Hello, I’m a unicorn. Imagine for a moment a world where Stan Sakai chose not to write Usagi Yojimbo. Once you’ve stopped sobbing in a fetal position from the horror of that thought, let me tell you about the adventures of another knight errant from the family of Leporidae and his unwit guinea pig sidekick. These are the adventures of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy, and it’s a fascinating exercise in what might have been. Originally, Mr. Sakai intended to have their stories start out as a comedic anthology, and slowly turn into an epic fantasy as the stories became longer and more dramatic. Nilson, Usagi’s predecessor, would eventually become king. Hermy, his faithful companion, would eventually be kidnapped and taken to Japan, where we’d then meet a certain long eared ronin. The story would tell of the rise of the humans, and how, under the leadership of Lord Hikiji, they’d take over world of our anthropomorphic heroes. In the conclusion of this 2500 page novel, everyone would have died in a spectacular last stand. Alas, though, it was never meant to be, because Mr. Sakai decided he preferred writing about everyone’s favorite long-eared ronin instead. Thus, Usagi Yojimbo was born.
The trade collection of Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy is a fascinating read to Usagi fans for these reasons. It’s really interesting to compare the two titles, not necessarily to see which is better, but just to see the differences. While Usagi has comedic elements, it is, for the most part, a serious take on funny animals comics. Nilson is the reverse. Its anthology format reads like one of the funnier the breather issues for an Usagi comic. It has great comedic timing and jokes that made me chuckle even in the second read through. There are also some nice Easter eggs. For example, in one arc, Usagi makes a cameo in the very end, the writer himself makes a cameo, and Nilson says verbatim something Usagi says in another issue.
This story, and the author’s notes also explain certain aspects of Usagi’s world that didn’t make much sense, such as how Lord Hikiji could be human when the rest of the world is make up of animals. Hikiji is only shown once throughout the run, but his appearance makes a lot more sense now. I like to think that Nilson Groundthumper still exists in the same universe as Usagi.
There’s a distinct difference in style in the writing. Usagi is much quieter and more cinematic, a bit like an episode of Samurai Jack, but Nilson is more like the Smurfs. While Usagi can go an entire issue with little to no dialogue, the other is a lot more talkative. I’d be hard pressed to find a quiet page in Nilson Groundthumper, much less an entire issue; not that there’s anything wrong with that. It completely fits the tone of the series and what the writer was going for. Unlike its samurai counterpart Nilson is meant to be a comedic fantasy series, so the sillier tone works. It’s just interesting comparing the two. The world building is another major difference. While Usagi delves so deeply into Japanese culture that Stan Sakai has received a Parents’ Choice award for his careful research, this is a more typical European landscape. As stated before, I’m reminded a bit of the Smurfs when reading it. That being said, Nilson and Hermy do end up in some pretty unique kingdoms and situations that would never pop up on an Usagi story. When that happens, it’s normally played for some very good laughs.
For those readers who have never picked up Usagi, please, please, pretty please with sugar on top, do. You will not regret it. But, you don’t have to read Usagi to understand Nilson. It has some adorable artwork and vibrant coloring that makes it fairly kid friendly. There is one exception though: in the background of an issue, there are some very scantily clad women, but what is happening would probably fly over the kids’ heads. It’s still definitely for younger readers, but there are enough parental bonuses and clever jokes for adults.
My one criticism would be Hermy. I’m sure that is Mr. Sakai had stayed on the project longer, he would have developed Hermy and made him much smarter over time, but at this point in the series, he was hit and miss for me. Sometimes he was adorable and hilarious, and other times he could get really irritating. In my Unconscious Webcomic review, I mentioned how Uncy’s sidekick Itchy is a hard character to write because he’s the type that could easily annoy the reader. The difference between these two adorable sidekicks is that Itchy has hidden depths. You see the way he is and you wonder what happened. You get his back story in bits and pieces, and what you see is horrifying. Hermy is just a simple soul, which has its charms, but he also tends to be too dumb to live, so it’s a good thing he’s cute.
Overall, Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy is highly recommended. For non Usagi fans, it’s a funny little fantasy story with great artwork and clever jokes. It’s something I’d be comfortable reading to younger audiences and just on my own. For Usagi completionists, it’s an interesting look at the early career of Stan Sakai. Nilson Groundthumper and Hermy has all the elements of Usagi Yojimbo, but these elements are not quite as honed as in the latter. It’s still tons of fun and a must read, but it definitely makes you appreciate Usagi contemplative tone and ability to seamlessly transition from comedy to tragedy. So what are you waiting for? Read it now!