IDW Publishing / Dark Horse Comics
(W/A) Stan Sakai, (C) Tom Luth
Few cartoonists are able to meet the standard of quality that Stan Sakai has maintained over the 30-plus years he has written, drawn, and lettered Usagi Yojimbo. Though the book has taken up residence at Fantagraphics, Mirage Studios, and it’s current home at Dark Horse, the level of care and craftsmanship Sakai puts into each issue is unparalleled. Each issue is packed with quality humor, drama, and high-stakes action. ComicsAlliance’s Chris Sims has joked that “I could write one glowing, 10 out of 10, five-star review praising Usagi and just copy and paste it every time a new issue came out.” So it should come to the surprise of no one that this one-shot is instantly one of the best comics in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles’s history.
For nearly their entire history, the Turtles and Usagi have been linked together by fans. Both creations were born in 1984, and Sakai would bring his creation over to Mirage for a story in Turtles Soup in which Usagi would meet Leonardo. The second volume of Usagi Yojimbo would be published by Mirage Studios from 1993-1995, and Usagi would also make appearances in each of the Turtles’ animated series. The fact that Usagi has encountered the Turtles in the past is a plot point in this story. However, Sakai is able to deal with the convoluted past of the two properties in a manner that does not sacrifice the story’s quality. His solution is shockingly simple, yet wholly effective.
There are other nods to the Turtles’ past adventures with Usagi. Early in the issue, readers are introduced to Kakera-Sensei, who bears a striking resemblance to the Master Splinter of the Mirage Studios Era. Kakera also appeared way back in 1993’s Usagi Yojimbo #1 (Vol.2). When the Turtles finally appear, Usagi also refers to Leonardo as his “good friend,” further hinting at a history unseen within this one-shot.
More important than fun nods to the past, Sakai makes use of the expanded page count to distill the complete Usagi Yojimbo experience into one package. We open on Miyamoto Usagi defending a group of villagers from a band of vicious thieves. This sequence instantly tips readers off to two important story details. First, the dress indicates some period in Japan’s past (the comic specifically set in the Edo Period). Secondly, Sakai provides insight to Usagi’s character. As skilled as he is with a sword, he is also honorable and selfless. Those character traits will become useful once he and Kakera summon the TMNT.
Speaking of the Ninja Turtles, upon their entrance it is evident that Sakai is adept at handling their varied character traits. Raphael’s hot-headed and impulsive personality leads to the common “misunderstanding” fight. Such a sequence would normally be written off as cliched, but there is once more a simple, effective reasoning for the conflict: the language barrier. Given the setting of Usagi Yojimbo, the characters speak Japanese even though their dialogue is scripted in English. So when the NYC-based Ninja Turtles show up, they are the ones given the language brackets used to denote a foreign tongue. This is not only a fun send up to the traditional hero vs. hero conflict, but it also speaks to the idea that most of the world’s problems are rooted in a fundamental misunderstanding of others’ beliefs, customs, or heritage.
As the story progresses, Sakai introduces additional elements of mysticism and folklore, as well as Usagi’s longtime nemesis, Jei. Each element of the story is expertly executed. There is one thing that does separate this from other Usagi Yojimbo comics: the color. While the series is normally black and white, this is a full-color affair as Sakai’s cover-art collaborator Tom Luth provides the issue with its luscious and vibrant palette. The character’s bright clothing pops against the various earth-tones used to depict Japan’s forests, with the white fur of Usagi providing the most striking visual contrast of all.
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles / Usagi Yojimbo #1 is undoubtedly one of the best issues of the year. Sakai has been pumping out comics at peak quality for 30 years, and this one-shot is further evidence of his skill. If you’ve never read an issue of Usagi Yojimbo, this is the perfect entry point. Comics don’t get much better than this.