second story in this volume, Lone Rabbit and Kid which is a references to the manga series Lone Wolf and Cub (Sakai later creates the characters of Lone Goat and Kid as another homage to this series) and the fact that this series is partially named after the Yojimbo film. Two separate stories in this volume also reference Sakai’s previous work on the Groo the Wanderer comic, with Groo even briefly appearing in Lone Rabbit and Kid, sharing a fun stare down with Usagi. I had a great time with all these references (although I admit I had to look up a couple), and some of them are really clever. They add a lot of fun to this series and they are a real treat for readers, especially those already familiar with Japanese history, film or culture.

I am a big fan of Sakai’s art style, and each issue of Usagi Yojimbo is an absolute joy to view. Not only does he produce some outstanding action sequences with his drawings, many of which do an awesome job of depicting the samurai battle style, but he also creates some fantastic characters and breathtaking landscape scenes. Nearly every issue shows some inspiring and beautiful depiction of the Japanese countryside or a historical town, and the sheer amount of detail that he throws into his various scenes is just incredible. It’s also fun to see the various animals that can be turned into samurai, as everything from bulls, rabbits, crocodiles, rhinos, monkeys, pandas, cats and dogs appear in this first volume alone. For this first volume, however, the artwork is understandably a little inconsistent, mainly because Sakai had only just started drawing these characters. The various character designs are a little rough in places, especially if you are familiar with his later work, as Sakai is clearly experimenting with how he wants to depict these characters. A few of the action sequences are also a tad different from the later entries in this series, which can be a little jarring in places, but still really cool. Overall, though, most of the art in this book is pretty incredible, and it is fun seeking Sakai get into his groove with each new story. Sakai does an amazing job conveying emotion, action and intent through his drawings in this volume, and it turns out wonderfully. If I had to pick my favourite bit of art in this entire volume, it would be a scene in A Quiet Meal, where Usagi swings his sword around the head of a ruffian who is bothering him. While it first it appears that Usagi had done nothing, you slowly realise that the flies that Sakai had been subtly drawing around this character’s head before that point, are gone. The facial reactions of the various thugs when they realise what happened to the flies are just hilarious, and I absolutely loved it.

This first volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, The Ronin, is an amazing and spectacular read, which I have a lot of love for. Not only does it serve as an excellent introduction to the Usagi Yojimbo series, but it contains some captivating storylines, impressive artwork and a heck of a lot of fun. Needless to say, The Ronin gets a full five stars from me, and I cannot recommend this volume and the Usagi Yojimbo series enough. Reading this first volume actually got me re-reading the entire series again, and I have already made it up to volume 17. In my book, all of them are five star reads, and you can probably expect some more reviews of them in some future instalments of Throwback Thursday. Stay tuned to see my review of the next volume of this epic series, which I already know I am going to love.

Throwback Thursday – Star Wars (2015) Volume 1: Skywalker Strikes by Jason Aaron and John Cassaday

Star Wars (2015) Volume 1 Cover.jpg

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Publication Date: 6 October 2015

Length: 160 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

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

I think it is fair to say that I have been in a real Star Wars mood lately. Maybe it is because of the imminent release of the final movie in the Skywalker Saga, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, or perhaps it is because The Mandalorian is such an awesome TV show. Whatever the reason, I have been reading and reviewing quite a few Star Wars books and comics lately. For example, I am currently listening to Star Wars: Force Collector, I reviewed Tarkin last week and I recently read and reviewed Resistance Reborn and Vader: Dark Vision. As a result, I thought that this week would be a good time to do a Throwback Thursday on the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars comic book series, Skywalker Strikes, which did an outstanding job of introducing an extremely exciting ongoing comic series.

The Star Wars comic book series was started in 2015 and follows the adventures of the protagonists of the original Star Wars trilogy. Set shortly after the events of A New Hope, this series attempts to fill in the three years between the first film and The Empire Strikes Back. The Star Wars comics originally ran concurrently with the Darth Vader (2015) comic series until that series ended, and then proceeded to run alongside the Doctor Aphra comics. The Star Wars series ran for 75 issues and has only recently concluded. A sequel series with the same name is set to begin in early 2020, which will follow the events between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.

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Volume One of Star Wars begins shortly after the destruction of the Death Star. With the Empire in turmoil following the destruction of such a major weapon, Rebel Alliance members Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2 use the chaos to infiltrate a key Imperial weapons factory. While they are able to destabilise the factory’s reactor core and free its slave labour force, the Rebels are unprepared for the unexpected arrival of Darth Vader.

Attempting to complete their mission while also trying to kill Vader, the Rebels find themselves hopelessly outmatched by the Dark Lord of the Sith, who is determined to capture the Rebel who blew up the Death Star. Not even Luke, with his newly discovered Jedi abilities, is able to stand up to Vader, and the Rebels barely manage to escape with their lives.

Frustrated by his failures against Vader, Luke decides to take a leave of absence from the Rebel Alliance and returns to Tatooine to contemplate his future. Travelling to the house where Obi-Wan Kenobi lived in exile for years, Luke hopes to find something that will guide him. Instead he finds himself walking into a trap, as the bounty hunter Boba Fett is lying in wait. At the same time, Leia talks Han into a scouting mission for the Rebels, but their simple mission soon attracts the wrong sort of attention. Who is the mysterious woman hunting Han, and why is claiming to be his wife?

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Skywalker Strikes, which is made up of Issues #1-6 of the Star Wars series, contains an outstanding story, fantastic artwork and some of the most insane Star Wars action sequences that you will ever see. The team of Jason Aaron and John Cassaday, have done an amazing job on this comic, and this first volume does a wonderful job starting off this long-running series. While all the issues in this volume are connected together pretty well, I would say that there is a distinctive break between Issues #1-3 and Issues #4-6. Issues #1-3 focuses solely on the protagonist’s attack on the weapon facility, while the last three issues feature some more independent adventures from some of the series’ various characters, as each of them is searching for something.

The sequence contained within Issues #1-3 is just incredible, and it is easily my favourite part of the entire series. What starts as a fun infiltration of an Imperial facility quickly devolves into utter chaos as Darth Vader enters the mix. What then follows is nearly three whole issues of action, explosions, fantastic first meetings and all manner of destruction as the Rebels desperately attempt to escape the factory. While all the characters involved in this part of the comic are really good, I have to say that Vader steals the show as the indestructible villain. This was actually one of the first pieces of fiction in the new Disney Star Wars canon that shows off how amazing Vader could truly be, and it is pretty darn awesome. Pretty much from the first instance he appears, he shows off the full extent of his powers by throwing stormtroopers in front of a sneak attack from Chewbacca, and then by starting to crush an AT-AT with the force. He then subsequently survives a full-on blast from the AT-AT’s cannons and hacks it to pieces with his lightsaber. He also cuts through a bunch of escaping slaves and shows his intense displeasure to his subordinates in a number of destructive ways, including twisting a stormtrooper’s head 180 degrees with the force (to be fair, he did catch sight of Vader without his helmet) and choking a Star Destroyer captain from an insane distance. I can also not be the only person who cracked up at Vader very quickly destroying an Imperial Officer moments after he said “Lord Vader will have my….” (spoilers, he was going to say head, and Vader really did). All of this destruction and action was essentially pure awesome, and I loved every second of it.

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In addition to all the action in this part of the book, there are also some major moments in Star Wars history that fans of the franchise are really going to enjoy. For the one thing, it actually has the first face-to-face confrontation between Luke and Darth Vader. This scene is handled extremely well. Luke, still believing that Vader is the one responsible for the death of his father, jumps at the chance to get revenge. However, as Luke runs towards Vader’s location full of confidence, he hears the disembodied voice of Obi-Wan Kenobi telling him to run. This is advice that Luke really should have taken; Vader, after berating Luke for his obvious lack of skill with the lightsaber, rather easily disarms him. While getting ready to kill Luke, Vader notices that the lightsaber he has taken off him is the very one he used to wield as Anakin Skywalker, which obviously raises some issues within him. As events at the factory spiral out of control, Luke is able to evade Vader, who starts to grow slightly more impressed by his skills. As Luke makes his escape, Vader realises that he is not only the pilot that destroyed the Death Star but also Kenobi’s last great hope. Still not fully realising the identity of the boy he just encountered, Vader rather vindictively promises to corrupt him to his purposes. All of these events are pretty incredible moments in Star Wars history, and I think that the creative team did an outstanding job introducing them in this new canon. The initial face-to-face showdown between the main protagonist and villain of the original Star Wars trilogy is a pretty significant moment, and I really loved how it was shown. The hints at the hidden history between the two are great, and the initial realisations from Vader that there is more to Luke than he realises are fantastic. I also liked how the creative team showed Luke as having no real skill with the lightsaber or the force. Considering that he only had about an hour of training with Kenobi, it really isn’t that surprising that he has no lightsaber abilities, so this is a pretty clever and realistic inclusion, especially as a good part of the following Star Wars comic series deals with some of the earliest days of his training. While these events are probably not the most significant to occur in this volume (more on that later), they are incredibly intriguing and any fan of the Star Wars franchise is going to love it.

The last three issues of Skywalker Strikes are also very entertaining, though less action-packed, since the creative team has opted instead for storytelling and showing off the state of the Empire and Rebel Alliance. While a despairing Luke sets off to find answers, Han and Leia set off to find potential locations for a new Rebel base, while Vader has a meeting with Jabba the Hut. There are some really interesting aspects to this part of the story, from the growing hopelessness in Luke as he begins to realise how far he is from becoming a Jedi, to Vader’s sudden obsession with capturing Luke, to the growing hints of romance between Han and Leia, disguised at this point as antagonism. However, I would say that it’s the newcomers to the comic series, Boba Fett and Sana Solo, that are some of the best parts of the last three issues of the volume. Fett, who has long been a fan favourite despite his complete underutilisation in the movies, shines as the badass bounty hunter as he scours Tatooine for Luke, eventually finding out all about him through some very violent means. This leads to a pretty fun showdown between Boba and Luke, as Boba ambushes him at Kenobi’s house and easily incapacitates him and R2-D2 with his cool array of weapons and tactics. It is only thanks to Luke’s first close-combat use of the force that he is able to escape, as he successfully blocks a blaster bolt while blinded (a nice homage to the training sequence from A New Hope) and moves an item with his mind. All of this was a pretty entertaining showdown, and I loved seeing Fett in action for once. We also have the mysterious Sana Solo, who has a pretty fantastic takedown of some Rodian thugs with a great piece of technology and a ruthless demeanour. She is later able to track down Han and Leia, absolutely terrifying Han before dropping one of the biggest bombshells of the book: that she is Han’s wife. While this is not explored in any great detail in this volume, it is an excellent introduction for this great character, who goes on to become a fairly major figure in the current Star Wars canon. As a result of all of this, the second half of the volume holds up pretty well to the action-packed first half, and there are plenty of major scenes, including the very big ending.

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While I did really like the second part of this volume, the best way to appreciate it fully is if you understand its connection to the Darth Vader (2015) series of comics. The Darth Vader series was launched right on the heels of the Star Wars comics and it is actually set in the aftermath of the first three issues of this volume. In the first issue of this concurrent comic, it is shown that Vader has actually started going rogue on the Emperor and is making his own deals with Jabba the Hutt, before the formal discussion he has with Jabba in Issue #4 of the Star Wars series. This actually clears up the somewhat cryptic discussion he has with Jabba later in the issue, where they talk about the bounty hunters he has hired, and also shows the point where he actually tasked Boba Fett with finding Luke. While none of this is absolutely vital when it comes to fully understanding the plot of Skywalker Strikes, it is interesting to see that some of the referenced events occurred in another series. However, the main reason why readers should try to understand the connection between this comic and the Darth Vader series is in the epic conclusion both of them share, where Vader learns the last name of the boy he has been hunting. Both Issue #6 of Star Wars and Darth Vader were actually released on the same day, so readers of both series were able to see this scene at the same time. The two scenes are shown in a slightly different light in each series. It is expanded a bit more in the Darth Vader series, as it plays into the feelings of resentment towards the Emperor that have been building in Vader through the series. However, I quite liked the simpler version in Issue #6 of Star Wars, as the slow-boiling rage and anger within Vader is pretty obvious, as he takes a whole page to fully react, cracking the glass on a Star Destroyer and simply whispering, “Skywalker”. As a result of this connection, the Star Wars and Darth Vader series complement each other extremely well, and I would strongly recommend reading both pretty close together. However, no matter which series you read, the sequence showing the moment where Vader realises that his son is still alive and a Jedi is pretty darn epic and really memorable.

It could be argued that splitting this volume into two separate storylines was an interesting choice from the book’s creative team. I imagine that six issues focused on the attack on the Imperial weapons factory would have been pretty epic (just imagine how much more destruction Vader could have wrought). However, I personally think they did the right thing by splitting the story and showcasing the aftermath of this action. This way you not only get the intense action of the first few stories but you also get to see the consequences of the mission, and all the implications this has for the wider Star Wars universe. In addition, there is also quite an intriguing set up for several key moments in the upcoming series as a whole, a whole new fight between Luke and another iconic Star Wars character in Boba Fett, and some amazing connections with a sister series. I really liked how the story of the entire volume came together, and I think it was an outstanding way to start this excellent series.

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I have to say that I was also really impressed with the awesome artwork that was featured in this first volume. The artwork was drawn by John Cassaday, and featured Laura Martin as the colourist. It is pretty amazing the way that Cassaday was able to capture the faces of the core original trilogy cast members with his artwork. Luke, Leia and Han all look really good to my eye in this volume, and the artist has also done some great renditions of other existing characters, such as Vader, Boba Fett and Jabba the Hutt. In addition, I really enjoyed all of the marvellous and exhilarating action sequences that they artistic team portrayed throughout the volume. These action scenes, especially the ones featuring Vader at the start of the book are just incredible, and I really loved seeing all the fantastic and creative violence. In addition to all the action, there are a number of scenes where the artwork helps to enhance the emotions and hidden meaning of a scene, and I will always love the way that they portrayed the closing moments of this volume. This was some first-rate Star Wars comic book art that is really worth checking out.

As you can see from the above review, I really loved this first volume of the Star Wars (2015) comic book series. The amazing creative team behind this first volume did a fantastic job with the first six issues that make up Skywalker Strikes, producing an extraordinary story which is complimented by a connection to another series and some exceptional artwork. This volume is a fantastic introduction to the flagship comic book series of the Star Wars franchise, and it comes highly recommended. No great knowledge of the expanded Star Wars canon is required to enjoy it, and indeed this may prove to be an effective gateway to the greater Star Wars universe. This gets a full five stars from me, and I am so very glad I decided to check out the Star Wars comic book series this year.