Usagi Yojimbo – The Hell Screen (Dark Horse Comics)
Words & Pictures : Stan Sakai
Few things in comics are as constant and timeless as Usagi Yojimbo.
In the 30 plus years since the first appearance of Sakai’s Rabbit Ronin bubbles and grown and burst, publishers have risen and fallen but through it all Sakai has masterfully crafted over 200 issues and told dozens of timeless tells of Usagi and his .
This more recent trade paperback; the Hell Screen, volume 31 in the series, collects 4 stories from the world of Usagi Yojimbo previously published by Dark Horse Comics in 2016.
There’s no need to be worried about Usagi’s long storied history if this is the first time you’ve read or considered reading Usagi’s adventures. You only need to take only look at the cover or flip through the book to know enough to dive on in.
The basic premise of Usagi as a wandering master less samurai seeking to right the wrongs that he comes across is deeply rooted in Japanese tradition, Manga and Samurai Cinemas as well as many of Clint Eastwood’s iconic Western Heroes. Usagi is equal parts Lone Wolf Ogami Itto and Clint Eastwood’s Nameless Gunslinger.
Sakai has mastered the art of creating stories which are largely self contained ensuring they are accessible to new or casual readers while adding depth, flavour and nuance to the ongoing Usagi narrative for more devoted followers.
The 4 tales in this collection highlight Usagi’s versatility as a character and Sakai’s ability as a story teller to blend the mundane and every day with the epic and arcane.
The first and last stories in this collection ground Usagi in the every day lives of the peasants and working classes of this feudal world. Whether its helping farmers save their village from rising flood waters or protecting pilgrims from brigands and bandits, Usagi is a champion of downtrodden and common folk who is always willing to give his all in the service of others.
By contrast the other stories showcase Sakai’s passion for the history, myths and folk lore of his ancestral homeland.
In Kazehime we are served a more cinematic slice of samurai action as a chance meeting with a mysterious member of the Komori Ninja Clan leads to unexpected complications but also unforeseen rewards.
The titular story, the Hell Screen, puts our Ronin hero face to face with the very forces of the Underworld itself as a cursed artwork brings murder and misery to those who visit the quiet rural shrine which houses it.
Is it a gateway to Hell, as the legend claims, or are far more mundane evil forces at work?
Usagi, along with his on and off companion Inspector Ishida must solve the mystery of the murders before the malevolent maddening magic of the Hell Screen brings death and doom to them all.
And of course how can I pass up a chance to talk about Sakai’s amazing art. Sakai has won more awards than you can name over the decades and its easy to see why.
Panel after panel, page after page, issue after issue year in year out Sakai’s deceptively simple style renders a world full of rich and distinct characters. It doesn’t matter that some are rabbits, while others are dogs or cats or rhinos his world is filled with life and energy from the innocent wonder of a child’s face to the battle hardened grimace of a world weary warrior.
This is another amazing addition to a legendary series by a legendary creator. If you need further convincing you can read the first few dozen issues of Usagi Yojimbo on Comixology Unlimited and then come back and pick up this most recent collection from Dark Horse, Amazon or your LCS.