Throwback Thursday: Star Wars: Vader Down

Vader Down Cover

Publisher: Marvel Comics (Paperback – 19 April 2016)

Series: Crossover – Featuring Issues from Star Wars (2015) and Darth Vader (2015)

Writers: Jason Aaron (Star Wars: Vader Down #1, Star Wars #13-14) and Kieron Gillen (Darth Vader #13 – 15)

Artists: Mike Deodato (Star Wars: Vader Down #1, Star Wars #13-14) and Salvador Larroca (Darth Vader #13 – 15)

Colourists: Frank Martin Jr (Star Wars: Vader Down #1, Star Wars #13-14) and Edgar Delgado (Darth Vader #13 – 15)

Letterers: VC’s Joe Caramagna (Star Wars: Vader Down #1, Darth Vader #13 – 15) and Chris Eliopoulos (Star Wars #13-14)

Length: 152 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.

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For this latest Throwback Thursday I go back and look at the epic and deeply enjoyable Star Wars comic book crossover extravaganza, Star Wars: Vader Down.

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Vader Down was a crossover, published in late 2015 and early 2016, of two of the best Star Wars comic series at the time, Star Wars (2015) and Darth Vader (2015). These two series ran side by side during this period and were set between the events of A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back and expanded the new Disney Star Wars canon. Both of these series were extremely good in their own right, with some very impressive comics during their early run (check out my reviews for some of these earlier volumes, Skywalker Strikes, Vader and Shadows and Secrets, all three of which got five-star reviews from me). These two comics ended up converging during the events of this crossover, with both series’ creative teams pooling their efforts to tell an exciting and action-packed tale. Vader Down is made up of a single introductory issue (Star Wars: Vader Down #1), two issues of Star Wars (2015) (issues #13-14) and three issues of Darth Vader (issues #13-15)

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Darth Vader is a man on a mission. Ever since he discovered that the Rebel Alliance pilot who destroyed the Death Star was Luke Skywalker, the son he never knew he had, Vader has been scouring the galaxy for him, determined to claim Luke and use him to take control of the Empire. It finally appears that his patience has been rewarded, as his sources have revealed that Luke is visiting an abandoned Jedi temple on the planet of Vrogas Vas. However, Vader is unaware that he is falling into a trap set by one of his rivals, the Mon Calamari cyborg Commander Karbin. Instead of finding Luke by himself, he discovers an entire Rebel fleet orbiting a planet housing a secret Rebel facility. Despite being outnumbered, Vader is able to fight off the Rebel pilots trying to kill him, until Luke, in a desperate move, smashes his fighter into Vader’s ship, sending them both crashing down to the planet’s surface.

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Now on foot, Vader sets out across the desolate planet to find his wayward son and turn him to the Dark Side of the force. However, the Rebels send a significant force to Vrogas Vas to capture or kill Vader. But even surrounded and outnumbered, Vader is more than a match for anything the Rebels can throw at him, and it seems only a matter of time before he finds his son. Luke’s only hope to survive lies in his friends, as Princess Leia, Han Solo, Chewbacca, C-3PO and R2-D2 all set out to save him. However, Luke is not the only one with friends on the way, as Vader’s reluctant agent, Doctor Aphra, also sets course to Vrogas Vas in order to save herself from being murdered by her employer for this debacle. By her side are three of the most dangerous beings in the galaxy, the murderous droids Triple-Zero and BT-1, and the vicious Wookie bounty hunter Black Krrsantan.

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As the two sides engage in all-out war across the planet’s surface, neither is aware of the danger coming for both of them. Imperial forces under the command of Commander Karbin have come to Vrogas Vas in the aftermath of the conflict not only to capture Luke but to also kill Vader so that Karbin can take his place by the Emperor’s side. Can Vader and the Rebels survive the onslaught of Karbin and achieve their desires, or is this the end of all of them?

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Wow, wow and wow!! This crossover is just plain incredible as the two talented creative teams of the Star Wars and Darth Vader comic book series come together to create an action-soaked masterpiece. I absolutely loved this fantastic and inventive story, which not only contains a substantial standalone adventure but which advances both series in some rather interesting ways, especially when it comes to separating the character of Dr Aphra and moving her briefly into the Star Wars comic series. The story contained within this volume is really amazing, as it sets a rampaging Darth Vader against a swath of enemies while the great characters from both series face off in a rather entertaining battle of their own. All of this is set to some incredible artwork from the two series’ respective artistic teams, which brings the phenomenal action to life in all its destructive glory. Unsurprisingly, this comic gets a full five-star rating from me, and it is easily one of the best crossover comics that I have ever read.

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Vader Down features six separate comic book issues, including an introductory issue, three issues from the Darth Vader series and two issues from the Star Wars series. Each of these comics has been written and drawn by the creative team of their respective series, with the Star Wars issues written by Jason Aaron and featuring the art of Mike Deodato, Frank Martin Jr and Chris Eliopoulos, while the entries from the Darth Vader comics are written by Kieron Gillen and contain the art of Salvador Larroca, Edgar Delgado and Joe Caramagna. The introductory issue, Star Wars: Vader Down #1, was also written by Aaron and drawn by the Star Wars artistic team (although with Caramagna doing the lettering rather than Eliopoulos), and this allows both creative teams to contribute three separate issues to this crossover. The story is set out in an alternate fashion, with the narrative beginning in Star Wars: Vader Down #1 and then continuing in Darth Vader #13, than going to Star Wars #13 and so on and so forth all the way till the volume’s end at Darth Vader #15. This proved to be quite an interesting way to set out the volume, and I think that it really speaks to the coordination and discussions that must have occurred between the two separate creative teams.

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Like most pieces of Star Wars tie-in fiction, Vader Down is naturally geared more towards those established fans of the franchise, especially those who have some history and knowledge of the extended universe. However, I would say that this is definitely a comic that can be enjoyed by casual fans of the Star Wars franchise, especially as the story is very easy to enjoy and appreciate. Readers do not need a massive amount of knowledge about the comic series that are crossing over in order to enjoy Vader Down. I myself had not read any of the Star Wars (2015) comics when I first enjoyed this volume, and I experienced no problems whatsoever following the plot. That being said, it might prove useful to read the first two volumes of the Darth Vader series first, as that serves to introduce several supporting characters in the volume, as well as the main antagonist.

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I felt that one of the biggest strengths of this comic is the way that it utilised and portrayed several iconic Star Wars characters, and I particularly loved how Darth Vader is featured in this crossover. I am a massive fan of the character of Darth Vader, and I am really enjoying how all the current pieces of Star Wars extended fiction portray him as a destructive powerhouse, perhaps as a way to rehabilitate him after the prequel films. However, Vader Down really takes this into overdrive as Vader finds himself alone on a planet surrounded by a vast army of enemies who are hunting him. While on paper it would seem that Vader is at a disadvantage, this really does not prove to be the case, as Vader tears through everyone who stands between him and Luke, often in some particularly devastating manners. Vader comes across as a massive badass in this comic, and I loved every second of it. From the way that he nearly takes out an entire fleet of Rebel fighters right at the beginning (only being stopped by a Kamikaze attack from Luke), to the continuous and effortless destruction of every Rebel he comes across (note to self: never wear grenades anywhere near a Force user), nothing seems to stop Vader, and it is pretty darn impressive.

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I also love how Vader has some of the best lines in this volume as well, from his response to a request from Aphra to run: “I am a lord of the Sith. They are the ones who should be running”, to his fun response to a Rebel leader who tells him that he is surrounded (shown in the midst of a great full double page spread, just to show how surrounded he is): “All I am surrounded by is fear. And dead men.” However, his best line occurs later in the volume when he engages Commander Karbin in a particularly cool looking lightsaber duel. Karbin, whose enhancements make him resemble General Grievous, is gloating about how much better he is than Vader as he can wield four lightsabers to Vader’s one. However Vader, after throwing a massive statue at him simply responds with: “When you wield the power of the Dark Side one lightsaber is all you need”, which I thought was a pretty badass line, which also reveals why you never see Vader bothering with something more fancy like his Inquisitors do. Needless to say, I thought this portrayal of Vader was very epic and awesome, and it definitely is one of my favourite appearances of this character.

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In addition to the amazing use of Darth Vader in this comic, I thought that the creative teams did a great job including the supporting characters from the Darth Vader series, namely Dr Aphra, Triple-Zero, BT-1, and Black Krrsantan. These four characters are, in manner different ways, all rather fun and evil doppelgangers of some of the key characters from the original trilogy. Black Krrsantan is an ultra-violent Wookie bounty hunter, more concerned with killing and money than saving lives like Chewbacca. Triple-Zero is pretty much a snarkier version of C-3PO who delights in torture and mutilation and has the inbuilt tools to back it up. BT-1 is an astromech like R2-D2, except he is loaded up with all manner of firepower and he has a nasty habit of melting anyone he dislikes, and BT-1 dislikes pretty much everything and everyone. Finally, you have Dr Aphra, who is a notorious rogue and thief like Han Solo, except rather more successful. She is also a fully trained archaeologist who uses that ability to rob tombs for valuable artefacts, essentially making her a cross between Han Solo and Indiana Jones. Vader Down is the first time that the supporting characters from the Darth Vader series actually meet their more iconic counterparts, and the results are extremely entertaining.

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There are quite a few great moments throughout this volume where these two groups of characters come together, and they are all pretty fun. Some of my favourites include an extended brawl between the two Wookies, Chewbacca and Black Krrsantan, as they fight to achieve their opposing goals. This turned into quite a brutal matchup and it definitely does not end in the way that most people would expect. There is another cool scene where BT-1 faces off against R2-D2, who is trying to defend Luke from the evil droids. The two get into a vicious argument of beeps (apparently) and R2-D2 pulls out his built-in taser to fight off his opponents. However, BT-1 is rather better armed, and the sudden appearance of a mass of blasters, missiles, a flamethrower and other assorted weapons from BT-1’s chassis is enough to make R2 run off rather quickly, although he gets a measure of revenge later in the volume. Triple-Zero has a fun time imitating C-3PO at one point in the comic (all it takes is a coat of gold paint) and the subsequent meeting between the two protocol droids does not go well for Threepio (let us just say he gets disarmed).

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My favourite out of all these interactions between the classic Star Wars characters and the new ones established in the Darth Vader series has to be the fun meeting between Han Solo and Aphra. Aphra is probably one of my favourite new characters in the current Star Wars canon (make sure to check out my recent review for A Rogue’s End, the seventh volume of her spinoff series), and her fun sense of humour really shines through in this encounter. There is a pretty funny scene towards the front of the book, when Aphra, researching the members of the main Star Wars cast, sees Han Solo and responds with an uber sarcastic: “Han Solo. The Han Solo. Oh me, oh my. What are we going to do facing Han Solo?” When they subsequently meet, Aphra continues to be unimpressed by Solo, deflating his ego over his apparently insubstantial reputation and managing to scare him with her own name. They two share some rather good verbal barbs before the shooting starts, and I think that the writers came up with the best resolution to this fight, which can only be described as an unintentional and funny draw. Overall, I really loved seeing all these fantastic characters coming together in this volume, and it is an impressive and entertaining highlight.

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While most of the character arcs in this book lean more toward either humour or pure destruction, the writers also did a rather good emotional storyline around Princess Leia. Leia arrives on Vrogas Vas to lead the hunt for Vader, and eventually ends up coming face to face with him. As this is the first time Leia has seen Vader since he stood by and watched the destruction of Alderaan, this proves to be a rather hostile meeting, and Leia is overcome with a desire for revenge and is willing to sacrifice herself and her friends to see Vader taken out. There are some great moments throughout Leia’s scenes in the book as she presents her righteous indignation towards Vader, whose response is less than repentant: “This is not a war, Princess. Wars are for lesser men than the Emperor and myself. This is a series of executions. And yours is long overdue.” All of this gets pretty intense, and Leia actually tries to commit suicide at one point in an attempt to take Vader with her. She is eventually broken out of her mission for revenge thanks to an urgent plea for help from C-3PO, who is watching the rest of their group getting attacked and captured. All of this proved to be a rather powerful and emotional storyline within this volume, and I think its inclusion helped to enhance and elevate the entirely of the comic’s plot.

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I also must highlight how impressive the two separate artistic teams were, as both groups of artists come up with some fantastic sequences in Vader Down. As I mentioned above, the issues alternate throughout the volume, and as a result the artistic style of the comic changes with each new issue. There is a rather distinctive difference in the designs and illustrations of the two separate teams, and it proved interesting to jump between these styles each issue. I liked both unique art designs and colourations (with perhaps a slight preference towards the Darth Vader comics style), and I think that they all did an excellent job of portraying the epic story. It actually proved to be rather intriguing to see the separate teams have a go at drawing some of the characters who usually appeared in their counterparts’ comics, and it was also cool to see sequences that lasted more than one issue (such as the lightsaber duel between Vader and Karbin) go through some stylistic changes with each changing issue. There are a huge number of amazingly drawn scenes throughout this comic, although I think the best highlights had to include the extremely impressive starfighter battle in the first issue, with all the blaster bolts and explosions occurring out in space. Other cool scenes included a sudden spaceship crash in the final issue and a series of explosions and lightsaber work in the front of the volume’s second issue. I also liked how both teams of artists utilised the desert landscape of Vrogas Vas in their drawings; the constantly swirly dust really helped to enhance some of the battle scenes in this book and bring a sense of movement and a planet disturbed by violence and death. As a result, I think that both teams of artists did an outstanding job throughout the comics that made up Vader Down, and it certainly helped to enhance the epic experience I had reading this crossover volume.

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Vader Down is an immensely cool and exhilarating Star Wars comic that serves as an impressive crossover between two excellent comic book series. This combination of the Star Wars (2015) and the Darth Vader comics proved to be deeply entertaining and it is a clear example of how awesome the Star Wars extended universe can truly be. An absolute blast from start to finish, with non-stop action, eye-catching artwork and some clever character work, Star Wars: Vader Down is a must-read comic for all Star Wars fans and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Throwback Thursday: Stars Wars: Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp

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Publisher: Penguin Random House Audio (Audiobook – 28 April 2015)

Series: Star Wars

Length: 10 hours and 56 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 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 my second Throwback Thursday article of this week (what can I say, I was in the zone for reviewing older content) I check out a fast-paced and addictive Star Wars novel that was released a couple of years ago, with Star Wars: Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp.

It is the early days of the Galactic Empire. Under the reign of Emperor Palpatine, few openly oppose imperial rule, and those that do are swiftly dealt with by Palpatine’s ruthless apprentice, Darth Vader. But as the power and influence of the Emperor and Vader grow, so does their desire to rule and oppress every planet in the galaxy, and with that comes the first sparks of rebellion.

The planet Ryloth knows all about oppression and invasion. Following a brutal occupation during the Clone Wars, Ryloth now finds itself under the control of the Empire, which strips the planet of its natural resources while using the people for slave labour. In opposition to this occupation, an aggressive resistance moment has arisen, led by idealistic leader Cham Syndulla and his comrade Isval, a vengeful former slave. Thanks to their excellently placed sources, Syndulla’s resistance has been able to launch some substantial attacks against the Empire, but their actions have gained the attention of the Emperor and Vader. In a bid to assert his dominance on Ryloth, the Emperor sets out on a rare mission to the planet, accompanied by Vader. However, this is the opportunity that Syndulla has been waiting for.

Upon the Imperial’s arrival above Ryloth, the resistance fighters are able to do the impossible and blow up their Star Destroyer. Forced to abandon ship, the two Sith lords find themselves trapped on the dangerous surface of Ryloth with no means to communicate with Imperial command and no reinforcements on the horizon. In a bid to liberate the galaxy from their dark rule, Syndulla and Isval gather all their forces and resources to hunt the Emperor and Vader down. Surrounded by enemies, inhospitable terrain and terrible native fauna, the two Sith Lords appear to be at their most vulnerable. However, what Syndulla and his team fail to realise is that their prey are two of most dangerous beings in the galaxy, and together they are a force of unnatural destruction. Can the resistance fighters take on Emperor and Vader, and what happens when the two Sith lords work out that their biggest threat is each other?

Now this is a rather fantastic and captivating Star Wars novel that I have been wanting to check out for a while now due to the book’s cool concept. This is the first book that I have read by Paul S. Kemp, a fantasy author who has been writing since the early 2000s. His first novel, Twilight Falling debuted in 2003, after the author released several pieces of short fiction. Kemp then went on to write several fantasy series and standalone novels, including The Erevis Cale trilogy, The Twilight War trilogy and the Egil and Nix books, most of which fell within the Forgotten Realms shared fantasy fiction universe. Kemp has also written a few Star Wars novels, including Crosscurrent, The Old Republic: Deceived and Riptide, which were part of the old Star Wars Legends canon. Lords of the Sith is Kemp’s first novel in the new Star Wars canon, and he presents the reader with a fun and fast-paced novel that has some intriguing elements to it.

Kemp pulls together an excellent Star Wars novel that has a great story, is full of breathtaking action scenes and features compelling dives into some iconic Star Wars characters and elements of the universe. While I came for all the fun action that was bound to feature in a story surrounding the Emperor and Vader fighting against overwhelming odds, I stayed for the intriguing story that is full of betrayal and manipulations. The author does a fantastic job of utilising multiple character perspectives to tell a fuller story, which showed the perspectives of not only Vader and Syndulla’s resistance but also two Imperial officers stationed on Ryloth: one who is loyal to the Emperor and one who has been working for the resistance. This helped produce a really clever narrative, and it was interesting to see where Kemp took the story throughout Lords of the Sith.

The story is set five years after the events of Revenge of the Sith and focuses on the Emperor and Vader encountering some of the earliest forms of rebellion against the Empire. There are some strong elements from the extended Star Wars universe in this book, most notably with the inclusion of Cham Syndulla, a character who appeared in two Star Wars animated series, The Clone Wars and Star Wars Rebels, and is the father of Hera Syndulla, one of the main characters from Rebels (who is featuring in a lot of other pieces of Star Wars fiction at the moment). However, this is definitely a novel that can be enjoyed by the more casual Star Wars fan, and no real knowledge of the extended universe is needed to follow the plot. As always, though, those readers who are fans of some of the extended universe fiction are probably going to enjoy this book a little more. I myself enjoyed seeing the exploration of the early days of the Empire, an examination of Cham Syndulla’s history between the two animated shows and some exploration of the planet of Ryloth.

Without a doubt, the highlight of this book has to be the amazing action sequences featuring Darth Vader and the Emperor. Kemp went out of his way to show off just how badass these two characters can be, and he did not hold back any punches. Vader and the Emperor get into some major scrapes throughout the book, as they hunt or are hunted by members of the Ryloth resistance or some of the deadly creatures that reside on the planet’s surface. Needless to say, these two characters use all of their deadly Force abilities to take down swathes of opponents, and they come across as pretty impressive characters, especially in the eyes of some of the other point-of-view characters. I loved the reactions from characters like Syndulla or Isval, especially as it becomes more and more apparent to them that their opponents are something too much for them. I have always loved comics and books that showed off how badass Vader and the Emperor can be, and this is one of the better examples of this. Kemp started this book off strong by having Vader crash his fighter onto a ship to board it, before systematically taking down the crew one by one, while Syndulla and Isval are forced to listen from another ship (accompanied by Vader breathing heavily into a comms unit to freak everyone out). This is then followed by a plethora of other cool sequences, which includes Vader and the Emperor decimating a massive swarm of Ryloth’s apex predators and a particularly cool sequence where Vader started force choking several characters aboard a separate spaceship while he was flying upside down above them. All of this was exceedingly cool, and I loved Kemp’s amazing imagination when it comes to these two characters.

I also quite liked the intriguing examination of the unique relationship between Darth Vader and the Emperor that became an interesting central focus of the plot. While the story doesn’t show the Emperor’s point of view, you get Vader’s take on the situation, and through his eyes you see his perceptions of the Emperor, his thoughts on the partnership they have formed, and the knowledge that it will eventually end with Vader attempting to kill Palpatine to take his place. Palpatine, for his part, spends most of the story devising tests and challenges to get into Vader’s head and to ensure that his apprentice is loyal and has no thoughts of overthrowing him at the moment. I liked the compelling and clever examination of these two characters’ mindsets that Kemp pulled together, and I felt that he had a great handle on the personalities of these iconic Star Wars characters. I also rather enjoyed Kemp’s portrayal of the Emperor’s manipulative and purely evil nature, as it is revealed that everything that happens throughout the book is due to his design, and he threw away thousands of Imperial lives to achieve his goals. The revelation of this to some of key characters in this book makes for a great scene and I think that it really encapsulated just how evil the Emperor could be, which was pretty awesome.

Like with most Star Wars books that I read, I ended up checking out the audiobook format of Lords of the Sith, which was narrated by Jonathan Davis. This audiobook runs for just under 11 hours, and can be powered through quite quickly, especially once the listener hears the opening action sequence read out to them. I have to once again highlight that use of the cool music and sound effects that are included in all Star Wars audiobooks in order to enhance the story. Lords of the Sith had some great sound inclusions throughout its run time, and I felt that these definitely had a major impact on my enjoyment of this book. This audiobook features the audio talents of skilled narrator Jonathan Davis, whose work I have previously enjoyed in Star Wars books such as Master & Apprentice and Dooku: Jedi Lost. Davis does an incredible job narrating this book and he comes up with some impressive voices for the various characters featured throughout it. I particularly liked the great voices he came up for key characters like the Emperor and Darth Vader (with the help of some appropriate sound effects) and Cham Syndulla, and they sounded a lot like their appearances in the movies and animated shows. As a result, I really powered through this excellent audiobook, and I would strongly recommend this format to anyone who wants to check out Lords of the Sith.

Lords of the Sith is a fun and exceedingly entertainingly Star Wars novel that I had an outstanding time listening to. Kemp comes up with an exciting and action-packed story that not only explores some intriguing aspects of the expanded Star Wars universe, but which also contains some over-the-top action sequences that shows just how awesome a Star Wars novel can be. Lords of the Sith comes highly recommended to anyone looking for a fantastic and enjoyable read, and I hope that Kemp writes some more Star Wars novels in the future.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 6: Circles by Stan Sakai

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Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1994)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Six

Length: 164 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 latest Throwback Thursday, after reviewing Lone Goat and Kid a couple of weeks ago, I am still in a Usagi Yojimbo mood, so I thought I would check out the sixth volume of this fantastic comic book series, Circles.

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Circles is another fun and exciting addition to this excellent series which I honestly cannot praise enough (although I have been trying very hard in my last several Throwback Thursday articles). This sixth volume once again presents the reader with several outstanding and inventive stories that chronicle the adventures of the rabbit samurai, Miyamoto Usagi, as he journeys around a unique version of historical Japan. This volume contains five separate stories, derived from issues #25 – 31 of the Fantagraphics Books run on the Usagi Yojimbo series, as well as a short story taken from Critters number #50 (a comic magazine that had some early Usagi Yojimbo appearances). There are some rather amazing stories featured within this volume, and I had an incredible time reading them.

The first story contained within this sixth volume is called The Bridge, which sees Usagi encountering a demon out of Japanese folklore. During a dark a stormy night, Usagi is entering a village from across a bridge when suddenly he lashes out with his sword behind him, convinced something is sneaking up on him. When he finds nothing there, Usagi shrugs it off and enters the nearest inn, only to learn from the villagers that the bridge he just crossed has been possessed by a demon, and Usagi’s back now bears the claw marks of the demon. Awaking next morning, the villagers find a severed monstrous hand on the bridge, which Usagi appeared to have cut off the night before. Taking the hand into the inn, Usagi and villagers wait for a priest to arrive in order to perform an exorcism on the severed limb, but the demon of the bridge has other plans.

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This was a rather good supernatural story that sees Usagi go up against one of Japan’s many demons and monsters. Several significant elements from this story are taken from the story of the demon of Rashomon Gate, including the severing of the arm and the demon disguising itself as an old woman to recover its severed limb (although unlike the samurai in the legend, Usagi doesn’t fall for it). The demonic antagonist of this story is rather sinister in its drawing style and methods of attack, and it proves to be a dangerous opponent for Usagi. I love the extended fight on the bridge, and I especially enjoyed the way that the whole event ended, providing a side-character in the story their moment of vengeance. Overall, this was a tight, well-written story that was a lot of fun to read.

The next story in this volume is titled The Duel, and, as the name suggests, it features some duels between samurai. Usagi arrives in a village and is challenged to a public duel by the local champion while the watching villagers place bets with a travelling bookmaker, a duel that eventually results in Usagi’s opponent’s death. Completing the duel, Usagi meets and has lunch with a fellow unemployed samurai, Shubo, who subtly takes his measure. It is revealed that Shubo, who is a talented swordsman, is in league with the bookmaker who manipulates the odds of Shubo’s duels in order to make money off the betters. Shubo, who needs the money to provide for his wife and child, believes that he can beat Usagi, and the bookmaker inflates the odds in Usagi’s favour so that they can clean up when Shubo wins. Forcing Usagi into a duel, the two engage in a quick fight to death, with tragic results.

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This was a really clever and captivating single story that Sakai did an incredible job writing. The whole story concept is just brilliant, and Sakai sets it up and executes the plot brilliantly. There are some amazing scenes throughout The Duel, and the story features an excellent mix of comedy and tragedy which work together amazingly to produce a gripping narrative. Usagi, as the reluctant participant of this duel, is pissed at the entire affair, and his outraged reaction to the town people cheering his victory is rather good, especially as the peasants show over-the-top fake remorse in order to get him to go away so they can collect their winnings: “We are lower than the scum at the bottom of a stagnant pool!” While there is some fun and well-deserved karma coming down onto the bookkeeper who overextends himself and tries to escape, nothing quite takes away from the tragedy of Shubo’s wife and young child. The final panel of this story is incredibly heartbreaking, as it shows the wife and child waiting just outside the village for him to return. But as the light in the sky gets darker and darker, you can see the worry start to work its way onto the wife’s face, until she breaks down completely in the final panel, fully realising that her husband is dead. The wife comes across as a massively tragic character in this story, and the major impact that this final page has is a testament to how amazing Sakai’s storytelling and illustrations are.

The third story in the volume is the rather short entry, Yurei, which is the story that appeared in Critters. In this tale, Usagi, who is camping at the edge of a river, awakens to find a Yurei, a ghost, floating before him. The ghost imparts her tragic story to Usagi; she was betrayed and murdered by her husband, and she now seeks justice. Usagi then awakens and finds a woman’s hairpin on the ground next to him. Thinking his encounter with the ghost was just a dream, he travels to a nearby inn and attempts to trade the pin for a meal. What he does not realise is that the innkeeper is the murderous husband from the ghost’s tale, and his discovery of the pin leads to a series of deadly events. This was a good, fast-paced story which tells a compact and intriguing tale. I loved the supernatural elements in this story, and it was interesting to see Usagi portrayed as a tool of fate, who wonders into some ghostly revenge without even realising it. This was a fantastic short entry in this volume and was great to check out.

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The next entry in Circles is an entertaining and over-the-top tale titled My Lord’s Daughter. In this story, Usagi, who is telling a bedtime tale to children, is shown as the classic hero from Japanese legend, fighting through vast hordes of demons, monsters, and obstacles to rescue a beautiful princess from an Oni. This was a fun take on some of the traditional Japanese heroic legends, and it was cool to see Sakai draw a classic tale with Usagi as the protagonist. Sakai has some obvious fun setting the Usagi hero fearlessly against armies of demons and monsters, and he comes up with some clever fight sequences and scenes in this book, from a brutal duel with an Oni, to an underwater battle between Usagi, a shark and a giant octopus wielding several swords in its tentacles. This is an entertaining and exciting story, and I had a good laugh at the end reference to Sakai’s old comic, Groo the Wanderer.

Now let us get to the fifth story of this book, which is kind of the main event of the entire volume. This is a big story, told across four issues, titled Circles. This story follows Usagi as he returns home for the first time since the events of volume one, The Ronin. There are actually a couple of distinctive parts to this story, especially the first issue, which is somewhat separate from the rest of the story (with the exception of some build-up at the end). For this first part, Usagi, on his way back home, decides to stop at his old master’s house to pay his respects to the grave marker of Katsuichi, the man who taught him how to wield a blade. The story then shows a flashback, which serves as a continuation to part of the origin story Usagi told in the second Usagi Yojimbo volume, Samurai, about Usagi’s past. In the flashback, it is shown that Usagi’s master was ambushed and seemingly killed by members of the Dogora Fencing School after Usagi beat their students in a tournament. However, upon arriving at Katsuichi’s old house, he discovers that his master is still alive, having survived the ambush, and has taken on a new student. I liked this revisit of Usagi’s origin story with Katsuichi, although the whole death scene in the flashback comes a little bit out of nowhere. Still, it was interesting to see how much Usagi has matured since he was learning the way of the sword, and it was nice to see the teacher and student reuniting. The flashback sequence is also top quality, and Sakai illustrates up a storm in this one, showing a fierce battle and some intense emotions from Usagi, who goes from a full-on berserker rage as he gets his revenge on his master’s killer to an intense grief in just a few scenes.

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The story then continues as Usagi journeys back to his village, only to be confronted by his old childhood rival, Kenichi. It turns out that Jotaro, Kenichi’s son with Usagi’s former love, Mariko, has gone missing, and bandits are roaming the area. While Usagi and Kenichi are able to defend their town from a raiding party, the attackers reveal that Jotaro has been kidnapped by the bandits and are holding him hostage. Leading an army of local peasants against the bandit’s hideout, Kenichi and Usagi hope to rescue Jotaro and end the raids that have been plaguing them. However, what they do not realise is that the bandits are being led by the deranged and dangerous former adversary of Usagi, Jei, a mysterious and seemingly unkillable murder with a black blade, who hopes to use Jotaro to get his revenge on Usagi. But even Jei is not the most dangerous thing that lies ahead, as old resentments between Usagi and Kenichi, their shared love for Mariko and certain revelations may tear everything apart.

Wow, I have to say that the final three issues of Circles are just incredible. There is so much to unpack from them, as Sakai brings together a brilliant and powerful story. First of all, it was great to see Jei return as a villain once again. Jei, who was introduced in volume 3, The Wanderer’s Road, is an outstanding antagonist, and his continued feud with Usagi is just brilliant. The two engage in a fantastic and extended duel in this story, and Sakai did a fantastic job showing off each combatant’s skill and martial ability through his drawings. I also love the extensive battle between Kenichi’s peasant army and the bandits, which proved to be rather eye-catching. Not only is there a beautifully drawn sequence in the misty forest before the big battle in which Usagi does a great Jei impersonation to scare a bandit sentry, but Sakai illustrates a massive battle between the two forces. The massive single panel that shows the pitched battle is just impressive, and I love the detailed and entertaining scene that the author produced here.

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While all of the above is pretty amazing, what really makes this captivating story is the complex relationship between Usagi, Kenichi and Mariko. There are so many great layers plastered into this relationship. Usagi and Mariko were deeply in love when they were younger, and they still have great feelings for each other. However, Mariko ended up marrying Kenichi, and she is bound by duty, and her child, to him, no matter how she feels about Usagi. Kenichi, on the other hand, has always borne antagonism towards Usagi, which has been compounded over the years by their differences in skill and the fact that Usagi was chosen to serve Lord Mifune and left the village. However, Kenichi’s resentment towards Usagi is even greater, as he knows that Usagi is in love with his wife, and that these feelings are reciprocated by Mariko.

This leads to some outstanding scenes throughout this story, as these three try to come to terms with their complicated emotions. I particularly loved one scene in the middle of the story, where Usagi and Mariko discuss their feelings and reveal that they still both love each other, although Mariko makes it clear that they can never be together. The scene ends when Kenichi interrupts them, and while the look of heartbreak and shame on Mariko’s face is notable, what really gets me is the way that Kenichi’s usual stern/angry look is replaced with one of sad resignation in the last panel once he realises how Mariko still feels about Usagi. Despite this, Kenichi comes across in this story as a surprisingly honourable and well-intentioned character who puts aside his negative feelings for Usagi for the greater good, and it is a fantastic examination of a character who has mostly been antagonistic in the previous volumes. Sakai also drops a massive bombshell at the end of this story, when he reveals that Jotaro is actually Usagi’s son, and that Kenichi has known this and raised him as his own. Because of this, Mariko asks Usagi to leave and not try to settle down in their home village, as she fears it will put a wedge between Jotaro and Kenichi, who she sees as Jotaro’s true father. Usagi regretfully accepts this in another dramatic and captivating scene, although Mariko arranges for Usagi to see Jotaro as he leaves, and Usagi has a heartfelt time with his son, noting the similarities between them, and even suggesting Jotaro seek out Katsuichi as a teacher in later years. All of this is some first-rate storytelling and character development, and cannot praise Sakai enough for this amazing, emotional storyline. This is actually the last book that Kenichi and Mariko appear in (so far), and I think that Sakai did a fantastic job tying their love triangle together. All in all, Circles is easily my favourite story in this entire volume (The Duel comes close), and it is worth grabbing this volume just to check this key story out.

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It should come as no surprise to anyone considering all the praise I elicited above that I am giving this sixth volume of Usagi Yojimbo a full five star rating. This was another incredible comic book that features Sakai’s outstanding blend of powerful stories, memorable characters, intense action, fun references and depictions of traditional Japanese culture and history and some truly impressive artwork. I absolutely loved this volume, and this entire awesome series, comes highly recommended and is an unquestionable must-read.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 5: Lone Goat and Kid by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo Lone Goat and Kid Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – January 1992)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Five

Length: 142 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.

In this latest Throwback Thursday I once again check out another early volume of the excellent Usagi Yojimbo series, which I have been reviewing over the last couple of weeks. For this review, I am looking at the fifth volume, Lone Goat and Kid. Lone Goat and Kid was first released in 1992 by Fantagraphics Books and contains issues #19-24 of the Usagi Yojimbo series.

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This fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo once again sees series protagonist, the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi, traverse a feudal Japanese landscape populated solely with anthropomorphised animals. This volume follows on right after the chaotic events of the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, and contains five new stories across six issues. This is an interesting entry in the series, particularly as it is the first volume to barely feature any of the previously introduced recurring characters aside from Usagi (a huge departure from the last volume, which contained a number of recurring characters coming together and teaming up). Instead, Sakai takes the time to introduce a bunch of new characters and scenarios across the volume’s five separate stories. Unsurprisingly, I really liked this fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo, especially as Sakai manages come up with some fantastic and exceedingly enjoyable tales.

The first story featured within this volume is titled Frost & Fire, and it is a tragic story with undertones of forbidden love and class struggle. In this story, Usagi is hired by the cold and proper widow of a samurai to travel to the place of her husband’s death and retrieve his swords. Upon arriving at the small village where the samurai died, Usagi discovers that the swords are in the possession of the dead man’s lover, a poor peasant girl, who wishes to keep them as a remembrance of the man she loved. Unwilling to take the swords by force, Usagi leaves, but the peasant girl’s greedy brother has other plans for the swords.

This was a rather heartfelt first story for the volume, and it contains some great underlying elements to it. Much of the story revolves around a forbidden romance between a samurai and a peasant girl who wanted to be together but were unable to due to class differences. This was a rather intriguing central element for this story, and you can’t help but feel for the poor peasant girl, especially after meeting the samurai’s harsh and honourable widow in the opening pages. There is also examination of the evils of greed and avarice, as several of the side characters attempt to deceive and murder in order to get a quick payday. Luckily, their greed proves to be their undoing, as karma quickly strikes throughout the course of the story. There are some great scenes in this story, including one sequence where Usagi stares down the peasant girl when she refuses to give up the swords, “You know I can just take them from you”, before ultimately backing down and refusing to force her to give them up. I also liked a scene later in the book where the brother’s greed proves to be his undoing, as not only does Usagi appear behind him at one point like a vengeful spirit, but he is then ironically attacked by his “friends”, who are jealous of the wealth he achieved because of his bad actions, and whose mindset mirrors that of the brother. All of this makes for a great first entry for this volume, and I really enjoyed the amazing and captivating story that Sakai came up with.

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The next story is a rather unique entry called A Kite Story, which I have a particular love for. A Kite Story is actually broken up into four distinctive parts, each of which focuses on a different character participating in a famous kite festival. The first part, called The Kite Maker’s Story, follows a kite maker, Tatsusaburo, in the lead up to the festival. This part of the story contains no dialogue, but instead features a first-person narration from Tatsusaburo that overlays the drawings. This narration explains how he gathers the resources for his kites and the various processes he goes through to craft them together. It particularly focuses on the work he puts into creating an odako, a giant kite that he and a team of handlers hope to fly. The story then jumps to its second distinctive part, called The Gambler’s Tale, which follows the crook Hatsu and his gang of itinerant gamblers as they work the crowds gathering for the kite festival. This part starts off with some first-person narration from Hatsu and explores how he and his gang set up a rigged game of dice. This part ends its narration on the second page, when Usagi arrives on the scene and it becomes purely dialogue driven after that. Usagi, upon noticing the game, gets involved and is able to prove the gamblers are cheating (thanks to some fancy sword work), which sees not only the crooked gamblers run out of town but also those gamblers who were running fair games, and who are none too pleased with how they have been treated. This then moves to the third part of the story, called The Ronin’s Tale, which is nearly entirely dialogue driven, with only a small bit of narration at the front. Usagi deals with some of the players from the first two parts of the book, as he is unfairly blamed by the cheating gamblers in The Gambler’s Tale as the source of all the trouble to the honest gamblers. This sees Usagi have to make a rather quick and unconventional exit from the festival, which quickly breaks down into chaos. The story then concludes with a quick two-page final part, called The Kite Maker’s Tale II, which follows Tatsusaburo again and serves as an epilogue to the whole story.

I really liked A Kite Story, as Sakai did a really good job blending together a couple of distinctive narratives into one fantastic story. I particularly enjoyed the fascinating first part of this story and I always love it when Sakai uses his stories to explore certain unique Japanese cultural elements and industries. For this one, the author presents the reader with an amazing examination of the traditional kite-making process, and I loved seeing the process explained by the titular kite maker. This part of the story blends in surprisingly well with the other sections of A Kite Story, and I was impressed with how Sakai was able to turn these seeming separate and disparate tales into a complete narrative that is both entertaining and informative. Sakai also produces some amazing artwork in this story, from the giant kite to the visually impressive and detailed crowd scenes, and this is easily one of the more innovative stories that Sakai has come up with.

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The third story is the action-packed spectacular, Blood Wings, which Sakai tells over two issues. Late one night, Usagi is wandering along the road when he comes upon a dying peasant. The peasant’s last words are a mysterious warning about whatever killed him, “wings of blood”. Travelling to a nearby village, he finds a settlement living in terror, completely cut off from the outside world. They are being kept prisoner by a new and dangerous group of ninja, the Komori Ninja Clan, killer flying bats. The Komori Ninja were accidently discovered by the villagers as they prepared to ambush a shipment from a nearby goldmine and the ninja are now keeping them prisoner while they execute their attack. Knowing that the ninja will not leave the villagers alive as witnesses after the heist, Usagi attempts to break out and warn the goldmine, and when that fails, he leads the villagers in a spirited defence of their home.

Blood Wings was a fantastic and exciting story that serves as an excellent set piece for the middle of this volume. This third story is an impressive read that not only introduces a notable new group of antagonists, but it also contains some rather good action sequences. The Komori Ninja prove to be a great group of villains, and I really liked the character design that Sakai came up for them, as they fly around with sword blades attached to their wings, cutting through anyone and anything they encounter. The highlight of this story has to be the thrilling action sequences between Usagi and this new foe, who are able to outmatch the protagonist with their unique combat style. This all culminates in an extended battle sequence which sees a swordless Usagi defending the village with a force of farmers. This is probably the fastest-paced story in the volume, and Sakai comes up with an awesome narrative for it. This is also the entry in this volume that is most tied into the overarching Usagi Yojimbo world, as the Komori Ninja are revealed to be working for Lord Hikiji and are seeking to replace the Neko Ninja. This story also contains my favourite joke in the whole volume, as only Saki would have a guard yell out, “Holy flying furball! It’s Bats, man!” as the Komori Ninja descend.

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The fourth story is an elaborate and compelling entry titled The Way of the Samurai. This story sees Usagi intervene when a gang of bandits (including a very cool-looking walrus samurai), attack a messenger, and is directed to seek out the magistrate of the local town. Arriving at the town, Usagi is amazed to discover that the magistrate is a famed former general Oyaneko, whose battles and tactics Usagi idolises. Staying in the general’s house for a night, he learns that Oyaneko was a loyal retainer to the land’s former lord but was cast aside when the lord’s brash young son came to power. Now regulated to the role as a simple administrator and slowly dying of a disease, Oyaneko is discontent with his life, and, after meeting an honourable and skilled Usagi, challenges him to a duel to the death, “The way of the Samurai is found in death”.

This fourth entry in the volume is a moving tale that the author uses to explore the complexity of the samurai code of duty, loyalty and service. I really liked the intricate story that Sakai weaved around the characters of Usagi and Oyaneko, and Oyaneko’s story is particularly tragic and fascinating. This entire story is set up really well, with Usagi encountering Oyankeo, the two gaining a mutual respect for the other, learning about Oyankeo’s past and motivations, before the emotionally charged duel at the end. Sakai did a fantastic job illustrating the stress and emotion surrounding this final duel with his epic drawings, and the end result was really touching. I think this is one of the best written stories in the entire volume, and it becomes quite an emotional ride for the reader in the end.

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That leaves us with the fifth and final story in this volume, which shares the same name as the overall volume, Lone Goat and Kid. This story focuses on the characters of Yagi and Gorogoro, the titular Lone Goat and Kid. Years ago, Yagi served the same lord as Oyaneko. However, when their old lord died, Yagi was falsely accused of a crime by the new lord’s corrupt advisors and forced out of his service. Yagi and his son Gorogoro now work as Lone Goat and Kid, assassins for hire who many believe now travel the road to hell. The two assassins are also constantly targeted by their former lords’ samurai and bounty hunters sent after them by the corrupt advisors who framed them. As part of their latest attempt to kill Yagi and Gorogoro, these advisors use a proxy to hire the Lone Goat and Kid to assassinate Usagi, who they believe may be able to defeat the infamous assassin. When they meet, Yagi and Usagi engage in a brutal fight to the death, with the corrupt lord’s forces waiting to ambush the winner.

This was another awesome story filled with epic duels, a massive battle sequence, some superb artwork featuring Japan’s exquisite landscape, and a fun narrative packed full of deceit and conspiracy. The titular Lone Goat and Kid are a rather cool adaptation of the iconic Japanese fiction duo, Lone Wolf and Cub. Lone Wolf and Cub was a manga series back in the 1970s that followed a samurai assassin and his child as they travel feudal Japan searching for vengeance. This series has inspired several movies and a television show, and many different pieces of fiction have paid homage to them over the years, from The Mandalorian to Bob’s Burgers. Heck, Rick and Morty literally just did an anime homage to them last week on YouTube. Sakai’s versions of the characters are rather good, and they become fun recurring characters within the Usagi Yojimbo series. I loved how Sakai came up with some fantastic and unique character designs for the two assassins, turning them into goats rather than wolves (which was a nice touch, especially as the name “kid” has that fun double meaning), and providing them with a different backstory. However, there are some excellent similarities, such as the father’s skill with the blade, the desire to take down conspirators who wronged them and the baby carriage the son travels in, equipped with all manner of hidden weapons and blades. The character of Yagi, the Lone Goat, is particularly intense, and is almost demonic in his attitudes and persona, while still maintaining a samurai’s sense of honour. I was also really impressed with the battle sequences that featured in the last half of this story, and I liked how Sakai went from an elaborate one-on-one duel, to a mass fight against multiple opponents. All of this leads to another excellent story in this volume, which I really enjoyed reading.

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This fifth volume of Usagi Yojimbo, Lone Goat and Kid, was another incredible and powerful addition to the series, and I think Stan Sakai did another amazing job with this volume. Featuring five fantastic stories that contained Sakai’s usual complex narratives, iconic artwork and compelling underlying themes, Lone Goat and Kid gets another five-star rating from me, and it is really worth checking out.

Throwback Thursday – Predator One by Jonathan Maberry

Predator One Cover

Publisher: Macmillan Audio (Audiobook – 7 April 2015)

Series: Joe Ledger series – Book Seven

Length: 16 hours and 55 minutes

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 latest Throwback Thursday, I decided to I wanted something fast-paced and action-packed, so I went and checked out another book in Jonathan Maberry’s dark and thrilling Joe Ledger series with the seventh book, Predator One.

Those familiar with my blog will be aware of my recent love affair with the Joe Ledger series. I first encountered this series back in late 2018, and after massively enjoying the tenth book, Deep Silence, I have been slowly reading and reviewing my way through the entire series from start to finish. There are so many different things that I enjoy about these novels, including the outstanding action, gripping stories, fantastic characters and the crazy scenarios each book is set around. When combined, these elements help produce some truly incredible books, and I had an amazing time reading several Joe Ledger novels last year. I also read the first book in Maberry’s Rogue Team International series, Rage, which was one of my top books (and audiobooks) of 2019. I am hoping to finish off all the remaining books in the Joe Ledger series this year, and Predator One is the first one that I have so far checked out in 2020. I have to say that I was once again blown away with Maberry’s writing ability, as Predator One is another epic and remarkable read which gets a full five-star rating from me.

It is the opening day of the new baseball season, and Joe Ledger, point-agent for the high-tech counter terrorist organisation, the Department of Military Sciences (DMS), is enjoying a well-earned day off. Everything seems to be going well, the sun is shining, the beers are flowing, and a decorated military pilot is about to throw out the first ball. Then a model airplane flies out onto the field, a replica of the one flown by the war hero. Everyone assumes it’s a harmless prank, everyone except Ledger, who can only watch in horror as the toy plane explodes. Within seconds, a swarm of bomb-laden drones appears, devastating the crowd and leaving Ledger injured in the wreckage of the stadium.

As Ledger attempts to process what has happened, a series of coordinated attacks are taking place across America. While some of the attacks appear random, several are deliberately targeting the friends and family of key members of the DMS, attempting to distract the agency and take them off the board. It soon becomes clear that an old enemy has risen from the flames, determined to get revenge on those that they believe have wronged them in the past, including Ledger and everyone he loves. Worse, they have teamed up with a force of pure evil whose deepest wish is to torment and destroy the head of the DMS, the mysterious Mr Church.

Diving back into the action, Ledger and his team attempt to find and neutralise the source of this new threat. But at every turn, they find themselves outmatched, outmanoeuvred and severely outgunned, as the enemy has access to advanced technology that allows them to take control of America’s military vehicles, aircraft, ships and drones. As the attacks against America worsen, their opponents even gain control of Air Force One, with the President aboard, and start to fly it towards New York City. Can Ledger save the day one more time or have the DMS finally come up against an enemy even they can’t outsmart?

Wow, just wow. Predator One is another impressive and extremely captivating thriller novel that I had an outstanding time listening to. Maberry has come up with another incredible, action-packed story which utilises his trademark writing style to present a first-rate novel. Readers are treated to a multi-layered story, which cleverly features multiple character viewpoints, flashbacks and deep examinations of a several major characters’ pasts and motives. All of this allows Maberry to tell a complex and intriguing thriller story that never lets up on the excitement. The various storylines flow together perfectly thanks to the short chapters and constant dancing between different character perspectives, and all the storylines lead up to an epic and memorable conclusion. Maberry really knows how to ramp up the tension and the excitement throughout the book, and the final couple of hours are exceedingly thrilling, as several exhilarating scenarios come into effect at the same time. All of this results in a deeply exciting read, which I really loved and is another perfect Joe Ledger story.

Just like so many books in this series, amongst the best things about Predator One are the fantastic antagonists and their over-the-top plot against America, Joe Ledger and the DMS. For the main antagonist, Maberry goes back to some of the earlier books in the series, and brings back the Seven Kings organisation, which is being led by an old, established opponent of the DMS. While a new, complex villain for this book could have been fun, I really loved the author’s use of the historical antagonist, especially as they have been substantially transformed since the last book, and they are now aiming for a destructive end. This older antagonist is paired with the mysterious, evil character, Nicodemus, and together they form quite a partnership. Nicodemus is a character that has been hinted at and featured in the shadows of several previous books, so it was really cool to see him in a more substantial role. The key to Nicodemus is his extremely enigmatic persona and history, as no one quite knows who or, more importantly, what he is. He seems to have some sort of mystical abilities, and it is hinted in this book that he is some form of demon or devil, although it is never fully revealed. This mystery and mystique make for a quite an intriguing addition to the series, and the two main antagonists work together quite well as an evil, villainous pairing. On top of them, Maberry also throws in a good secondary antagonist who acts as a crooked assistant to the leader of the Seven Kings and who serves as a useful narrator, as well as the standard sexually depraved henchmen. Combined, these excellent antagonists make for a fun and exciting opposition for the main characters and they help produce some extremely interesting storylines.

I was also a major fan of the fantastic and complex master plan that Maberry envisioned for the antagonists of this book, which served as a fantastic basis of much of the story. Maberry crafted a sinister and exceedingly destructive campaign of terror and destruction that culminated in the takeover of Air Force One with the President and other key characters on board, sending it on a kamikaze mission. This proved to be a rather fun villainous storyline to follow, and I enjoyed seeing it unfold from both the protagonists’ and antagonists’ points of view, as these different perspectives led to some very intriguing scenes. I also liked the way that that the origins of the plot were explored in a series of interludes, allowing the reader to become familiar with the key players of the scheme, and get hints of the full extent of the planned destruction. It was also rather cool to see these antagonists land some real blows against the DMS. Maberry has never been shy about killing off key side characters (for example, he killed off the main secondary character and primary love interest in the second book, The Dragon Factory), and he ensures that some real damage is done to some DMS characters in Predator One. This helps add a real emotional edge to the story, and I liked the way that it upped the stakes, as well as the obvious emotional and psychological impacts that it had on some of the series’s well established, long-running protagonists.

Maberry makes sure to bring back the full and unique bevy of good-guy characters for this seventh book, most of whom have appeared in multiple books before. At the fore is the series’s titular protagonist, Joe Ledger, who is the sole first-person narrator in the book, with around a third of the story told from his point of view. Ledger is his usual witty and damaged self in this book, infecting his parts of the story with his wicked humour and sarcasm, while also unleashing his barely hidden rage and special brand of hyper-violence. Ledger goes to some dark places in Predator One, especially after his friends and allies are attacked, and the way he ends the villain is particularly gruesome and memorable. In addition to the usual examination of Ledger’s complex psyche, I really liked the way that a number of other side characters got some substantial sequences in this book. Joe Ledger series stand-out character Mr Church gets quite a lot to do in this book, and it was excellent to not only see him calmly lead his people in a severe crisis, but also react to some substantially personal attacks from the shadowy Nicodemus, who he has some obvious history with. The DMS’s psychiatrist, Rudy Sanchez, also gets quite a few scenes in this book, as he and his family come under substantial attack from the antagonists. It was really intriguing to see Rudy, whose usual role is to calm and centre the rest of the protagonists, come apart a bit in this novel, and it was quite stirring to see him pull himself together in a major way. I have to say that I also really enjoyed the inclusion of Toys as well, especially as Maberry has written a rather good redemption arc for him in this book. Thanks to the author’s use of multiple viewpoints, each of these characters, and more, get multiple moments to shine in this novel, and this helped create a full and captivating thriller tale, especially as the reader inevitably becomes invested in these characters’ survival.

I can’t go past a Joe Ledger novel without commenting on the exquisite and ultra-violent action sequences that are heavily featured throughout the book. Maberry is an expert at writing detailed and explosive action scenes, and Predator One is filled with a substantial amount of battles and fights, with all manner of armed and unarmed combat. These scenes are an absolute delight to behold, and it is always cool to see these well-crafted fights come to life. There are a number of large-scale battle sequences throughout this book, and Maberry did an amazing job switching between several fights that were happening simultaneously towards the end of the book, resulting in some extremely action-packed and exciting sections of Predator One. I really enjoy the way that the author breaks down the fight, and it is interesting to hear about the tactical reasons or destructive capabilities for certain moves or weaponry. All of this makes for a really cool book, although readers should be warned that there is a lot of extreme violence in this book that might not be for everyone, especially the graphic torture scenes.

Just like the previous Joe Ledger novels I have been lucky enough to enjoy, I chose to check out Predator One’s audiobook format, which was narrated by the exceedingly talented Ray Porter. Running at 16 hours and 55 minutes, this is one of the longer Joe Ledger audiobooks (not by much), but I found myself able to power through it in only a few days, and the audiobook format remains my favourite way to enjoy a Joe Ledger book. Porter’s outstanding narration is the highlight of this format, and I will never get tired of praising his vocal work in this format. The voices that Porter comes up with for these productions are pretty damn awesome, and he has perfected some amazing voices for the characters featured in this series. I once again have to highlight Porter’s take on Mr Church, as his version of the character has some real presences, authority and gravitas. I also liked some of the voices that he did for the villainous Nicodemus, especially as the script called for a change of accent and voice mid-sentence, something which Porter pulled off perfectly, and which made the character sound pretty sinister in this format. However, nothing can top the amazing work that Porter puts into the series’s titular protagonist, Joe Ledger, as the narrator is scarily in sync with this character, and expertly portrays all his emotion, personality and raw sarcasm. I cannot emphasise enough how impressive the Joe Ledger audiobooks are, and if you are keen to check them out, this is the format to do it in.

Predator One by Jonathan Maberry is an outstanding and captivating tale of revenge, destruction, action and war, as the author’s team of elite warriors go face to face with an army of pure evil. This was an intense and thrilling read, which I once again completely failed to put down multiple times. Filled with amazing characters, including some very well-crafted evil antagonists, a fun story, violent action sequences and some outrageous story elements, this book is relentlessly entertaining and it proved to be an impressive addition to the Joe Ledger series. Predator One comes highly recommended, especially in audiobook format, and I look forward to finishing off the final two books in the series later this year.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – September 1991)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Four

Length: 179 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 slightly belated Throwback Thursday, I continue my trend of the last couple of weeks by checking out another volume of Stan Sakai’s ground-breaking and utterly addictive Usagi Yojimbo series with the fourth volume, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy. Reviewing all these Usagi Yojimbo books has proven to be a lot of fun, and I am really glad that I have been able to show off my love for this series (make sure to check out my reviews for volumes One, Two and Three). The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is another excellent early volume in this long-running series, which features a fantastic full-volume-length story.

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A storm is brewing throughout feudal Japan, as war and revolution against the Shogun lie just beyond the horizon. In his fortress, the ambitious and dastardly Lord Tamakuro has been plotting. Despite appearing to be a loyal supporter of the powerful Lord Hikiji, Tamakuro has his own plans to take control of the country and rule as Shogun, utilising an army of ronin armed with teppo, black powder guns imported from the barbarian lands outside of Japan.

However, despite his best attempts at discretion, Lord Tamakuro’s actions have not gone unnoticed. His neighbour, Lord Noriyuki, has sent his trusted advisor and bodyguard, Tomoe, to investigate Tamakuro’s castle, where she discovers the hidden armaments he is planning to use in his upcoming revolution. At the same time, Lord Hikiji, suspicious of Tamakuro’s true loyalties, has sent the notorious Neko Ninja clan to infiltrate his castle. When both Tomoe and the Neko Ninja are discovered, Tamakuro makes ready for war against all his opponents.

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Into this vast conspiracy walks the wandering ronin Miyamoto Usagi. A friend to Lord Noriyuki and Tomoe, Usagi witnesses Tomoe being captured and rushes to Tamakuro’s castle to save her. Despite his best efforts, Usagi finds himself outmatched by the powerful forces Tamakuro has pulled together. His only chance at saving his friend and averting a civil war is to team up with the Neko Ninja, a group he his fought many times in the past. Can Usagi and his new allies succeed, or will Tamakuro’s greed engulf the entire country? And what role will blind swordspig Zato-Ino and the bounty hunter Gennosuke play in the final battle?

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is an outstanding and highly enjoyable comic that I have a huge amount of love for. Containing issues #13-18 of the Fantagraphics Books run of the Usagi Yojimbo series, this fourth volume is broken down into seven separate chapters. It is a major early edition in the series, as it contains a massive and wide-reaching story. This is the first storyline that takes up an entire volume (several notable stories do this later, such as the two Grasscutter volumes and the 33rd volume, The Hidden), and it presents the reader with an epic tale of war, friendship, honour, loyalty and uneasy alliances, while featuring a number of the best Usagi Yojimbo characters.

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The entire story contained within this fourth volume is quite spectacular and comes with minimal build-up from the Usagi Yojimbo issues that preceded this volume. Sakai does an amazing job introducing the relevant plot and new key players surrounding this storyline, and then telling a complex and detailed narrative within the confines of this one volume. In addition to the main conspiracy storyline, the story follows several different character-based storylines, all of which come together for one big epic confrontation. I really enjoyed where Sakai took the plot of this volume, and I liked how the story was broken up into several distinctive chunks defined by the respective chapter (the chapter names, which refer to parts of a storm, identify the intensity and importance of each chapter). The entire story is rather self-contained, and I think that the author did a great job wrapping it up and giving it several satisfying conclusions.

Like many of the Usagi Yojimbo issues out there, the true heart of The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy’s story is the outstanding characters, many of whom have appeared in prior issues in the series. Usagi once again accidently finds himself in the midst of a vast conspiracy and must risk everything to save his friend and stop a war. If I am going to be honest, Usagi has one of the weaker arcs in this volume, with several of the side characters getting much more interesting storylines and more development. That being said, parts of Usagi’s story are fairly intriguing, such as when he manages to infiltrate Lord Tamakuro’s castle as a new retainer in order to rescue Tomoe, or his guilt-ridden dream sequence where his regret over his perceived failure manifests itself as a series of ghosts and monsters. Usagi also has the fun job of recruiting reluctant and unusual allies to his cause, such as the Neko Ninja or his old foe Zato-Ino. Indeed, his whole storyline is similar to classic Japanese films such as The Seven Samurai (the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven) or The Hidden Fortress (which served as an inspiration for the first Star Wars movie), as he recruits or forms alliances with various people in order to take down an evil opponent (in a castle, no less, for The Hidden Fortress fans). He also has some rather fantastic interactions with several different characters throughout the volume, and it results in some major developments in his relationships with them.

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While Usagi’s storyline is quite enjoyable, several returning supporting characters also have some substantial and impressive arcs throughout this book, and I really loved the way in which Sakai brings back a number of key characters from earlier issues in the series. The best character in this entire volume is the blind swordspig, Zato-Ino. Both of Ino’s previous storylines have been extremely impressive, so it was great to see him return again for another volume. Ino, who had already found some measure of peace thanks to his new companion, the tokage lizard Spot, finds some major redemption in The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, and he easily has the most character development. An entire chapter of this volume is dedicated to the eventual fate of Ino, and it was fantastic to see him finally find what he has been desperately searching for, even if he has to lose his only friend along the way. The rhino bounty hunter, Gennosuke, once again proves himself to be a fun and endearing character throughout this volume. Initially involved in a rather humorous hunt for Ino’s bounty, he finds himself working with him to fight Lord Tamakuro’s forces, although he always intends to betray him. However, Ino’s heroic actions end up changing his mind, and he once again reveals his hidden good nature by secretly assisting Ino and selflessly helping him. This is also the volume where Gen loses his horn, with all future versions of him appearing with just a small stump on his nose. His cut-off horn is quite an iconic look for the character, and after seeing him without out for all these years in later volumes, his earlier horned appearance just looks odd.

Recurring female samurai, Tomoe, also has an extremely strong appearance in The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, as she finds herself captured within Lord Tamakuro’s castle quite early in the volume and is forced to resist his abuses. Tomoe has some great dialogue with Usagi about how her mission and her loyalty to Lord Noriyuki are more important than her own life, and she has to talk Usagi into abandoning her for the greater good. She also has a rather fantastic sequence where she manages to remain hidden in the fortress, right after she rides through various parts of the interior on a horse. I also really liked Shingen, the Neko Ninja chief who Usagi teams up within this volume. Shingen previously appeared in the Volume 3 story, The Shogun’s Gift, where he formed a great rivalry with Usagi. While the two clash in this volume, they eventually reach a level of mutual respect and work together for the greater good. Shingen gains multiple dimensions as a character in this volume, and it was interesting to see his discussion with Usagi about honour, and how even ninja have a code of duty. His story comes to a fantastic close towards the end of the volume, but Sakai really made him one of the standout characters of the volume: “A ninja’s duty in life is death!”

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In addition to the excellent inclusion of several amazing returning characters, The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy also featured a couple of terrific new characters, who really helped bring this story together. The evil Lord Tamakuro was a really good villain for this volume, and Sakai did a fantastic job of showing of his greed, brutality and utter disregard for anything except his own power. Needless to say, he was a rather vile character who the reader cannot help but dislike, making his eventual comeuppance all the sweeter. The best new character in this volume has to be the leader of Tamakuro’s samurai army, Captain Torame. Torame is a loyal and capable warrior, who is forced to serve an evil lord who takes him for granted. He forms a bond with Usagi when the protagonist infiltrates the fortress under the guise of a mercenary ronin, and they have several discussions about bushido, loyalty and the ways in which a samurai must serve his lord. Usagi’s subsequent betrayal in order to rescue Tomoe enrages Torame, who takes it as a personal afront. This leads to a fantastic duel later in the volume, although not before Usagi and Torame have one final discussion, in which Usagi attempts to talk Torame into abandoning Tamakuro. Torame however refuses, as his strict adherence to the samurai code forbids him betraying his lord, even if it is clear he disagrees with Tamakuro’s plans:

“is samurai honour so important?”

“Yes”.

The result of the quick and brutal duel that follows visibly saddens Usagi, who was once again forced to fight a man he respected. This volume also sees the brief introduction of the Neko Ninja Chizu, a major recurring character in later volumes of the series, whose one scene in this book was rather fun.

The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is an extremely action-packed volume that actually features some of the best action scenes in the entire Usagi Yojimbo series. I absolutely loved all the action sequences in this book, as Sakai did an incredible job illustrating them and bringing the fights to life. The main action set piece of this volume has to be the assault on Lord Tamakuro’s fortress by Usagi, Ino, Gen, Shingen and a force of Neko Ninja armed with explosives, as they attempt to rescue Tomoe and put an end to Tamakuro’s ambitions. This entire extended action sequence is exceedingly impressive, and it was really cool to see all the characters engage in a massive battle throughout a castle complex. I also have to say how incredibly awesome it was to see a force of ninja face off against an army of samurai, predominately armed with European muskets. This made for some incredible fight scenes, all of which I really and truly loved. I also have to highlight a couple of duel sequences that occurred earlier in the volume. The first of this was a great fight between Usagi and Shingen, as the two face off against each other in a quick fight to the death. This duel focuses on the extreme clash of styles between the two, as Usagi had to contend with all manner of traps and ambushes before he got anywhere near this foe. However, this duel pales in comparison to the awesome fight between Ino and Gen that occurred towards the middle of the volume. This two engage in an incredible and beautifully drawn fight that lasted several pages. This fight did a fantastic job showing of their respective skills with the sword, and this fight helps feed into Sakai’s love for classic Japanese films, as this duel was essentially Zatoichi vs Yojimbo. This volume featured some first-rate action, which is really worth checking out.

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In addition to the extremely well-drawn action sequences, Sakai has filled this volume with some truly incredibly examples of his artistic style. This volume features so many impressive and iconic Japanese buildings, landscapes, traditional outfits and other aspects of the country, that the reader can’t help but feel they have been transported back to feudal Japan. I particularly loved the way he included a number of stormy backgrounds throughout this volume. The continued artistic rendering of rain, clouds, mud, wind and storms throughout the entirety of The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy really helped to set the mood of the entire volume, and I loved how the intensity of the storm seemed to match the volume’s story. I really enjoyed how a number of pages were streaked with massive bolts of lightning across cloudy or darkened skies, and several scenes, particularly the duel between Ino and Gen, were majorly enhanced by this artistic inclusion. As usual, this art does an amazing job backing up the volume’s fantastic stories, and I was once again left stunned by Sakai’s obvious and incredible artistic talent.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy, is another exceptional and captivating comic which I am awarding a full five-star rating. Sakai is a truly incredible writer and artist, and this fourth volume did a fantastic job highlighting his talents for both. Not only does this volume feature some amazing and distinctive drawings, but it also contains an outstanding and enjoyable story backed up by some awesome characters. Sakai did an awesome job bringing together several key recurring characters into a compelling and well-written narrative, which I once again fell in love with. The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy is really worth checking out, and is a must read for fans of the masterpiece that is the Usagi Yojimbo series.

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Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 3: The Wanderer’s Road by Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo The Wanderer's Road Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 17 January 1989)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Three

Length: 146 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.

In this week’s Throwback Thursday, I check out the third volume of the outstanding Usagi Yojimbo comic book series, The Wanderer’s Road. I was originally planning to save this one until next week, but I just watched some episodes of the 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles animated show today that featured Usagi, and so inspiration struck once again.

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The third volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series follows on from the events of the second volume, Samurai, and features several standalone adventures as the series’ titular protagonist, Miyamoto Usagi, continues to wander around this alternate version of Feudal Japan. The Wanderer’s Road features six first-rate and deeply enjoyable stories which were originally contained within issues #7 – 12 of the Fantagraphics Books’ Usagi Yojimbo series. It also contains a short bonus story from the Turtle Soup comic project which features a very special guest star.

The first of the stories featured within The Wanderer’s Road is The Tower. This story revolves around a hungry tokage lizard (the dinosaur-like lizards that infest Usagi’s world), who finds himself in a spot of bother and is chased up a tower by an angry shopkeeper, who refuses to let it down. Usagi, arriving upon the scene, decides to intervene, and attempts to rescue the tokage; however, thanks to the vindictive shopkeeper, he finds himself also trapped atop the tower. Attempting to bond with the tokage, who he names Spot, Usagi endures the conditions on the tower, while enraging the shopkeeper even more, until the story comes to a crashing end. The Tower was a fantastic start to this third volume, and it features a rather enjoyable and fun story. While it is perhaps the weakest story in this volume, only by dint of how incredible the other issues featured in The Wanderer’s Road are, it was still an excellent entry in this series, and served as a great introduction to a fun recurring character in Spot. The Tower contains some funny moments, from the way Usagi inadvertently keeps messing with the bullying shopkeeper on the ground, to the tiny turtle with a ninja mask that Sakai hides away in one of the crowd shots. All of this results in a fantastic story which I rather enjoyed.

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For the second story in this volume, A Mother’s Love, we go from a comedy to a tragedy. In this story, Usagi and his new companion Spot befriend an old woman on the road and accompany her back to town. Once in town, it is revealed the that old woman is the mother of a ruthless moneylender whose thugs have been terrorising the populace. After a tense night at the moneylender’s house, the old lady begs Usagi to kill her son, as she cannot bear to see the evil creature that he has turned into. While Usagi refuses her request, he is soon forced into a fight with the moneylender’s men. However, it is revealed that the old woman has manipulated the guards into attacking Usagi so that she can use the distraction to kill her son herself. When Usagi and Spot discover this, the old woman beseeches a stunned Usagi to kill her and finally put her out of her misery. A Mother’s Love is an incredible and heartbreaking story, which puts Usagi in a no-win situation. The last three pages of the books have to be one of the most heartbreaking and tragic sequence in the entire series. The teary old woman sing a lullaby as she cradles her dead son in her arms while a heartbroken and defeated Usagi watches on is extremely sad. The way that the old woman’s lullaby suddenly ends heavily implies that Usagi fulfilled the old woman’s wish and killed her. His final statement, “I do pray the Gods will be merciful…. Mother” as his despondently leaves the moneylender’s house, accompanied by Spot’s mournful cry are a sad way to end this story, but it makes for one heck of a captivating sequence. Other highlights of this book include Usagi’s large-scale fight against an army of bodyguards, the fun inclusion of Spot in several of this fights (little dude is lethal with his tail), and a stare-down scene between Usagi and the moneylender, which highlighted how intimidating Usagi can be when he wants to. All in all, a perfect and compelling story which shows just how amazing Usagi Yojimbo can be.

The next story in this volume, Return of the Blind Swordspig, is another masterpiece from Sakai, which features another outing from one of the best characters from Usagi Yojimbo, Zato-Ino, who was first introduced in The Ronin. This story sees the blind outlaw Zato-Ino travelling the road, still pursued by assassins and bounty hunters. Ambushed in the woods once again, Ino is able to fight off his attackers thanks to a timely warning from Spot, who had briefly walked away from Usagi. While Spot and Ino part ways, Ino soon catches up with Usagi, who cut off Ino’s nose the last time they met (he’s got a wooden nose in this book, it’s a transplant!). Ino follows Usagi to a nearby temple, where he is able to gain an advantage over Usagi in the dark as the two engage in an epic duel. Usagi’s life is spared only by the intervention of Spot, who stands between them, forcing Ino to back down, envious of the friendship Usagi is blessed with. Realising that the two souls have much in common, Usagi sends Spot to accompany Ino on his journey to find peace, and the two wonder off as friends.

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Return of the Blind Swordspig is another fantastic story that shows some complex and powerful character work. Sakai’s portrayal of Ino as a tortured and hate-filled loner is once again tragic and very moving, and it was fantastic to see him finally find a true friend and companion, something he has always desired. The way that Ino changes his travel songs from ballads about walking the roads alone to a melody about how he is grateful to have a companion is telling, and Usagi’s parting utterance of “Have a good life… both of you” matches the audience’s thoughts for these two great supporting characters. While the best thing about Return of Blind Swordspig is the continued examination of Ino’s complex personality and the progression of his character arc, I also really need to highlight the incredible swordfight in the dark between Ino and Usagi. Not only is this amazingly drawn, but the start of the duel where Ino slices the candle in half once again shows off Sakai’s love for classic Japanese movies. Slicing a candle to make a room dark is the trademark move of Zatoichi, the movie character that Ino in based upon, and Sakai backs this up by having Ino say “Now we’re both blind, Usagi” which is very similar to what Zatoichi says in these circumstances. All in all, this is an outstanding entry that really shows of Sakai’s ability to weave a powerful narrative around some exceptional characters.

 

The fourth story in this volume is Blade of the Gods, which introduces readers to the incredible antagonist Jei. Jei is a skilled and murderous spear-wielding samurai who wanders the land killing those he deems evil in the name of the Gods (spoiler: pretty much everyone is evil in Jei’s eyes). Encountering Usagi one night in a peasant’s hut (it is heavily implied that Jei killed the peasant before Usagi showed up), Jei suddenly declares Usagi to be evil and they engage in a brutal fight to the death both inside and outside the hut. Usagi is only saved by a blast of lighting and is left wondering if Jei was a madman or a true emissary of the gods. This was a compelling and fantastic story, which features one of the best fight sequences in the entire volume. The true highlight of this story is the introduction of Jei, who is easily one of the best characters in the entire Usagi Yojimbo universe. Jei is probably the most dangerous antagonist so far encountered in the Usagi Yojimbo series (Lord Hijiki really hasn’t revealed himself too much yet), and he serves as a wonderful recurring character. Sakai did an excellent job introducing Jei in this story, showing off his motivations, his style and the fact that he is a killer without peer and a fighter on par with Usagi. The character design for this villain is really striking, from his black-bladed spear to his pure white eyes and deranged wolf smile. I also liked the way that the reader is left wondering whether he is actually supernatural in origin or just a crazy person. While this is revealed in later volumes, the mystery of him is an exciting feature for the early Usagi Yojimbo stories that he appears in. I really love the character of Jei, who is actually based on Jason from the Friday the 13th movies (fun fact: when you use the Japanese honorific his name, Jei-san, becomes a pun on Jason), and I think that this was an excellent first appearance for him.

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The next story in The Wanderer’s Road is the fun entry, The Tea Cup. The Tea Cup sees the return of the bounty hunter Gen, who Usagi encounters on the road in the midst of a fight. Gen is escorting a precious tea cup to a tea master and must defend it from assassins who are trying to steal it. Accompanying Gen, Usagi helps him defend the cup with the samurai encountering a number of complications, including a band of killers, two orphaned children and the bad luck that follows Usagi and Gen when they team up. This was easily the funniest story in the entire book, thanks to the inclusion of Gen. Usagi and Gen have a hilarious relationship which is always fun to see, and they play off each other really well. This includes a number of running jokes from the previous Gen stories, the final entry in their game of sticking the other person with the lunch bill (which doesn’t go the way they planned this time) and several other hilarious scenes, including one joke that takes the entire story to come to fruition (he really was slow of mind). In this story, you get to see a bit of Gen’s softer side and the fact that, despite his rough exterior, deep down he is a good and caring person. Sakai also fills this story with a number of fantastic references to the cartoon, Groo the Wanderer, which Sakai previously did the lettering on, including a unique stylised poem at the start of the story, a fun imitation of Groo “Gen does what Gen does best”, and even cameo appearances from Sakai, Sergio Aragonés and the rest of the creative team behind Groo the Wanderer. All of this makes for a hilarious and entertaining tale, which is going to produce quite a few laughs for readers.

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The final full story in this volume is The Shogun’s Gift, which sees Usagi facing off against a Neko Ninja who has stolen a valuable sword from his friends Noriyuki and Tomeo of the Geishu Clan. This turned into quite an action packed and clever game of cat and rabbit (I mean cat and mouse), as Usagi puts on a great dumb samurai act to fool the ninja, Shingen. It was entertaining to watch Usagi continually encountering Shingen, especially as the ninja got more and more enraged each time Usagi appeared and casually poked holes in his story. The Shogun’s Gift ends with a great fight sequence and a rather clever bit of trickery from Usagi, which serves to turn this into a cool and enjoyable tale. I liked the introduction of Shingen, who has a big role in a future volume, and the scene where he is able to conceal the fact that he is hidden in the ceiling even after being stabbed is pretty badass. I also think that this volume did need a story that looked at the larger political picture of this world, including the nefarious plans of Lord Hikiji and the Neko Ninja, and it was good to see some more of that. Overall, this proved to be another phenomenal entry in this volume, and it served as a great concluding main story.

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In addition to all the big stories mentioned above, The Wanderer’s Road also contained the short bonus story, Turtle Soup and Rabbit Stew. This short story originally appeared in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comic project, Turtle Soup, and features the first encounter between Usagi and one of the turtles, in this case Leonardo. In this comical tale, Leonardo suddenly lands in Usagi’s realm and is immediately attacked by a band of ronin, while at the same time just down the road, Usagi is attacked by a group of Neko Ninja, the two fights join into one brawl, where Usagi and Leo are the only survivors. Upon seeing each other, the two assume that the other is part of the band that initially attacked them, and they run at each other to engage in battle, only for Leo to be dragged back to his Earth. This of course doesn’t stop the momentum they built up charging at each other, and it results in chaos and injury on both worlds. This was an exceedingly funny first meeting between these iconic comic characters, and this entire story is boundlessly amusing, even with its shorter size.

As you can see from my passionate descriptions above, each of the stories featured in this volume is an outstanding entry in its own right, and I deeply enjoyed each of them. I honestly cannot tell you which story in this volume was my favourite, as three in particular were quite exceptional. Sakai did a masterful job with each of these stories, and I really enjoyed how they are presented in this volume. I think that The Wanderer’s Road contains an excellent blend of stories, which range from the tragic, the dramatic and the comedic, and each of them contains some amazing examples of Sakai’s trademark artistic skill. I also think that having a volume made up entirely of shorter standalone stories also works really well, especially as Volume 3 falls between two other volumes made up of larger, multi-issue stories. The Wanderer’s Road gets another five-star rating from me, and I look forward to reviewing more Usagi Yojimbo volumes in the near future.

Throwback Thursday: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 2: Samurai

Usagi Yojimbo Samurai Cover

Publisher: Fantagraphics Books (Paperback – 1989)

Series: Usagi Yojimbo – Book Two

Length: 141 pages

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

After the fun that I had reviewing the first volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, The Ronin, last week, I decided to follow it up with a review of the second volume in the series, Samurai. Samurai is an impressive second outing from author and artist Stan Sakai, which does an amazing job continuing his epic series after the introductory stories contained within the first volume.

After his adventures in the first volume, the rabbit ronin Miyamoto Usagi has continued on his wandering ways. However, his latest journey quickly turns to violence when he encounters another ronin on the road. Without a word being spoken, both samurai engage in a swift and brutal duel to the death, in which Usagi is the winner. The only witness to the duel is the bounty hunter Gennosuke, who inquires into the origin of the apparent feud between Usagi and his recently deceased opponent. Usagi reveals that the dead samurai was named Gunichi and Usagi had much cause to kill him.

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Regaling Gen with his tale as they travel together, Usagi reveals that the origins of this feud goes all the way back to his childhood and his tutorage under the unusual and skilled sword master Katsuichi. This tale follows Usagi as he becomes a young samurai in the services of his Lord Mifune, where he was comrade to Gunichi, and leads all the way to the fateful battle of Adachigahara Plain and the day that Usagi became a masterless samurai.

Back in the present, Usagi continues his adventures across the land, encountering many different people and unusual creatures. Watch him fight against a kappa, help defend a village of silk merchants against a roving group of bandits and witness his weird meeting with a mysterious and powerful little monster who is going to be a big somebody one day.

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Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 2: Samurai, is an amazing and fantastic volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, which does an outstanding job continuing the story after the events portrayed in The Ronin. This second volume contains the first six issues of the actual Usagi Yojimbo series, and I really enjoyed the excellent adventures that are contained within these issues. The volume is broken down into four separate stories, the expanded story Samurai, as well as three stories which are significantly shorter. Each of these stories are really entertaining, and they all come together to create an impressive and incredible total volume of comics which I had a fantastic time reading.

The first story in this volume is also titled Samurai, and it is the major story contained within the Samurai volume. Running for 92 pages, this was one of Sakai’s first expanded Usagi Yojimbo stories, and I think it is one of his better ones. Samurai contains a captivating and exciting narrative that not only continues Usagi’s story in the present but which also goes back and explores much of the character’s past. This is shown through a lengthy flashback about Usagi’s childhood, his tutorage under the skilled samurai Katsuichi, his first meeting with Gunichi, their service under Lord Mifune, the events that led to Mifune’s war with the evil Lord Hikiji and the terrible final battle which cost Usagi his lord.

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Sakai comes up with an excellent background for Usagi in this story, and it was great to see how he expanded on some of the ideas and plot points that were featured within the first volume’s early stories. Even after all these years, the flashback contained with Samurai is still the definitive history of the character’s early days, although it has been expanded on several times in future volumes. This background is really intriguing, and I think that Sakai tells an amazing story, showing of Usagi’s unique training, his early triumphs including obtaining his swords, his service with Lord Mifune and then an expanded version of the battle of Adachigahara Plain, which has been briefly shown in the previous book. Woven into this is the tale of Usagi’s friendship with his fellow Mifune retainer, Gunichi, and the fateful day in their relationship that will cause Usagi to kill him the next time they meet. Sakai paces this entire extended story out well, and it turns into quite a complete and intriguing narrative. I like that it also added a lot more depth to the love triangle between Usagi, Mariko and Kenichi, and the scenes where Usagi and Kenichi put aside their differences for the first time for the sake of Mariko is great, and helps show that Kenichi is not a bad guy, he’s just occasionally blinded by his jealousy of Usagi.

I personally really enjoyed the scenes that featured Usagi and his sensei Katsuichi, the reclusive swords master. Their entire arc is really fun, and I love a good training sequence. Katsuichi is your typical wise and eccentric old hermit master who takes the young and eager student with potential under his wing to make him a superior student. Despite coming off as an aloof and hard man, Katsuichi is actually a kindly master who is impressed by Usagi’s determination and spirit (he gives a sly smile at the start of the training period). Katsuichi has some really interesting training techniques, and it is interesting to see how Usagi developed the skills that have kept him alive in the dangerous world he lives in. I loved the menial tasks montage, which is very reminiscent of The Karate Kid. It was also fun to see Usagi get randomly hit with a bamboo stick until he learns to anticipate surprise attacks, and I liked how it helped explain Usagi’s seemingly supernatural ability to sense when he is being watched or in danger. Overall, this proved to be an excellent inclusion to the story, and Katsuichi was easily the best new character introduced in this volume.

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Another major highlight of this first story is the part set in the present, which sees Usagi once again reunited with Gen. Gen was one of the better characters featured in the first volume, so it was really good to see him reintroduced in Samurai, especially as it helps set him up as a major recurring character in the Usagi Yojimbo series. Throughout the story, Usagi and Gen form quite an amusing partnership, with Usagi acting the honourable Zen warrior, while Gen is the unapologetic and uncultured mercenary. The two play off each other extremely well, with their great repartee and jabs at each other, and it is fun to see Usagi come out his shell a lot more around his companion. Gen also proves to be an entertaining audience for Usagi’s story, and it was fun to see his reactions to Usagi’s life tale. This was especially true when Gen started to get really into the story, despite his feigned indifference, and overreacted to several key moments. This entire story ends on a rather heartfelt moment between the two, with Gen indicating he completely understands how Usagi felt when he lost his lord “the saddest day of a samurai’s life is the day he becomes a ronin. Some day I’ll tell you how I became masterless…” and Usagi hinting that he really does see Gen as a friend. I really enjoyed seeing these two characters back together again, and this story definitely serves as a much better basis for their friendship than their backstabbing adventures in the previous volume. I also have to say, the silent dual at the front of the book between Usagi and Gunichi is the tops, and you could not ask for a better start to a story than an unexplained and sudden fight to the death.

The next story featured in this volume is the short, horror-based story, Kappa. Wandering a desolate, swampy area, Usagi comes across a kappa, a Japanese water demon, who demands a toll to cross the marshes. While Usagi is able to pass, he must go back and try to save another traveller from the kappa, resulting in a desperate conflict. This is quite a good story, especially with the ghostly twist contained at the end. I really love that Sakai chooses to explore pieces of Japanese mythology like the kappa, and it was really interesting to see Usagi face off against one. There is also an extremely brutal and impressive fight sequence against the kappa featured within this comic, which was all manner of impressive.

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The third story in Samurai was called Zylla, and featured Usagi finding and befriending a mysterious creature hidden in the bushes, that he names Zylla, when he visits the hot springs. Zylla repays Usagi by saving him from some bandits using his fiery (one could even say atomic) breath and reveals itself as a large newborn bipedal lizard who Usagi speculates may be a god, “Are you a god, Zylla?”. This is a really fun short story in this volume, and it adds a fascinating new element to the world that Usagi Yojimbo is set in. It was also great to see Sakai continue to show off his love for Japanese culture by featuring baby Zylla, and he makes several humorous references to Zylla’s future work, such as how he should visit the big city at some point. All of this makes for an amusing entry in this volume and it had me smiling as I read it.

The final story was Silk Fair, which sees Usagi come to the aid of a silk worker, defending him from bandits. The worker takes him to his village, where Usagi eventually helps defend the village from a large bandit raid, after he deals with the silk works greedy administrator. This was a nice, short entry that showed a typical Usagi Yojimbo storyline of Usagi helping to defend the helpless again bandits. This was one of the first stories where Sakai explored a Japanese craft or industry, and while it does not go into as much detail as some of the later industry based stories (later volumes feature length depictions of things like sword crafting, seaweed farming, kite making and soy sauce production), it was still interesting to see. Silk Fair contained a good mixture of action and humour, and I especially enjoyed seeing the way Usagi managed to mess with the corrupt administrator and his cowardly bodyguard. There was also a rather unique battle sequence where Usagi and the silk workers are able to defeat the bandits with sewing needles and silk streamers. In the end, Silk Fair proved to be a strong and amazing story, and I felt that it was an extremely entertaining way to conclude this volume.

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Like with every volume of the Usagi Yojimbo series, Stan Sakai’s artwork is once again a major and incredible highlight of Samurai. This second volume contains some fantastic examples of Sakai’s artistic talent, and it is clear that by the time he was working on the stories contained within Sakai had settled on his preferred designs for the various characters and landscapes featured, although further refinements did occur later down the track. This new character work is really impressive, and I liked how various new characters appeared, such as the warthog Gunichi and the lion based Katsuichi. I am also continually impressed with the way that Sakai can convey emotion and expression with his drawings, and you are constantly aware of what the various characters are thinking, just from seeing their faces. The various stories contained within Samurai featured some truly amazing and visually stunning landscape backgrounds, as Sakai continued his practice of showing off the beautiful scenery of Japan. Sakai also drew a number of impressive action sequences throughout the book, and he really got the hang of sketching out and showcasing the fast-paced and skilful fights that occurred between samurai. There are some impressive duel sequences throughout this volume, including the quick and sudden fight between Usagi and Gunichi at the start of the first story or the practice duel between Usagi and Kenichi which showed the ferocious fight between the two, which quickly ended with one strong strike from the obviously more skilled Usagi. Sakai also included several larger-scale battle sequences throughout the volume which really are something to behold. I particularly liked the major war sequence that showed the expanded battle of Adachigahara Plain. Sakai did an amazing job presenting the frenetic chaos of war and the explosive action that occurred with his art, and it was certainly a visual highlight of this volume.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 2: Samurai was an outstanding addition to the Usagi Yojimbo series, and it is one of my favourite volumes in this entire franchise. Stan Sakai presents a fantastic blend of character backstory, action, adventure, eye-catching art and clever humour in this volume, and the end result is a five-star comic which is really worth checking out. Thanks to the excellent background based main story, Samurai is a key volume in this series, making this book a must read. Samurai gets another five stars from me, and once again I have to strongly recommend this volume, and indeed the whole Usagi Yojimbo series, to anyone looking for an epic and enjoyable new series.

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: Darth Vader (2015): Volume 2 – Shadows and Secrets

Darth Vader - Shadows and Secrets

Publisher: Marvel Comics

Writer: Kieron Gillen

Artist: Salvador Larroca

Colourist: Edgar Delgado

Publication Date: 5 January 2016

Length: 136 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.

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For my latest Throwback Thursday, I take a look at the second volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series, Shadows and Secrets. This is a superb and fantastic addition to a series which I honestly consider to be one the best overall pieces of Star Wars fiction out there, as it continues to explore the complex character that is Darth Vader.

Following the events of the first volume of this series, Vader, Darth Vader now knows that the mysterious Rebel pilot who destroyed the Death Star is actually his son, Luke Skywalker, and that the Emperor has been lying to him for years. This revelation, combined with the fact that the Emperor is forcing him to compete for his favour with the scientific creations of the cybernetic genius Cylo, has crystallised Vader’s rage, and he is now determined to overthrow the Emperor and rule the Empire with his son. To that end, he has commanded his new agents, the rogue archaeologist Doctor Aphra and her two murderous droids, Triple Zero and BT-1, to gather the resources needed to pursue his agendas.

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Whilst Aphra and her criminal contacts do their work for him, Vader must appear to obey the commands of his new superior officer, Grand General Tagge. His latest mission from Tagge requires him to find out who stole a massive consignment of credits that the Empire recently seized from crime lords in the Outer Rim. There is just one problem: Aphra and a small group of bounty hunters stole the credits on his behalf. Vader attempts to cover up his involvement in the crime and lead the investigation away from Aphra. However, the arrival of his new aide, the brilliant Inspector Thanoth, may prove troublesome, as Thanoth’s investigation leads him in all the right directions.

However, despite the importance of Vader’s plans within the Empire, his main concern is the search for his son. Needing to locate and corrupt Luke before the Emperor finds out who he is, he tasks Aphra with not only finding his son’s location but to also find and silence the one person who knew that Luke was actually born. As Vader does all he can to keep Thanoth from finding Aphra and incriminating himself, he finds himself walking a fine line between victory and destruction. With new rivals and both the Empire and the Rebellions seemingly against him, can even Darth Vader get what he wants?

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Well this was another fantastic bit of Star Wars fiction! The first thing that I do have to admit is that Shadows and Secrets is probably my least favourite volume in the entire 2015 Darth Vader series. However, this is only because every other volume in this series is just so incredible that this one suffers a little in comparison. That being said, I absolutely loved this second volume as it contains an excellent story, some great moments, fantastic characters and some impressive artwork. Containing issues #7-12 of the Darth Vader series, Gillen and Larroca have done an incredible job with this second volume, and I still consider it to be a five-star read.

One of the best things about Shadows and Secrets is Gillen’s outstanding story, which continues some of the tantalising threads from the first volume while also introducing some great new elements. Gillen sets out a clever, well-paced story that is filled with all manner of action, adventure and intrigue, as Vader begins his duplicitous actions within the Empire, attempting to amass the resources he needs for his projects without drawing the suspicion of either his rivals in the Imperial hierarchy or his new superior. Most of the story contained within this volume is fairly self-contained, featuring a fantastic heist sequence and the subsequent fallout from this event. This fallout mostly revolves around Vader’s investigation into his own heist, which he attempts to cover up from his new aide, Inspector Thanoth. Thanoth is a genius detective of Sherlockian talents who was quickly able to get to the truth of the matter and find the culprit of the heist, despite Vader’s vest efforts. I really enjoyed this whole investigation element to the book, especially as it was fun watching Vader routinely sabotage his own investigation, often by killing any and all potential witnesses, only to have Thanoth easily breeze through these obstacles. Thanoth turned out to be an excellent new addition to this series, and I really enjoyed the intriguing partnership he formed with Vader, especially as he plays a dangerous game by continuously hinting that he knows Vader is behind the theft. This turned out to be quite an amazing and enjoyable storyline, and I really appreciated Gillen’s perfect blend of humour and serious storylines throughout the volume.

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I also loved the continued focus on Vader’s obsessive hunt for Luke Skywalker, which has taken on a new edge now that he knows he is his son. While he was already searching for him in the first volume, now that he realises who he really is, Vader decides to protect his identity and the find out the whole truth behind his birth. This is shown in the first part of Issue #7, in which Vader and Aphra visit both the Lars Homestead and Ben Kenobi’s hovel on Tatooine, where he tries to gleam some knowledge from both houses about his son, before setting off a molecular bomb to erase all useful forensic evidence. Shortly after this, Vader than sets Aphra a task of finding and interrogating a former mortician from Naboo who prepared Padme Amidala’s body for her funeral, including setting up a hologram to make it appear that she was still pregnant. This tuned out to be an outstanding sequence, as the mortician, who has a huge amount of personal loyalty towards Amidala, at first refuses to provide any information about his work, before being tortured and confirming the existence of a child. While this admission is a betrayal of his beloved Queen that clearly costs the former mortician a lot, he is able to do one last act of service for her by not revealing any details about the second child, Leia. I thought that this scene was amazing, and I liked how it helped explain how Vader was aware of Luke’s existence and status as his child, but not that he also had a daughter. I also appreciated Gillen’s focus on the loyalty the inhabitants of Naboo had to Amidala, even in death, which was even able to move the cynical Aphra. Her subsequent mention to Vader of how Amidala must have really been something was a nice touch, as Vader’s subdued and hidden reaction hints at his continuing deep feelings towards his long-dead wife. I really liked this focus on the search for Luke, as not only does it makes sense in the context of the movies, but it also showcases the lengths Vader was willing to go to find and protect his son, and it leads to the best sequence in the entire volume.

I personally really enjoyed how the creative team continued to show off Vader as a dangerous and vicious powerhouse in this volume. While it does not contain the same level of carnage that he unleashed in the first volume of the 2015 Star Wars comic book series, Shadows and Secrets contains several amazing scenes depicting his destructive abilities and personality. Whether he is stuffing a crime lord into the mouth of his own exotic beast and then easily killing the distracted monster, or whether he is taking down and entire squadron of Rebel space fighters one at a time by throwing his lightsaber at them, he is shown to be pretty impressive.

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Just like in the first volume, Doctor Aphra continues to shine as the series’s main supporting character, and her entire character arc within Shadows and Secrets is very intriguing. Throughout this volume, Aphra ends up undertaking several missions for Vader, such as trying to find the location of Luke Skywalker, and has become one of his main confidants. This puts her in a terrible position, as Vader is likely to kill her to protect his secrets, especially when Thanoth gets close to capturing her. Watching the various ways that this ultimate opportunist attempts to survive against the odds, including by brazenly withholding information from Vader in order to stop him killing her, is pretty impressive, and it makes for some great reading. Shadows and Secrets also contains one of the first deeper looks at Aphra’s internal character. During the sequence I mentioned above with the mortician, she gives a lengthy monologue about the death of her mother and how it has affected her. This was a heavy scene, and while she tries to play it off as not being very important, you can see that it has impacted her, turning her into a much more cynical and self-reliant person who has no room for idealism or blind belief. The significance of this scene is also quite crucial when you consider that much of what she said is later shown in the Doctor Aphra spinoff series and ends up becoming a defining part of her character. I also like how the noticeable changes that the creative team have inserted into Aphra’s personality when she deals with Vader. For most of the volume, Aphra comes across as an ultraconfident being who is able to manipulate and control bounty hunters, murderers and crime lords with ease. However, whenever Vader appears, there is a noticeable change in her bearing and personality, which isn’t too surprising as Aphra knows Vader is going to kill her one day.

I also have to point out how much fun the two murder droids Triple Zero and BT-1 continued to be in this novel. Essentially perverted versions of C-3PO and R2-D2, Triple Zero and BT-1 are remorseless killers who delight in murdering or torturing all organic life. These two add an insane element of humour to the entire series, and they have a number of great moments in Shadows and Secrets. Watching the two of them delight in all sorts of murder and mayhem is all sorts of fun, and you’ve got to love the weird and friendly relationship the two of them have formed with each other.

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One of the best highlights of this second volume is the amazing artwork. The artistic team, helmed by Salvador Larroca, did another fantastic job bringing the amazing story contained within Shadows and Secrets to life on the page. There are so many vibrant and imaginative panels in this volume, and the volume’s artistic team produce some amazing pieces of art that showcase the wider Star Wars universe. One of the things that continues to impressive me about this series is the way that the artistic team are able to convey so much emotion from the faceless main protagonist. Despite only ever seeing Vader’s expressionless and iconic mask, I found that I was constantly able to glean the true emotions that Vader was surely feeling at the time when I looked at him, ranging from cold menace, surprise, frustration to deeper emotions, such as sadness when Amidala is mentioned. There are some truly amazingly drawn scenes throughout this entire volume, although there are two that I would bring particular attention to. The first is the very first scene in Issue #7, which shows Vader standing out the front of the Lars Homestead, staring at Tatooine’s twin suns as they set. I absolutely loved how this drawing matched the iconic scene from A New Hope where Luke stared off in the same position, and I really appreciated the symmetry. The other piece of art that really stood out to me was a quick sequence that appeared a little later in the volume within Issue #8. In this scene, Aphra has just confidently dealt with one of the bounty hunters in her employ and is looking off in the distance speaking to someone. As she talks, Vader slowly materialises out the shadows behind her, responding to her comments. Despite the fact that Aphra’s expression does not change at all there is a notable shift in the tone of the panel when Vader appears, and you cannot help but feel the threat and menace that he exudes. This was some impressive artwork, which helped to really increase how much I loved this comic.

The second volume of the 2015 Darth Vader series, Shadows and Secrets, is a first-rate comic book that once again shows off how impressive Star Wars comics can really be. Gillen and Larroca did an incredible job following up the first volume of this epic series and I really enjoyed the complex and fun story that this second volume contained, especially when it was backed up by great characters and exceptional artwork. This is a superb addition to the series that is really worth checking out.