Usagi Yojimbo: Crossroads (#25 – 26; UY #263 – 264) – Stan Sakai

4 out of 5

This is one of the best looking Usagi arcs of all time. I realize I should be all up in here talking about story, and I will, but cover and content – the art, the coloring, the lettering, it’s just brilliant.

We know Stan is reliable, but you can also trace slight shifts in his art over the years, and not on a clear “better” or “worse” trajectory, rather just more sketchy at points, more cartoony, etc. His work in these two issues has a fascinating severity to it, but it’s balanced out by a confident looseness with the inking. On the whole, it’s undeniably Sakai, it just has this mix of weight and motion that’s fascinating. This is somewhat reflected by the lettering, which feels just that bit tighter than Stan’s more bubbly look. And then Hi-Fi comes in with the most amazing, muted but rich coloring, managing blends and shadows without the overly digital look that’s cropped up in some of Pattison’s efforts on the Classics series. (I mentioned the cover – that’s actually colored by Emi Fujii, but it’s a similar effect: the colors are bright without being overly garish; it’s somehow all of these pretty pinks, but still toned way down. It’s really cool looking.)

Now, these visuals are especially important, because we have a character appearing who’s due some gravitas: Jei. Yukichi and Usagi are pursuing some bandit-types, and have to split at – natch – a crossroads to track them down, agreeing that whoever doesn’t find them should double back and join the others. Usagi finds them; Yukichi finds Jei. And Jei is just creepy as heck here, very much thanks to the meatiness of Sakai’s art and the coloring, then also supported by some really well scripted dialogue, none of the playfulness that Stan often uses to balance out his scenes. (I love his writing style, but Crossroads is unique in this – it is serious the whole way through.)

The only thing that’s a bit of a hiccup is that either side of the story – Jei, or the bandits – could be said to be superfluous to the other. I mean, they are related, but Jei’s inclusion is so major that it casts a large shadow across the bandits, but at the same time, Jei just seems to be there in order to indicate that he’s still around, meaning you could say that the bandits are the focus. A third issue might’ve allowed for a smoother linking / transition between the two sides.

Still, this really felt like a “reignited” Usagi. We’re spoiled by a book that’s been of consistent quality since forever, but on occasions it switches into high gear, and these two issues are indicative of that.