"You're in the presence of a gifted storyteller and artist whose delicately woven tales have many complex layers and interpretations."
- Stan Lee, Comics Giant
An ongoing anthropomorphic samurai comic saga created by japanese-american Stan Sakai revolving around a character based on the 17th century samurai Miyamoto Musashi. The black-and-white comic book features the adventures of Usagi Yojimbo (literally: Rabbit Bodyguard), a long eared samurai rabbit, and his other animal friends.
Usagi Yojimbo is set in a fantasy world that very closely resembles that of ancient Japan, around the time of the Tokugawa bakufu (edo period). All parts are taken by animals, often those resembling their character, for example a cold and treacherous enemy might be a snake, whereas a clever and beautiful thief might be a fox. There are also "animals" in this world, the tokage or lizards. The was only one human to ever appear in a story, which was in a very early Fantagraphics book, and he was a villain to boot. The drawings are very nice and detailed (although not as muchas those by Sergio Aragonez, and the stories paint a fascinating picture).
"After I finished several stories, the accomplishment was obvious. I was transported into the fascinating world of Japanese folklore."
- Will Eisner, Comics Pioneer
Sakai researches his stories very well, life as depicted in the book closely resembles life in medieval Japan, the situations are often modelled after true stories or japanese folk legends. He also references to popular culture from time to time, including homages to series such as Groo, Lone Wolf and Cub, Godzilla, and many more in his books. At the end, he often lists his sources for those who would like to know more in his story notes. Good stuff, that!
History of Publication:
The first publication of Usagi's adventures was in 1984, in the first issues of the anthology series Albedo Anthropomorphics. These issues are now near impossible to find and fetch ridiculous prices. For example, there were only 2000 copies of Albedo 2 printed. You calculate how many are still left...
The next incarnation came in 1985, when Fantagraphics Books featured
Usagi Yojimbo in their new funny animal anthology, Critters at about 10 pages every other month. The series became very popular, and so the early Albedo stories were reprinted in the Usagi Yojimbo Summer Special in 1986. This book sold out from the publisher in less than 90 hours!
Because of the extreme popularity, Usagi Yojimbo finally got its own publication in 1987, still at Fantagraphics. Releases were monthly during the summer and bimonthly the rest of the year. Apart from about 20 pages by Sakai per issue, there were additional back-up stories by well known artists such as Sergio Aragones, Scott Shaw, Peter Laird, Dave Garcia, Tom Stazer, Tom Luth, Martin Wagner, and others. Popularity was so high that Usagi even made appearances on the TMNT cartoon. In addition to the ongoing book, older stories were being reprinted in trade paperbacks and hardcovers, and Critters featured guest appearances of everybody's favorite rabbit samurai.
In the early nineties, the first color specials were done, but the main book always retained its pure b/w style. In 1992, Sakai published a different view on the Usagi saga with Mirage Publishing: Space Usagi.
This indicated a switching of publishers that followed in late 1992. Due to a slump in b/w-sales, so the main Fantabooks run ended with issue 38, but with them continuing to publish the UY Graphic Albums. Usagi moved to Mirage, published bimonthly with a fresh new look and coloring by Tom Luth. The second Space Usagi was also done in color. However, Mirage hit on hard times, and canceled UY with issue 16.
So UY had to move again in 1996, this time to Dark Horse, a move that most fans agree with. Usagi was back in black-and-white, and finally on time as well (mostly). First testing the market with a 3-issue Space Usagi mini-series, then a 3-ish UY mini-series, the sales proved right it's viability, so the mini series was extended to five issues, and after that, a new ongoing UY series published about nine times a year was started, which is still going strong to this date, indicating the longest single run of an UY title. This is complemented with an excellent TPB reprint series as well. In the Dark Horse run, the absolute highlight of the series was also published, the longest and most epic saga so far, Grasscutter.
Yes, there is a UY Game in existence. Originally written for the C64 by the australian Beam Software in 1987, there also was a conversion to the Sinclair Spectrum and the Amstrad CPC, released in 1988. Later, the London-based Firebird Software bought the game. The game released only in Europe and Australia, and not in the U.S. It was simple, but fun to play back then...
Gold Rush Games produced a roleplaying game based on Usagi Yojimbo, which is still in print.
This site contains everything you would ever like to know about Usagi, and more. Check out the Concordance for almost all covers and story synopses.
The ultimate Usagi fansite: http://www.usagiyojimbo.com/ Here is a short online strip, courtesy of DHP: