It's been a while since "Usagi Yojimbo" was published, due to Stan Sakai taking some time off his signature creation in order to work on the "47 Ronin" mini-series with Mike Richardson. Now that it's over, though, Sakai's rabbit ronin warrior has returned in "Usagi Yojimbo Color Special: The Artist," a one-shot bringing together a series of short stories about Miyamato Usagi. And if you haven't read "Usagi Yojimbo" before, you're in for a real treat.
"Usagi Yojimbo Color Special: The Artist" shows the full range of Sakai's storytelling through its short stories. For example, "Cut the Plum" is just two pages, sets up its punch line quickly and stays light and comedic. At the same time, it also shows off the warm and caring side of Usagi; readers get a good idea of what he's like as a father while he interacts with Jotaro. It's short, funny, and to the point. Compare that with "Saya," an 8-pager featuring a more exasperated Usagi as he's pulled into a fight that he wants no part of. Not only do we then see much more of Usagi's skills as a warrior, but also we learn a bit more about what the 16th century Japan of "Usagi Yojimbo" is like and the dangers that some of the samurai bring to the surrounding people.
"Buntori" is a reminder that Sakai likes to play with the supernatural at times, too. On its surface, it's a ghost story as a long-forgotten battle plays out once more. But look a little deeper and you'll see a story that's about commitment, honor, and never giving up. They're all important themes in "Usagi Yojimbo," but ones that are never overwhelming either. You can just as easily look at "Buntori" and enjoy the race through the night forest, the onslaught of attackers, and the search for a solution to this ghostly drama. That's part of why Sakai's comics work so well; you can enjoy them on any number of levels and find something great no matter the angle.
The special concludes with "The Artist," which runs 16 pages (almost the length of a regular "Usagi Yojimbo" issue) and as a result is the most emblematic of the series as a whole. Once again, you can focus on any one of a number of different angles and find something to like here. Family honor, tradition, fear of the world outside Japan, killers, battles... what's not to love? If that's not enough, though, there's a fantastic bonus: Yoshi's Western-style paintings are rendered in a different manner than we normally get from Sakai. It's a smart move, one that really only works in comics; by changing up how Yoshi's paintings look in comparison to the rest of the world of "Usagi Yojimbo," we instantly understand how it could be perceived as a threat, even as we as readers also recognize it as being so beautiful.
I haven't talked about the art up until now, but this is as good a place as any: it's excellent. Sakai's regular style is tight and crisp, with careful thin lines and great texture through crosshatching. The little details are wonderful here, like Usagi's ears/topknot fluttering in the breeze at the start of "The Artist," or the care in rendering a rice field. His action sequences are excellent, too; the fight in "Saya" is energetic and explosive, and as Usagi leaps forward it feels like he's coming right off the page. Tom Luth's colors are lovely too; a regular collaborator with Sakai for the occasional color comic, his hues are chosen carefully with beautiful deep blues and greens. At the same time, he's not afraid to tone things down, like the grays and washed out colors for the spectral "Buntori" short. And while I don't know if the paintings in "The Artist" are strictly Sakai or a collaboration with Luth, I do know that they're incredible. Is it too much to hope that they were digitally inserted and that the full paintings exist somewhere?
"Usagi Yojimbo Color Special: The Artist" is a perfect comic. It has humor, it has drama, it has sadness, it has joy. It's beautifully drawn, it's approachable from multiple angles, and it rewards both long-time readers and first-time visitors. The comics industry would be poorer without Sakai and "Usagi Yojimbo." It doesn't get much better than this.