The stories contained in this set get five stars easily. Stan Sakai's Ronin Rabbit has been thrilling readers for over 25 years now with masterful storytelling and terrific artwork. And these early adventures will delight fans of fiction set in feudal Japan, anthropomorphic animals, or just the art of comics in general.
With this in mind I have decided to limit the review below to the physical package of the book and its extras only.
Let me start by saying this is an extremely handsome set. The slipcase features beautiful examples of Sakai's artwork, the cover to the magazine "Anything Goes" #6 on the right side and the cover of "The Dragon Below Conspiracy"/UY vol #4 (both covers are also reprinted within) on the left respectively. The slipcase is thick and sturdy as are the covers for both of the volumes it contains. The binding on the set is glued rather than sewn (I suppose that would have raised the price past the hundred mark?) I can't imagine this being a problem for a copy that is reasonably taken care of though. Anyone familiar with their "Complete Peanuts" reprint series knows that Fantagraphics does not skimp on the materials in their prestige/special edition books and this set is no exception.
All of the pages are glossy and the print is clear though the pages do run to the thin side (to keep the package compact I suppose) so sometimes you will see lines from the next page. I find this to be a bit distracting and it's probably the biggest flaw in the set.
It's almost a little jarring to go from seeing these comics in their original newsprint to being this clearly and slickly reproduced. But it is without doubt a welcome sight, and Sakai's work certainly deserves it.
The covers of the two books are almost identical, white with a beautiful painting of Usagi riding a dragon from the cover of Comics Journal #192, also reprinted within. The only variation between the book covers being whether one or two small gray clan crests are below Usagi and the dragon, to denote which volume is which without having to look at the spine, a nice touch.
The back of the slipcase extols the virtues of this set with a list of features that is sure to be almost identical to the one(s) you'll see on Amazon or other sites so let's just do a rundown of the features touted there:
***"The first seven volumes of the collected Usagi Yojimbo, totaling almost 1,000 pages of classic comics, presented in their original size and format!"***
As I already mentioned, this set is quite handsome. And it will take up surprisingly little shelf space without being flimsy or feeling cramped.
***"`The Origins of Usagi': the earliest character sketches and never-used story pages!"***
There are 8 pages of early sketches from Sakai, one of these sketches was recently reproduced in the excellent "The Art of Usagi Yojimbo" from Dark Horse, but most should be new. There is also a reprinting of an early version of the story "Samurai" that was previously printed in the above mentioned Dark Horse collection.
***"An extensive full-color Usagi cover gallery!"***
This was the only one that was a bit disappointing for me really. There are indeed 22 nice, full color pages reprinting Usagi covers from Albedo Anthropomorphics, Critters, Usagi's own first series and the collected Fantagraphics volumes, plus a few magazine covers for good measure. While the reproduction is crisp, I was a little disappointed to find that the vast majority of these covers are shoved into a tiny 4-to-a-page format, with seemingly random covers selected to be shown at full page while (to me) much more interesting and beautiful ones were squashed down and crammed together to make us squint.
***"Two hilarious Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles + Usagi crossovers by Sakai!"***
"Turtle Soup & Rabbit Stew" 6pgs and "The Treaty" 10pgs
Both written and illustrated by Sakai, both good fun. I can't remember just now but I believe there might have been more crossover material in the comics from this Fantagraphics period, but even if so I'm sure the license just to get these two was a nightmare. A nice, hard to find bonus.
***"An in-depth, feature-length interview with Stan Sakai from 1995!"***
Well, at least the box and the book itself are upfront about the age of the interview*. It's the same one that I've seen on amazon and elsewhere touted as "a career spanning interview!" without mentioning the little fact that it's over a decade old. Well it's still a nice, interesting treat for fans. Especially those curious about Sakai himself as well as his creation. It's from "The Comics Journal" (#192 I'll wager) and the original interviewer, who also edited this set, has added notes to bring some points from it up-to-date. It's 13 pages with illustrations to aid the points discussed.
***"Stan Sakai shows you 'How I draw Usagi Yojimbo!'"***
This has to be the most-often reprinted Usagi extra, or close to it. A cute 12 page comic in which Stan guides you through his process of inspiration, creation and publication in writing Usagi. I already have it 2 or 3 times over and if you've got "The Art of Usagi Yojimbo" you've got it to. By no means a bad little extra, but not really exclusive or rare enough to warrant so much attention.
***"Introductions by Stan Lee and Stan Sakai!"***
These are the only introductions you will find in this set. The thoughtful introductions by various artists found in the regular edition volumes are entirely absent. Perhaps one of the few advantages the regular edition carries over this slipcase. Both of the introductions which are provided here are very nice though.
This is an excellent set for the money you pay on amazon at the time of this writing, less than buying the regular editions separately! (EDIT: Since the time I wrote this review the book has gone out of print and rocketed in value, so it is no longer the case that this set is cheaper than the regular edition volumes separately.)
And definitely the version to get for someone just discovering the series.
But if you already have the volumes and aren't sure whether it would be worth it to "upgrade" to this set I will say in my opinion this upgrade shouldn't be considered "essential". The set is beautiful, the extras are nice and it seems built to weather decades. But unless the smaller format of the regular reprints really bugs you you won't be missing too terribly much by sticking with your older set.
*Actually the book lists the interview as having taken place in 1996, the slipcase is in the wrong here. Not a big deal though.