Usagi Yojimbo Return of the Black Soul: Finally, Backstory on One of Comics' Creepiest Villains
I am of the opinion that Jei from "Usagi Yojimbo" is possibly one of the creepiest villains ever in comics. A mysterious spear-wielding warrior with blank eyes and a hideous and terrifying grin, he walked the world of feudal-era Japan killing everyone he considered "sinful" (which was essentially everyone), ripping their souls from their bodies with the blade of his black spear. Although Jei himself died in the "Grasscutter" storyline of "Usagi Yojimbo," the demonic spirit that drove him took over the body of a wandering swordswoman, Inazuma, and continued with its bloody rampage.
This volume of "Usagi Yojimbo" features two main stories, both revolving in some way around Jei: "The Darkness and the Soul" explaining how a saintly Buddhist monk was transformed into the mass-murdering demon, and "Sparrows " dealing with the possessed Inazuma being pursued by mobs of bounty hunters, including our main character wandering samurai Miyamoto Usagi, his friend Gen, amoral bounty hunter Stray Dog, Buddhist exorcist Sanshobo, and the mysterious Isamu (who has plans of his own).
Of the two stories, I was more intrigued "The Darkness and the Soul" better, even though it still left some things unanswered. It is truly saddening to see the man (well, fox, but you know what I mean) who will eventually become Jei and see how this saintly healer could turn into a monster. I am also intrigued to learn more about the "dark gods" who initiate the transformation, and I hope that future volumes of "Usagi Yojimbo" will go more into this.
"Sparrows" actually had multiple focuses: Gen and Stray Dog hunting for Inazuma, Inazuma becoming gravely wounded and slowly dying (and having the spirit of Jei slowly start to leave her body as a consequence), the priest Sanshobo dealing with demonic possessions while his assistant Senzo is troubled by dreams of Jei, and Usagi wandering into all of it. it proposes several mysteries (what is the goal of the mysterious Isamu who joins with Usagi and his friends in hunting Inazuma? Who will become possessed by Jei when Inazuma dies?) and manages to balance them with the suspense and action as our heroes track down Inazuma, all the while fighting off other bounty hunters trying to eliminate the competition. The storyline to "Sparrows" still leaves some loose threads, but all in all it's an interesting mix of suspense, action, mystery, and supernatural horror.
However, "Sparrows" is not particularly friendly to new readers. Even I, who hasn't read any "Usagi Yojimbo" stories in a while, was a little lost at points as certain things which I had forgotten became plot points. "The Darkness and the Soul" was a little more friendly to new viewers, although more experience "Usagi" readers would probably get more out of it.
All in all, if you're a big "Usagi Yojimbo' fan, this is a great addition to the series. Pick it up if you want more Usagi stories, particularly ones revolving around Jei