Usagi Yojimbo: Yokai HC – Stan Sakai

5 out of 5

For those of us who came to Usagi quite after the fact, and filled in back issues via Fantagraphics and Dark Horse trades, seeing ‘Yokai’ announced as the first original Usagi Yojimbo graphic novel may seem a little weird. That is to say: for me, half of my Usagi experience has been in TPB format, and some of those read like graphic novels. I bought and read Yokai when it came out, while I was still in the process of catching up on all of those back issues, and while I enjoyed it, I’m not sure I understood its notability.

I’ve been reading Usagi, finally, from start to its current issues, and experiencing Yokai in that chronological order – at about 170 or so books into the ongoing series, 25 years since its first – it’s a big deal. It’s a big deal for how Stan breaks from his more traditional paneling styles, with big splash pages and larger panels; it’s a big deal for being Stan’s first fully painted story (using watercolors); and yeah, it’s a big deal for that graphic novel concept – not having to fit in to a regimented set of pages allows the story to breathe wonderfully, and it can be fun and thrilling in ways that a single issue couldn’t have easily afforded. Indeed, ‘Yokai’ almost seems to be an expanded version of a story we’ve read bits and pieces of before – Usagi lured in to haunted woods by a kitsune spirit – but it blows up and evolves on itself in ways that are, again, fun, but then also exciting. And important. What I was most floored by is how this actually adds to the Usagi-verse and doesn’t just sit off on the side as a book with pretty pictures. As is the case with most of UY, you can certainly live without the world-building added here, but it enriches things wonderfully.

The art also makes a much larger impact once you’re fully immersed in Stan’s black and white work. The watercolors encouraged less detailing, and adding more emotion via the colors, and the larger panels and the way Stan plays with fore-, mid- and background focus is a thrilling shift in his style.

Tack on a nice interview on process at the end, and the embossed cover… and yes, this was an excellent way to celebrate 25 years, but is also a wholly worthwhile addition to leagues of great Usagi stories.