Usagi Yojimbo: Those Who Tread on the Scorpion’s Tail (#136 – 138, UY #195 – 197) – Stan Sakai

5 out of 5

‘Those Who Tread on the Scorpion’s Tail’ surprised me: it’s somewhat of an old school UY setup, before we had a couple decades and hundreds of issues of characters and stories from which to draw, building up its premise loosely over a few preceding issues before launching in to this conclusion, which hits like a hammer. We’ve sort of been spoiled by that legacy, I suppose (just as we’re constantly spoiled by Stan Sakai’s consistent quality crafting of art and writing): storylines leading up to this have been folk-tale spins, or longform epics, or just one-off clashes or comedies, but they mostly feel like they feed in to bits and pieces from Usagi’s past, and the title’s wide cast. Recent mentions of ‘the Red Scorpion gang’ have thus sort of slipped by me as incidental: I was expecting this to be another drop in the bucket of built-up lore, and not paid off rather immediately.

‘Those Who Tread’ finds Usagi running across a search for a magistrate’s kidnapped son, pledging to assist the samurai school that’s been asked to conduct the search. The Red Scorpion gang is noted as the culprits, but still, this could be incidental; until we start to get a sense of the not-so-straightforward dealings that incited this kidnapping. This initially seems to fit in to some usual secret-plottings templates Stan uses – the coincidentally evil looking school’s sensei’s assistant looks suspect, for instance – but it’s more complex than that, and gives way to a tense set of back-and-forths and showdowns as Usagi puts together the pieces and, of course, finds himself in the middle.

Some recent issues have felt a little “light” or tonally confused – sudden splashes of viciousness in the midst of comedy; conclusions which don’t necessarily feel warranted. Whether intended or not, that serves as an excellent juxtaposition and warmup to Scorpion’s Tail, which drives home the solemnity and seriousness of honor once more, its somber ending absolutely earned by the buildup of story and characters across its three issues.

Stan’s art is starting to take up a looser, finer-lined style again, and its fluidity serves the story and its moments of violence perfectly.