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Return of the Black Soul (Usagi Yojimbo #24)

by Stan Sakai

Run, Rabbit

A review by Chris Bolton

It's an old story: new and splashy always stands out over constant and reliable. While Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo has developed a loyal following and won such prestigious industry awards as the Eisner (for volume 12, Grasscutter), the venerable comic series sometimes gets lost in the background of splashier projects and more famous, merchandise-ready characters.

One reason may be that Usagi is a semi-serious epic set in Japan in the 17th century, populated by anthropomorphized animals. It's easy, at first glance, to dismiss the series as a "funny animal comic" for kids. While the comic is undeniably clever with a strong vein of humor, it's not really a comedy and contains a bit too much drama and death for the playground reader. Adults, much more than kids, will likely appreciate the book's deliberate pacing and storytelling craft -- not to mention such novel touches as the little animal skull that rises above each character who dies (Sakai seems to have an endless variety of these skulls in his artistic arsenal).

Stan Sakai's samurai rabbit Miyamoto Usagi made his first appearance back in 1983, then graduated to his own comic in 1987. Usagi Yojimbo has been published regularly (and independently) ever since, ping-ponging from one publisher to the next, most recently landing at Dark Horse Comics. What's remarkable about that timeline is how many comic fads and characters have exploded and faded out while Usagi trundles faithfully along.

If the casual comics fan or non-comics reader knows Usagi at all, it's most likely from his appearance as a supporting character (and, later, action figure) in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoon from the late '80s and early '90s. The Ninja Turtles famously grew from underground black-and-white cult comic in the '80s to mass-market blockbuster success, with toys, movies, cartoons, and every other kind of merchandise imaginable, then flared out, as all fads must, only to become a fraction of their former glory, stumbling from one hopeful (so-far unsuccessful) makeover to another. During the same timeframe, Usagi Yojimbo has continued unabated, deftly dodging both those commercial heights and inevitable, crushing lows.

Usagi is the Subaru of comics: safe and reliable, sleek but not terribly sexy, and so often taken tragically for granted. As I've worked my way through the paperback collections, I've gone from mildly interested and appreciative to full-on admirer. Comics storytelling this enduring is an admirable feat, nearly impossible to maintain -- and one that deserves recognition.

While mainstream comics have veered from the over-the-top, steroids-and-giant-guns style of the '90s to today's blandly realistic depictions that scream "Soon to be a major motion picture (we hope!)," Sakai has maintained a consistent artistic vision. His work continues to improve, but in a manner whose unassuming deliberateness would be appreciated by the title character. Sakai's style works superbly on the Goldilocks scale: it's never too big or flashy, nor too small and decompressed; it's always just right.

The latest volume, Return of the Black Soul, may not be the ideal introduction, as it continues a storyline begun back in the Eisner-winning Grasscutter. (For that matter, it can be argued that the story really begins back in volume 1, though its unfolding is subtle enough that some of the books can seem interchangeable.) And, yet, this book underlines the strengths of the series as much as any previously published.

Return of the Black Soul opens with a prologue showing the origin of the demon known as Jei, which is likely to confuse new readers because it takes place prior to volume 12, ending with Jei possessing a monk. (Jei's name is a clever pun -- Jei-san rhyming with Jason, a nod to the Friday the 13th films -- and offers a suggestion that we have by no means seen the last of his evil.) The next chapter flash-forwards to the present, after the demon has passed from the monk into the body of a swordswoman named Inazuma, on whose head has been placed a price so tremendous that every bandit, assassin, and bounty hunter in the land is on her trail.

That includes our hero, Miyamoto Usagi, and a small band of adventurers consisting of trusted allies and new characters whose loyalties are tenuous at best. The story features a number of sword battles -- something of a Stan Sakai specialty, if not an outright signature -- that are handled with his typically skillful line work and strong composition. It is to the artist's significant credit that no two battle scenes feel alike.

Although Grasscutter is more epic and involved, Black Soul is a smaller, more accessible story that displays Sakai's strengths in perfect relief. Sakai does an excellent job of keeping readers informed of each character and his/her role in this ongoing saga, even if a deeper familiarity with the earlier books lends a stronger resonance to their actions. After reading this volume, the longtime fan will look forward to what comes next, while newcomers will find their appetites whetted for more Usagi Yojimbo.

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