Yet another saga


My experience with comics and manga is pretty spotty: outside of childhood staples like Calvin and Hobbes and the more famous stuff like Sandman and Watchmen, I’m pretty unread. Enough so to find myself bewildered by the two occasions I’ve visited TCAF.

When I was a university sophomore, I took a class on graphic novels that I was pretty excited for. But it turned out to be one of my first experiences of how academia can suck the joy out of any potentially fun activity, and it has taken immense effort to not loathe by proxy the books that were on the syllabus.

And the less we speak of superhero comics, the better.

But it’s a medium I’d like to be better versed in, and picking up drawing again has provided more of that impetus.

Which brings me to Usagi Yojimbo.

There were a couple of reasons pushing me in the direction of Stan Sakai’s work. First of all, Shin Megami Tensei IV‘s east/west pop cultural samurai mashup has created a thirst for that sort of thing which the game itself ultimately wasn’t able to fulfill. Secondly, the idea of a samurai rabbit seems pretty thematically appropriate for me. So I’ve begun reading the early stuff.

Usagi Yojimbo‘s premise is pretty bare bones: Miyamoto Usagi is a ronin in feudal Japan who wanders the world, getting into all sorts of adventures, generally being a good dude and kicking ass if need be. If you’ve ever watched a jidaigeki film, you’ll know what to expect.

The surface gimmick is that all the characters are funny anthropomorphic characters. But, scratching beyond that, the real conceit is its culturally amphibian nature. Usagi Yojimbo’s form is very western in its style, yet the content is very thoroughly Japanese. It feels a bit like an inverse of Avatar, the Last Airbender, which put a lot of effort into looking authentically eastern while ultimately wanting to be Star Wars.

It’s great fun so far, and a large part of that comes from how historically grounded it feels – at least from the perspective of someone whose grasp of Japanese history is pretty loose. More particularly, there’s a loving emphasis on the everyday details of the era that provides its sense of reality. I can’t think of another comic that would, for instance, devote several pages to describing seeweed farming and make it work as a crucial part of the narrative.

At the same time you don’t find that revisionism that creeps into a lot of detail-oriented historical fiction where there’s an aim to ‘debunk’ the era, which is usually done under the name of historical accuracy, but which more often than not superimposes a modern materialist mindset on the past (while also indicating a degree of contempt for it). There’s always a danger of over-romanticizing the past, but the aversion to romance is itself an aesthetic trap that the post-Watchman world is particularly prone to.

The comic’s interest in the historic samurai ethos has nicely dovetailed with my own reading into Arthurian legend. The phenomenon of the warrior caste governed by a strict code of honor has a great deal of fascination for me, for reasons which are not always easy to pinpoint. I suspect that part of it is how it avoids the (again, modern) dramatic  tendency to turn all moral questions into epistemological ones.

There are other touches that are lovely: the supernatural is present, but not to the point of making the story feel like historical fantasy. The characters are often more layered than meets the eye – I liked the ruthless, backstabbing bounty hunter who uses his profits to fund an orphanage – and there’s an understated quality to a lot of the resolutions that often heightens their impact.

More to the point: it’s a fun comic so far, and I can see this as potentially the beginning of a long relationship.

About Josh W

A Catholic. Likes to write stuff and draw pictures.
This entry was posted in Assigned Reading, Our Allies in Nippon, pop culture and its discontents, Uncategorized and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Yet another saga

  1. T Martin says:

    What drove me to Usagi Yojimbo was that it was at the library. Except that was years ago when I actually rented from the library. And I didn’t REALLY read it…

    This makes me want to revisit Bone though.

  2. a991807 says:

    I’ve enjoyed manga (despite costs being rather steep) and this sounds like a good series. I’m sorry you’ve been turned off of superhero comics. Sure there’s a lot of schlock but there are a lot of great comic stories out there. Sure guys like Alan Moore can put horrible philosophies into comics but you can also pull a lot of good from critically acclaimed stories (even by a guy like Moore). Have you ever read Astro City? I’ve only read the “Confession” Arc but it was one of the best comics I’ve ever read. I would really recommend you at least read that arc and see if there’s anything in superhero comics you would find redeeming. If not, well I can respect that. I have a friend who staunchly refuses to watch anime (except for Attack on Titan for whatever reason) just because he doesn’t like Japanese tropes. I can understand if someone just doesn’t like a particular medium.

    • Josh W says:

      My issue with superhero comics is mainly just due to how impenetrable a lot of the continuities are (as well as perhaps a tad bit of fatigue from all the superhero saturation we’ve had in recent years). Getting up to speed in any of the major ones has always felt like too much of a chore.

      Don’t think I’ve heard of astro city…

      • a991807 says:

        Ah, I see. To be honest I had that issue too. I eventually just decided to go for it shortly before DC started their New 52 promotion and I just used the internet to fill in the gaps in my story-line knowledge (that and choosing to completely ignore comic series that did not catch my interest, otherwise it can become a pricey hobby).

        What’s interesting is that Astro City might actually be the ideal comic in this scenario. It was essentially written to be the thematic pushback to Alan Moore and other deconstructionist writers. The heroes in Astro City aren’t the cardboard cut-outs of the silver-age (an oversimplification, I know, but that’s the perception) but they are also not the wretched lunatics that Moore tries to depict superheroes as (again an oversimplification but I hope you get my meaning). The writers of Astro City tried to create a plausible world, just one where superheroes existed. However, these heroes exist not as lunatics (though some could be classified as such), not as paragons (though there are some of these too), but as human beings who could be noble, vicious, or something else entirely.

        Another interesting fact about the series is that each arc is meant to tell its own story set in the same universe, and so each arc is pretty self-contained. As I said I only read one arc but I didn’t feel lost at all. A basic understanding of superhero mythology and tropes helps you fill in the gaps rather easily. Admittedly the Confession Arc might have made this easier due to its specific protagonist, but I came away from the story feeling like it had been a good use of my time and satisfied with my purchase (I bought the collected graphic novel of the arc at a really nice comic shop but you can buy it online and even digitally).

      • Josh W says:

        Hmm…I may have to check it out at some point.

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