WonderCon Review: TMNT/Usagi Yojimbo WhereWhen: Retro Edition
At WonderCon last weekend, we nabbed the black and white variant of the year's most hotly anticipated comic.
Everyone enters a comic convention with a mission, usually multiple missions. Last weekend, when the gates rose on Friday morning at WonderCon, I had one anxious thought buzzing through my brain, "Must reach Stan Sakai's booth quickly and score the black-and-white Retro Edition of TMNT/Usagi Yojimbo: WhereWhen #1."
For months, the crossover event has ranked at the top of our Most Anticipated Comics of 2023. Already, we were aching to get our hands on the first issue, but then IDW Publishing and Sakai's Dogū imprint went ahead and announced the monochromatic variant. Wow. That's how Usagi Yojimbo is meant to be, as far as I'm concerned. No offense to Sakai's longtime colorist collaborator Tom Luth or those others who have filled in since Luth's retirement, but black-and-white is how I first encountered Miyamoto Usagi, and black-and-white is how I prefer to experience his adventures.
Nabbing a copy was reasonably straightforward. Sakai had plenty in stock, and the print run is large enough even to accommodate online sales (which are currently happening HERE). The Retro Edition comes in two versions, Stan Sakai's wraparound and Kevin Eastman's extreme close-up melee madness cover. Choosing one proved impossible, and both were purchased. No regrets, lol.
Like all Sakai comics, WhereWhen #1 reads fast. As the twenty-two pages dwindled to the last few, a sadness took over. The official release is not until April 12th, so I won't be able to read the second issue until mid-May, assuming the publishing schedule remains firm. WhereWhen #1 is everything an Usagi Yojimbo or Ninja Turtles fan wants it to be, and it falls into such a unique spot in Miyamoto's timeline that it creates tremendous curiosity. The wait between issues will be punishing.
As already reported, WhereWhen operates as a prequel to Usagi Yojimbo: Senso. In that storyline, set toward the end of Miyamoto's life, H.G. Wells' Martians from War of the Worlds crash-land during the last great battle between the evil Lord Hikiji and Usagi's friend, Lord Noriyuki. No spacemen appear in WhereWhen, nor should we expect them to show.
The first issue opens with Noriyuki preparing his forces with General Usagi by his side. Two villagers approach their camp and explain how a Kappa (a reptilian creature from Japanese folklore) is slaughtering their neighbors. They beg Usagi for assistance, but Noriyuki is reluctant to let his best fighter go when war is so close at hand. Reluctantly, the Lord allows Usagi to investigate as long as he promises to return before sundown.
WhereWhen's back-half is set in contemporary New York City and follows the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles as they break into the diabolical Dr. WhereWhen's compound. The evil cyborg from the future has built a time portal, and you can guess how our title characters eventually come into contact with each other. Narratively, the set-up is bare and without thrills, but it's everything happening around the plot that makes the comic so damn enticing.
Joining Usagi in his quest for the Kappa are Tomoe, Jotaro, and Yukichi. It's been too long since we've seen Usagi and Tomoe together on the page. Their bittersweet, unfulfilled romance features all the problems present in Senso, but that book's tragic conclusion further heightens them here. While they stumble through their feelings, we see Usagi's son Jotaro interact with Usagi's cousin Yukichi for the first time. Both characters immensely love Usagi, and I'm excited to see how their admiration for their elder affects their relationship with each other. As a new character, Yukichi was obviously not present during Senso, so does that mean he will be killed off somewhere within the WhereWhen mini-series? Nooooooo...
Maybe most exciting of all is watching how Stan Sakai handles the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. The brothers have appeared in Usagi books, but they're usually zapped back to feudal Japan. Twelve pages of WhereWhen are set in NYC, and Sakai absolutely kills it illustrating those nighttime rooftops and warehouse robot brawls. When the turtles are first introduced, Sakai gives them a half-splash, and it's a deliciously cool announcement for the characters and the artist. They're saying, "Get ready; it's only going to get more radical from here."
Once completed, I sent out a prayer. Can we get Retro Edition variants for every WhereWhen issue? Color detracts from Sakai's badass inking. In the WhereWhen Retro Edition, we find razor-sharp lines that cut the page with masterful precision. The detail is clean but intense. The figures are tactile and bristling with emotion. Usagi Yojimbo has always been a black-and-white world, and I really hope Dark Horse Comics agrees with me as they set out to relaunch the title after WhereWhen wraps up.
Quickie Review: TMNT/Usagi Yojimbo: WhereWhen #1 proves that Stan Sakai is still a masterful cartoonist, and no one on this planet can do what he does. Unlike previous encounters between Miyamoto and the Turtles, this one feels like it will significantly impact Usagi Yojimbo's overall narrative and not just act as a fun mashing up between these beautifully compatible characters. Although it's that too. If you like comics, this book must be on your pull list. 10/10