Thieves and Spies is volume 30 of Stan Sakai’s samurai epic, Usagi Yojimbo. I recommend beginning with Vol. 1 of course, but the tales here don’t really depend on long running story lines. There are some returning characters it would help to be familiar with, but the gist of anyone we’ve seen before is well conveyed, so this isn’t a bad place to start overall.
For those who are new to Usagi, a comment from my review of Vol. 1 on Sakai’s choice of medium that has remained relevant throughout the comic’s long run:
“The use of amorphous animals as the characters might seem unusual to first time readers, but it gives Sakai more visual diversity and symbolism to play with, and is executed with such finesse that it quickly becomes impossible to imagine the book without this choice. Don’t mistake the presence of animals as people as a sign this is a ‘kid’s book.’ Usagi Yojimbo covers a period of war, political unrest, and an unhealthy level of danger and can get dark and bloody at times.”
This trade opens with a three part story, and follows with four shorter ones.
“The Thief and the Kunoichi” features the return of some familiar faces and has an interseting set of circumstances placing some of them at apparent cross purposes. The length gives everyone a chance to shine a bit, and this is a strong start to the volume. It was great to see my favorite ninja back, although on the other hand a certain reccuring thief is moving more and more away from “charming rogue” and into “selfish to the core and unlikable” territory. I expect there will be consequences on the horizon.
There’s a dark edge to entire volume, and the remaining four stories all have overtones of selfish and cruel people valuing themselves and their desires above the lives of others. It could just a be a coincidence that these stories were told in succession, but more likely I feel that Sakai is building to some larger crossroads point for Usagi. All four stories are conflict heavy, featuring a one-armed swordsman, a samurai escort on an unusual job, a foreign dignitary with ruthless curiosity, and a promised bride under attack by bandits. All are equally intriguing and provide interesting variations on similar themes.
Thieves and Spies is a serious and thought provoking entry in Sakai’s epic, and is another excellent read as per usual for this series.