My first exposure to Usagi Yojimbo was through the medium of television, via the estimable rabbit’s appearances on the third season of the original Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles television show, at the (fuzzy) tail end of 1989. In truth, I was already moving past active engagement with the Turtles at that point. Put simply, I was an awkward age. Too young to have encountered the original Eastman & Laird comics, as those weren’t to be found at the local 7/11. And I was too old to really have a lot of use for the cartoon adaptations of the Archie series that was subsequently available - I bought the first few, but grew tired of television retreads. Ironically, the last issue of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Adventures I bought (#4) was the last issue of TV adaptations; they started up with original stories literally the very next month. But alas, the cookie, she had crumbled. The Turtles were for little kids. I was already on to Marvel.
Of course, I have since gone back and read the original run of Turtles comics, reprinted an ample number of times since 1984. Really, if you never have, you should, even if you don’t think you’ll get anything out of the exercise. Quite a striking run of books! Not for no reason was the franchise so popular out of the gate. I’ve long thought it funny that I was born at just the right moment to experience the Turtles as a pop phenomenon while somehow completely missing the point of the comics. But I wasn’t the only one. By the early '90s, Marvel was exploiting this glitch to the hilt: an ad for the second series of X-Men trading cards in 1992 featured the immortal tag line “It’s a good bet the kid’s favorite mutants ain’t turtles,” superimposed over a photograph of a real cool dude wearing sunglasses indoors. The world had come full circle - what had begun in the mid '80s as an edgy spoof of Frank Miller and Chris Claremont had, by the early '90s, become big and soft enough to be punctured by the same machine Frank Miller and Chris Claremont had built.
But that original explosion was still really big. Big enough we’re still feeling the aftershocks today. The success of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, a black & white comic book by two complete unknowns publishing out of their house, started a gold rush in early 1984. Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo came along about half a year later, premiering in the second issue of Albedo Anthropomorphics, from Steve Gallacci’s outfit Thoughts & Images. Now, a lot of people sold a lot of comics on the backs of the Turtles, but the fact is that what could very well have been a short-lived fad turned out to have very long legs indeed. Eastman & Laird didn’t jumpstart a fad so much as create an entire market. For instance, that seeming nadir of photocopy parody comics, Adolescent Radioactive Black Belt Hamsters, didn’t drop until early 1986, and the first issue of that still went to a second printing. Years after the original TMNT run began, there was clearly a market hungry for even the most transparent spoof material. Fantagraphics started the influential furry anthology Critters later that same year, edited by Kim Thompson. It ran early Usagi strips, and survived 50 issues. People love these freakish manimals, who knew?
So here we are, almost 40 years later. Four decades! The black & white explosion of the mid '80s may have been an early speculator bubble, a trial run of some of the worst business practices of the early '90s - obvious in hindsight. But it was also, do not doubt, a genuinely popular artistic movement that generated two evergreen franchises. Very different franchises, mind. The number of Turtles comics created by Kevin Eastman & Peter Laird together is infinitesimal relative to the number of Turtles comics in existence, although both have done more separately, and have even worked together again in recent years. Contrariwise, there aren’t really any Usagi stories to speak of not by Sakai. The former is one of the great superhero properties of the 20th century, famous the world over, the latter an enduring artistic success and the singular achievement of one of the medium’s finest craftsmen. And, not for nothing, both franchises were owned and defined by their creators from Day 1. Even if the Turtles are no longer the property of Eastman & Laird, they sold on generous terms and retain some degree of involvement to this day, primarily in the comics. (Technically speaking, I believe Eastman sold his stake to Laird much earlier, but that’s neither here nor there. They both did very well by the Turtles, on their own terms, to a degree that could never have been imagined by the likes of Siegel, Shuster, Finger or Kirby. That’s the takeaway.)
Because of these affinities, the two most prominent survivors of the black & white boom have always found time for each other. Usagi has appeared on TV alongside the Turtles, many times, not just on the original cartoon series but across later incarnations as well. Their most recent team-up in the comics was 2017, in a one-shot also by Sakai, but over the last four decades there's been enough to fill a medium-sized trade paperback. The latest such team-up is also the longest and most substantial: the recently-completed five-issue series WhereWhen by Sakai, with colors by Hi-Fi Design, published by IDW "in partnership with" Dogū Publishing, of which Sakai is creative chairman, and Paramount Consumer Products, which is the licensing division of the TMNT corporate owner. IDW has been the Turtles’ home in comics since 2011, but it also had the license to publish Usagi between 2019 and 2022, at which point the property returned to Dark Horse, where Dogū is now a publishing imprint. (Bad timing for IDW, which also lost the G.I. Joe and Transformers licenses around the the same time, but these things happen. Dark Horse was supposed to go out of business when they lost the Star Wars license to Marvel after the Disney purchase, but now they’re back publishing Star Wars comics. Funny old world!)
Now, in the spirit of full disclosure, I’m not exactly an expert on latter day Usagi. I’ve read the early stuff, sure. I have that sweet slipcase Fantagraphics put out well over a decade ago of the strip’s first decade or so. But at this point, that material is a small fraction of the total page count. Usagi Yojimbo, taken as a whole, is an intimidating corpus, multiple hundreds of issues long. A massive pile of comics perfect for striking fear in the heart of the conscientious reader. Thankfully, you don’t really need to know all that much to pick up WhereWhen. Similarly, Turtles comics in 2023 has become a vast jungle. They sure do publish a lot of them. People seem to like the current continuity, impenetrable as it may seem from the outside looking in. It’s nevertheless been going strong since 2011 - strong enough they’ve spun off other books, returned to previous continuities, even done prestige format projects like 2020-22’s well-received The Last Ronin.
The Turtles we meet here are, however, as close to the franchise mean as possible, with little extraneous baggage: if you know the basics, four crime fighting mutant turtle brothers from New York, you’re more or less up to speed. In our present day, they’re pursuing a villain named Dr. WhereWhen, an evil robot from the future trying to conquer the past by building evil robots. (Apparently he’s a new villain for this story, but seems like he could easily have been around forever. Nice, simple high concept: “evil robot from the future.” Can’t go wrong with that.) The Turtles break up his outfit in the present, just in time to see him escape in a time machine. They follow suit and materialize in late medieval Japan, or rather, a version of it populated by anthropomorphic animals. Of course, Dr. WhereWhen got there two decades earlier, and he’s used his time wisely, constructing an army of robot ninjas for the purpose of taking over a world that has no idea what a robot even is.
Thankfully, Dr. WhereWhen just happens to have traveled to the one place and time in history where the Turtles have friends. Usagi is a powerful general in the army of the shogun under Lord Noriyuki, marching on the mutinous Lord Hikiji (a handy editorial note informs us this story takes place during the "Senso" storyline, if that’s significant to you). When the division stops for a day’s rest, Usagi is approached by villagers asking for help in ridding the area of a dangerous kappa rampaging up and down the riverfront. Although they can ill afford to devote the time to side adventures, Noriyuki nevertheless grants leave for Usagi and a small band to go after the monster. They are able to find and dispatch this initial kappa with ease, but he’s not the only dangerous turtle Usagi finds skulking around. After a few skirmishes, it is revealed that WhereWhen is himself making a play for the shogunate, at which time Usagi and the Turtles set out in earnest to hunt the good doctor.
This series works for the simple reason that Stan Sakai knows quite well how to put together a good comic book. There’s a refreshing solidity here: sturdy storytelling that feels itself very much of another time and place. The first issue of the series features a long horizontal panel with all of Usagi’s cast assembled around a table, explaining the plot to each other while also very conveniently addressing one another by name. Positively Shooteresque, in a good way. The industry has moved a long way from a reflexive adherence to that kind of pro forma accessibility, but no degree of naturalistic narrative can compensate for the reader simply not knowing who is talking or what they’re trying to do. Usagi Yojimbo has been published more or less continuously since the Reagan administration, and yet Sakai is still putting in the work to bring us up to speed. Acknowledging that a Turtles crossover is going to bring in readers—such as myself—who might need their hands held in regards to the continuity of a long-standing adventure serial, is just good business, really.
If any criticism can be held against Sakai at this late date, it's the observation that Usagi at its best is a purposefully dry affair. The sturdiness can certainly read as stiff and fusty for those with less investment in the project. Consistency isn’t merely a tertiary virtue for Usagi, it’s practically the defining trait - but that consistency, stacked high enough, can all too easily become an intimidating barrier to new readers. Just ask Erik Larsen. Add in the mysteries of a large backlist handled by multiple publishers and available in multiple formats, and a crossover such as this seems all the more precious an opportunity to bring in new and lapsed readers. But it works. If you’re behind on both or either franchises, WhereWhen makes for a perfectly welcoming doorway.
There’s serious history between these two sets of characters that makes such a crossover seem not merely obvious, but significant. The last survivors of a long-passed historical moment in comic book publishing, together again for a proper adventure together. Sakai clearly has great affection for the Turtles. He writes them well and with insight: the Turtles were raised in, essentially, a Japanese household, by someone who held to an idealized version of the nation’s history. Of course they would find a trip to Usagi’s time quite gratifying, given their upbringing left them with one foot, so to speak, planted firmly in an archaic Japan.
The vagaries of the contemporary comic book industry being what they are, those who purchased the series off the stands were given the opportunity to choose from a number of different covers. This reader chose to purchase the Kevin Eastman variants for the whole series. These days I pick up just about anything new by Eastman, and even just these cover pieces retain serious charm. His deep hatching and strong sense of artful composition gives his later work even more the character of woodcuts, a tendency present in his art since the very beginning. He’s always known how to make a flat image pop off the page. A gratifying package, all things considered: a new Usagi story by Sakai and five striking new pieces of Turtles art by Eastman. He draws a mean bunny rabbit, too. Wouldn’t mind seeing more interior work from him, since we’re here.