Dark Horse Comics
(w/a) Stan Sakai
For over 30 years, there has been one constant source of consistent, high quality comic book storytelling that can be truly enjoyed by all ages: Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo. In a way, the consistency of the series has worked against it, as Usagi Yojimbo rarely sparks debate on comic forums. Ditto for awards consideration. After winning an Eisner for the “Grasscutter” story arc in 1999, the series hasn’t had a sniff of major recognition from the media or readers. It’s a real shame, as inconsistency appears to be valued over constant, uninterrupted greatness. Usagi Yojimbo: The Hidden might actually break into the conversation thanks to its shiny “#1” emblazoned on the cover and a story that directly addresses discrimination.
Usagi Yojimbo has always been rooted in the history of feudal Japan, taking elements from history and providing a unique spin on it, and The Hidden is no different. Throughout the issue, Sakai drops little nuggets of historical or cultural information for the reader in order to better educate them, which in turn enriches their reading experience. In this issue, Sakai educates readers on the titular Hidden, the Kirishitans (or “Hidden Christians”). Their reveal isn’t as much of a surprise, but it is not intended to be. Rather, it is a hook for Western audiences by bringing something familiar into this world flipping the power structure around.
Perhaps the most fascinating aspect of this issue is the Japanese response to an outside religion encroaching on their traditions. They scoff at what they perceive to be silly beliefs, which is not too dissimilar to how many in the West, whether they’re Christian, Jewish, or even Atheist, mock or degrade belief systems and values they are unfamiliar with. Moreover, the locals attempt to ferret out Kirishitans can be seen as a direct parallel to the embarrassment and public shaming of minorities and the LGBT community seen in today’s society thanks to so-called “religious freedom” laws.
While this cultural exploration is fascinating, a book like Usagi Yojimbo also requires action – a requirement which Sakai fulfills in spades. The book opens with a tense and thrilling chase sequence which serves to showcase the range of Sakai’s skill. Every line on every panel is placed with meticulous precision and care, which is more pronounced thanks to the black-and-white aesthetic. And although the stakes are high, Sakai infuses the artwork with a sense of whimsy. Making full use of the medium, his work is a reminder that comic books can tackle serious subject matter, yet still offer an enjoyable, pleasant experience.
If past precedent is anything to go by, Usagi Yojimbo: The Hidden #1 will not make the biggest splash, but it should. Stan Sakai is one of the true masters of the comics medium, and for his work to continue to fly under the radar is a crime. This book offers a complete comic experience and, unsurprisingly, is easily the best of this week’s new releases.