Stan Sakai Usagi Yojimbo The Artist and Other Stories Gallery Edition book

The Most Fundamentally Flawed Usagi Yojimbo Review Ever

Usagi Yojimbo: Art at a Larger Size

Previously, I broke down the list of all the companies inspired by IDW’s “Artist’s Edition” format and their attempts to bend over backwards not to rip off the name directly.

Today, I want to review Dark Horse’s “Gallery Edition: Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo: The Artist and Other Stories.” It includes six issues of the comic that aren’t consecutive, plus a couple of short stories that fit in, thematically. It’ll run you $125 and it’s available in stores this Wednesday.

It effectively does the same thing as an Artist’s Edition: It reprints Stan Sakai’s original art boards for all the stories at their original size and in full color. You can see every mostly-erased Ames Guide lettering line and — well, Sakai is a pretty clean artist. These are not pages with coffee stains and cigarette burns at their edges. There are no margin notes with shopping lists from Sakai’s wife to go fetch when he goes to the store on his lunch break. There’s no yellowed tape on the edges or holes punched in the margins for print alignment.

You’ll need to look closely at these pages to get a better grasp at the mysteries of the process you may have thought this book would answer. I’m not so sure you’ll find any. You will see how Sakai properly letters the headers at the top of every page, though. Most artists just scrawl the series name and issue number up there to get it out of the way. Sakai includes it as part of the board that only his editors will see.

Stan Sakai Usagi Yojimbo panel composition
No matter what format it’s in, you can learn a lot about composition from Stan Sakai’s work in Usagi Yojimbo. I love the layers and directionality in this wide panel.

He also cuts his own boards, so you won’t see the publisher’s name in the blue lines up at the top, nor the blue lines to indicate where the bleed and margins are for the printer.

You can, however, see nuances in the ink lines at this larger size that might have been missed at the published scale. You can better see where he picks his ink pen up off the page, or where minor variations in the thickness of the line are more apparent.

There are some occasional bits of White-Out in there to see, but you really have to squint to see it. You still can see the brush strokes in the solid black areas and tell the difference between his pen and brush marks thanks to this reproduction, but the corrected areas are easy to miss if you’re not looking for them. He’s either a really light touch with his White Out — lighter than other artists I’ve seen in IDW’s Artist Editions — or the scans are a bit brighter.

Thankfully, the series has always been hand lettered, so all the lettering is there on the page. There’s no necessary compromise with a digital lettering overlay or anything. And since the book is black and white to begin with, you’re not suddenly seeing Sakai’s unvarnished art for the first time.

But it does look very nice at a larger size. I’ve read a lot of “Usagi” in the standard comic-size format, and probably even more in the trade paperbacks, which are slightly smaller. Reading these stories in a larger format gives you the chance to see more of the intricate inking detail Sakai puts in, whether it’s in crosshatching the trees in the background, or the patterns in the clothing.

It opens up the art nicely not to have it squeezed so much onto the page.

I’ll probably feel cramped now the next time I read “Usagi” at its normal size. I’m ruined.

Story Highlights from the Book

The first story in the book is a short Sakai did in 2003 explaining how he makes the comic.  Those pages are very yellow with very noticeable whiter paper glued in place where he’s showing sketches or other original art.

After that, the book carries through with 230 pages’ worth of comics.  That’s nine original issues plus a two-part story originally serialized in “Dark Horse Presents.”

Included in that is issue #65, “Usagi and the Tangu,” the story of young Usagi coming up against a tougher opponent he was warned to stay away from. His bad decision could cost his master his life. There’s a great fight sequence in the second half, and I always love seeing younger Usagi jumping around. Sakai draws a cute kid bunny.

Stan Sakai draws Young Usagi Yojimbo reaching for a sword in this panel
Again with the composition. Foreground, middle ground, background. The left to right direction is strong in the panel. The upswept black ground at the bottom of the panel. I could write a whole other article on this stuff. Hmm….

“Hokashi” parts 1 and 2 tell the story of a traveling band of entertainers who are more than they seem.  There are great sequences in this story of the entertainers at work. It’s a clever and imaginative tale.  The second issue is mostly action, with some nice moments between Usagi and his nephew at the end. (Plus, a shocking secret is unveiled!  ::cue dramatic music::)

“Chanoya” is issue #93, a one-off tale that I’ve heard Sakai talk fondly about in past interviews.  It’s an issue-long tea ceremony.  It’s a very quiet issue, with a very detailed look at what a tea ceremony would have actually been like, and with the slightest bit of romantic tension thrown in.  For such a simple issue, it’s engrossing.

“The Death of Lord Hijiki” is from issue #123.  Sakai tells lots of these shorter stories that have work together.  You can read any old single issue of “Usagi Yojimbo” and get a satisfying story.  Sakai always gives you enough information as you’re reading to know what’s going on.  

But there is a continuity running throughout the series.  Here, Usagi meets up with one of the few remaining members of his clan in the wake of the death of their leader, dozens of issues back.  Together, they have a chance to take out the man who killed their master.  It’s an issue that’s fraught with personal and physical tension from beginning to end, and Sakai’s artistry is on point.  It’s not as simple a story as you might think, so please forgive me my summary of the issue. I’m trying to avoid spoilers, but the title isn’t exactly what you think it is.

Finally, “Two Hundred Jizo” is where Sakai proves that he can draw rain.  Also, Usagi gets beaten up pretty badly and has one of the best “I’m going to kill you for doing that to me, even though I look like I can barely stand up” battles of all time.   Roughed-up Usagi is one scary looking rabbit.

You won't like Usagi Yojimbo when he's angry.
You won’t like Usagi when he’s angry.

There are a couple other issues included that I haven’t had time to (re-)read yet, some reproductions of drawings Sakai did on the backs of his art boards, and some small paintings he did for a color story.

It’s a great collection of stories and art.

The Most Ridiculous Review I’ve Written Since That Time I Reviewed a Mug

(No, really, I did that once.  I did product photography for it and everything.  It amused me so.)

Why is this review so ridiculous?  The point of these “Artist’s Edition” style of books is to hold pages that are the original artwork’s original size in your hand.  You want to be overwhelmed by a large heavy doorstopper of a book.

Reading an “Artist’s Edition” book is like going to an exclusive library where you need to sit at a large table while someone wearing gloves brings out a book and opens it in front of you to read. You look over every square inch of the page, noticing minor trivial things because you’ve never been able to see them before.  You look at the art more than you read the story, and that’s OK.

The reason why this review is so crazy, is that I’m not reviewing the book.

I’m reviewing a PDF provided by Dark Horse.

In my defense, I’m reviewing this PDF on a 27” iMac screen.  At full screen, I can only see about a half page at a time..  So I really am reviewing the book at full size. In theory, no details should be lost.  You just need to put up with the watermark in the corner of every page. (And trust me, this is a very restrained watermark for Dark Horse…)

If I could tilt this screen 90 degrees and stand it on its short side, I think the final PDF at full screen size would be bigger than the print edition.  But, still, it’d be a different experience to click a key to go to the next page instead of carefully flipping through it by hand, leaning in towards the pages to see every minute detail…

A ninja stalks the rooftops in Stan Sakai's Usagi Yojimbo
This is the top of the opening page in the “The Death of Lord Hikiji” story. It feels very cinematic. It’s a sequence of cuts from different angles of a ninja running across rooftops and through town. It’s not about being sequential; it’s about getting the general idea of what this character is doing/is capable of.

Or, on the other hand, I can shrink the PDF down to standard comic size, put it up on the screen and review that. But THAT would be dishonest.  No, for the sake of this review, I viewed the PDF full size, even when it meant scrolling down each page as I read. That gets tedious fast, especially on the stories I’ve already read.

On the bright side, taking screengrabs of panels to show in the review is a lot easier than taking my camera out.  Books this physical size don’t fit on my scanner..

In a weird counter-intuitive way, it worked.  I started writing this review because I found it amusing to review the PDF.. In the end, I really liked the book and wanted to own the print copy.  My Christmas list just keeps growing and growing…

You can find the book on Amazon now.

Want to Read About a Robot Yojimbo?

Sure, there’s a European comic for that, too. Here’s my review of “Yojimbot”:

Yojimbo v1 cover by Sylvain Repos

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  1. Rereading this, I’m wondering why this great series was never adapted into a movie or an animated TV show.
    Come to think of it, how concept of Artist’s editions? Do you know by any chance who did the first one ever ? I’m curious>

  2. It may have been a rights issue. Usagi was used as a guest character in Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles cartoons more than once over the years. I wonder if that kept any feature films from happening? I don’t know.

    Artist’s Editions were started at IDW by Scott Dunbier, who had previously created the Absolute editions at DC. He was an original art dealer in his time before becoming an editor at WildStorm and then DC. Everyone else copied the format off him.

    Fun fact: He used to throw a poker tournament at San Diego Comic Con back in the day. With the explosive growth of the con, I don’t think it happens anymore. I was lucky enough to play in it once. Lots of fun. I outlasted Kevin Smith. 😉

  3. Makes sense. Thanks for the trivia.
    I had the opportunity to attend may BD festivals in Europe, but I never got the chance to go to an American one (Toronto Book Fair being the nearest I ever was). These days, it’s probably mostly TV and movies and video games in SDCC so I probably missed it anyway.

    1. Yeah, the convention circuit in North America these days is 90% people looking for autographs from B-level or lower television stars and movie sidekicks. The comics stuff keeps getting shoved further and further off to the side. As much as I miss doing to SDCC every year, I also have to realize that it’s not a comic show anymore. There’s a great comic con going on deep inside of it, if you know where to look, but everything that makes the show bad — the large crowds, mostly — comes from the crowds attracted to the Hollywood stuff, not comics.