Welcome to the month six roundup. (The point of No Return.)

This month saw the glorious halfway point on my epic journey and made me realise how small a number from the vast pool of incredible works 365 actually covers. I was worried about running out of things to read. Now I am worried I won’t be able to finish them all in time as I have loads of series I still want to visit.

This month we also had no Thumbs Down titles. I certainly wouldn’t expect any.

We had zero No Thumbs titles too. Thank goodness.

We had 24 Thumbs Up titles.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 1- Ronin – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 3 – The Wanderer’s Road – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 5 – Lone Goat and Kid – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 6 – Circles – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 7 – Gen’s Story – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 8 – Shades of Death – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 9 – Daisho – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 10 – The Brink of Life and Death – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 11 – Seasons – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 12 – Grasscutter – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 13 – Grey Shadows – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 16 – The Shrouded Moon – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 18 – Travels with Jotaro – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 20 – Glimpses of Death – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 21 – The Mother of Mountains – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 22 – Tomoe’s Story – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 23 – Bridge of Tears – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 24 – Return of the Black Soul – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 25 – Fox Hunt – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 26 – Traitors of the Earth – Stan Sakai

Space Usagi– Stan Sakai

Blacksad: Somewhere within the Shadows – Juan Diaz Canales

Blacksad: Arctic Nation – Juan Diaz Canales

Blacksad: Red Soul – Juan Diaz Canales

 

This month we had seven Double Thumbs Up titles, more than ever before.

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 2 – Samurai – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 4 – The Dragon Bellow Conspiracy – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 14 – Demon Mask – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 15 – Grasscutter II – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 17 – Duel at Kitanoji – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 19 – Fathers and Sons – Stan Sakai

Blacksad: A Silent Hell – Juan Diaz Canales

There is not much I can say with Usagi and Blacksad being such magnificent works it has been a real pleasure.

My star was actually the commentary on Blacksad: A Silent Hell which taught me so much about art and gave me an even greater respect for hard working artists.

See you next month (maybe).

365GN

 

Blacksad: A Silent Hell – Juan Diaz Canales

This fourth volume of Blacksad is a real treat. Once again we switch genres and locations with a thrilling and tragic tale set in the New Orleans Jazz scene.

Like the previous stories this is a deep and complex tale, not because of gimmicky twists and turns, but because the world and characters are so rich and textured you don’t feel as if you are being led through a linear plot. This is more Gershwin musical than formulaic whodunit.

The art is mind-bendingly good and this has to be one of the most beautiful stories ever told. Guarnido is a true artist in every sense of the word and every single panel is lovingly rendered in watercolour making it a miniature masterpiece. His understanding of lighting and proficiency in its rendering is second to none. All the backgrounds are packed with details and he is able to transform the 2D page into a 3D world. The plethora of locations visited means that each scene is graphically unique.

A lot of the story is told in flashbacks and until you figure out that all the flashbacks are in daylight and the real-time is at night you can feel a little lost. As there are no captions and the scene changes are abrupt and often mid-page this isn’t the friendliest story to follow. But being treated like a grown-up by an author is nothing whinge about.

This is a huge hardback tome, and in addition to the story there is a separate, almost shot by shot commentary of the artistic process by Guarnido. It is staggering to learn that each single panel may have as many as six full-colour preliminary paintings before he is happy with it. His attention to detail makes this book a privilege to read. If you are any kind of artist this commentary and the accompanying art is a true master class. Even if you aren’t it is a real eye-opener to see how an artist and his medium create magic.

There are also a pair of two-page short stories, one warm and funny, and one satirical and ingeniously clever.

This work delights on all fronts and the sturdy hard cover makes a real impact on the reading experience. Nothing has been skimped on the production here. It truly deserves a Double Thumbs Up!

184/181.

Tomorrow: Tomb Raider: Saga of the Medusa Mask – Dan Jurgens

Blacksad: Red Soul – Juan Diaz Canales

This is an outstanding tale. A Hitchcockian thriller with communists, bohemians, fascists and a beautiful woman. You even get to find out what animal Hitler would be. Blacksad is more of a witness to unfolding events than a detective solving the case. He does however have a proper romantic entanglement like every gumshoe should.

The art is great as always with a fantastic scene at an aquarium. There are some wonderful colour contrasts too with real emotion being conveyed through the palette. There is more sex in this volume but it is beautifully and tastefully portrayed and conjures a real sense of intimacy.

A strong Thumbs Up!

183/182.

Tomorrow: Blacksad: A Silent Hell – Juan Diaz Canales

Blacksad: Arctic Nation – Juan Diaz Canales

Cats and racism. Not something you would instantly think of putting in the same book. Detective John Blacksad takes on the case of a missing girl and uncovers a murky world of prejudice.

This is a difficult book. The setting has shifted from generic Western country to unmistakably USA. A noire pulp detective story is hijacked by a civil rights, Nazi, KKK theme in a most unsubtle way. There is also a lot less polish evident as some clunky bits of dialogue or translation spoil the flow.

Beneath these awkward elements is a very good detective story, although you never get enough details to figure it out yourself and must wait for the reveal at the end. The art works very hard and the varied locations give a lot of scope to showcasing Guarnido’s talent. The lighting isn’t quite as majestic as the previous volume but there are some really good choices in terms of colour and tone. There is more sex and violence in this book and both are handled successfully.

Not the most convincing follow-up but worth checking out for the elaborate plot. Thumbs Up!

182/183.

Tomorrow: Blacksad: Red Soul – Juan Diaz Canales

Blacksad: Somewhere within the Shadows – Juan Diaz Canales

This is a classic noir detective story where the human characters are portrayed with animal faces and characteristics according to their natures. Originally published in Spanish then French, Blacksad refers to the main character, private detective John Blacksad.

The art in this book is superb, as you would expect from ex-Disney artist Juanjo Guarnido. The glossy Technicolor medium of comics finds it hard to do noir effectively without it just becoming murky. Guarnido’s amazing watercolour work and profound understanding of lighting is a superb fit. This truly is a cinematic book, just “like a film on paper” as Jim Steranko’s introduction puts it. The animalisation of the characters is so appropriate it becomes transparent. What better detective than a curious cat right? Just the faces look like animals the rest of the body is human but does retain their particular colouring. The rest of the world is human too with classic automobiles and cityscapes straight out of film history. Although a translation everything looks and feels appropriate. All the street signs, matchbooks and newspaper headlines are in English. The boxes and balloons are oversized to make substitution easier which is a little disappointing as it covers much of the art and draws too much attention to them. The plot is classic noir staple and our hero suitably embittered, troubled and far too curious for his own good. Very enjoyable in every respect. A classic Thumbs Up! 181/184. Tomorrow: Blacksad: Arctic Nation – Juan Diaz Canales

BONUS REVIEW: The Art of Usagi Yojimbo – Stan Sakai

This is an oversized volume dedicated to the art and creative process behind the comic Usagi Yojimbo. There is a lengthy explanation of how the strip is drawn and what materials are used. This is presented in the form of an amusing cartoon strip drawn by and starring Stan Sakai himself.

There are examples of Usagi art from all throughout his more than a quarter century lifespan. There are the original concept sketches and dozens of illustrations from other magazines, convention programs and unpublished artwork. This is a real treasure trove of material. The covers from the first 20 collected editions are reproduced full size, full colour and without any text so you can see just what dramatic works of art they are. There is also a full colour strip depicting Usagi’s flight from the Battle of Achi Plain. This does feel a little jarring after 25 years of strict black and white however. There are also drawings of Usagi done by other famous comic book artists.

Whilst this adds no new story or revelations – unless you are a budding comic artist – this does feel very special. It is a reward for your devotion in following this rabbit through all his adventures. It is nice to get a glimpse behind the curtain and so deserves a Thumbs Up!

Bonus Review

Space Usagi – Stan Sakai

The comics world is rife with team-ups, crossovers and alternate universe stories. They rarely add to the glory of the originals and come across as a cheap cash in. This volume sees a descendent of the original Miyamoto Usagi in a science fiction setting.

There are three long and two short stories making this the longest volume in the Usagi series. Despite the limitless potential of science fiction the whole thing starts off as a Star Wars copy. The character archetypes, the setting, the plot, even lines of dialogue. You aren’t sure if this is homage, parody or lazy writing. This is quite a shock as Stan Sakai stories have always been highly original and unpredictable. The third story does manage to break away from this poor start and the two short stories have the trademark bittersweet ending of Eastern storytelling.

Despite an incredible injection of emotion and characterisation in the third story it is not the exceptional fiction of the previous volumes. It is interesting to see how your favourite characters translate to a future setting however. In terms of laughs and curiosity value though this is not a volume to be missed. It is like going to a fancy dress party with all your mates. The people are same but dressed differently and you will probably have a good time.

It’s not Usagi but it still manages a Thumbs Up!

180/185.

Tomorrow: Blacksad: Somewhere within the Shadows – Juan Diaz Canales

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 26 – Traitors of the Earth – Stan Sakai

This volume sees seven stories from Usagi’s life. The first is a humorous tale from his studies with Sensei Katsuichi followed by a two page scene from his travels with Jotaro. Then come five longer tales from unnamed periods of his warrior pilgrimage.

They all sit together quite seamlessly and convey the broad spectrum of samurai themes from demon hunting to duty beyond death. Some minor characters appear in the third story and are used appropriately, but for the rest Usagi is on his own. There is a rich blend of action and thoughtfulness.

The art is great and seems to have more spice than usual. Two-third length double page spreads are Stan’s new toy. These and a true double page spread really give you a visual jolt that you aren’t used to, but is most welcome. There are extreme close-ups and extreme longshots, a little bleed between panels, some excellent perspective and really dramatic poses and lighting. There is a fantastic sequence of an object arcing through the air that is a real work of art – simple and elegant. Even the lettering gets a little jazz when it comes to some magic words. All these techniques are used intelligently to advance the story but you get the feeling there is a lot more to Stan’s greatness than you get to see.

There is a cover gallery, a Groo Vs. Usagi Comic Con strip, and introduction by Walter Simonson. This volume is dedicated to Stan Lee. Thumbs Up!

179/186.

Tomorrow: Space Usagi– Stan Sakai and BONUS REVIEW the Art of Usagi Yojimbo – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 25 – Fox Hunt – Stan Sakai

Many of the previous volumes have dealt with serious events, dramatic revelations and intense characterisation. This volume takes a step back and the many tales here are lighter in tone. Many of them have a certain humour to them, often black humour, and like many traditional oriental tales the ending is fitting but seldom happy.

As the world shattering events have been put on hold there is an opportunity for more instructional tales as we learn more about Bushido and about humanity. Gen in particular is at his most compassionate and we get that rare glimpse into his heart of gold. Usagi on the other hand becomes more wayward having little respect for the law or for the Shogunate.

The pace slows right down and with no imminent danger we are able to see the beauty of the wonderful country Usagi travels through, the character of its people, and learn more of the nature of the heroes we have been following for longer than we can remember. This won’t be the most memorable volume you will read but it is one of the most perfectly told. The timeless tales within are the epitome of “the less is more” adage. It is unquestionably a Thumbs Up!

178/187.

Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 26 – Traitors of the Earth – Stan Sakai

Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 24 – Return of the Black Soul – Stan Sakai

This volume concerns the demon Jei. Jei can be seen as a poor villain, being nameless, faceless and almost impossible to kill. He lacks the human qualities and characteristics to make a great antagonist. He has no sense of honour, driving passion, intense emotion and appropriate knowledge of Bushido. Much like the proverbial zombie horde he exists put our heroes under pressure.

He is a credible threat however. The amount of people he has killed and his portrayal as an unstoppable force makes for genuine tension when he crosses path with your favourite characters. You know Stan Sakai would not hesitate to kill the animals you love if the story demanded it. This is what makes his work so great. You don’t know what will happen next but you know it will be the right thing.

This volume also reveals Jei’s origin story. For a hero this is one of the highlights of their fictional career. For a villain finding out their back-story can often render them toothless and neutered. Hannibal Lecter is a great example. Part of a villain’s menace, and Jei’s in particular, is not knowing where he came from and what he is capable of. The first rule of horror is not to show the audience the monster.

This reveal actually makes Jei a much stronger character and anchors him into the storyline and the setting of feudal Japan. By adding depth to the mystery you open up lots of possibilities for future tales and make potential confrontations much more exciting.

The art is great and because Jei’s face is so stylised you can transpose him/ her/ it onto other characters (as we saw with Usagi) with ease. Like the regenerations of Doctor Who Jei’s nature is certainly an asset. The more you see of him however the less terrifying he is. But he does have mileage in him yet. Thumbs Up!

177/188.

Tomorrow: Usagi Yojimbo: Volume 25 – Fox Hunt – Stan Sakai