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.

Usagi Yojimbo – Vol 33: The Hidden by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Hidden Cover

Publisher: Dark Horse Books (9 July 2019)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Volume 33

Length: 200 pages

My Rating: 5 out of stars

While there are a number of great books and comics coming out this year, one of the releases that I have been most keenly looking forward to was this year’s volume of Usagi Yojimbo. Usagi Yojimbo by Stan Sakai is a fantastic comic book series that utilises Japanese style, characters and history into an excellent series. This series is one of my favourite bodies of work, and I will move heaven and earth to get each instalment, and I especially loved last year’s volume, Mysteries. I was pretty darn excited to get the 33rd volume, The Hidden, and powered through it the afternoon that I received it.

Usagi 166.jpg

The Hidden continues the story of Miyamoto Usagi, a wandering ronin samurai who lives in a version of medieval Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals. Usagi’s life occurs in the early 17th century, during the Edo era of Japan. This is a pretty interesting time period to set a story, as with the land mostly at formal peace thanks to the rule of the Shogun, many samurai have been forced to roam the land without a master to serve. Usagi, a highly skilled samurai based on the legendary historical warrior Miyamoto Musashi, has been forced to live the ronin lifestyle after the death of his lord. Wandering the roads and seeking employment as a Yojimbo (a bodyguard), Usagi encounters all manner of rogues, bandits and criminals, as well as a number of supernatural foes from Japanese folklore.

The Hidden is made up of issues #166-#172 of the series and is actually one of the rare Usagi Yojimbo volumes to feature just one single adventure rather than multiple interconnected or standalone stories. This volume also continues to pair Usagi with Inspector Ishida for the entire volume. Ishida, who is essentially a Japanese Sherlock Holmes (although based on real-life Honolulu policeman Chang Apana), is a recurring character within the Usagi series who has appeared in multiple volumes, often for just one issue or adventure. However, after teaming up to investigate a murder a couple of volumes ago, Usagi has been living in Ishida’s town and assisting him with his investigations. As a result, Ishida has become a secondary protagonist for the last two volumes, with Mysteries, for example, focusing on the two solving several different crimes.

Usagi 167.jpg

This new volume starts with a brand-new case, when two samurai are pursued into the city and brutally murdered. When Usagi and Ishida discover crucifixes on the dead samurai’s bodies, they quickly realise that both the victims where Kirishitans (Christians). Christianity, which has been bought into the country by European missionaries, has recently been outlawed in Japan by the Shogun, and his agents are hunting down all practitioners. It soon becomes clear that the dead samurai were killed by agents of the Shogun who were attempting to recover a mysterious book of foreign design.

However, in a twist of fate, a petty thief manages to steal the book off the corpse of one of the samurai. This thief is now the most wanted man in the city, as the Shogunate agents and their hired killers attempt to find him and the book at all costs. As Usagi and Ishida work out what has happened, they are determined to bring the killers to justice. Hunting for both the book and the criminal who stole it, Usagi and Ishida, with the help of the masked master-thief Nezumi, manage to locate part of the book, and what they discover could rock the entirety of Japan. As they attempt to come to terms with their discovery, the Shogunate agents determine that the two investigators are a threat and decide to eliminate once and for all.

Usagi 168.jpg

While I may have had to wait a whole year to read this latest volume, it was definitely worth it. Sakai has once again produced an outstanding comic book that I could not have put down for anything. Not only has Sakai written an intriguing and clever story with a great mystery and an informative look at a new aspect of Japanese history, but he tells it through his beautiful Japanese-inspired artwork that really brings the characters and the landscape to life. Together this results in another exceptional piece of work that I absolutely loved.

Usagi 169.jpg

The main story focuses upon Usagi and Ishida’s investigation into the murders of Christian samurai and the hunt for the mysterious book the Shogunate agents are searching for. This was a really interesting story, and I liked how Sakai took the entire volume to really flesh out the investigation. The two characters go on a compelling adventure in this book, running into a number of colourful characters, dodging political restraints, interrogating a number of suspicious characters and getting into several deadly fights. However, what starts out as an intriguing investigation soon turns into a deep and powerful tale of convictions, belief and faith, and the things one must do to preserve all three. This is shown by a number of characters, including Usagi and Ishida, who risk everything to find the truth and more. There is also the amazing character arc of new character Hama, whose heart-rending sacrifice is one of the most memorable parts of this book. There is also a fairly major revelation about one of the other characters towards the end of the volume that actually changes the way you see the story and is guaranteed to make you look back to see the various things you missed the first time. Several recurring Usagi characters are used exceedingly well in this book. The mysterious masked thief Nezumi makes a great return, helping the protagonists with their investigation. It is always cool to see Nezumi in action, and I enjoy seeing the grudging respect build between him and Ishida, despite them living on opposite sides of the law. Everyone’s favourite snitch, Toady, makes another appearance, adding a lot of humour to the story as he attempts to weasel his way into more gold. Overall, this was another well-written and captivating story that was a real pleasure to read.

Usagi 170.jpg

One of my favourite aspects of the Usagi Yojimbo books is that Sakai often uses them to explore some fascinating piece of Japanese history, culture, mythology or industry and present them in a way that his western audience can appreciate. I was really glad that he continued this trend in The Hidden, as this time he takes an intriguing look at the role of early Japanese Christians in 17th century Japan. These Christians, who are the titular hidden ones of this volume, were an outlawed minority, due to Christianity directly contradicting a number of traditional Japanese beliefs and therefore challenging the authority of the Shogun. This latest volume shows this persecution in action, as the city is locked down by agents of the Shogun who are hunting for a valuable Christian item. The reader gets a sense of the illicit and hidden nature of these Christians and the way they were hunted, and Sakai also shows certain unique parts of this hunt, such as the fumi-e (trampling image). The fumi-e was an image of a cross that the Shogun’s enforcers placed on the ground in front of the gates of barricades that were set up at key points of the city. In order to pass through the barricades, pedestrians were forced to stamp on the image, showing their disdain for the Christian religion, and those who refused to step on the image were arrested as Christians. This was a fascinating part of Japanese history that I found incredibly interesting to see in action, and one that Sakai was able to cleverly work into the book’s plot. There were also a few fun scenes which looked at a black-market dealer who sold items which originated outside of Japan. Due to the Shogun isolating the country, these were incredibly valuable items, and I liked seeing what items this dealer considered valuable (the dealer’s European dress also made for a stunning visual as well). All of this was really cool to learn about, and I cannot wait to see what aspects of historical Japan the author explores in his next volume.

Usagi 171.jpg

Sakai’s fantastic artwork is once again one of the major highlights of this volume. Sakai is a particularly skilled artist who always does a fantastic job bringing the beauty and grace of Japan and its culture to life. The artwork on the surrounding landscape is just spectacular, and I always love attention to the historical detail on the buildings and people inhabiting his towns. One of the highlights of The Hidden that I particularly liked was the consecutive prayer gates leading up to a shrine that the characters visit. The visuals on all these gates were just amazing and very distinctive. I also really enjoyed the way that Sakai portrays his battle sequences in his series; he has a real talent for bring multiple high-energy battle scenes to life. I especially like how he manages to convey so much action and intensity in his still frames, and it really shows off some cool aspects of Japanese sword play. This was another beautifully illustrated volume, and the great art goes exceedingly well with the fantastic story Sakai has devised.

Usagi 172.jpg

Volume 33 of Usagi Yojimbo, The Hidden, was another excellent addition to this amazing series. Sakai once again produces a compelling story in his unique comic-book universe which results in a spectacular volume that I know I am going to read again and again in the future. While this was an outstanding Usagi Yojimbo story, I now have the downside of having to wait a whole other year to get my next Usagi fix. Make sure to check back next year when I will no doubt gush about how much I loved volume 34 of this series.

Top Ten Tuesday – Book’s I Loved with Fewer than 2,000 Ratings on Goodreads.

Top Ten Tuesday is a weekly meme that currently resides at The Artsy Reader Girl and features bloggers sharing lists on various book topics.  This week’s challenge is to provide my top ten books that I loved with fewer than 2,000 ratings on Goodreads.

While in theory this sounds like an easy list to produce, I actually found that I had some real difficulty finding books with fewer than 2,000 ratings on Goodreads.  Quite a few of my favourite books, series or comic books all had more than 2,000 Goodreads ratings, so I had to sadly exclude them.  I was actually surprised at some of the books that had more than 2,000 ratings and I had to do quite a detailed search of my library and comic collection to come up with this list.  In the end, I had to omit pretty much all my favourite fantasy and historical fiction series, as most of the books within them had been rated way more than 2,000 times.  Still, I was able to come up with a very interesting top ten list that features a wide range of fantastic books I would definitely recommend.

 

Honourable Mentions:

Punisher Max, Vol. 1: In the Beginning by Garth Ennis and Lewis LaRosa – 1,652 ratings

Punisher Max 1 Cover

Empire of Silence by Christopher Ruocchio – 967 ratings

Empire of Silence Cover

Teen Titans, Vol. 2: Family Lost by Geoff Johns – 886 ratings

Teen Titans 2 Cover.jpg

My List – In order of Goodreads Ratings:

 

Green Arrow, Vol. 3: The Archer’s Quest by Brad Meltzer, Ande Parks and Phile Hiester – 1,933 ratings

Green Arrow Archer's Quest.jpg

The Green Arrow series that begin in 2001, following the resurrection of the original Green Arrow, Oliver Queen, in Kevin Smith’s Quiver, has to be one of my favourite runs of Green Arrow.  Not only did it feature some great storylines and some excellent characters both new and old but it also focused on a truly flawed DC superhero.  Easily my favourite out of the stories featured in this series is the third volume, The Archer’s Quest, written by thriller and mystery writer Brad Meltzer.  Meltzer has written several of my favourite DC comic books, including the incredible Identity Crisis (which unfortunately has over 18,000 ratings, or it would certainly be on this list).  The Archer’s Quest is a fantastic story that sees Oliver attempting to come to terms with his resurrection by heading out on a road trip with his former sidekick, Roy Harper, in order to retrieve several items from his past that have deep emotional significance to him.  What follows is a touching journey that sees the original Green Arrow interact with a number of characters from his past while also offering the reader several major character revelations.  This is a classic Green Arrow tale that all fans of the character need to check out, and I am very glad it squeaks in at just below 2,000 ratings.

Usagi Yojimbo, Volume 2: Samurai by Stan Sakai – 1,410 ratings

Usagi Yojimbo Samurai Cover.jpg

I have mentioned on my blog before how much I love Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo series, and quite frankly I would award all 32 volumes five stars.  However, the second volume of this series, Samurai, stands out as one of the best early volumes in this series, which sets out much of the protagonist’s backstory and establishes a number of future storylines and characters.  It is also when Sakai hits his stride artistically with his character and environment, incorporating the designs that would be a fantastic hallmark of his future volumes.  This is essential reading for those fans of this rabbit samurai, and a fantastic starting point for those interested in checking out the series.

City of Lies by Sam Hawke – 870 ratings

City of Lies Cover

Another outstanding debut from 2018, City of Lies was one of the best fantasy books I read last year. After the much-deserved hype it has received online I was surprised that it only had 870 ratings.  With its iconic poison-based storyline, this was an incredible book that successfully introduces a fantasy series with a lot of potential.

The Pericles Commission by Gary Corby – 749 ratings

The Pericles Commission Cover.jpg

The Pericles Commission is the first book in the Athenian Mysteries series (also known as the Hellenic Mysteries series) by Australian author Gary Corby, which has to be one of my favourite historical crime series of all times.  Released in 2010, The Pericles Commission is the best book in this series and it also served as an excellent introduction into this fun series.  The Pericles Commission is a fantastic blend of historical fiction and murder mystery that also contains a huge amount of humour, mostly achieved through a series of modern actions that feel out of place in historical Athens.  This is an outstanding book that I had a lot of fun reading and reviewing in The Canberra Times.  I still chuckle at the fantastic court scene that Corby wrote near the end of the story.

The Defiant Heir by Melissa Caruso – 745 ratings

The Defiant Heir Cover

This is the second book in one of my favourite new fantasy series, the Swords and Fire series.  I found this second book to be an excellent addition to this fantastic series, which expands on the interesting new universe while also offering some incredible character development.

Deep Silence by Jonathan Maberry – 731 ratings

Deep Silence Cover

I have mentioned Deep Silence several times in the last few months, including on my Top Ten Reads of 2018 list.  It is still one of the best new audiobooks of last year and is also the book that introduced me to the outstanding Joe Ledger series, which is one of my favourite series that I am reading at the moment.  As the other two books in the Joe Ledger series that I have read, Patient Zero and The Dragon Factory, both have more than 2,000 ratings, Deep Silence was an easy inclusion for this list.

Planetside by Michael Mammay – 682 ratings

Planetside Cover

Planetside is one of my favourite debuts of 2018 and I am very happy to be able to feature it in this list.  Mammay crafts an amazing story that blends together a great science fiction narrative with a first-rate investigate thriller storyline.  Featuring one of the best story endings of the year, this is a book well worth checking out.

Teen Titans, Vol. 5: Life and Death by Geoff Johns – 624 ratings

Teen Titans 5 Cover.jpg

Geoff Johns’s extended run on the 2003 series of Teen Titans was one of the first comic series I really got into and it remains as one of my favourite comic book series of all time.  During this series, Johns completely re-imagined the classic superhero team of the Teen Titans by incorporating standout characters from the Young Justice series and teaming them up with an older generation of classic Titans for some incredible adventures.  I had to include at least one volume of this series in this list, but this was the one I struggled with the most.  With the first volume having too many ratings on Goodreads, I had to choose between Volumes 2, 4 and 5.  While Volume 2: Family Lost, features an outstanding re-introduction of iconic DC character Raven, and Volume 4: The Future is Now, contains several amazing storylines, including a grim look into the future and a massive brawl between all the previous Teen Titans and Dr Light, I had to choose Volume 5: Life and Death in the end.  Life and Death is a bit of a companion piece to DC’s massive Infinite Crisis crossover event and features an extended look at several storylines that make up the main Infinite Crisis story.  While I enjoyed all the storylines featured within this volume, I am mainly choosing it because of the tragic fate of Superboy, who, after finally admitting his love to Wonder Girl, sacrifices himself to save the world.  As it features one of my top comic book moments of all times, this volume of Teen Titans is a welcome addition to this list.

Pandora’s Boy by Lindsey Davis – 614 ratings

Pandora's Boy Cover

Without a doubt, Lindsey Davis’s Flavia Albia series is one of the best historical crime series running at the moment, and I am a huge fan of this amazing crimes series set deep within ancient Rome.  While I have quite enjoyed all of the books in the series, my favourite has to be the sixth book, Pandora’s BoyPandora’s Boy featured an intriguing mystery that fully utilises the book’s classic Roman setting while also creating some extremely humorous moments.

Star Wars Darth Vader: Dark Lord of the Sith, Volume 3: The Burning Seas by Charles Soule – 550 ratings

Darth Vader - The Burning Seas Cover

I have been loving this Star Wars comic series over the last year, as Charles Soule and his creative team have been doing a superb job of reminding everyone why Darth Vader is one of modern fictions biggest badasses.  The third volume, The Burning Seas, was my favourite volume of this series, and featured some exceptional storylines and marvellous artwork.  A fantastic comic to round out this list, this volume is a perfect read for all Star Wars fans.

Usagi Yojimbo, Vol 32: Mysteries by Stan Sakai

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Publisher: Dark Horse Books

Publication Date – 10 July 2018

 

After a year I have finally gotten the new volume of Usagi Yojimbo, one of my favourite long-running comic series.  Now I and other fans of the long-eared samurai can finally enjoy another set of exhilarating adventures in Stan Sakai’s version of feudal Japan.

Usagi Yojimbo is a great series that has been running since 1987, three years after the character was originally created.  In a world inhabited by anthropomorphic animals, the series is set in the early Edo period of Japanese history, during the time of the Shogun and the wandering samurai.  The series was originally supposed to feature human characters and a protagonist based on the famous historical samurai Miyamoto Musashi.  However, the series was changed to feature animals after the artist drew an early version of the hero with rabbit ears and created the series’ titular yojimbo, Miyamoto Usagi.

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The Usagi Yojimbo series follows the adventures of Miyamoto Usagi through feudal Japan.  After the death of his lord, Usagi has become a ronin, a masterless samurai, and has spent the last few years wandering the country seeking employment as a yojimbo, a bodyguard.  Throughout his travels, Usagi finds all sorts of danger and adventures, and is often drawn into a range of conflicts throughout the troubled landscape, facing threats both natural and supernatural in origin.

With 32 collected editions over 30 years, as well as the two additional graphic novels and the spin-off series, Space Usagi, Usagi Yojimbo has developed a dedicated fanbase.  Those who have not read this series may be familiar with it due to its frequent crossovers with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  Characters from both franchises have crossed over into each other’s respective comic book series several times.  In addition, Usagi has appeared in all three Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television shows, often with some side characters.  One of my first exposures to the characters of Usagi Yojimbo was during The Big Brawl arch of the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series, and I’ve been a fan of the character ever since.

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Stan Sakai’s series is a hybrid of western graphic novels and Japanese manga.  The style and format of the comics come across as more of a classic western style, but the story content and the series’ art is heavily influenced by Japanese culture and history.  Every issue is filled with incredible depictions of Japanese customs, history, folklore and mythology, and includes realistic and historically accurate illustrations of feudal Japanese weapons, clothes and buildings.  In addition, the dialogue includes a number of Japanese words which are translated in text, and the characters are all named using traditional Japanese naming conventions, with the family name presented before the given name.

Mysteries is the 32nd collected edition of this series, and contains issues #159-#165 of the Usagi Yojimbo series.  These issues see Usagi reunited with his friend Inspector Ishida as they investigate a series of mysteries in Ishida’s jurisdiction.  There are four main stories, including The Hatamoto’s Daughter, Death by Fugu, the two-part series The Body in the Library and the three-part series Mouse TrapMysteries also contains two of the shorter Chibi Usagi stories that Sakai writes with his wife, Julie, which feature cute versions the franchise’s characters.

Readers of the latest volume of Usagi Yojimbo are in for another visual treat as Sakai continues to highlight the delicate beauty of the Japanese landscape and fantastic architecture of its towns with his spectacular artwork.  Each of the portrayals of the anthropomorphic characters in their period accurate clothing is amazing, and the reader will be astounded by the author’s desire to make his comic as aesthetically realistic as possible.  However, the real visual highlights of this comic are the action sequences that see the protagonists engage in a series of elaborate sword fights against a variety of opponents.  The artistic styling of these sword fights is both exciting and intricate, which allows the reader to imagine how these battles would occur in real life.  Mysteries contains some great examples of this series’ fantastic art form, and the reader will love the creativity that inhabits every panel of this book.

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While most Usagi Yojimbo stories are standalone episodes, the separate stories featured within Mysteries share several connections with each other.  All of them are set within the same town and feature the character of Inspector Ishida.  In addition, several of the cases are connected by a shadowy crime boss, although the full nature of this connection isn’t fully known until the final story in the volume.

As you may be able to guess from the title of the volume, all of the main stories featured within Mysteries feature a murder and the following investigation by Inspector Ishida and Usagi.  Inspector Ishida is a high-ranking member of the Shogun’s police and is renowned throughout Japan as one of country’s most effective detectives.  Usagi has teamed up with him before in a number of adventures, including a great story, Murder at the Inn, back in Volume 29, which featured Usagi, Ishida, and Usagi’s frequent companion Gen investigating murders in a locked-down inn.  There are some great stories in the Mysteries volume, especially as Sakai has crafted together some intriguing mysteries in such short entries.  Several of the big mysteries and crime stories are connected into an elaborate overarching narrative that examines the criminal underworld of feudal Japan.  Two of the stories feature some really complex murder mysteries that flit back and forth between a number of suspects and contain motives that are very unique.  The final entry, Mousetrap, is the longest story in the volume and features an excellent tale about a thief getting caught in a middle of a fight to control the area’s organised crime and the sinister figure that has been manipulating the events of the previous stories.

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Sakai ensures that his examination of feudal Japanese society carries through to each of these stories and their investigative arcs, affecting the characters’ investigations.  For example, only members of a lower caste are allowed to touch the murder victims’ dead bodies, which hinders the protagonists from properly examining the bodies to work out the cause of death.  There is also a fantastic investigation of the role of the inspectors in feudal Japan and how they bear the authority of the Shogun.  It also allows Ishida to show off his fighting skills with the jitte, one of my favourite Japanese weapons.

In addition to the returning Inspector Ishida, this volume of Usagi Yojimbo sees the return of several characters from previous stories.  Our favourite thieving duo of Kitsune and Kiyoko make a return in the middle story, The Body in the Library.  The fox thief Kitsune was first introduced in 1992 and has become one the series’ main recurring characters, adding significant amusement to the stories she appears in through her schemes, humour and continued casual theft of the other characters’ valuables.  Her young companion, Kiyoko, was introduced in a later story and serves as her apprentice in the life of crime while taking up many of her mentor’s bad habits.  Their inclusion in this story adds significant comic relief to an otherwise dark story of murder, and it is always fun to see what this mischievous duo are up to.  The mysterious masked thief Nezumi returns for a second adventure and is a major player in the book’s longest story, Mouse Trap.  Nezumi was introduced in the Volume 20 story After the Rat, and acts as a public Robin Hood character in Inspector Ishida’s town.  He is used to great effect in this new story, being framed for murder in a way reminiscent of his first appearance in the series.  Sakai continues to taunt his audience with the mystery of Nezumi’s identity and motives, and it is great to see this interesting and formidable character interact with Usagi for the first time, especially with their differing definitions of honour.  Readers should also keep an eye out for a certain recurring snitch who has played a similar role in a number of prior Usagi stories, despite the main characters failing to remember how treacherous he is.

One of the best parts of the Usagi Yojimbo series is the incorporation of intriguing and unique parts of Japanese culture into amazing action based comic issues.  Throughout the series, the author has utilised a number of great Japanese cultural elements in various stories, including giant kites, giant drums, pottery, swordsmithing, tea ceremonies, seaweed farming, games of chance and a huge number of mythological creatures and legends.  These stories often contain descriptions and informative depictions of the cultural activities in question, and the author works them into a fun adventure or creative mystery.  Mysteries contains two of these stories.  The main one, Death by Fugu, focuses on the preparation of fugu, the meat of the poisonous pufferfish.  This story contains an excellent description of what fugu is and the preparation required to eat it.  Death by Fugu is a powerful and tragic tale that prominently uses the art of fugu in its mystery, and definitely one of this volume’s standout stories.  The other entry, The Body in the Library, takes a brief look at the examination and trade of western medicines in Japan.  While this is not examined in as much detail, it is a fascinating to see what impact western medicines could have in feudal Japan and to see it used as a motive for a series of murders.

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Once again Stan Sakai has produced a powerful and fantastic new volume of his iconic Usagi Yojimbo series.  Fans of this series can look forward to seeing Sakai’s iconic art style and detailed cultural insights that are a love letter to Japan and its fascinating history and society.  Mysteries contains a range of outstanding new stories, and readers will enjoy unwrapping their mysteries with Usagi and the fan favourite Inspector Ishida.  I wish I didn’t have to wait a whole year for the next volume of this amazing series.

My Rating:

Five Stars