It takes me a while to read volumes of Usagi Yojimbo. It’s not because they’re too big (although the Saga collections are thick). And it’s not because there’s too much text, or it’s too complicated for me to understand. No, it’s because when I’m reading Usagi Yojimbo, I’m also studying. I’m taking extra time to look at each panel, at the way that the words and pictures work together. And, probably above all, the use of black and white.
Let me back up for a moment. I’ve mentioned this rabbit on here before, but for the benefit of those who have no idea what I’m talking about, Usagi Yojimbo is a, dare I say, legendary comic by one of the great masters of sequential art, Stan Sakai. You’d probably know it if you saw it, the samurai rabbit. Oh, you know, this guy:
If you’ve never read the comic, you might recognize him form several adventures with the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. But I digress.
There are a lot of things to like about this comic. It’s set in Feudal Japan, so there’s plenty of sword play. And Stan Sakai knows his stuff, being of Japanese decent himself. The stories are immersive, bringing us into Usagi’s world. They can range from light hearted to quite heavy. And, being published since 1984, there’s plenty to read. I’ve read the first 10 volumes so far, and I can also say that, in that time, I’ve never found myself bored.
Now that I’ve got some gushing out of the way, let’s get back to what I was saying at the top there. Part of the reason that I enjoy Usagi Yojimbo so much is because it’s a perfect comic for studying. Once you start making comics, you don’t just read comics, you take them apart. You see how the writer/artist/cartoonist matches the words with the pictures. You see what techniques they use to convey texture, light, darkness, distance, etc. And I can’t think of a book that I would recommend much more for this than Usagi. Not only is Sakai working in black and white (which I’ll come back to in a moment), he’s also working with animals as characters. It’s not always easy to convey when a rabbit is angry, or consumed with blood lust, but you better believe this book makes it clear. You might think that this book would veer too far into the “funny animals” style of comics, but when things get serious, you feel it. Such is the quality of the story.
But probably the most interesting thing for me, as I’m reading, is the black and white. When I was younger, I don’t think I cared much about black and white, because I wanted to see the colors. But now many of the comics I make are in black and white. So I look closely at books like this. Without color, you really have to know what you’re doing in order to convey texture and depth in a panel. Not only is this two dimensional by default, but now there are no color cues! The eye has to make out what everything is based on the strokes of ink alone. And never have I had a problem with Sakai’s work. Never. Let’s have a look.
This is a nice image; peaceful, yet there’s a lot to look at. Let’s start with framing. Sakai is really good at this. We are looking at a picture that looks grand, but also seems quite personal. Note how the flowers in the front look. They are the most detailed object in the panel, and we can’t see all of them. It’s as if the panel is seen from our own point of view. And let’s look at that line weight too. Those mountains don’t dominate the background because Sakai uses those really thin lines. And the way he draws the flowers and Usagi highlight the foreground superbly. In addition to this, notice some of those details. Mostly everything is just made out of different types of lines. The flowers show the texture of the pedals, while the lines on the leaves (on the branch still) show that they are in shadow. Then when you look into Usagi’s hat, you see even tighter lines to denote how dark it is under there. It always fascinates me to think that all of these details all come from lines, but it’s their closeness, the angle of their slant, or their length that make all the objects look different. Such is the precision of Stan Sakai. Another thing I really like about his character work is the design on Usagi’s clothing. The dots aren’t overwhelming, even though there are so many. Instead, they help to keep Usagi from melting into the background, something that can happen with black and white comics. And there are a lot of different patterns Sakai uses on different characters. Lastly, those details on the clouds. I just like to look at those.
So, that’s a small study of Usagi Yojimbo. But, there’s a lot more to look at. There’s a whole world to jump into, and the best thing I can suggest is that you do just that.