Usagi Yojimbo Book 17 TPB: Duel At Kitanoji (Dark Horse, vol. 3, #53 – 60; UY #112 – 119, Dark Horse, 2003 edition) – Stan Sakai

5 out of 5

My jaw is agape. I’m bowing in respect. 100 plus issues into Usagi Yojimbo’s adventures, and Stan Sakai still delivers masterpieces of the form: artistic wizardry; unbelievable storytelling. I love that something that’s been building for a couple volumes’ worth of comics by this point – Usagi’s master’s duel with Koji – boils down to a single issue, and the briefest of battles, and it is, yet, the most epic thing ever. Any other comic would have complicated this with infinitely more intrigue; instead, Stan teams up Katsuichi and Koji to protect a town against a band of brigands in the issues prior – true testament of the samurai code of honor, acting as brothers and yet following through on their fated duel. Volume 17 frontloads even that greatness with a selection of perfect tales: Vendetta pairs Usagi with another samurai, and another fascinating take on this code; the return of Lone Goat and Kid gives us yet another lone warrior type to compare against, with a mix of exciting, funny, and emotional results; Images from a Winter’s Day involves the rabbit ronin in a bit of twisted revenge – but also pursuit of honor, even more food for thought before our trade-ending battle. Finally, Usagi himself is given a chance to form a relationship with Koji as the two run into each other on the way to Kitanoji.

This is tricksy stuff: on the one hand, this could be taken as the “complicating” type of stuff I’m saying other writers might fall back on, but on the other hand – these are absolutely standalone tales, then further informed by the background of Usagi’s narrative. Tripling (quadrupling? quintupling?) down on the paralleling concepts: Usagi and Jotaro have time together, and Usagi is told time and again how similar he was to Jotaro when he was a child.

Stan’s slimmer, quicker line work is perfect for these tales, giving a fleet-footed sensibility to rather complex (though, of course, simply told) tales and ridiculously tense showdowns. The collection ends on a wonderful coda of a short story that underlines everything: Usagi as a youth is taught a lesson by a traveler; Usagi as an adult tracks the traveler down to thank him for the lesson. Somewhere in there is me, as a multi-decade comic reader, wanting to thank Stan for these amazing works.