THE ART OF USAGI YOJIMBO is a deluxe collection of artwork by Stan Sakai on his samurai rabbit character published in hardcover back in 2004, on the 20th anniversary of Usagi first being published, and in paperback last year (not to be confused with two earlier ART OF USAGI YOJIMBO comics published in the late 1990s by Radio Comix). I finally got around to picking it up, and I have to say, if I knew it looked this nice I wouldn't have waited nearly as long (and might even have paid the extra few bucks for the hardcover when it was available). It's a large 9x12 size, 200 pages, about a quarter of them in full colour, all of it beautifully printed, with chapter breaks printed on some special patterned translucent paper stock and overall excellent production. It's almost criminal how a $30 book can look this good when other publishers (and sometimes even this publisher) are routinely charging almost twice as much for a lot less.
After some introductory stuff, the book begins with the chapter "Creative Process", presenting a pair of non-fiction stories Sakai did on his working habits. The first one I'm familiar with from its prior printings, but its a classic and nice to have in a larger and more permanent form. The second one is new to me, and has an interesting sketchier inking technique on the art which fits the introspective spirit of the story about Sakai's writing process and his early love of comics.
The bulk of the book is divided into four sections corresponding to the four phases of Usagi's publishing history. "Beginnings" has the earliest character sketches (showing a very different rabbit) and the work published in ALBEDO. "Early Years" covers the Fantagraphics years, with the first series and appearances in CRITTERS. "Middle Years" covers the brief stopover at Mirage for the second series and "Recent Years" the last decade at Dark Horse. Each section has a mix of especially striking covers and interior pages, some unused images, artwork used in fanzines and merchandising, and convention sketches. A good mix of new stuff and old favourites in a new form, or with added information.
Between those sections are two colour sections. The first contains a pair of painted stories. The first, "Return to Adachi Plain" (aka How Usagi Got His Scar), is a real treat, only having been in a limited hardcover before in this form, so I'd only read the later b&w line-art version of the story (with inks by Sergio Aragones). Looks great here. The other story is the cute "The Guardian" story from the late 1990s TRILOGY convention tour book. The other colour section has 32 single page images, mostly painted covers (without any of the trade dress) and a few other new or more obscure images.
The book closes with a "Gallery" section of ten guest artists contributing their versions of Usagi. First and best, neither a surprise, is Sergio Aragones, with Usagi facing off against an army of crabs. William Stout also has an excellent piece, in particular his well rendered version of Usagi's pet lizard Spot. All the others (Paul Chadwick, Geof Darrow, Peter Laird, Frank Miller, Tim Sale, Jeff Smith, Matt Wagner and Andi Watson) are interesting mixes of Usagi with the artist's own style.
This is one of the best "Art of" type books I've seen, and really a must for any Sakai fan.