First Impressions – SAMURAI JACK #1

Samurai-Jack-01

Cartoon Network and IDW team up once again to resurrect a classic animated series…in comic form! SAMURAI JACK #1 brings back to life the incredible artistic vision of Genndy Tartakovsky. The titular samurai known as “Jack” continues his seemingly endless quest to travel through time, in the hopes of averting the dystopian future ruled by the demon Aku. Can the mysterious threads of the Rope of Eons permit Jack to unravel the dark era that played out in history? Or will our hero see failure once again? And will he die trying?

“Long ago in a distant land…I, Aku, the shapeshifting master of darkness, unleashed an unspeakable evil! But a foolish samurai warrior wielding a magic sword stepped forth to oppose me. Before the final blow was struck, I tore open a portal in time and flung him into the future, where my evil is law! Now, the fool seeks to return to the past and undo the future that is Aku!”

So speaks Aku, Big Bad of the Samurai Jack series, as voiced by the dearly missed Mako. Samuari Jack was created by Genndy Tartakovsky, creator of Dexter’s Lab among other shows. The plot of the show is summed up perfectly in the above narration, played at the beginning of every episode. Unlike the recent Powerpuff Girls comic, SAMURAI JACK #1 is kind enough to also reprint this opener on the inside cover of the book.

The series drew heavy influence, obviously, from samurai films like that of Akira Kurosawa. This is established in the pilot episode, which capped off with a massive fight leaving Jack’s enemies in pieces and his body drenched in their fluids. Thankfully they were all robots, and their fluids some kind of oil. But for many children in the 2000s, this was their first taste of PG ultra-violence. The show also drew elements of fantasy and science fiction. Of important note is the many experimental techniques related to cinematography and art style that made the show very unique and much beloved.

It was also known for two other things: Jack’s ultimate goal was always just out a reach, and the series ended without a proper resolution. The show got canceled before a finale could be produced. Tartakovsky voiced a desire to have a movie made that would finally give closure to the franchise, but it’s sat in development hell for years now. It seemed like our samurai would never reach the end of his quest.

That is, until IDW started making Cartoon Network revival comics, and SAMURAI JACK wound up on the list. Huzzah!

SAMURAI JACK #1 starts with Jack wandering through a desert in a sand storm. His destination: a hermit seer who may know another way through time. Another one, since the planet has no shortage. Indeed the seer does, telling Jack of the Rope of Eons. Stolen by Aku from the gods, it taught the demon the secrets of time. Once he’d learned all he could, Aku ripped the Rope into pieces and scattered them. But the threads still contain valuable chronal energies, and if the five pieces are united, time travel can happen.

There, we now have the plot to the first five issues. Find the threads, try to use its power, and inevitably fail because of the status quo. Sounds good. The biggest albatross around the neck of the series in general is it’s reliance on Jack always coming close to his ultimate goal only to snatch it from him. And this isn’t a problem unique to the comic.

It would appear that, besides the overarching Rope of Eons plot tying everything together (he he he), SAMURAI JACK is going to be an episodic comic. This is fine, since the cartoon rarely if ever had multi-part stories. And in spite of its fan appeal – most of whom are older now – the franchise is meant as a children’s show…at least in theory. Honestly the show always came off as an all-ages work; light enough for kids but with action and complexity enough to keep older viewers engaged. And the episodic nature of the comic probably works to its advantage.

Though ironically a work that draws so much from samurai films would probably benefit from Japanese-style decompressed storytelling. Again, at least in theory.

The character designs on display gel well with the series established atmosphere. Aliens, disgusting man-animal hybrids, and especially robots abound in this environment, exactly like fans remember. SAMURAI JACK #1 alone pits our hero against an entire goon squad of gladiators, including a couple brawlers, a midget with a “healthy” sense of self-worth, a cactus man, and a robot with a machine gun on its butt. If that isn’t classic Jack, I don’t know what is. Writer Jim Zub worked hard to capture the mix of violence, intensity, and physical humor that made the cartoon great.

From a straight artistic standpoint, Andy Suriano emulates the cartoon’s style beautifully. I’m assured at this point, between this comic and the Powerpuff Girls comic, that the folks over at IDW have a mind towards mimicking the iconic styles from these old shows, and I love them for it. Although when I say Suriano emulates the style, it’s not a perfect one to one. Specifically, this comic has outlines. Thick, black outlines. Something the show lacked for artistic purposes. Not a bad thing, especially with the rich colors, shading, and blocked character models on display.

Page layouts are the biggest theoretical sticking point; more a product of the conversion from screen to page. The show was famous for clever and dramatic shots, which thankfully were not entirely different from comic panels. It’s mostly timing that breaks from tradition, the show keeping a slow pace that can’t be enforced in a comic book. At least, not easily. I’m positive Scott McCloud wrote about the difficulties in controlling pacing in comics using the space between panels, in his book Understanding Comics. Other than that, the action is dynamic enough.

So the obvious question is whether or not SAMURAI JACK #1 is worth your money. That’s a moot point for existing fans, who should read it because it continues a story they never got resolution for. Naturally I wonder whether Cartoon Network intends to use this comic series as the engine by which the franchise is eventually concluded. Will this comic end with a multi-part epic where Jack finally reaches his goal? Or is this a means by which Cartoon Network tests the waters of fan interest? To see if it would be worth their time and effort to finally put out that movie? Those are deep question I have no answer for. Though if indeed an ultimate film finale hinges on the success of the comic, it’s our responsibility as fans to buy it.

As for non-fans, those who never watched the show, it’s not like SAMURAI JACK is some impenetrable granite octopus in terms of continuity. The opening narration – which I restated in this very post – tells one everything one needs to understand the series. A samurai fights robots and bounty hunters in the future on a quest to fight their master in the past. That’s it. So jumping into the franchise with SAMURAI JACK, the comic, isn’t a bad place. Though of course I recommend going and watching the cartoon as well, which hopefully this comic will inspire one to do.

If nothing else, it only makes sense to continue the adventures of Jack in comic form. With Mako no longer with us, it just wouldn’t feel kosher replacing Aku’s voice actor with anyone else.

Did I mention the first issue has a bevvy of wonderful alternate covers? It’s one of those instances where choosing between them tortured me, as does the feeling that I might have chosen poorly. This is a great first world problem to have.

SamuraiJack01-cvrSUB-copy Zub-JackVariant-06 Samurai Jack #1 by Genndy Tartakovsky

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