Usagi Yojimbo: The Master of Hebishima (#19, UY #257) – Stan Sakai

4 out of 5

Sometimes when Usagi Yojimbo’s stories dip into the mystical, it can be a bit of a tonal clash. When you have Sasuke involved, it can be a good bridge to weirdness, and when Stan focuses on a particular myth, it general works, but sometimes we go a bit yokai crazy and the generally “realistic” vibe of the UY universe feels slightly askew. But sometimes, Stan jumps in head first and nails the immersion, and can also deliver – on occasion – something quite creepy.

Such is the case with the appropriately named “Snake Island” – Hebishima – to which Usagi delivers some captured tokage, as a favor to some local peasants. His curiosity gets the best of him – why is the sole occupant of this island collecting tokage? – and while the appearance of many, many snakes on the island is cue enough that something is going to go down, the way Stan ties it into UY’s history is interesting, leading to a fantastic scuffle in the book’s latter pages. And once more, Sakai manages to add a twisty resolution to the scuffle that I realize was telegraphed, but caught me off guard anyway.

My only hesitation with ranking this higher is, in part, due to the way this – I believe – retcons some bit of history I think we’ve seen before, with Stan basically inserting a character into a sequence I want to say we’ve previously visited. I could, absolutely, be wrong, and it’s not like this is a drastic rewrite or anything, but if my memory is accurate, I guess I just wish the character had been somehow kept in the background, so it still lined up with what we’d seen before. It’s entirely possible I’m wrong, though, and this is actually a story addition to past goods, in which case I’ll pretend like I always knew that, and praise it.

That aside, though, I do want to call out the art assist from Randy Clute, clearly inking the first couple pages. Stan has, on rare occasion, had art assists, but they’re generally pretty seamless. These pages actually look quite awesome, but they’re very different from the way Stan inks himself, making the transition pretty jarring. I would’ve either preferred the whole issue had been done with Clute, or that he had dialed back his sketchiness a bit to be more in line with Stan’s work.