Persia Blues volume 1: Leaving Home


By Dara Naraghi & Brent Bowman (NBM/ComicsLit)
ISBN: 978-1-56163-706-5

We do it for fame, we do it for fortune (or at least to pay bills), we do it for fun but all of us primarily make comics because we absolutely have to. Every story we hear, each pedestrian observation provokes the reaction “how would I break that down into panels? How many to a page?”…

All real world input – from shopping lists to bad TV – is taken in, screened through an internal grid and then we worry about how we’ll draw the damn thing. One day…

All creative people are a little bit chained to their art-form, and Iranian ex-pat Dara Naraghi far more so than most. As well as his own celebrated BigCityBlues comic he keeps busy adapting licensed properties such as Robert Patterson’s Witch & Wizard novels, Terminator: Salvation, It! The Terror From Beyond Space and Ghostbusters into comics form, writing for DC, Image and IDW and running his own publishing house Ferret Press.

His breakthrough graphic anthology Lifelike set new standards for expressive exploratory tale-telling and he was a founding member of comics creators collective PANEL. He also scripts (and occasionally draws) utterly wonderful tales covering every aspect of the human experience from wild fantasy to chilling slice-of-life in a splendid series of webcomics.

Artist and illustrator Brent Bowman has created art for the Age of Empires collector card game and worked at Caliber Press and Image Comics. He too is a member of PANEL, devoted to pushing the envelope (probably after covering it with doodles and sketches) of graphic narrative.

Together they have begun a series of graphic novels implausibly blending real-world reportage with high fantasy in a manner both intriguing and captivating.

Persia Blues: Leaving Home introduces spirited young woman Minoo Shirazi who has a history of troublemaking in two worlds…

Far away and long ago a bold warrior with an inexplicable magical power is battling beside her lover against brigands and worse to retrieve a holy book in the heyday of the Persian Empire.

Four years ago in Shiraz, Iran, forthright and independent architecture student Minoo meets another rebellious, frustrated young woman and cleverly outwits the Ayatollah’s Morality Police when they accuse the girls of immodesty – a pretty serious crime in a state that appears to hate women and fear individualism…

In Ancient Persia the war woman returns the sacred Avesta to a venerable cleric at Zoroaster’s Fire Temple and learns about the eternal struggle between the light of Ahura Mazda and dark, evil Ahriman, before somehow lapsing into a bitter argument with the parochial paternalistic priest.

Back in Iran, Minoo gets home safely but word of her brush with the authorities has reached her father. Loving but scared, once-eminent history professor Bijan Shiraz provokes a very similar argument with much the same result. This wise man has reason to fear.

Every day he fights a losing battle as religious fundamentalists slowly destroy his overweening passion, rewriting and revising the grand and glorious history of Persia to suit the self-serving demands of a theocratic, clerical dictatorship. With his wife and son gone, Bijan cannot bear the thought that his wilful daughter might also be lost to him…

In the days of Zoroaster, the sex-fuelled, shamelessly exhausted slumber of barbarian Minoo and her lover Tyler is shattered when she experiences a horrifying vision. Rushing to the FireTemple, they discover the priest on the verge of expiring, claiming with his last breaths that Ahriman himself was his killer.

He makes her promise to voyage to the distant capital Persepolis and discloses that Minoo’s long-lost mother is there. Although Minoo refuses to believe the dying man’s delusions, when a giant, wingless talking Hippogriff (an Opinicus?) appears she has no choice but to accept the prediction and the quest…

Iran 18 years ago: seven year old Minoo has a furious tantrum on learning that she must now wear a Hijab whenever she goes outside. The government edict applies to all girls starting school, and the child’s explosive reaction prompts a fight between her father and mother Manijeh. Eventually, however, Mum’s pragmatic wisdom and Dad’s gentle humour calm the tense situation…

In Persia, swordswoman Minoo is equally reluctant to bow to authority but just as susceptible to reason as the Hippogriff decrees that she will play a key part in the battle between good and evil and must accept her fate…

Now minus six years: teen rebel Minoo is playing fast and loose with a flashy rich punk from Tehran. When her furious father furiously ejects the lecher another row erupts and his daughter throws in his face her lack of choice and opportunity under the Mullahs – a crushing blow to a man who almost lost his life defending personal freedom and intellectual liberty…

Four days have passed in Ancient Persia and, as Tyler and Minoo dutifully attend the funeral rites of the murdered holy man, appalling Ahriman himself appears and sets a pride of lions on the questers…

In oppressed Iran 15 years ago, Bijan and Manijeh are having a terrible fight. She wants the family to leave but the scholar refuses to leave the proud history of Persia in the hands of revisionist maniacs. Minoo eavesdrops from outside, terrified hr parents are divorcing, but older brother Ramin soon calms her and assuages her fears…

Near death but reluctant to harm innocent beasts, Minoo is astounded when Ahura Mazda manifests and rewards their forbearance with healing light and sage advice…

Three years ago in the Shiraz’ Vakil Bazaar, Minoo and her father discuss her recent graduation. Her prospects have long been a brittle bone of contention, and she cannot accept the confirmed intellectual’s argument that she should pursue a Master’s Degree. Not in a country that openly suppresses choice and opportunity for women…

She is utterly astounded when her father reveals he has changed his mind and will use all his resources, contacts and waning influence to secure her a University place outside Iran. If the government will let her leave, that is…

Just outside Persepolis, Tyler and Minoo encounter the legendary Anusiya battling an horrific army of scorpion men. Dashing to join the hard-pressed Persian Royal Guard, their warrior spirits and battle savvy turn the tide and the grateful soldiers escort them to an audience with the Emperor…

In Iran the family are gossiping; shocked that Minoo won’t come out of her room to join the Saal. No matter how upset or modern she might be, a dutiful daughter should be present at the one-year anniversary ceremony to commemorate the death of her mother…

…Or rather Empress. Purandokht is Queen and Protector of the Persian Empire and would know to whom the realm owes thanks…

This is a tale of interconnected contrasts with the modern flashback scenes rendered in stark black line and the fantastic magical Persian adventure rendered in lush, painterly pencil-grey tones. Moreover, although the general dialogue and idiom is what you’d expect in an historical drama, Tyler and mystic Minoo only speak like American twenty-somethings…

Our suspicions are further tweaked by the brace of Epilogues in which the wandering warriors reveal to Purandokht that they are from “Columbus”– who has her own shocking personal revelation for the woman warrior – whilst in Shiraz two years ago Minoo joyously learns that she will be attending the University of Ohio in America…

Gleefully melding past and present, fact and fiction, this introductory volume revels in exploiting reader expectation and confusion to craft a beguiling multi-layered tale about family, responsibility, guilt, oppression and the hunger for independence that carries the reader along, promoting wonder and second-guessing whilst weaving a tapestry of mystery.

We’ll all have guesses about what’s really happening but Naraghi and Bowman won’t be telling any secrets too soon.

Engaging, rewarding and just plain refreshingly different, Persia Blues looks set to become a classic in years to come.

To Be Continued…
© 2013 Dara Naraghi and Brent Bowman.

Wolfsmund volume 1


By Mitsuhisa Kuji, translated by Ko Ransom (Vertical)
ISBN: 978-193565475-9

All I can glean regarding pseudonymous woman of mystery Mitsuhisa Kuji is that she has worked as assistant to both Kentaro Miura (Berserk) and Kaoru Mori (Emma, Anything and Something), but that simply means that we can appreciate her solely through her work, such as this darkly nihilistic and bleakly beguiling historical re-enactment of the legend of William Tell as collected in this first English-language volume of Wolfsmund

Set in the 14th century and drawing on historical records, the serial debuted in 2009 as Ookami no Kuchi: Wolfsmund in Seinen publication Fellows! – with four tankōbon volumes collected thus far – and details the struggle of three autonomous alpine cantons, Uri, Unterwalden and Shwyz, for freedom and independence from the oppressive domination of invaders from what will become the Habsburg Empire.

Unconventionally, the oft-told tale centres around the monolithic fortress of Wolfsmund, situated in the Sankt Gotthard Pass: an impenetrable barrier station between mountains controlling the population’s ability to move, flee or obtain allies, intelligence or war material, and a crucial trade bottleneck between Germany and Italy.

The chilling black drama begins in ‘Liese and Georg’ as a highborn lady and daughter of the downtrodden proto-nation’s liberating hero undergoes appalling hardships and indignities at the hands of her most devoted servant in order to pass through the forbidding gate to freedom.

However all her determination and her bondsman’s wiles are as nothing to the insidious observations and deep suspicions of Wolfram the Bailiff; sadistic sentinel with an angel’s face, and undisputed master of Wolfsmund.

Although the wayfarers find sympathetic souls in the village around the castle – especially the seductive female innkeeper – their flight ends in discovery, combat and inevitable, inescapable doom…

The dark fable continues in ‘Johanna and Klaus’ wherein a lethally competent woman warrior undertakes to preserve her master’s treasures and the resistance’s war chest by passing through Wolfsmund to Italian bankers in Lugano. After also spending time with the enigmatic Guesthouse Madam, the deviously competent Johanna also fails to fool implacably diligent Wolfram and she is taken.

However, once inside the castle her true plan comes into play…

The notional stars of the legend at last appear in the final story in this initial volume.

The legend of ‘Wilhelm and Walter’ had long inspired the savagely repressed peoples of what will one day be Switzerland and, after a meeting with the innkeeper, Tell senior and junior opt for the unprecedented option of scaling the mountain rather than passing through the Wolf’s Mouth.

Wolfram however is a coldly calculating custodian and has made provision to counter even the most hare-brained and impossible attempts to escape his jurisdiction…

This is a harsh and visceral saga best enjoyed by older readers, and there’s a powerful aura of woodblock-etching (even a feeling of Albrecht Dürer) to the stark, uncompromising illustration that perfectly compliments the daunting milieu, adamantine scenery and cruelly brutal episodes in which assorted freedom fighters of “the Eternal Alliance” repeatedly try and fail to pass through the fortress gates and fool the cruelly beautiful sadistic angel in command.

However, with the mystery of the lovely libertine innkeeper to tease things along, this book feels more like prologue than main event and I for one can’t wait to see what comes next. After all, even if we know our eventual destination, it’s the journey that really matters…

Wolfsmund is printed in the ‘read-from-back-to-front’ manga format.
© 2010 Mitsuhisa Kuji. All rights reserved.

Usagi Yojimbo Book 4: The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy


By Stan Sakai (Fantagraphics)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-063-7

Usagi Yojimbo (literally “rabbit bodyguard”) premiered as a background character in Stan Sakai’s anthropomorphic comedy The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper before indomitably carving his own unique path to graphic glory.

Sakai was born in 1953 in Kyoto, Japan before the family moved to Hawaii two years later. After graduating the University of Hawaii, with a BA in Fine Arts, he pursued further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design in California and started in comics as a letterer, most famously for the inimitable Groo the Wanderer.

Eventually the cartoonist within resurfaced: blending his storytelling drive with a love of Japanese history and legend and hearty interest in the filmic works of Akira Kurosawa and his peers, into one of the most enticing and impressive fantasy sagas of all time.

And it’s still more educational, informative and authentic than any dozen Samurai sagas you can name…

The intoxicating period epic is set in a world of sentient animals (with a few unobtrusive human characters scattered about) but scrupulously mirrors the Edo Period of Feudal Japan – the early 17th century by our reckoning, simultaneously sampling classic contemporary cultural icons from sources as varied as Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi and even Godzilla, whilst specifically recounting the life of Miyamoto Usagi, a peripatetic masterless Samurai, eking out an honourable living as a Yojimbo (bodyguard-for-hire).

As such, his fate is to be drawn constantly into a plethora of incredible situations.

And yes, he’s a rabbit – brave, noble, sentimental, gentle, artistic, empathetic, long-suffering, conscientious and devoted to the tenets of Bushido, the heroic everyman bunny simply cannot turn down any request for help or ignore the slightest evidence of injustice…

This fabulous fourth black and white blockbuster gathers tales which originally appeared in Fantagraphics’ Usagi Yojimbo volume 1, #13-18 from 1988-1991, and temporarily sacrifices short stories and vignettes for another grand multi-chapter saga of blood and steel and cloak and dagger.

The drama begins after an illuminating Introduction from the legendary multi-media imagineer Alejandro Jodorowsky before the epic and slowly-brewing Dragon Bellows Conspiracy flares into fulgent fury in a grandiose epic where weather and environment are as much major players as the wide cast of regulars brought together by fate and a brewing tempest…

In recent days young Lord Noriyuki – new and still politically insecure leader of the prestigious Geishu Clan – had been targeted by various schemes to destabilise his position, and in ‘The Clouds Gather’ his devoted bodyguard Tomoe Ame is despatched to make diplomatic overtures and undertake covert inquiries at the castle of neighbouring Lord Tamakuro, an elder noble of undisclosed loyalties.

What she finds is an abomination: Tamakuro is stockpiling Teppo – forbidden western matchlock muskets and black powder weapons…

When she is discovered, her loyal entourage sacrifice themselves, allowing Tomoe time to escape and alert Noriyuki, but in her pell-mell flight she is relentlessly pursued…

Elsewhere, blind outlaw swords-pig Zato-Ino is still searching for peace and finding nothing but mercenaries and thugs hungry for the price on his head, with fate inevitably drawing him closer to a clash with money-mad bounty-hunter Gennosuké.

As the rains begin to fall, a wandering long-eared Ronin is forced off the road by a party of Samurai dragging the captured Tomoe towards the fortress of Lord Tamakuro…

The players begin to converge in ‘The Winds Howl’ when sinister imperial plotter Lord Hebi despatches Neko ninja chief Shingen to take command of an operation already underway in Tamakuro’s lands.

That paranoid rebel is keenly aware of official eyes upon him. Hurrying after Tomoe, Usagi wanders into a village laid waste by Tamakuro’s forces and finds himself blamed by Shingen for the slaughter of the inhabitants – every one an undercover Neko…

Barely surviving a savage protracted duel with the ninja chief, the weary Yojimbo at last reaches the gates of Tamakuro’s citadel in ‘Downpour’ and defeats many of the rebel warlord’s warriors to win an officer’s post in his new, musket-equipped army.

Even as, in the sodden lands beyond the gates, Gen closes in on Ino, within the fortress Usagi rashly breaks the brutally abused Tomoe free and the pair flee into the tumultuous night with hordes of troops hard on their heels.

At least that’s what the pursuing soldiers believe. In truth the Ronin has fled alone to draw the rebels away and warn Lord Noriyuki, but his rash ride brings him crashing right into another clash with the vengeance-crazed Shingen…

Awakening from horrific nightmares to ‘Thunder and Lightning’, Usagi realises that the ninja has been ministering to the rabbit’s many wounds. Shingen has realised the truth and now wants to work together to destroy Tamakuro and to that end has marshalled more Neko to attack the fortress.

Tamakuro, meanwhile, is restless. His plans have come undone and he has just learned that the diabolical Tomoe is hiding somewhere in his house, waiting for the right moment to strike…

As Usagi and the ninjas move on the castle, the Ronin finds an old friend on the road. Spot is a Tokagé lizard (ubiquitous, omnivorous reptiles that populate this world, replacing scavenger species like rats, cats and dogs in the fictitious ecosystem) and was once his faithful companion in his wanderings.

However the pet long ago switched his devotion to Blind Ino. If Spot is here, the blood-spilling porcine brigand – whose incredible olfactory sense more than compensates for his useless eyes – cannot be far away…

He isn’t – but Usagi finds him engaged in a furious fight to the death with Gennosuké under skies ablaze with electric fire and shattered by booming clamour…

Grimly determined, the rabbit convinces both of them to join his band in an assault on the castle in ‘The Heart of the Storm’ even as many miles distant a Neko ninja infiltrates Noriyuki’s private chambers with a message from Usagi.

Her deed done, she vanishes, leaving the Boy Lord to rouse the families loyal to the Shogun. It is not the last time we shall see the beautiful, deadly sister of Shingen…

By the time dawn breaks, however, it is all over and the ferocious bloodletting has ended with the deaths of many comrades and valiant souls as well as the explosive destruction of all Tamakuro’s dreams…

With the grand design concluded, the Dragon Bellows Conspiracy wraps up with two gentler episodes as, in ‘Storm Clouds Part’, Noriyuki formally offers the wandering Yojimbo the friendship of the Geishu Clan, whilst rough-handed Gen resumes his far more fraternal rivalry with Usagi.

Then ‘The Fate of the Blind Swordspig’ reveals one secret the bounty hunter refused to share with even his greatest friend as, far away, another major player is plagued with a tantalising, impossible choice…

Despite changing publishers a few times, Usagi Yojimbo has been in continuous publication since 1987, resulting in dozens of graphic novel collections and books to date. He has guest-starred in many other series and even nearly made it into his own TV show – there’s still time yet, and fashions can revive as quickly as they die out…

As well as generating a horde of high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, a spin-off sci-fi series and lots of toys to promote popularity, Sakai and his creation have deservedly won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public.

Fast-paced yet lyrical, funny and scary, always moving, ferociously thrilling and simply bursting with veracity and verve, Usagi Yojimbo is a cartoon masterpiece of irresistible appeal that will delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened hater of “funny animal” stories and comics.
Text and illustrations © 1988, 1989, 1990, 1991 Stan Sakai. Usagi Yojimbo is ® Stan Sakai. Book editions © 1990, 1991, 1998 Fantagraphics Books. All rights reserved.

Usagi Yojimbo Book 3: The Wanderer’s Road


By Stan Sakai (Fantagraphics)
ISBN: 978-1-56097-009-5

Usagi Yojimbo (literally “rabbit bodyguard”) premiered as a lowly background character in Stan Sakai’s anthropomorphic comedy The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, (Albedo Anthropomorphics #1, 1984), subsequently appearing there on his own terms as well as in Critters, Amazing Heroes, Furrlough and the Munden’s Bar back-up in Grimjack.

Sakai was born in 1953 in Kyoto, Japan before the family emigrated to Hawaii in 1955. He attended the University of Hawaii, graduating with a BA in Fine Arts, and pursued further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design after landing in California.

His early forays into comics were as a letterer, most famously for the inimitable Groo the Wanderer, before his nimble pens and brushes, coupled with a love of Japanese history and legend and hearty interest in the filmic works of Akira Kurosawa and his peers, all combined to turn a proposed story about a human historical hero into one of the most enticing and impressive fantasy sagas of all time.

And it’s still more educational, informative and authentic than any dozen Samurai sagas you can name…

The deliriously peripatetic and expansive period epic is nominally set in a world of sentient animals (with a few unobtrusive human characters scattered about) and specifically references the Edo Period of Feudal Japan: the early 17th century of our reckoning.

It simultaneously samples classic contemporary cultural icons from sources as varied as Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi and even Godzilla whilst specifically recounting the life of Miyamoto Usagi, a Ronin or masterless wandering Samurai, eking out an honourable living as a Yojimbo or bodyguard-for-hire.

As such, his fate is to be drawn constantly into a plethora of incredible situations.

And yes, he’s a rabbit – a brave, sentimental, gentle, artistic, empathetic long-suffering, conscientious and heroic everyman bunny who just can’t turn down any request for help or ignore the slightest evidence of injustice…

This torrid third monochrome tome features takes which originally appeared in Fantagraphics’ Usagi Yojimbo volume 1, #7-12. Also included is a delightful short story from Mirage Studios’ Turtle Soup anthology from 1989.

The drama begins after an illuminating Introduction from fantasy novelist and occasional comics scribe Robert Asprin and offers a wealth of comedic episodes, supernatural adventure vignettes and other revelatory yarns to delight, astound and especially enchant, as author Sakai seamlessly plants hints and lays out threads that will in the fullness of time blossom and bloom into the elements of a 25-year-long epic…

First up is a salutary fable wherein the kind-hearted Ronin tries to rescue a trapped Tokagé lizard (ubiquitous, omnivorous reptiles that populate this anthropomorphic world, replacing scavenger species like rats, cats and dogs in the fictitious ecosystem) and earns the pitiless enmity of a local innkeeper.

Trapped atop a high, rickety watch platform with little food and snowstorms coming, “Spot” and Usagi’s problems are far from few but when the despicable bully gets bored and tries to chop down ‘The Tower’, fate smiles on the warrior and punishes the merchant…

With faithful Spot now sharing his wanderings, Usagi learns the power of ‘A Mother’s Love’ when he befriends an old woman and becomes embroiled in her quest to free a village of the ruthless depredations of her own beloved son, after which the rabbit again crosses paths – and swords – with affable yet ruthless Ino in ‘Return of the Blind Swordspig’ – a blood-spilling porcine outlaw whose incredible olfactory sense more than compensates for his useless eyes…

When the killer is saved from a bounty-hunter ambush by Spot, he forms an instant attachment to the lizard, but Ino’s obsessive hatred of Usagi can only lead to a blistering clash and heartbreak for one of the puissant sword masters…

The tone becomes supernaturally dark and bleak in ‘Blade of the Gods’ as the lonely Yojimbo meets a veritable devil in the sinister form of Jei, a roving unbeatable slaughterer who believes the Lords of Heaven have singled him out to kill the wicked on their behalf.

Of course only he decides who is or isn’t evil, and when he sets his soulless eyes on the Rabbit Ronin their incredible battle is ultimately decided by an incredible, baffling act of god…

Sakai’s stories were growing in depth and quality with every issue, and with ‘The Tea Cup’ the creator began to fully expand his milieu, making Japanese history and culture a compulsively authentic component of proceedings. Masked as an homage to Groo the Wanderer, this sparkling yarn saw Usagi and occasional foil money-mad bounty-hunter Gennosuké reunite to deliver a priceless and ultra-fragile porcelain cup to a Tea Master, with hired thugs from a rival potter trying to destroy it and them every inch of the way. As usual Gen was playing his own bewildering game of bluff and double bluff, and once again Usagi was left annoyed, exhausted and out of pocket…

The regularly scheduled wonderment concludes with the masterfully complex comedy thriller ‘The Shogun’s Gift’ as the rabbit again meets the beautiful bodyguard Tomoe Ame.

The devoted swordswoman is hunting for a ninja who stole the priceless Muramasa blade from the castle of her young Lord Noriyuki, new and still tenuous leader of the prestigious Geishu Clan. The sword is intended as a gift for the Shogun and its loss will cause an inexcusable and potentially fatal loss of face…

Suspecting the machinations of the insidious schemer Hikiji, Tomoe has begun frantically hunting the thief but fortune has already placed the culprit within the crafty clutches of the wily Usagi who solves the problem with hilarious guile and wit before tidying up the loose ends with his swords…

Also included here is the first of many wonderful cross-company alliances as ‘Turtle Soup and Rabbit Stew’ as Leonardo of Peter Laird and Kevin Eastman’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles fell through a wrinkle in space-time and found himself battling a horde of outlaw samurai before mistakenly getting into a duel of honour with a certain Rabbit Ronin…

Don’t fret folks: things ended inconclusively enough for at least two sequels (to be seen in later volumes…)

Usagi Yojimbo has changed publishers a few times but has been in continuous publication since 1987 with dozens of graphic novel collections and books to date. He has guest-starred in many other series (such as the aforementioned Turtles and its TV incarnation) and even almost made it into his own small-screen show – but there’s still time yet, and fashions can revive as quickly as they die out. With high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, a spin-off sci-fi series and lots of toys to promote popularity, Sakai and his creation have deservedly won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public.

Fast-paced yet lyrical, funny and scary, always moving, ferociously thrilling and simply bursting with veracity and verve, Usagi Yojimbo is a cartoon masterpiece of irresistible appeal that will delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened hater of “funny animal” stories and comics.

Why aren’t you a fan yet?
Text and illustrations © 1987, 1989 Stan Sakai. Usagi Yojimbo is ™ Stan Sakai. Book editions © 1989, 2005 Fantagraphics books. Leonardo and Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles are ™ Mirage Studios and used with permission. All rights reserved.

Usagi Yojimbo book 2: Samurai


By Stan Sakai (Fantagraphics)
ISBN: 978-0-93019-338-1

Usagi Yojimbo (which translates as “rabbit bodyguard”) first appeared as a background character in Stan Sakai’s anthropomorphic comedy The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, which launched in furry ‘n’ fuzzy folk anthology Albedo Anthropomorphics #1 (1984), subsequently appearing there on his own terms as well as in Critters, Amazing Heroes, Furrlough and the Munden’s Bar back-up in Grimjack.

Sakai was born in 1953 in Kyoto, Japan before the family emigrated to Hawaii in 1955. He attended the University of Hawaii, graduating with a BA in Fine Arts, and pursued further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design after landing in California.

His early forays into comics were as a letterer, most famously for the inimitable Groo the Wanderer, before his nimble pens and brushes, coupled with a love of Japanese history and legend and hearty interest in the filmic works of Akira Kurosawa and his peers, all combined to turn a proposed story about a human historical hero into one of the most enticing and impressive fantasy sagas of all time.

And it’s still more educational, informative and authentic than any dozen Samurai sagas you can name…

The deliriously peripatetic and expansive period epic is nominally set in a world of sentient animals (with a few unobtrusive human characters scattered about) and specifically references the Edo Period of Feudal Japan: the early 17th century of our reckoning.

It simultaneously samples classic contemporary cultural icons from sources as varied as Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi and even Godzilla whilst specifically recounting the life of Miyamoto Usagi, a Ronin or masterless wandering Samurai, eking out an honourable living as a Yojimbo or bodyguard-for-hire.

As such, his fate is to be drawn constantly into a plethora of incredible situations.

And yes, he’s a rabbit – a brave, sentimental, gentle, artistic, empathetic long-suffering, conscientious and heroic everyman bunny who just can’t turn down any request for help or ignore the slightest evidence of injustice…

This sublime second monochrome compilation (which originally appeared in Fantagraphics’ Usagi Yojimbo volume 1, #1-6, from 1989), begins with an effulgent Introduction from fellow legendary Groo-grifter Mark Evanier before the comedic adventure seamlessly transformed into epic drama, in an ambitious 9-chapter serial which solidly set the scene for decades to come.

‘Samurai!’ started with the Ronin again meeting money-mad bounty-hunter Gennosuké after a deadly duel of honour left a warrior named Gunichi a bloody corpse at the Yojimbo’s feet. Pressed by the newly-arrived and curious Gen, the moodily moved and uncharacteristically loquacious rabbit began sharing some of the events of his boyhood…

Once, Miyamoto Usagi was simply the son of a small-town magistrate, dispatched with his friend Kenichi to train at the prestigious DogoraFencingSchool in Sendai.

As the boys made their journey they encountered a lone, aged warrior beset by a pack of bullies from that self-same school, determined to prove their institution’s martial superiority. Despite all efforts to placate the hotheads old Katsuichi was eventually forced to reluctantly slay the toughs. The stunned witnesses began to bicker. Whilst Kenichi wanted to follow orders and go on to the – clearly honourless – DogoraSchool, little Usagi chose to seek out the old man and make him his Sensei…

The old man was finished with teaching but eventually saw something in the defiant, determined little rabbit and grudgingly accepted his exceptional young charge…

Usagi spent years learning the Way of Bushido from his stern, leonine master: not just superior technique and tactics, but also a philosophy of justice and restraint that would serve him all his life…

The revelations of Usagi’s boyhood training continue in short, revelatory vignettes as the elder Yojimbo and his surly companion continue towards shelter, highlighting the peculiar relationship of Sensei and Student. At the disciple’s first tournament the scurrilous, vengeful Dogora adherents plan to “accidentally” cripple the boy and thus humiliate his teacher, but don’t reckon on his innate ability.

After besting the entire FencingSchool contingent in duels with wooden swords – or Bokken – the boy at last faces his old friend Kenichi and triumphs.

His prize is a Wakizashi “Young Willow” and Katana “Willow Branch”. The short and long swords are the soul of a samurai, marking his graduation to martial maturity, but Usagi is blithely unaware of what his victory has cost his childhood companion…

Mere months later, the graduate warrior was challenged by a masterful, mysterious swordsman who was a bodyguard to the Great Lord Mifunė. Their duel was interrupted when a band of Dogora assassins attacked, determined to avenge their school’s humiliation by a single stick-wielding student. The cowards were no match for the steel of Usagi and the mighty Gunichi, and the victors parted as friends, with the bodyguard promising to recommend the rabbit for future service to his Lord.

Still assessing his options the young Samurai then encountered Kenichi once more. The disgraced youth had left the DogoraSchool and was trying to drink himself to death, but when he and Usagi heard that their home village was threatened by bandits the former friends reunited to save their loved ones…

By holding Usagi’s childhood love Mariko hostage, the brigands had successfully neutralised his magistrate father and were stripping the hamlet of all its provisions and meagre treasures when Usagi and Kenichi challenged them.

None of the villains survived the vengeance of the outraged villagers.

In the aftermath although Mariko clearly wanted Usagi to stay, she said nothing and the Samurai left to join Lord Mifunė’s service. Kenichi stayed…

The young warrior rose quickly as Mifunė’s vassal and was soon a trusted bodyguard, serving beside the indomitable Gunichi. It was a time of great unrest and war was brewing. In his third year of service the Lord’s castle was attacked by Neko Ninja assassins. Although the doughty warriors managed to save their master, his wife Kazumi and heir Tsuruichi were murdered. Realising ambitious rival Lord Hikiji was responsible, Mifunė declared war…

The struggle ended on the great Adachigahara plain when Mifunė’s general Todo switched sides and the Great Lord fell. At the crucial moment Gunichi also broke, fleeing to save his own skin and leaving the helpless Usagi to preserve the fallen Lord’s head – and Honour – from shameful desecration…

The story came full circle now, when after two years as a purposeless, masterless Ronin, the wandering Yojimbo met Gunichi again…

After that epic origin yarn, Sakai returned to short, pithy vignettes to cleanse the dramatic palate, beginning with a delicious traditional horror story. In ‘Kappa’ the wanderer encounters a deadly marsh troll at dusk and barely escapes with his life by offering the foul beast some wild cucumbers he has picked. Exhausted, the Ronin finds shelter with an old woman for the night, but when she hears of his adventure she becomes hysterical.

The cucumbers were planted so that her own son – returning that night – would have something to buy off the voracious Kappa…

Horrified by his inadvertent error, Usagi dashes back to the marsh to save the son, but even after overcoming the monster shockingly learns of one final sting in this tale…

Soaking a sore back in a hot spring the wanderer befriends a newly hatched tokagé lizard (ubiquitous, omnivorous reptiles that populate the anthropomorphic world, replacing scavenger species like rats, cats and dogs in the fictitious ecosystem), but is caught off guard and ambushed by bandits. Luckily the uniquely fire-breathing ‘Zylla’ comes to his assistance, prompting the wary warrior to wonder if the lizard might be a minor deity…

This second monochrome compilation concludes at the ‘Silk Fair’ where the wanderer saves a silk-worker from marauding bandits and stays to liberate all his oppressed fellows from a miserly merchant ruthlessly exploiting them…

The Lethal Lepus has changed publishers a few times but has been in continuous publication since 1987 – with over 29 graphic novel collections and books to date. He has also guest-starred in many other series (such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and its TV incarnation) and even almost made it into his own small-screen show but there’s still time yet and fashions can revive as quickly as they die out. There are high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, a spin-off sci-fi comics serial and lots of toys. Sakai and his creation have won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public.

Fast-paced yet lyrical, funny, thrilling and simply bursting with veracity and verve, Usagi Yojimbo is a monolithic magical saga of irresistible appeal that will delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened hater of “funny animal” stories.

Sheer comicbook poetry by a Comicbook Sensei…

Text and illustrations © 1987, 1989, 2005 Stan Sakai. Book editions © 1989, 2002 Fantagraphics books. All rights reserved.

Age of Reptiles Omnibus volume 1


By Ricardo Delgado (Dark Horse)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-683-1

There’s an irresistible, nigh-visceral appeal to dinosaurs. Most of us variously and haphazardly evolved hairless apes seem to be mesmerically drawn to all forms of education and entertainment featuring the monster lizards of our primordial past.

Designed as a purely visual experience, this hypnotically beguiling series of sequences from Ricardo Delgado offers one of the most honestly awesome brushes with prehistory ever imagined. Age of Reptiles opens a window onto distant eons of saurian dominance and, completely devoid of sound or text, provides a profound, pantomimic silent movie that focuses on a number of everyday experiences which simply have to be exactly how it was, way back then…

Crafted by one of the most respected concept and storyboard men in Hollywood, these dino-dramas offer – even in comicbooks – a unique reading experience that must be seen to be believed, which is why I’m forgoing my usual laborious forensic descriptive blather in favour of a more general appreciation…

The tales originally appeared as a sequence of miniseries between 1993 and 2010 before being subsequently collected as individual compilations. In 2011 this titanic tome, part of Dark Horse’s excellent and economical Omnibus line, gathered the material into one handy Brachiosaur-sized book to treasure forever. In this way older material stays in print as classy, full-colour digests (slightly smaller in proportion than regulation US comic-books but larger and far thicker than standard manga “tankobon” volumes, running about 400 pages per book).

Following the expansive praise of Animator, Director and Producer Genndy Tartarkovsky in his Foreword the original introductions to initial outing ‘Tribal Warfare’ (from Ray Harryhausen, Burne Hogarth and John Landis) precede a fantastic extended clash between a pack – or perhaps more properly clan – of Deinonychus and a particularly irate opportunistic and undeterrable Tyrannosaur.

The savage struggle, literally red in tooth and claw, takes both sides to the very edge of extinction…

As in all these tales, the astoundingly rendered and realised scenery and environment are as much leading characters in the drama as any meat and muscle protagonists and all the other opportunistic scavengers and hangers-on that prowl the peripheries of the war, ever eager to take momentary advantage of what seems more a mutual quest for vengeance than a simple battle for survival…

That theme is further explored in ‘The Hunt’ (with Disney chief Thomas Schumacher offering his observations in the introduction) wherein the eat-or-be-eaten travails of a mother Allosaurus end only after she dies defending her baby. The culprits are a determined and scarily organised pack of Ceratosaurs who then expend a lot of energy trying to consume the carnosaur’s kid amidst scenes of staggering geographical beauty and terrifying magnificence.

Their failure leads to the beast’s eventual return and a bloody evening of the score. Think of it as Bambi with really big teeth and no hankies required…

The theme of unrelenting and ruthless species rivalry and competition is downplayed or at least diverted for the final episode.

‘The Journey’, with introduction and appreciation by educator and illustrator Ann Field) concentrates on an epic migration across the barren surface of the world as millions of assorted saurians undertake a prodigious trek to more welcoming feeding and spawning grounds, dogged every step of the way by flying, swimming and remorselessly running creatures ever-eager for their next tasty meal…

Supplementing the feral beauty of these astonishing adventures is a full Cover Gallery from the assorted original miniseries and book compilations, Delgado’s fulsome and effulgent Essays on his influences (‘Ray Harryhausen and the Seventh Voyage to the Drive-In’, ‘Desi Arnaz and the Eighth Wonder of the World’, ‘Real Dinosaurs: the Art of Charles R. Knight’ and ‘Zen and Zdeněk Burian’) and a fabulous, copious and envy-invoking Sketchbook section with everything from quick motion studies to full colour preliminary pieces for the final artwork..

Although occasionally resorting to a judicious amount of creative anachronism and historical overlap, Delgado has an unquestioned love for his subject, sublime feel for spectacle and an unmatchable gift for pace and narrative progression which, coupled to a deft hand that imbues the vast range and cast of big lizards with instantly recognisable individual looks and characters, always means that the reader knows exactly who is doing what. There’s even room for some unexpectedly but most welcome rough-love humour in these brilliantly simple forthright, primal dramas…
© 1993, 1994, 1996, 1997, 2009, 2010, 2011 Ricardo Delgado. All rights reserved.

Asterix and the Roman Agent


By Goscinny & Uderzo, translated by Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge (Brockhampton/Knight Books)
ISBN: 0-340-20285-8

This is another one purely for driven nostalgics, consumed collectors and historical aficionados, highlighting the marvellous variety of formats and methods used to elevate and disseminate brilliant comics from the gutters of prejudice by turning them into proper books…

One of the most-read series in the world, the collected chronicles of Asterix the Gaul have been translated into more than 100 languages since his debut in 1959, with animated and live-action movies, TV series, assorted games, toys and even a theme park outside Paris (Parc Astérix, if you’re planning a trip…) spinning off from his hilarious exploits.

More than 325 million copies of 34 Asterix books have sold worldwide, making his joint creators France’s bestselling international authors. The diminutive, doughty hero was created as the transformative 1960s began by two of the art-form’s greatest masters, René Goscinny & Albert Uderzo, and even though their perfect partnership ended in 1977 the creative wonderment still continues – albeit at a slightly reduced rate of rapidity.

When Pilote launched in 1959 Asterix was a massive hit from the very start. At first Uderzo continued working with Charlier on Michel Tanguy, (Les Aventures de Tanguy et Laverdure), but soon after the first epic escapade was collected as Astérix le gaulois in 1961 it became clear that the series would demand most of his time – especially as the incredible Goscinny never seemed to require rest or run out of ideas (after the writer’s death the publication rate dropped from two books per year to one volume every three to five).

By 1967 the strip occupied all Uderzo’s attention. In 1974 the partners formed Idéfix Studios to fully exploit their inimitable creation and when Goscinny passed away three years later Uderzo had to be convinced to continue the adventures as writer and artist, producing a further ten volumes thereafter.

Like all great literary classics the premise works on two levels: for younger readers as an action-packed comedic romp of sneaky, bullying baddies always getting their just deserts and as a pun-filled, sly and witty satire for older, wiser heads, enhanced here by the brilliantly light touch of master translators Anthea Bell & Derek Hockridge who played no small part in making the indomitable Gaul so very palatable to the English tongue. (Me, I still admire a divinely delivered “Paff!” to the snoot as much as any painfully potent pun or dry cutting jibe…)

The feature debuted in Pilote #1 (29th October 1959, with the first page actually appearing a week earlier in a promotional issue #0, June 1st 1959). The stories were set on the tip of Uderzo’s beloved Brittany coast where a small village of redoubtable warriors and their families resisted every effort of the all-conquering Roman Empire to complete their conquest of Gaul. Alternately and alternatively the tales took the heroes anywhere in the Ancient World, circa 50BC, as the Gallic Gentlemen wandered the fantastic lands of the Empire and beyond…

Unable to defeat or even contain these Horatian hold-outs, the Empire resorted to a desperate policy of containment with the seaside hamlet perpetually hemmed in by the heavily fortified garrisons of Totorum, Aquarium, Laudanum and Compendium.

The Gauls don’t care: they daily defy the world’s greatest military machine simply by going about their everyday affairs, protected by the magic potion of resident druid Getafix and the shrewd wits of the rather diminutive dynamo and his simplistic, supercharged best friend…

Firmly established as a global brand and premium French export by the mid-1960s, their gradual rise to prominence this side of the pond was tentative but as unstoppable as Obelix’s pursuit of roast boar or Roman playmates…

The translated albums are available in a wealth of differing formats and earlier editions going all the way back to the first 1969 Brockhampton editions (still readily available from a variety of retail and internet vendors – or even your local charity shop and jumble sale).

Asterix and the Roman Agent premiered in 1970 in Pilote #531-552, simultaneously making the jump to a French album and English translated editions in 1972 – from when this delightful digest-sized (212 x 150mm), kid-friendly collectors’ item originates, and highlighted homeland insecurity as Caesar, under attack by the Roman Senate over the indomitable, unconquerable Gauls, deploys his greatest weapon: a double-edged sword named Tortuous Convolvulus, whose every word and gesture seems to stir ill-feeling and conflict in all who meet him.

Where Force of Arms has failed the wily despot hopes this living weapon of mass of dissension might forever fracture the Gauls’ unshakable comradeship and solidarity with a dose of Roman entente dis-cordiale

On the crossing, just two minutes with the conniving Convolvulus has a sworn brotherhood of pirates at each other’s throats, and even while discussing the plan with Aquarium’s commander Felix Platypus, the agent’s unique gift sows discord and violence, so when he finally enters the village it’s not long before the high-spirited and fractious Gauls are at war with each other…

The women are cattily sniping at each other, the traders are trading blows and even Asterix and Obelix are on the outs. But that’s not the worst of it: somehow the idea has gotten around that their sharp little champion has sold out to the Romans…

With discord rife, the Romans soon have the secret of the magic potion too – or do they? The cunningly ingenious Convolvulus hasn’t reckoned on two things: the sheer dimness of Imperial troops and the invaluable power of true friendship, leaving Asterix and Obelix a way to overcome their differences, turn the tables and once more save the day.

At last, the agent provocateur is forced to realise that sometimes one can be too smart for one’s own good…

Brittle, barbed and devilishly sharp, this yarn was reputedly based on lingering ill-feeling following an internal power-struggle at Pilote which almost cost editor Goscinny his job. The original title for the tale was La Zizanie – “The Ill-feeling” or “The Dissension”. Seen through the lens of forty years of distance, however, all that can be seen now is stinging, clever, witty observational comedy and magnificently engaging adventure, and surely that’s what matters most?

Asterix sagas are always stuffed with captivating historical titbits, soupcons of healthy cynicism, singularly surreal situations and amazingly addictive action, illustrated in a magically enticing manner. These are perfect comics that everyone should read over and over again.

Surely you don’t disagree?
Text © 1970 Dargaud Editeur. English language text Text © Hodder & Stoughton, Ltd.

Hellraisers – a Graphic Biography


By Robert Sellers & JAKe (SelfMadeHero)
ISBN: 978-1-906838-36-2

I’m a sucker for comics biographies, and when I saw this superbly engaging and imaginative one on the shelves of my local library I just couldn’t resist a peek…

Robert Sellers is a former stand-up comedian and current film journalist with prose biographies of Sting, Tom Cruise, Sean Connery and the Monty Python phenomenon to his name, as well a regular contributor to periodicals and magazines such as The Independent, Empire, Total Film, SFX and Cinema Retro. He has also been seen on TV.

In 2009 he published a magnificent history of brilliance and excess in his “Life and Inebriated Times of Burton, Harris, O’Toole and Reed” in 2011 in collaboration with prestigious illustrator, designer and animator JAKe (How to Speak Wookiee, cartoon series Geekboy, Mighty Book of Boosh, The Prodigy’s Fat of the Land and so much more, both singly and with the studio Detonator which he co-founded). The artist keeps himself to himself and lets his superb artistry do all the talking.

Self-adapted from his prose history of the iconic barnstorming British film and theatre legends Richard Burton, Richard Harris, Oliver Reed and Peter O’Toole, Sellers here transformed Hellraisers into a pictorial feast, featuring the unique lives of a quartet of new wave, working class thespian heroes – more famed for boozing and brawling than acting – into a masterful parable and celebration of the vital, vibrant creative force of rebellion, interpreted with savage, witty style in ferociously addictive and expressive monochrome cartoon and caricature by the enigmatic artist.

Working on the principle that a Hellraiser is “a person who causes trouble by violent, drunken or outrageous behaviour” and cloaked in the guise of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, the salutary fable opens as another drunken reprobate is thrown out of another pub. It’s Christmas Eve at the Rose & Crown of Broken Dreams and Martin should be home with his wife and son.

After again disgracing himself the pathetic drunk staggers back, shaking with DT’s and unexpunged rage to his loving but scared family, only to pass out. He is awoken by his hellraising father who drank and smoked himself to death seven years ago…

Told that he has one last chance to save himself, Martin is warned that he will be visited by four spirits (no, not that sort) who will regale him with the stories of their lives and fates and failures and triumphs …

What follows is a beguiling journey of bitter self-discovery as Burton, Harris, Reed and O’Toole (still alive but part of the visitation of “spooky buggers” since it’s just a matter of time, my dear boy) recount their own sodden histories, experiences and considerations in an attempt to turn the neophyte around.

They’re certainly not that repentant, however, and even proud of the excesses and sheer exuberant manly mythology they’ve made of their lives…

Managing the masterful magic trick of perfectly capturing the sheer charismatic force and personality of these giants of their craft and willing accomplices in their own downfalls, this superb saga even ends on an upbeat note, but only after cataloguing the incredible achievements, starry careers, broken relationships, impossibly impressive and frequently hilarious exploits of debauchery, intoxication and affray perpetrated singly and in unison by the departed, unquiet soused souls…

Filled with the legendary exploits and barroom legends of four astoundingly gifted men who couldn’t stop breaking rules and hearts (especially their own), blessed or cursed with infinitely unquenchable thirsts for the hard stuff and appetites for self-destruction, this intoxicating and so very tasty tome venerates the myths these unforgettable icons promulgated and built around themselves, but never descends into pious recrimination or laudatory gratification.

It’s just how they were…

Sellers has the gift of forensic language and perfectly reproduces the voices and idiom of each star even as JAKe perfectly blends shocking historical reportage with evocative surreal metafiction in this wonderful example of the power of sequential narrative.

Clever, witty and unmissable.
© 2010 Robert Sellers and JAKe. All rights reserved.

Usagi Yojimbo book 1: (The Ronin)


By Stan Sakai (Fantagraphics)
ISBN: 978-1-59582-362-5     978-0-93019-335-5 (2005 edition)

One of the very best and most adaptable survivors of the 1980s black and white comicbook explosion/implosion is a truly bizarre and wonderful synthesis of historical Japanese samurai fiction and anthropomorphic animal adventure – a perfect example of the versatility and strengths of a creator-owned character.

Usagi Yojimbo (which translates as “rabbit bodyguard”) first appeared as a background character in multi-talented creator Stan Sakai’s anthropomorphic peripatetic comedy feature The Adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, which launched in furry ‘n’ fuzzy folk anthology Albedo Anthropomorphics #1 (1984), subsequently appearing there on his own terms as well as in Critters, Amazing Heroes, Furrlough and the Munden’s Bar back-up in Grimjack.

Sakaiwas born in 1953 inKyoto,Japanbefore the family emigrated toHawaiiin 1955. He attended the University of Hawaii, graduating with a BA in Fine Arts, and pursued further studies at Pasadena’s Art Center College of Design after moving to California.

His first comics work was as a letterer, most famously for the incredible Groo the Wanderer, before his nimble pens and brushes, coupled with a love of Japanese history and legend and hearty interest in the filmic works of Akira Kurosawa and his peers, combined to turn a proposed story about a historical human hero into one of the most enticing and impressive – and astonishingly authentic – fantasy sagas of all time.

The deliciously rambling and expansive period fantasy series is nominally set in a world of sentient animals (with a few unobtrusive human characters scattered about) and specifically references the Edo Period of Feudal Japan or the beginning of the 17th century, simultaneously sampling some classic contemporary cultural icons from sources as varied as Lone Wolf and Cub, Zatoichi and even Godzilla. The epic saga specifically recounts the life of Miyamoto Usagi, a Ronin or masterless, wandering Samurai, making an honourable living as a Yojimbo or bodyguard for hire. As such, his fate is to be drawn constantly into a plethora of incredible situations.

And yes, he’s a rabbit – a brave, sentimental, gentle, artistic, long-suffering, conscientious and heroic bunny who just can’t turn down any request for help or ignore the slightest evidence of injustice…

The Lepine Legend appeared in Albedo #2-4, The Doomsday Squad #3 and seven issues of Critters (1, 3, 6-7, 10-11 and 14) before leaping into his own long-running series and this initial collection gathers those key tales and material from the Usagi Yojimbo Summer Special, from 1984-1986.

The Sublime Swordsbun has changed publishers a few times but has been in continuous publication since 1987 – with over 29 graphic novel collections and books to date. He has also guest-starred in numerous other series, such as Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and its TV incarnation – he even almost made it into his own small-screen show but there’s still time yet and fashions can revive as quickly as they die out…

There are high-end collectibles, art prints, computer games and RPGs, a spin-off sci-fi comics serial and lots of toys.

Sakai and his creation have won numerous awards both within the Comics community and amongst the greater reading public, and in 2009 current publisher Dark Horse Comics commissioned an all-new, fully painted anniversary tale which allowed the creator to hone his considerable skills with watercolours.

This debut monochrome compilation opens with ‘The Goblin of Adachigahara’ from 1984 as a weary warrior trudges through the snow and accepts hospitality from a lonely old woman. In return for food and a night’s shelter he tells her of his history and how he lost his master at the battle waged near this hovel many years ago.

Warring against usurper Lord Hikiji, the wanderer’s noble clan chief was betrayed by trusted General Toda and all the rabbit could do was preserve the falling leader’s body from further shame and desecration. Since that time he has been a masterless itinerant living out his tragic Karma…

Now his journey has brought him back to the region of his greatest shame… and although he doesn’t know it, to the shack of foul Toda’s wife and the ghastly debased creature she still loves…

That incredible clash of hero against horror led to ‘Lone Rabbit and Child!’ which set up major plot threads for the future as the Ronin was hired by beautiful swordswoman Tomoe Ame to protect her Lord Noriyuki. The callow youth had been travelling to the capital to ratify his role as leader of the prestigious Geishu Clan following the death of his father, but the party had been repeatedly attacked by ninjas working for the infamous Hikiji – now risen high in the Emperor’s hierarchy.

The insidious schemer was determined to foil the investiture and appropriate the Geishu properties for himself, but had not reckoned on fate and the prowess of the lethally adept Usagi…

In the sequel, as Tomoe recovered from wounds incurred in the defence of her young master and Noriyuki slowly adapted to the subtly perilous life as Lord of a powerful clan, Hikiji’s scapegoat committed suicide and left a damning testament to the villain’s perfidy. But even though a fruitless pursuit of ‘The Confession’ led the Rabbit Ronin to danger and momentary joy it provided no lasting peace or justice…

‘Bounty Hunter’ added outrageous comedy to the all-action mix when conniving thief-taker Gennosuké bamboozled the big hearted bunny into joining in a potentially profitable hunt for a band of outlaw brothers after which Usagi found himself on the wrong side of the law when his noble efforts to save a caravan from bandits resulted in his being rewarded with a stolen steed and branded a ‘Horse Thief’.

‘Village of Fear’ leapt straight into terror territory when the wandering samurai stumbled into a township trapped by a were-beast who treated the peasants as its rapidly-dwindling larder…

Moments of peace and contemplation were few in the Yojimbo’s life but, even when a drunken horde interrupted ‘A Quiet Meal’, the rabbit’s patience took a lot of rousing. Some folks however, really don’t know when to stop boozing and leave well enough alone…

‘Blind Swordspig’ is a masterful comedic parody that also sets up future conflicts as the landless lepus meets a formidable companion on the road whose incredible olfactory sense more than compensates for his useless eyes. How tragic then that the affable Ino is also a ruthless, blood-spilling outlaw who won’t let comradeship affect his hunger for freedom or carnage…

A hint of past tragedies informs ‘Homecoming!’ parts 1 and 2, as the penniless roving, Ronin accidentally returns to the village of his birth and finds his first love wedded to his oldest rival. Moreover when invading ninjas starving in the deepest of winters threaten the village, they take as hostage the son who should have been Usagi’s…

This poignant and heartbreaking glimpse into the past is gloriously offset by the concluding inclusion as ‘Bounty Hunter II’ sees the uproarious return of the bombastic Gennosuké who is again determined to enlist the lethally skilled and formidable swordsbun in a dangerously profitable get-rich-quick scheme involving literally hordes of hostile criminals…

Fast-paced yet lyrical, funny, thrilling and simply bursting with veracity and verve, Usagi Yojimbo is a magical saga of irresistible appeal that will delight devotees and make converts of the most hardened hater of “funny animal” stories.

Sheer comicbook poetry by a True Master…
Text and illustrations © 1987, 2005 Stan Sakai. Book editions © 1987, 2005 Fantagraphics books. All rights reserved.

Monkeywanger – the Crimes of Oscar Dirlewanger (Special Edition)


By Peeler Watt Ph.D., illustrated by MIND, Jahn Fermindoza & Red Ink studios
ISBN: 978-1-47928-230-2

As any long-time reader will attest, I’m a huge advocate of doing it yourself when it comes to making comics and this collection – gathering the first three books of an epic historical exposé of one of humanity’s greatest monsters – shows just why, as it spectacularly blends harsh fact with high drama to reveal a mere smattering of the atrocities perpetrated by macabre madman Oskar Paul Dirlewanger, one of the most infamous and deviant of villains to find purpose, outlet and sanction under the Nazis…

This ambitiously oversized (280x216mm) mostly blood-red-and-monochrome horror story by historian Peeler Watt (not his real name) and animator/illustrator Mike Ian Noble Dobson (augmented and supplemented by Jahn Fermindoza and Filipino studio Red Ink Animation: Van Winkle Amaranto, Silvan Amante, Mikaela and Sharon Amaranto, Clewin Mars & Flor Villa) introduces fictionalised antagonist Untersturmfuhrer Otto Voge (an amalgam of actual people caught up in Dirlewanger’s sphere of unholy influence), a dedicated, passionate patriotic German cop with a secret who volunteered for active duty with the SS and lived to regret it…

The tale begins, after a brief and brutal comic strip précis of the political, social and religious background, with Voge arriving in the Nazi controlled Jewish ghetto of Lublin in August 1941 and seeing first-hand the atrocities perpetrated by Penal Battalion Oranieburg – an SS division personally founded by Dirlewanger from criminal scum too debased for the regular army.

Due to a clerical error Voge was assigned to the appalling dreg unit rather than a decent and proper army division on active service and soon realises that the soldiers have their commanding officer’s full approval to loot, brutalise and torture the subjugated Poles – Jewish or otherwise.

The deviant Captain is nonetheless very impressed with his new subordinate’s obvious martial prowess. After savage skirmishes in the devastated city the Captain puts Voge forward for an Iron Cross, impressing the young leutnant with his obvious craving for real combat on the Russian Front rather than glorified guard duty in the ghetto.

Dirlewanger is an odd character, a spit-and-polish martinet with terrifying self-composure: ruthlessly cruel, fiercely passionate in his prejudices but utterly devoted to the pet monkey “Moses” which is never far from his side…

Voge’s fellow officers are little better than the conscripted men, but they would all be horrified if they knew their comrade’s dark secret: Voge is a Soviet sleeper agent who has been reporting to his Communist paymasters since his days as a peace-time policeman…

When Dirlewanger sends his men on another raid to rob and torment the subjugated Jews, Voge tries to curb their worst excesses but, as partisan’s attack the soldiers, the Leutnant is again forced to display his talent for combat, further cementing his commander’s favourable impressions. As Jewish women and children are rounded up Voge pushes his luck and manages to save one mother and her mentally deficient child from the fate of the others…

As the days pass Voge learns more about his outcast fellows and their reprehensible chief. Dirlewanger was a decorated hero in WWI and the Spanish Civil War, but also a psychopathic killer, and child-molester (according to some historians he was also a sadist and necrophiliac and given the dubious distinction of being “the most evil man in the SS”) …but certainly no fool.

Voge finds it increasingly impossible to stay uninvolved and concentrate on either his ostensible duties or covert mission and soon is deeply embroiled in the criminal machinations of the Battalion whilst simultaneously secretly working with Jewish Partisans. His only concern is to save innocent civilians from his debauched and murderous German comrades, but finds that they are equally endangered by their own ruthlessly driven and fanatical Resistance fighters and Voge’s increasingly impatient Russian spymasters…

The day is swiftly approaching when the mounting, conflicting pressures will surely cause a fatal misstep, but when Dirlewanger gets word from a Jewish informant of a Catholic convent hiding Hebrew girls that should be spicing up the Nazi’s private brothel,  it soon becomes clear that Voge’s own morality might be his actual undoing.

Painfully aware that his now suspicious commander was playing with him, Voge moves too late to save the girls and, after another ferocious clash between partisans and battalion soldiers, realises a final confrontation is now unavoidable…

Dark, brooding, painfully oppressive and grimly adult in nature, Monkeywanger is a powerful story of war, obsession and duty that will certainly impress fans of war stories, history buffs and devotees of fine storytelling, and there’s even the prospect of more to come …

No Trademark invoked so I’m assuming © 2012 Peeler Watt. All rights reserved.
For more information and to obtain your own copy check out http://www.monkeywanger.com