Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Usagi Yojimbo 1: Discussion

by Patrick Ehlers and Spencer Irwin

This article contains SPOILERS. If you haven’t read the issue yet, proceed at your own risk!

I grew up in Europe — where the history comes from. Oh yeah. You tear your history down man: “30 years old? Let’s tear it down and build a car park here.” I have seen it in stories — I saw a program on something in Miami. They said “we’ve redecorated this building to how it looked over 50 years ago!” People going: “No! Surely not, no! No one was alive then!”

Eddie Izzard, Dressed To Kill

Patrick: One of the things we here at Retcon Punch find so impressive about IDW’s run with the Ninja Turtle series is the storytelling team’s commitment to remixing, recontextualizing, and reimagining the franchise’s immense history. Tom Waltz, Bobby Curnow, Kevin Eastman and a murders row of artists and writers have been pulling in influences from over thirty years of comics, TV shows, movies, video games, action figures, music videos, stage shows — you name it. It’s an impressive feat, but is also an exercise that rings weirdly hollow when compared to what Stan Sakai has always done with Usagi Yojimbo. The Long-Eared Samurai has been the protagonist in remixed stories from Japanese folklore for decades — literally as long as the TMNT have been around. With this latest crossover, Sakai again proves he is the king of narrative remix, reaching back way further than 1984 for his source material.

Bubbling around in the background of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Usagi Yojimbo 1 (hereafter referred to as TMNTUY, because I love ungainly acronyms) is the story of the thunder god Kashima battling the giant subterranean catfish Namazu. Kashima pinned the giant fish under the island of Japan, and the earthquakes the country experiences are simply Namazu struggling to break free of his bonds. This story came to prominence in 1855, after an enormous earthquake left the city of Edo in ruins. Within weeks of the quake, woodblock prints of the battle were being produced and sold. If we’re impressed with TMNT’s 33 year publishing history, then we should be blown away by Kashima and Namazu’s 162 year publishing history.

Sakai has some pretty bad-ass source material to draw from, and he imbues it with his characteristic levity.

Kashima is some kind of fuzzy cat or dog creature, and the rocks and armor are meticulously hashed to convey texture. Tom Luth’s colors also bring the ancient myth into modern era with dynamic lighting and shaping techniques.

I’m always fascinated by how the Turtles cross over with other stories — they are frequently interdimensional time travelers, so it shouldn’t take too much to justify their existence anywhere. Given Sakai’s ability to draw in great warriors and monsters from other stories, we don’t necessarily need to know the hows and whys of the Turtles presence. But Sakai is careful not only to justify the appearance of the Ninja Turtles, but this specific version of our heroes. The Turtles are called into existence through a method that Usagi seems to be familiar with — he mentions their good luck at being near the water before he’s given any instructions by Master Kakera. Again: cue Sakai’s gift for levity.

When Kakera brings the souls (…or whatever…) of Leo, Mike, Don and Raph into these teeny turtles, he does so through a method that seems more magical than scientific, leaning into the narrative vocabulary of Usagi Yojimbo and not necessarily in the language of TMNT. On the subject of language, our poor disoriented Turtles literally don’t speak the language of the book (Japanese), so their English speech balloons are presented as though they are a foreign language. I’m so used to seeing non-English speech presented with those <brackets> around it that the inversion stands as a stark reminder that the Turtles are guests in Usagi’s story.

It takes a second (and a few close-katana-calls) for the Turtles to lay off Usagi and Kakera, but once they do, Sakai makes it immediately clear that these are characters borrowed, not from some non-specific “Turtle-verse,” but from IDW’s current run. Leo even mentions that only Michelangelo can speak Japanese — something that’s only true of this version of the characters. Maybe that’s interesting because it implies there are other versions of our Turtles out there in the multiverse, and maybe it’s just a cool acknowledgement that Sakai is comfortable handling all kinds of history — be it ancient or recent.

The story itself is fun too, if only as an excuse for a bunch of beautifully rendered Sakai fight scenes. I suppose mileage will vary on that, but as a fan of both franchises, I had fun seeing Jei fight Leonardo, Usagi and Kakera all at the same time. Spencer, I think we’ll agree that the set-up is thoughtful, but I wonder how much you enjoyed the pay-off. Was the mash-up action beat reward enough for you, or did you want more information about why Kakera needed to summon these specific warriors from the future? Also, “Kakera” roughly translates to “piece” or “fragment” (or “splinter”) so there’s some kind of connection between our anthropomorphic rats, I’m just not sure what it is.

Spencer: Sakai specifically refers to Kakera as “my version of Splinter” in the interview at the end of the issue, so I’m thinking that Kakera is simply meant to be a homage/spiritual successor rather than anything more symbolic (although, that said, are we sure he’s a rat too? I don’t think we ever see his tail). Since it’s fun to speculate, though, let’s assume that Usagi Yojimbo takes place in a different universe than any of the TMNT series — couldn’t Kakera just be Splinter’s doppleganger in the UY universe? The IDW version of Splinter was even originally born in feudal Japan — it’s wouldn’t be much of a stretch at all.

Anyway Patrick, I’d agree that Sakai’s art and action are indeed the highlight of the issue, and well worth the price of admission alone. Sakai’s one of those rare artists who can tell quite a story with a simple image, and TMNTUY has those sort of moments in abundance.

This is a completely static image, with no effects or motion lines used to create the illusion of movement whatsoever, yet the reader can easily follow the path of Kakera’s staff. The motion is implied because of the reactions of the two goons around him — you can follow the arc of Kakera’s swing from the yellow-tunic dude’s face around to the green-tunic dude’s stomach. Meanwhile, similarly felled goons litter the ground behind them. Sakai absolutely sells this story, as he does in every other panel throughout the grand finale.

This image stood out to me as well. The pacing and mood is top-notch, using those first three silent panels to build up tension but release it in a surprisingly noisy, colorful fashion (at least compared to those first few panels), making that final panel an excellent punchline even before you get to the sight gag of the turtles, poor Usagi’s panicked expressions or the practically rabid, deranged expression on Kakera’s face. This scene is a pivotal plot moment for the issue, but it’s also an entertaining moment in isolation, as are many of the scenes throughout the issue.

Also, just look at that hatching in that first row of panels! More often than not, when I talk about detail I’m referring to hidden easter eggs or little background jokes, and to be fair, TMNTUY has plenty of those — my favorite being the spider that says “ow” when Usagi brushes it off — but in this case, it’s enough just to gawk at the sheer detail and the amount of work Sakai puts into his art. As much as I adore so many talented artists working at the Big Two, it’s rare to see that kind of detail in a monthly superhero comic (there just isn’t the time!).

The story itself serves as a useful vehicle for delivering moments like these, but Patrick identified the same criticism with it that I had — why the Turtles? The Turtles are definitely guest stars in Usagi’s story here, which is fine, but I wish they played a more prominent role in the plot. Instead they mostly serve as crowd control. Their individual personalities and skills add nothing to the mission and barely have a chance to be shown off at all; Sakai could have inserted original characters here and it would barely effect the issue. That’s not an effective use of the IP.

There are hints, of course. It’s implied that Kakera and Usagi have summoned the Turtles multiple times before — in fact, considering Usagi’s familiarity, it could easily be their trademark move.

So I guess if Kakera and Usagi need a few extra helping hands, might as well make sure they belong to friends, right? Ultimately, I wish Sakai had found a way to lean into that aspect of their relationship a bit more; other than Usagi worrying about Leo’s behavior when he first arrived, there’s very little chance to explore any camaraderie they have (or had, or could have again), which is a bummer and part of what makes the Turtles’ role feel so underdeveloped.

Still, there’s so much about this issue that works, and the Turtles perhaps being underutilized can’t change that. In fact, I’m going to let you all in on a little secret: this is the first Usagi Yojimbo story I’ve ever read. The Turtles (with some help from my editor) exposed me to a great series I’d never had a chance to check out before — that should be the goal of any good crossover story.

For a complete list of what we’re reading, head on over to our Pull List page. Whenever possible, buy your comics from your local mom and pop comic bookstore. If you want to rock digital copies, head on over to Comixology and download issues there. There’s no need to pirate, right?


One comment on “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles Usagi Yojimbo 1: Discussion

  1. There’s an editors note to the original TMNTYU crossover that Sakai did back in the 80s called “Shades of Green” and I even sent so far as to look for it on comixology (it’s not there). I still want to get my hands on that, but I do have the Usagi / Leonardo crossover story “Turtle Soup and Rabbit Stew” in my UY collection. It’s a cute story, that plays off of Usagi’s distrust of ninja, and leans more heavily into Leo being an unwilling pawn in Renet’s time-travel nonsense. Obviously, it doesn’t have quite the bombast (nor the Japanese folkloric mythology) of this crossover, but it seems to hold the personalities of the characters in higher regard. There’s never really a good answer to “why bring the Turtles back in time to help the Rabbit Ronin?” but a little personal investment goes a long way.

What you got?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s