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‘My Father’s Swords’ by Stan Sakai

July 15, 2009

uybook13cAfter mulling over the possibility for a couple of weeks, I decided that if you’d be so kind to indulge me, it might be a lot of fun to highlight and/or review select graphic novels here at Follow That Raven from time to time. I don’t plan on turning the blog into a comic-centric one by any means but there are indeed works of graphic fiction that more than deserve the consideration of not only a diverse reading audience, but those that profess to simply love good literature. That said, I’ll try my best to restrict myself to great independent works such as Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo, Kazu Kibuishi’s Flight anthologies, Mike Allred’s Madman, Jeff Smith’s Bone etc. as not only are these personal favorites that I believe should get all the attention they can, but because they also represent some of the best stories being published today. I hope you’ll pick them up.

For your consideration then: My Father’s Swords, a stand alone story in Usagi Yojimbo Vol. 13 – Grey Shadows TPB collection by Stan Sakai.

First, for those that are perhaps unaware, Usagi Yojimbo is the story of a masterless samurai named Miyamoto Usagi who travels a sixteenth century Japan trying to apply bushido, or “the way of the warrior” as best he can, often lending his good heart and expert blade to the poor, downtrodden, haunted and the afflicted. Oh, and he’s also a rabbit — which is awesome. Our long-eared friend is actually enjoying his 25th anniversary this year so there’s never been a better time to see what’s made him such an endearing character for as long.

Anyhow, one of the great things about Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo stories is that he’s able to hit you right smack in the gut when you least expect it, but in the most natural of manners. Take, for example, this short story in which, on his travels, Usagi runs into a young samurai named Donbori Chiaki. Recognizing Chiaki’s unique sword technique as he observes a (non-lethal) duel he congratulates the boy on his sound victory, and upon uy3cov23learning his name reminisces that he had known and admired his father Donbori Matsuo while they served together under lord Mifune’s banner, before he died at the Battle of Adachi Plain years prior. Over the course of the story the two talk of the inspiration Matsuo has been for the boy and even see that illustrated when Chiaki defends a crippled man from a drunk samurai before leaving the city.  As they part on their respective journey’s Usagi wishes him the best as he inwardly praises the boy’s commitment to the memory of his father in the way he lives his life. But ‘lo, off in the distance Usagi spots a group of brigands laying in wait for Chiaki and his purse strings, and unable to reach him in time to lend a hand Chiaki is left to fight the band himself, that is until the same crippled man who he had rescued earlier leaps to his aid… Well, I won’t spoil what happens for you but rest assured that it isn’t your typical ending and that it may just pull at your heartstrings more than a little.

Stan is an expert of visually crafting his scenes, be it a peaceful walk as Usagi strides through a forest where a mushroom takes center stage on an old tree, or an action-packed battle scene where the reader cheers the ronin on through seemingly overwhelming odds, Stan pulls you into the world he has created and once he has successfully done so it isn’t a place you want to leave any time soon. Stan’s artistic style can be described as “cartoony” in the same sense that, say, Carl Barks is “cartoony” but like that comics legend he grabs hold of your visual senses and nearly forces you to see the wisdom and skill in the approach. Yes, these are indeed “funny animals” but at the same time…not so much. Likewise, the black and white artwork perfectly captures his steady line work, slick use of blacks, and all the intricate detail.

Rounding out this splendid volume are several other stories including: The Demon Flute, Momo-Usagi-Taro, The Hairpin Murders, The Courtesan, and Tameshigiri. All excellent (and it was a real treat to see Usagi, kinda take the center role in the famous Japanese folk tale of the Peach Boy in Momo-Usagi-Taro). Perhaps more on these later, but please do yourself a real favor and check this out for yourself.

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