Usagi Yojimbo: Wanderer’s Road #5
Writer: Stan Sakai
Artist: Stan Sakai, Ronda Pattinson
Usagi Yojimbo takes one more step along the wanderer’s road with yet another Fantagraphics era tale. This latest issue features “The Teacup”, a classic black and white story from the 80’s redone entirely in colour. IDW has done a great job with previous colour releases of classic Usagi stories but will this issue continue the trend?
The story starts with Usagi entering a new area and stumbling across a samurai under attack from bandits. The samurai turns out to be his friend, Gen. The rhinoceros has been hired to deliver a priceless teacup. Naturally, Usagi offers his help, and the duo travel together to ensure the delivery is completed safely.
As the story progresses a pair of orphans with the same destination join the samurai. This is really the meat of the story. Gen doesn’t want to have to deal with the orphans at all. Up until this point, the rhino was written simply as Usagi’s grumpy, somewhat unethical friend. Throughout this story, we see Gen’s personality and his backstory fleshed out through his thoughts and actions regarding these orphans. Usagi is really just a foil for Gen as this story focuses on making him a far more likable character. That’s not to say Usagi doesn’t have fun fights and comedic moments but Gen steals the show here.
Stan Sakai hadn’t been a slouch in the earlier issues of Usagi Yojimbo but the art here is truly terrific. Previous stories like “Samurai” featured expressive characters but their emotions were conveyed in a subtle, more serious manner. Here, Sakai starts taking full advantage of the cartoonish characters he’s created. There are subtle expressions on display during serious moments but the comedy is punctuated by facial expressions right out of a Looney Tunes cartoon. These moments of ridiculousness really make this story stand out from its predecessors while highlighting Gen’s struggles with the orphans.
There’s also some great use of colour within this book. Groups of characters are shown in silhouette against single-color backgrounds to make them stand out and show the distance between them. The issue also features pages where multiple characters appear in an image with only important characters highlighted. Changes in background colour are also used to create emotion throughout the issue. An orange background around a character’s enraged face show anger. A black background creates a sense of isolation or loss. These may seem like small touches but they all add up to make a magnificent story.
Lettering continues to be a strong point of the series. From the first page of the issue, the lettering is used inventively to add to the story. Thought bubbles are used to establish location instead of expository dialogue. Sound effects alert readers to important events on and off the page. Speech bubbles containing only a single punctuation mark or an image are used to communicate emotions without dialogue. By the end of the issue, we even get to see colours worked into certain pieces of text to emphasise the emotions on display. The entire issue is a tour-de-force of lettering.
“The Teacup” is a spectacular story from the initial years of Usagi Yojimbo. There’s strong character development throughout and an action-packed story that’s bound to keep readers entertained. The story is also completely standalone so it’s perfect for new readers. Sakai’s early artwork continues to improve and the addition of colour by Pattinson makes it look even better. Like most Usagi Yojimbo stories, however, this is quite simplistic. Anyone looking for a grand, complicated story won’t find it here. If you’re an existing Usagi fan or someone looking for a good starting point though then this issue is definitely worth picking up.
Usagi Yojimbo Wanderer's Road #5
While Usagi is more of a side character in this story, the focus on Gen makes for an extremely fun read. The rhino has appeared in earlier stories but "The Teacup" finally starts giving readers more insight into the character. Sakai's artwork in combination with Pattinson's colours makes for a cartoonish visual treat that's bound to please fans of the samurai. Meanwhile, the lettering shows more experimentation yet none of it fails to add to the story. Definitely worth reading whether you're a fan of Usagi or just comics in general.