Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Usagi Yojimbo: Thieves and Spies

Usagi Yojimbo: Thieves and Spies
Book 30
Written by Stan Sakai
Published by Dark Horse Publishing
184 b & w pages
$17.99 ($12.10 at Amazon)

There are few comics I buy in physical media anymore. Storing comics is not an easy thing when you've been collecting for years. Usagi Yojimbo is one of those I still do buy. I've been bad at keeping up however and I missed both this and Vol 31, The Hell Screen. A few quick clicks from Amazon though and they quickly arrived and were quickly read.

Stan Sakai has written over one hundred and fifty issues of Usagi, not counting his side trips and alternative takes like Space Usagi. Unlike most traditional super hero comics from the big two, Stan takes the 'long' approach. Usagi ages. He meets people who sometimes perish immediately, and others he sees years later. It gives the series some depth that can sometimes be lacking in one of the Big Two's series when you have to wonder what universal change is going to negate a meeting, marriage or even character existence

We get the following tales in this collection:

The Thief and the Kunoichi: While this is a fantasy Japan filled with animals instead of people, Stan still slips in little bits of terminology such as 'The Hour of the Ox'.  Usagi himself though? He's still wandering and still running into people in trouble. In this case, it's Kitsune, the rogue, who in the middle of a heist, runs into Chizu, a ninja.

Usagi knows both of these women and is the peace maker between the two of them as Chizu is far more fatalistic in her approach to thieving whereas Kitsune and her prodigy, are more about the money.

Stan gives the readers a little taste of espionage as Chizu reveals behind a painting and hidden by a heat activated chemical, an agreement between merchants and lords to monopolize ginseng is afoot. Yes, that's right, ginseng!

I love that Stan uses mundane and standard items as a means of showcasing corruption and alliances on all levels. In the past, we've seen tales involving soy sauce for example. While Stan doesn't delve deeply into ginseng, the root and its healing properties have been used for other fantasy tales.

The One-Armed Swordsman: The One-Armed Swordsman is a popular trope of martial art films and stories. Stan has brought readers other honorary versions of such characters before, such as a 'Blind Swordspig' to stand in for a certain Blind Swordsman. In this tale, Usagi meets Mizuna Takashi, a warrior who lost his hand to a cruel samurai whose infamy spreads from his habit of cutting off the hands of those who raise their blades against him.

The Distant Mountain: Another look at a bit of Japanese lore. This time Stan gives us suiseki, the art of stone appreciation. Usagi helps a samurai guard a Toyama Ishi, a distant mountain stone. It takes its usual twists and turns and Usagi's sometimes grim humor comes out the winner in this one.

Death of a Tea Master: A swashbuckling foreigner in the courts of Japan wishes to see the art of Sepukku. The one called up for this duty is a tea master that Usagi knows. When the foreigner wants to see it again, Usagi steps in.

The Bride: Many tales of Samurai involve the loss of freedom to love who one wishes. This is true of the merchant class as well. In this instance, Usagi helps the daughter of a sake brewer escape death. Stan uses a few twists in the storytelling here as well showcasing that not everyone is as pleased to follow duty when other options are available.

For those who've never seen the art in a Usagi Yojimbo book, Dark Horse provides previews of most of their books. Thieves and Spies can be previewed here: https://www.darkhorse.com/Books/30-060/Usagi-Yojimbo-Volume-30-Thieves-and-Spies-TPB

Thieves and Spies provides a quick glimpse into a fantasy Japan that never was. It provides a peak into the lives of heroes and the everyday people they meet. Stan's writing suffers a bit from the episodic manner in which the tales are told, as often Usagi just happens to be at the right place at the right time as opposed to actually seeking out purpose, but that's the nature of the beast. It's a character showcase when we get to see Usagi meet old friends and make new ones.

Thieves and Spies continues a tradition that has taken Stan over one hundred and fifty issue and here's looking forward to another one hundred and fifty.