Among the visually inventive bits of the first issue of Usagi Yojimbo: Senso that made me pause and go back to look at what I’d just seen and read: a devil rabbit samurai with a sword cutting his way through a rival clan; a father stealing a horse to save his son; a steampunk tank in the shape of a turtle, bellowing fire. And all this, by the way, before the Martians have even shown up in the first issue of writer/illustrator Stan Sakai’s future tale of samurai vs. aliens.
Sakai largely uses the first issue – set 20 years into feudal samurai Miyamoto Usagi’s timeline – to set things up. Once a wandering ronin, Usagi now serves as a military adviser the young lord of the Geishu clan, Noriyuki, in a battle against the traitor Lord Hijiki, whom the shogun has ordered taken out. Longtime fans of Usagi will be happy to see that his supporting cast is all nearby – Tomoe is by his side as another of Hijiki’s advisers while the bounty hunter Gen has joined the Geishu army as a general, while Usagi’s son Jotaro – who still doesn’t know the identity of his father – is one of Gen’s tough-as-nails soldiers.
The book’s creator does such a great job of laying out the stakes and the warring factions, that you almost forget that Senso is supposed to have an alien invasion right in the middle of the story – an element which Sakai holds until the very last pages as the battle between the warring Lords enters a new phase. Without tilting into full-on exposition-speak, Sakai lets us know who wants what and why, and finds room for a human dimension for his furry animal characters, particularly when it comes to Usagi himself, normally made of steel, here he can’t bear to see his only (and unclaimed) son wade into battle. It’s a great little moment and I hope Sakai gives us plenty of interplay between the two as the book goes on.
I wonder if the fact that Usagi is a furry animal book that I’m not having trouble with the alien plot getting dropped into the middle of it. These kinds of genre mashups tend to be all concept and no execution (or at least feel that way), but since there’s already something of a fantasy treatment to the material with snake generals and turtle tanks (you guys, I can’t wait until they use the turtle tanks), crash-landing a Martian vessel into the middle of it doesn’t seem especially weird.
Sakai keeps the drama and the action sustained in Senso with the earthbound elements, and now that the stage is set, I’m truly excited to see what kind of craziness will happen when the Martians show up.
You can read our interview with Usagi Yojimbo creator Stan Sakai where he discusses the origins of Senso and 30 years of his samurai rabbit fiction here.