Deadshirt is Reading: Usagi Yojimbo and Deathstroke!

Deadshirt is Reading… is a weekly feature in which Deadshirt’s staff, contributing writers, and friends-of-the-site offer their thoughts on Big Two cape titles, creator-owned books, webcomics and more.


Robby Karol is reading…

Usagi Yojimbo #163

Written and Illustrated by Stan Sakai
Dark Horse Comics

“I apologize for using you like this, Merchant Kubo.”

Stan Sakai’s work on Usagi Yojimbo over the course of 33 years is truly staggering. He’s been writing and drawing the titular character for my entire life and still turns in amazing work on a regular basis. And having recently started rereading his early Usagi work, I can confirm that the old material not only holds up, but deepens with life experience.

So it’s worth pointing out, if you haven’t followed Usagi Yojimbo recently, this is an excellent jumping on-point and the start of a new three-part story. Usagi, the wandering masterless samurai,  is working with Police Inspector Ishida to track down a local thief named Nezumi who robs from the rich and gives some to the poor. Nezumi manages to escape, but his hiding spot makes him a witness to a killing committed by a local crime lord, and the crime lord decides to pin the murder on Nezumi. Meanwhile, there are undercurrents that some of the local government have their own scheme cooking, which puts Usagi, Ishida and Nezumi in danger as well.

Sakai is a master storyteller. He not only covers a lot of ground, establishing the setting, the main characters, introducing new antagonists, and sketching the criminal underworld of a small town in the course of a single issue, while still building in subtle character beats. I admire Sakai’s ability to establish character in a few subtle notes. Nezumi sincerely believes that he is helping the poor with his robberies, but we also see that one of his frequent victims, a formerly-rich merchant, gets killed by criminals because he’s now too poor to pay protection money. Usagi, as he usually does, offers to help Nezumi beat the murder charge, overlooking, as Nezumi points out, that thievery also carries a death sentence, so he’s in trouble either way.

Best of all, Sakai still turns in the best action sequences in Western comics. This issue includes a thrilling opening, as Nezumi tries to get away from a heist while pursued by police, townspeople and Usagi. There’s an excellent contrast in fighting styles between Nezumi, Usagi and the police, as well as humor in Nezumi’s methods of using his ill-gotten gains to create distractions.

We are so lucky in this world to have Stan Sakai putting out issue after issue of a great comic. Let’s not take this for granted.

Max Robinson is reading…

Deathstroke #25

Written by Priest
Art by Carlo Pagulayan
Inks by Norm Rapmund, Trevor Scott, and Jason Paz
Color by Jeromy Cox
DC Comics

“Screw you, caveman.”

This special 40-page issue of Priest’s ongoing stab at top tier baddie Deathstroke the Terminator finds him finally answering to the Society of Super-Villains, a bad guy cabal/union that he’s spent the better part of the series blowing off. They put Slade on trial to answer for some membership infractions racked up over the last two dozen issues and stumble into a kind of state-of-the-supervillain philosophical conversation as they look over their prisoner’s pre-Deathstroke memories.

A crucial part of why Priest’s particular take on Deathstroke has been so rewarding is his willingness to treat the adventures of an badass super-assassin with healing powers and a talking supersuit with all the psuedo-seriousness it deserves. As a book, it’s an excellent character study of one of DC’s most enduring adversaries but it’s still willing to give a reader bits like The Riddler playing a Johnnie Cochran-esque defense attorney or the Reverse Flash citing the works of Kant in a Serious Debate about the nature of evil. The 70-year patchwork quilt of crazy comics continuity works in the book’s favor and Priest is more than willing to embrace the fact that, say, Killer Frost is currently moonlighting as a Justice Leaguer for the sake of the story he’s telling. There isn’t really another comic out right now that threads the needle of dumb/smart so intentionally but it still plays well with the rest of the Rebirth sandbox.

Issue artist Carlo Pagulayan avails himself well in an issue that largely consists of super-powered nutjobs debating human nature at a big conference table but his manic, impish interpretation of The Riddler is a definite highpoint. While every other character is largely static, his Edward Nygma bobs and weaves out of the corner of panel borders and pops up in backgrounds. It’s a cool effect to signify that what we’re viewing is all essentially in Deathstroke’s head. The (simulated) slaughter of the Society by Deathstroke is the real centerpiece of the issue and, if you have the stomach for Johnsian slaughter, it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Priest, with the help of a number of artistic collaborators, is putting together the first book since the Marv Wolfman-written, Steve Erwin-drawn 90’s solo title to exploit how unusual and contradictory Deathstroke is. Although Giant Brain Genius Hector Hammond dismisses Deathstroke’s recent turn to heroism as a passing phase, this particular chapter in the character’s history is an important and intriguing one.

Thanks for reading about what we’re reading! We’ll be back next week with a slew of suggestions from across the comics spectrum. In the meantime, what are you reading? Tell us in the comments section, on Twitter or on our Facebook Page!

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