4 out of 5
Shades of Death: collecting the first few Mirage issues of Usagi – volume 2 – which would logically kick off with a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles crossover.
The crossover – “Shades of Green” – is cute, but that’s also completely the wrong word for it: Stan’s tale of a rat “magic” master – Kakeru – summoning several samurai to protect him, and the town in which he’s staying, from Hikiji’s ninjas, is pretty serious stuff, and for a crossover that brings together a fluffy anthromorph and a certain by-then-well-recognized-from-Saturday-morning-cartoons reptilian foursome, it would seem to be rather purposefully bloody and death-filled. At the same time, there’s something underwhelming about it: while the combination of all of these warriors leads to some fantastically arted passages and intense battles (and it’s possible that Stan writes a very badass version of the Turtles that’s more consistent and includes more personality than some other Mirage entries from their own series), it still reeks of crossover, hence the ‘cute’ descriptor. Like, there’s no real reason for the Turtles to be brought in – as opposed to any other creature or samurai – although you gotta’ love how they start to question the whole genesis of Usagi’s animal world (i.e. why are horses horses, but rabbits and cats talk?) while the rabbit ronin is totally befuddled as to the reason for their queries – ’cause horses are horses and rabbits are rabbits, duh. So, yes, fun stuff, and it had to happen once you’re under the Mirage banner, but it feels a bit forced all the same.
The remainder of the book is incredibly strong, though. “Shi” is brilliant, leaning in to drama tropes that Sakai then swerves way around as he pits four assassins and a crooked magistrate and untrusting townsfolk against Usagi, trying out some amazing Frank Miller-esque negative panels that make for some insanely striking square-offs. “The Lizards’ Tale” is a cute one-off with some pesky – and then helpful – tokages, and then amongst some other fun shorts / one-shots, you get the collected sections of “Battlefield,” one of a few flashback Usagi tales, to when he was a youth in training, that do so much for establishing how the character’s sense of honor came to be, whether through direct teachings or by accident; understanding that our Yojimbo’s personal codes were earned, and not just, like, ’cause he’s a samurai, add to the general weight of the character, and underline the hidden complexities of Stan’s writing.