Friday, September 11, 2009

Some Sword-wielders You Can Always Count On

Notice how some stories tend to get told over and over again? They’re our myths, containing patterns and archetypes which nourish our ideologies and our imaginations. Comic books are overflowing with them. How many dozens of times has the origin of Superman been re-imagined? And that story itself is, of course, a collection of ideas and elements taken from mythology and various cultural histories. And sometimes, all you need is a slightly different perspective to bring out the power in one of these familiar tales. Take Outlaw: The Legend of Robin Hood (by Lee, Hart and Fujita) as a case in point. Naturally, it’s got the merry men, Maid Marian, stealing from the rich and giving to the poor, sword fights, daring escapes, romance and archery contests. But it casts them in a darker, grittier light than you’ve seen them in before. Think a Robin Hood origin by way of Casino Royale and Batman Begins. The tone of the art is shadowy and dark, so much so that you can actually feel the chills wafting through those old stone castles, while the Hood’s struggle with corrupt authority is painfully appropriate for the here and now, too. Just the same, Robin is still very much a hero in outlook and deed. And heroes, of course, never really go out of style.

And speaking of tried and true heroic figures, character types that fit story after story and never get boring, how about a samurai? Better yet, how about a rabbit samurai? Hares have long been a symbol of cleverness and resilience (just ask Bugs Bunny) and samurai; well, I'm sure you know all about them. Usagi Yojimbo, Stan Sakai’s always impressive ode to Japanese history and comic book animals, is in the middle of his twenty-fifth year in publishing and has never been better. The thrilling sword battles (right out of a Kurasawa epic) and funny animal characters (right out of an Uncle Scrooge comic) might give the impression that the material is on the simplistic side. But using elements from Japanese history and mythology and through the deeply honorable and moral character of Usagi himself, Sakai always manages to put a complex and thoughtful spin on the most straightforward situations. With a large body of work, it can be hard to know where to start, but I’m happy to say that Sakai’s skill in writing an accessible tale is such that you can dive in almost anywhere. Among his very best are Usagi Yojimbo Volume 12: Grasscutter, a massive epic featuring loads of characters and plots coming together around an ancient sword of the gods and the battles fought to determine its fate. Also, Usagi Yojimbo Volume 23: Bridge of Tears, the latest installment, is a standout episode that finds Usagi contending with the Assassin Guild’s plot of revenge, featuring several of the characters from Grasscutter’s Tale.

You can’t go wrong with knights or samurai as far as I can see.


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