Usagi Yojimbo Book 4 TPB: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy (Fantagraphics, vol. 1, #13 – 18; UY #14 – 19, Fantagraphics, 2008 edition) – Stan Sakai

4 out of 5

Stan Sakai and Usagi go even more epic.

The collected issues 13 – 18 bring back everyone and every thing we’ve covered up to this point: Gen, the blind sword pig Inu, Tomoe and Noriyuki, the Neko Ninjas…  The scope, covering a lord’s fomenting rebellion and Noriyuki sending Tomoe in to suss out his suspicions of such, inevitably involving our ronins and ninjas, is straight forward but also complex in its study of flip-flopping allegiances the the comparison of the bushido and ninja codes of honor.  This is a classically structured samurai story, with all of the lightning-backgrounded showdowns that promises, but also, thanks to its characters and the by now well-trodden setting of Lord Hijiki’s lands, uniquely Usagi.

We once more see Stan’s linework shift bit by bit over the course of the issues, honestly a bit unsteady at first as he tries his hand at a more cinematic style with a thicker line that’s not quite fitting for the book.  As such, this opening pages struggle a little bit, not quite flowing.  However, about midway through, he suddenly finds the perfect balance, and the pages just open up and breathe; the story is gripping the whole way through – with some lightheartedness as we flip to Gen and Ino, separate from the kerfluffle, wondering how they’ll get involved – but once Sakai hits his stride with the storytelling, it becomes a can’t-put-it-down read, laying down a climactic, multi-part battle at its end with waves of shocking conclusions.