When it comes to long-running, creator-owned, independent comics, the true legends can be counted on one hand. There’s Dave Sim’s Cerebus, Erik Larsen’s Savage Dragon, and Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo. While Dragon may have the commercial success and Cerebus has a legacy of experimentation, Usagi possesses something that few – if any – comics can boast: consistent greatness for over 35 years. It’s not that Usagi Yojimbo is great on a yearly basis, but it does so on an issue-by-issue basis. From the beginning in 1984’s Albedo Anthropomorphics #2 to the current series at IDW Publishing, Stan Sakai’s work is nothing but masterful.
The story of Usagi Yojimbo‘s creation is a simple one, and not too unlike the creation of another anthropomorphic series, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Stan Sakai grew up in Hawaii and was greatly influenced by Japanese cinema. The movies of Akira Kurosawa and Hiroshi Inagaki’s Samurai trilogy were in particularly notable. Sakai wanted to follow in Inagaki’s footsteps by retelling the life of famed swordsman Miyamoto Musashi in the comics medium. But one night while doodling, he decided to draw a samurai rabbit, with its ears tied to resemble a samurai’s topknot. With a bit more tweaking, Miyamoto Musashi became Miyamoto Usagi, and the famed rabbit ronin was born.
The world of Usagi Yojimbo is an anthropomorphized version of Japan’s Edo Period, which ran from 1603 to 1868. Because of this, Sakai has spent countless hours performing research to ensure historical accuracy to his stories, from building architecture to social interactions to the straps on footwear. This meticulous research has lead to Usagi Yojimbo being used in classrooms to teach students about this period of Japan’s history. Also, Stan Sakai has been rewarded for his work having captured multiple Eisner Awards, a Joe Kubert Distinguished Storyteller Award, a National Cartoonists Society Award, and in 2020 was inducted into the Will Eisner Hall of Fame.
Of course, most people know of Usagi from his cameos in the various TMNT cartoons. In the context of animation, he first appeared in the Season 3 episode “Usagi Yojimbo” in which the character is mistakenly called Usagi Yojimbo, rather than Miyamoto Usagi. Aside from this error, Usagi is portrayed rather faithfully as a skilled swordsman and man of honor. He would only appear in one more episode of the show, Season 3’s “Usagi Come Home.” However, that wouldn’t be the last time Usagi would cross over into TMNT animation. He was a recurring character in the 2003 animated series, beginning with the interdimensional “Big Brawl” arc from Season 2. Most recently, he starred in a 3-part story arc during Season 5 of the 2012 animated series.
With each subsequent appearance of Usagi, more and more elements of his own world would be introduced to viewers. The 1987 show demonstrated that his world is one of sentient animals. The 2003 series introduced supporting characters Tomoe Ame, Lord Noriyuki, and Gennosuke. Finally the 2012 series gave viewers a glimpse at the villainous Jei and the ally, Akemi. By being able to go back to the well of Usagi Yojimbo and never having to bring back the same thing twice, animators have demonstrated the richness of the world that Stan Sakai has created.
If you’re looking to read Usagi Yojimbo, the great news is that you can jump in anywhere. Whether the latest issue is at the beginning, middle, or end of an arc, Stan Sakai manages to craft his comics to be inviting to all readers. But if you want to start at the beginning, then you have a little bit of work ahead of you. Usagi Yojimbo debuted as an 8-page story within the anthology Albedo Anthropomorphics #2 in 1984. After appearing in a couple more issues of Albedo, the story moved to the Fantagraphics anthology series Critters before getting his own solo series at the publisher. After 38 issues, the series then moved over to Mirage Publishing for 16 issues. It then migrated over to Dark Horse Comics, which would be its home for 165 issues, not including miniseries. Beginning in 2019, the series began being published by IDW, alongside the TMNT.
Usagi Yojimbo has been continuously published since the 1980s. It’s a long and winding journey, full of action and adventure, romance, drama, supernatural horror, and anything else you can imagine. Most importantly, it is the work of a singular creator who’s work continues to captivate readers.