Tracey Reviews: “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles/Usagi Yojimbo” Hardcover Comic [SPOILER FREE]
Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles / Usagi Yojimbo is a 72-page hardcover book celebrating the reuniting of Kevin Eastman’s Ninja Turtles and Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo in comic format after more than two decades of being apart on the page. Though I never read either of the iconic characters’ comics as a child, I have fond memories of the samurai bunny appearing in the original TMNT television cartoon, and he always struck me as such a fun character. Recently I was gifted this book by our good friend Derek, The Border Geek, which marks the first time I’ve enjoyed Eastman and Sakai’s creations together in comic book form.
There are a few different sections to the book, with the main one being an all-new story by Sakai featuring the Turtles joining Usagi in an adventure to save Japan from destruction. This short one-shot, called “Namazu” or “The Big Fish Story”, is based on an ancient Japanese story about a giant catfish called Namazu who causes earthquakes strong enough to destroy the island. The thunder-god trapped the creature under a giant rock, which pins him down and stops him from being able to flail around and cause these earthquakes. In the comic, a piece of that ancient rock has broken off, and Splinter tasks Usagi and the Turtles to help him return it to it’s place in the Kashima Shrine before Namazu can gain enough power to begin thrashing and destroy the island of Japan. Along the way the group meets resistance against one of Usagi’s nemeses, Jei – The Blade of the Gods – along with a huge group of brigands that Jei has gathered to his cause, and a battle ensues.
Having previously only experienced Usagi as a visitor in the TMNT cartoon universe, the first thing I have to comment on is Sakai’s art style, which is much different from what I was expecting, though not in a bad way. Without prior knowledge I had expected something akin to Eastman’s style in the original TMNT comics, but while some similarities can be seen in the design of the Turtles themselves, Sakai’s art style has a bit more of a cartoony tone to it. The world he created for Usagi is of an Ido-era Japan inhabited by sentient animals, and the art reminds me irresistibly of some of the older animal-based anime I saw as a child. In particular some of the character’s faces bring “Samurai Pizza Cats” to mind, although that show had a cleaner and brighter style, whereas Sakai’s comic has more of a sketch-and-shade style with bubblier bodies as opposed to lots of straight lines and strict edge-work. You can tell that Sakai draws the way he sees it in his head, and rather than trying to be very deliberate with things like body proportions, he has fun with funny faces and wacky poses when possible. It might take a little bit of getting used to if you’re a fan of a more serious style of comics, but if you’re a fan of older anime and manga, you’ll feel right at home among Sakai’s art.
The story line itself is cute and fun, with the titular characters fighting when they first meet before teaming up to tackle the task at hand. As I said, it’s based on a Japanese folk tale, and it’s fun to see how Sakai explains and animates the tale as it is conveyed to the Turtles. All in all the story is a simple one, short and straight-forward, a standard one-shot comic. There isn’t a huge amount to talk about here as the entire comic is only 38 pages, but it’s well-done and a lovely little tribute back to the days when Usagi and the Turtles fought side-by-side. Additionally, at the end of this one-shot is a page of text explaining the details of the folk tale on which the story line was based.
The remainder of the book is a collection of fun extras for fans of both franchises. This section begins with some character design sketches of the Turtles drawn by Sakai in preparation for the comic, and moves into a reprinting of the original crossover between Usagi and the Turtles, a short, 6-page one-shot titled, “Turtle Soup and Rabbit Stew”. This black-and-white story first appeared in “Turtle Soup #1” in 1987, and features Leonardo being thrown into Usagi’s world for no particular reason, whereupon they both fight a group of brigands before turning on each other, at which point Leo gets unceremoniously popped back into his own world. It is the most basic, logic-free style of crossover with no explanation for the encounter what-so-ever, but at the time that was likely the point, and it’s a fun, silly little comic that was surely a thing of beauty for Usagi and TMNT fans back in the late 80’s.
The book then moves on into several photocopied pages of Sakai’s story outline notes for the “Big Fish” comic, and then into several pages of “thumbnail layouts”, which are very rough storyboard-style sketches showing the plan for the layout of the comic panels. Finally we are treated to several pages of alternate covers for the “Big Fish” comic, including several different drawings by Sakai, but also alternate covers by Sergio Aragones and David Petersen, as well as three special pieces of artwork created by both Kevin Eastman and Stan Sakai. All are beautiful pieces that would look gorgeous in a frame on a collector’s wall (although obviously I won’t be tearing them out of the book any time soon).
As a whole, the book is a beautiful item for fans of Usagi Yojimbo and TMNT alike, with some excellent extras through in behind the main comic. If you’re a fan of Stan Sakai in particular, this is a must-have, and if you’re a Usagi collector this gorgeous hardcover book would look beautiful posed on a shelf next to toys, art prints, or other beloved items relating to the samurai bunny.