After three appearances in Albedo Anthropomorphics, Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo would move over to Fantagraphics, making appearances in the anthology series Critters and Doomsday Squad in 1986. In addition to these, Fantagraphics would also put out a special one-shot that reprinted the stories from Albedo Anthropomorphics, as well as a brand new story.
Usagi Yojimbo Summer Special #1 – “The Confession”
Summary: Usagi crosses paths with a fatally wounded samurai, who reveals that his lord, Nerai, conspired with Lord Hikiji to assassinate the young Lord Noriyuki (see “Lone Rabbit and Child”). However, Nerai’s guilt lead him to write a full confession, which is to be delivered directly to the Shogun, a task which he begs Usagi to complete. As he dies, a troupe of Neko Ninja appear and begin firing arrows at Usagi while others engage in close-quarters combat. Though many fall to his sword, Usagi is overwhelmingly outnumbered. That is, until Tomoe Ame appears from out of no where. Riding a horse with a head full of steam, she helps him in slaying the ninja before bringing Usagi back to Noriyuki to heal. Together, the three make their way to the Shogun’s castle, where they are greeted by Lord Okii Ashiyubi, the chief counselor. Angrily, Ashiyubi states that the Shogun is not to be disturbed, and anything that our heroes need to say can be said to him. The written confession is passed along, and Usagi, Tomoe, and Noriyuki leave the palace satisfied. It is revealed that Ashiyubi is secretly working with Hikiji.
Notables: Second appearance of the Neko Ninja (who first appeared in Albedo #4)
Musings: “The Confession” is a great example of a story where the reader can walk away satisfied, even though the heroes don’t actually win. That’s in large part due to the chemistry Sakai has created between Usagi, Tomoe, and Noriyuki. Very quickly, these three have become a very likable trio, although this will be the last time we see them together for a while. It’s a good thing too, as Usagi’s nature as a wandering ronin means that he shouldn’t be crossing paths with those in the same community for very long. However, it is the final page that leave a clue as to why Usagi will keep coming back to these two, but you’ll have to read it to find out.
Critters #1 – “Bounty Hunter”
Summary: Usagi arrives into a new village, and while enjoying a meal at a local inn he is greeted by a fellow ronin. The two have a confrontational exchange, as the other introduces himself as Gennosuke, who has taken up the profession of bounty hunter. Despite their differences, Usagi is convinced by Gennosuke, or “Gen,” to assist in capturing the bandit One-Eye Ichiro. More accurately, Gen hires Usagi to be his bodyguard, arguing that of all people a bounty hunter would need one the most. The next day, the two arrive at a temple where a priest is being held hostage by Ichiro and his henchmen. While Usagi takes down the brigands, Gen searches for Ichiro and his brother. Gen eventully comes across Ichiro, who is holding the priest hostage. Usagi, having defeated the henchmen, comes across the actual priest, who has been tied up. Usagi rushes to save Gen from an ambush, as the fake priest was really Ichiro’s brother. In the ensuing scuffle, the antagonistic brothers are killed Gen is injured. Weeks later, Gen has recovered from his injuries and pays Usagi for his service, only to stick him with the bill from the innkeeper.
Notables: First appearance of Murakami “Gen” Gennosuke
Musings: This is the first time that readers truly get a taste of Sakai’s ability to inject humor into Usagi Yojimbo. While the story is not at all short on action and bloodshed, it is the budding relationship between the two leads that is Sakai’s primary focus. Everyone knows someone like Gen. He’s pushy. He’s loud. He’s a smooth-talker. He’s untrustworthy. But for some reason, he’s likable and you just can’t help but keep him around. We see this in Usagi, who can’t stand Gen, from his mannerism to his profession as a bounty hunter. Yet at the end of the day, Usagi has his back.
Critters #3 – “Horse Thief”
Summary: While on his journey, Usagi happens upon bandits attacking a group of porters. Usagi springs into action, partially motivated by the hope of getting a reward for his troubles. In the end, the bandits escape leaving behind nothing but dead bodies and a horse, which Usagi hopes to sell. After making his way to a nearby village, he tries selling the horse, claiming that it has served him well for years. Unfortunately, the person he’s trying to sell it to is the original owner, who thinks that Usagi was part of the gang of bandits that stole it from him, and demands Usagi’s head. Usagi escapes, and seeks refuge among horse traders. Unfortunately, these “horse traders” are really the bandits from earlier in the story. Once again, Usagi is forced into a battle of self-defense, just as the horse’s original owner and his followers arrive. In the confusion, Usagi manages to escape, lamenting that the horse has brought him nothing but trouble. He eventually comes across a team of woodcutters struggling to carry their heavy load down the road. Seizing the opportunity, Usagi gives the horse to them and happily carries on his way.
Notables: The opening melee once again is surprisingly violent, especially a fully visible decapitation.
Musings: As a whole, this is an enjoyable bottle issue. For all of Usagi’s talk of honor in previous stories, it is curious that he would lie in his attempt to sell the horse. Going forward, this should only reinforce Usagi’s code of honor, as honesty from the beginning would have avoided all of the trouble he went through. However, it is undeniable that seeing our protagonist go through a bit of Murphy’s Law is entertaining, especially given the ending where just tries to wash his hands of the situation.
Doomsday Squad #3 – “Village of Fear”
Summary: As he wanders across Japan, Usagi comes across a big cat that attacks him. However, as Usagi draws his sword, the animal jumps over him and seemingly disappears. As he continues on his journey, he makes his way to a seemingly deserted village and is greeted by a quirky man, Gon, making clay figures while rambling on about a beast. Upon entering the town, Usagi discovers that the villagers are stricken with fear and is finally greeted by Ocho. She introduces herself as a relative newcomer to town, and welcomes Usagi in for a meal. As they eat, they discuss the creature that has tormented the town, and Ocho dismisses herself for the evening. Usagi, noting that her true nature was revealed in the reflection of his sword, follows her and discovers she has transformed into the beast. The two engage in battle, with Gon also entering the fray. In the end, Ocho and Gon are both slain. With the village now free from the beast, Usagi once again continues on his way.
Musings: While not native to Japan, Sakai makes this big cat look like a North American bobcat. While it does look a touch like an Iriomote cat, that particular animal is native only to a small island off the coast of Japan. This is a great visual cue for readers that there is something supernatural about this encounter. Because of the story’s relative brevity, there isn’t much space for development, which does hurt the overall story. If there had been another page or two between Usagi and Ocho, or with Usagi interacting with more of the townspeople, it would have given so much weight to the ending reveal. As it stands, “Village of Fear” is still good, but it is the weakest Usagi Yojimbo tale thus far.