Before getting its own series, Usagi Yojimbo bounced around a few anthology series, beginning with Albedo Anthropomorphics, published by Thoughts and Images. Usagi showed up in the anthology’s second issue, and came back for issues #3 and #4.
Albedo Anthropomorphics #2 – “The Goblin of Adachigahara”
Summary: A wandering ronin, Miyamoto Usagi, seeks shelter from a terrible snowstorm. Usagi is able to gain refuge thanks to a widowed old woman. During his stay, he recounts the war which took his lord’s life and left him a ronin. Usagi then mentions a goblin that haunts the surrounding to the old woman, known simply as “Grandmother,” before they both turn in for the night. During the night, they are attacked by the goblin, which Usagi is able to slay. It is revealed that the goblin is actually Grandmother’s husband, whose death was a ruse in order to prey on wanderers such as Usagi. Though she begs Usagi to slay her too to relieve her of her shame, he simply implores her to call a priest to perform spiritual services for her husband. Usagi then continues on his way.
Notables: First appearance of Miaymoto Usagi.
Musings: For an eight-page story, this debut Usagi Yojimbo tale manages to pack a lot within limited space. Sakai manages to set the tone and standard for what readers should expect from Usagi Yojimbo, mixing elements of Japanese culture with a touch of supernatural and high-stakes action. The ending reveal is a touch like Scooby-Doo, but it works. As an introduction, Albedo #2 is as good as can be.
Albedo Anthropomorphics #3 – “Lone Rabbit and Child Part I”
Summary: Tomoe Ame escorts her lord, Noriyuki to safety through battle. The two make their way to the home of Miyamoto Usagi, and after a brief skirmish between Usagi and Tomoe, it is revealed that Noriyuki’s father was recently killed, making the young lord the head of his father’s land. Suddenly the group is attacked by assassins sent by a rival lord, Hikiji. After defeating the assassins, Tomoe hires Usagi as a yojimbo to escort them to the Gishu Edo Palace. As the three make their way to a ferry, they are ambushed. Usagi is able to fend off the attackers, but Tomoe is swept away by the river’s strong current. After hours of searching, Usagi and Noriyuki come across Tomoe’s still, lifeless body.
Notables: First appearances of Tomoe Ame and Lord Noriyuki.
Musings: Other than its title, there’s nothing really to tie this to the classic Lone Wolf and Cub series. The beginning fight between Tomoe and Usagi does a great job in reestablishing the latter’s skill, while also showing the desperation and trauma that Tomoe and Noriyuki have gone through. Despite having a reputation as a peaceful character that does not seek confrontation, in this second appearance Usagi is very confrontational, especially in the first confrontation with the band of assassins. Perhaps the most interesting thing of note, however, is Sakai’s effective use of the cliffhanger. Given this is only the second Usagi Yojimbo story, there was no indication which characters may be recurring, other than Usagi himself. Therefore, any character could be offed at any moment. The fact that the cliffhanger is so impactful is a testament to Sakai’s unique ability to make readers care for and identify with new characters almost immediately.
Albedo Anthropomorphics #4 – “Lone Rabbit and Child Part II”
Summary: After the events of the previous issue, Tomoe Ame is badly injured, but is nursed back to health by Usagi. Upon regaining consciousness, she expresses displeasure that Usagi has kept Noriyuki in the same place for an extended period of time, rather than continuing on without her. Knowing that she will make a full recovery, Usagi and Noriyuki continue on their journey. Once more, they are ambushed by a band of assassins. Though Usagi is able to fend off most, one gets the upper hand on him until Noriyuki jumps in and saves his life. Soon after, escorts from the Edo Mansion arrive and provide them safe passage. A week later, Tomoe Ame arrives to the mansion, recovered from her injuries. However, having delivered the lord safely to the mansion, Usagi is revealed to have left to be on his own once again.
Notables: First appearances of the Neko Ninja, Lord Hikiji, and Lord Hebi.
Musings: Despite the all-ages aesthetics, Usagi Yojimbo’s third story begins on a sophisticated note, with Miyamoto Usagi giving young Lord Noriyuki the choice to continue on for his own safety or save the life of Tomoe Ame. This dichotomy of all-ages appearances and mature storytelling is why the series has been held in high regard and endured for decades. This continues into the next sequence, as a partially recovered Tomoe’s anger at the two for making the sentimental choice rather than the difficult one proves to be justified when Usagi and Noriyuki are later attacked. The apex of this trend comes when Noriyuki himself – a young child – takes up a sword and guts one of the attackers in order to save Usagi’s life. From his introduction as a scared boy in Part I to this moment, Sakai gives the young lord impressive, earned character growth over the span of these two short installments.