Dave Sim’s Cerebus the Aardvark started its decades-long self-published run in 1977 and Grendel’s initially inauspicious bow came the year before the Renaissance artist namesake reptile warriors hit the shops. Initially a parody of Marvel’s mutant comics (which were becoming all the rage) as well as Frank Miller’s work on Ronin and Daredevil and even Cerebus himself, the Turtles spawned spoofs of their own like Karate Kreatures and Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters. Along with Cerebus, Grendel and the other black and white precursors and followers of the TMNT phenomenon, another black and white martial arts cute animal began to hack and slash his way into the comicbook collective in the form of Miyamoto Usagi, the focal character of writer-artist Stan Sakai’s comicbook Usagi Yojimbo.
However, Usagi was neither an imitation of the Turtles, nor a spinoff of their title. In the 1980s, however, this was an easy mistake to make. More than once Usagi guest-starred in the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles comicbook (and the four brothers from that title returned the favor when they visited Usagi’s own). Usagi appeared in two episodes of the 1987 Turtles animated series and no less than seven episodes of their 2003 cartoon show. The first ever commercially released Usagi Yojimbo toys were part of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles action figure line (a tie in with the 1987 cartoon).
Miyamoto Usagi and his series Usagi Yojimbo (literally “Rabbit Bodyguard”) were also not quite “kid’s stuff” either. Created by Stan Sakai and debuting in November 1984’s Albedo Anthropomorphics #2, Miyamoto Usagi is (as implied by his name) based in large part on the life and legends of the ancient ronin (masterless samurai) Miyamoto Musashi and includes a number of references to Japanese history and Japanese cinema. While the wandering Lapine swordsman may be a cute rabbit with his ears in a topknot, the subject matter of and actions depicted in his series are complex and serious with wonderfully well-developed characters and occasional depictions of realistic war and graphic violence.
Sakai, also the letterer for Sergio Aragones’ Groo the Wanderer throughout that series’ lifespan, is also no stranger to adding a little comedy here and there. However, these laughs are less a hit upon the classic “funny animal” subgenre of comics than they are an example of the well-roundedness of this saga. Sakai recreates the Edo period of Japan in his world populated only by anthropomorphic animals for his ronin bunny to wander through on his warrior’s pilgrimage and along the way he makes many friends and enemies… all of whom are more than one dimensional.
Murakami Gennosuke is a bounty hunting rhino who originally shared an adversarial alliance with Usagi, but eventually becomes a trusted friend and much needed confidant for the main character to speak to and even joke with. The ruthless ronin named Stray Dog initially appears to be a heartless bounty hunter, considered irredeemable by Gen and Usagi. However, it is soon revealed that Stray Dog donates all of his rewards to an orphanage where the children love him like a surrogate uncle. Zato-Ino, the blind swordspig is a tough-as-nails warrior who was born without sight but became a talented fencer using his keen sense of smell. Though branded a murderer, his history reveals that his crime was committed in self-defense against one in a long series of bullies took his ridicule of Ino too far into violence. These are only a few of the ronins and rogues in Usagi’s history.
The real question is… what is the real story of Usagi himself and how did his adventures become so tied to Japanese Cinema?
These questions and many more will be the focus of To Be Continued… when we meet again NEXT WEEK only at PopMatters.com! We’ll still be discussing anthropomorphic animals, but these guys are anything but sweet and cuddly.