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How Samurai Jack Was Born, Died, and Came Back From The Dead

We don’t often see a cartoon come back from the dead over a decade after its cancellation. Nor do we see many action series capable of reaching every age demographic—millennial and beyond. That’s an alarming pace of growth for a cartoon show produced in the early 2000s. We don’t usually see an animated series return with its original creator, only to reappear darker, meaner, more emotional and artistically daring than we’ve ever remembered. But this show is different. This is the endgame for animated television. This is fucking Samurai Jack.

After 12 years of a Cartoon Network hero missing in action, series mastermind Genndy Tartakovski made a triumphant, confident and engaging return to television this year with his fifth and final season of Samurai Jack. Proving to be everything fans and critics could’ve hoped for, the series thus far has been nothing short of incredible, with near universal praise. It’s a great way of ending a tale that many have awaited.

As we inch closer toward a final tale with Jack and the conclusion to this amazing series, we invite you to take a look into the conception of Samurai Jack and the minds who helped create this show. To help us bid farewell to Samurai Jack once and for all, MASS APPEAL has prepared a definitive history, spanning from Tartakovski’s early years with Dexter’s Laboratory to the Samurai Jack comic book series and the show’s official finale, which airs tomorrow night. 

Genndy Tarakovski was born into a Jewish family in Moscow in 1970, a notoriously anti-Semitic era in the Soviet Union. Despite his father being a successful dentist who operated on Kremlin guards and Olympic-level hockey players, Jews in Russia were badly underprivileged, denied access to the best education and higher-paying jobs. As a result, Genndy’s parents decided to leave Russia and so they could provide a better future for him and his brother. The family emigrated to the United States, eventually choosing Chicago as their new home.

It was during their emigration that Genndy discovered his fascination with cartooning. Passing by a comic book rack in a 7/11, he noticed a Superfriends comic that caught his eye. “It was the first comic book I ever bought,” Tartakovski recalled in a short documentary feature on Samurai Jack‘s Season 2 DVD. “As soon as I opened and read it, it felt amazing. Something about cartooning I fell in love with and I couldn’t get rid of it.”

Throughout his high school years, Genndy’s family encouraged him to pursue advertising at Chicago’s Columbia College. Though it wasn’t an interest of his, he reluctantly signed up for classes but then realized he was late, thus forcing him to enroll in an animation class.

It was here that Tarakovski found his true calling in life. He had an immediate passion for the medium. Although he admits that he wasn’t very good at drawing, he understood how movement in animation better than most of his peers. Columbia College’s animation program was where he met  Robert Renzetti, an animator Genndy would later work alongside to create Dexter’s Laboratory.

Genndy Tarakovski working on ‘Hotel Transylvania’

Both Renzetti and Tarakovski realized Columbia College wasn’t the place to be if they wanted to pursue animation seriously. Everyone knew the best education in animation was to be found at California Institute of the Arts (Cal Arts), which had helped launch the careers of master artists like Brad Bird (The Simpsons, writer and director of animated masterpiece The Iron Giant), Kirk Wise (director of Disney’s original Beauty and the Beast) and Tim Burton (you already know).

After realizing how difficult it was to get accepted into the school, Renzetti and Tarakovski tried to help each other become better artists before applying. Cal Arts accepted Tarakovski after he sent a shoebox of flip books as a portfolio, proving his keen understanding of  animation principles as well as his desire to go hard.

After attending Cal Arts, Tarakovski found work fairly quickly. From 1991–1994, he worked on Batman: The Animated Series, Tiny Toons Adventures and The Critic as an animation timer and an in-between artist. It wasn’t long before the Jack man struck gold.

Craig McCracken, Genndy’s Cal Arts classmate, who would later work for Cartoon Network on the The Powerpuff Girls, recommended Tarakovski and Renzetti to animator Paul Rudish for storyboard work. The two were hired to work for the legendary Hanna-Barbera, thanks to McCracken’s help, both Tarakovski and Renzetti were hired to work on an early ’90s cartoon called 2 Stupid Dogs.

 

Paul Rudish recalled the crew who worked on 2 Stupid Dogs as “the bastard step-children” of Hanna-Barbera. They weren’t allowed to work inside the actual Hanna-Barbera building, but rather inside a trailer on the studio’s parking lot, fleshing out new cartoons for the studios to sell off to TBS and other Turner channels. It was here that the Hanna-Barbera team developed pilots to get picked up on the newly launched Cartoon Network with What A Cartoon! (later called The Cartoon Cartoon Show).

Eventually, What A Cartoon! saw the birth of Dexter’s Laboratory. The pilot episode of Dexter’s Lab was inspired by a short film Tartakovsky wrote and animated while at Cal Arts, called “Changes.” The short took the classic brother and sister rivalry into a different setting. The brother, smart, obsessed with science, intellectual. The sister, on the other hand, was into art and ballet. The sister was ditzy while the brother was savvy.

The two characters made their debut appearance on Cartoon Network in the second episode of What A Cartoon! with their self-titled short, “Dexter’s Laboratory.” The network was blown away with Tartakovski’s work, as were many kids who’d seen the show in the mid-’90s. It was evident to the show’s parent network that Tartakovski knew how to tell a joke that hit audiences through animation.

Let this be known: If it weren’t for Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack would have never existed. DL combined comedy and action unlike any show before it, through its quirky brother/sister rivalry meshed with superhero spoofs like Action Hank and The Justice Friends. The show delivered jokes both adults and children could enjoy. It combined the slapstick style of humor featured in most Hannah-Barbera toons from the ’60s and ’70s, except with ’90s animation, all presented in a refreshing style. Most importantly, it opened up ideas for Genndy Tartakovski.

While creating Dexter’s Lab and working as a producer-director of The Powerpuff Girls Movie (which was a financial bust), Tartakovski had the idea of creating a show that focused more on action than comedy. Sure, elements of action could be found in Dexter’s Laboratory with its many explosions and occasional short superhero spoof. Crafting the cinematography for The Powerpuff Girls Movie may have even increased Tartakovski’s hunger for even more action. He wanted something that showed children the beauty in animation, relying more on cinematic film tactics than linear storytelling and dialogue.

Samurai Jack was the ultimate idea Tartakovski had been waiting to come to life. He pitched Samurai Jack to then–Cartoon Network network executive (and current head programmer at Adult Swim) Mike Lazzo over dinner. Genndy proposed a television show that contained simple tales with maybe 15-minutes of scripting. In an interview with Entertainment Weekly, Mike Lazzo recalled his conversation with Genndy. “He said, ‘Hey, remember David Carradine in Kung Fu? Wasn’t that cool?’ and I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s really cool.’ That was literally the pitch.”

A panel from Frank Miller’s ‘Ronin’

Samurai Jack wasn’t just an idea birthed from the ’70s show Kung Fu. It was also inspired by the minimalistic noir storytelling of comics virtuoso Frank Miller, who created graphic novels like Sin City and the martial arts/samurai influenced Ronin, painted by Lynn Varley. The ’70s manga Lone Wolf and Cub by Kazuo Koike also played a huge role in the making of Samurai Jack, taking direct inspiration from the book’s strong samurai code of ethics. And of course, influential Japanese filmmaker and visionary Akira Kurosawa played a huge part in sparking ideas for Tartakovsky’s show.

Lazzo immediately picked up Samurai Jack for Cartoon Network. Producer Dana Ritchey and Genndy Tartkovaski worked together to recruit a top-notch ensemble of animators, painters, illustrators, and voice talent. The crew was nothing short of talented, coming from all aspects of animation to help hash out the perfect action show for kids.

Background art from Scott Wills’s official blog

Tartakovski needed the best team to execute exactly what he envisioned with Jack. The show was to play out cinematically and he needed storyboard artists to reflect a silent style of storytelling. Just as in old western movies and Kurosawa films, Jack would often jump in aspect ratios. Tartakovski needed artists who could render that sort of visual jump in an eye-catching fashion. His characters were drawn with no outlines, making a difficult job for colorists to finalize palettes for characters without having them blend into the background. All the backgrounds were to be hand painted. Indeed, Samurai Jack was an ambitious project that needed to appear confident, cool and beautiful.

The shift toward digital animation was already on the horizon. Samurai Jack was to be one of hand-drawn animation’s last hopes.

Billy Wray, a background painter of John K.’s Ren & Stimpy, recommended Tartakovski get in touch with a man named Scott Wills who had worked with Wray previously. At the time, Wills was working for Dreamworks, but had become unhappy with the fruits of his labor. He agreed to help Tartakovski with Jack, seeing it as one of his last chances to work on traditional animation. Wills recalled his hiring process in an email to MASS APPEAL:

“I had worked on a series of bad animated features (Space Jam, Quest for Camelot, The Road to Eldorado) and I was pretty burned out on features. The work was quite tame and uninspiring compared to my work on TV shows like Ren & Stimpy. I was starting another Dreamworks feature when Genndy called out of the blue. He asked if I would come by and look at a new series he was developing for Cartoon Network. That’s when I met Genndy, Paul Rudish and Dan Krall. Their work was so fresh and exciting. It was all so cool, stylized and fun! I just had to work on it. I quit Dreamworks the next week.”

Wills worked on paintings like a madman, using acrylic on a tiny frame. Samurai Jack would never reuse backgrounds, which meant Wills had to kick it into overtime and create different environments to appear behind Jack and his ensemble of characters for every episode.

“Genndy was pretty open to whatever I wanted, as long as it supported the story,” Wills told MASS APPEAL. “But coming off of features, I think Genndy had to push me to be more stylized and less realistic. It’s hard to shift gears into a new aesthetic so quickly. There was no development time. I just started right in on the first episode.

What Genndy wanted was mood and drama. Something that was bold and stood out from the other shows. He pushed for anything unusual and unexpected. Never blue skies and green grass. There was no set look or style. Each new episode could be it’s own thing. The only limiting factor was time and the ability of the overseas studio to match the paintings and designs we sent.”

Early Ren & Stimpy background by Scott Wills

The colorists on the show were responsible for making characters clearly visible, despite every character lacking border lines. They would pick the beautiful palettes in Jack’s world, coloring characters, backgrounds and props. Colorist Leticia Lacy recalled Genndy’s hiring process:

“I first started working with Genndy when I got laid off from Spumko working with John K. I was coloring backgrounds for John’s internet cartoons at the time and asked John where should I look for good color work. One of the names he gave me was Genndy Tartakovski at Cartoon Network. I cold-called Genndy, not even doing any research of who he was — if I had known who he was, I might have been nervous to call him. I was a huge Dexter’s Lab fan in college!

I went to Cartoon and showed Genndy what I did for John. I’ll never forget what Genndy said. ‘Oh, John could have done that.’ I was a little offended, but I realized later on that Genndy loves to get a rise out of people and kid around and that sort of thing, but I didn’t know him at all then! He gave me a test after that meeting and then, from the test, he hired me. The first episode I colored the characters, props and efx for was the Scotsman episode (“Jack and the Scotsman: Part 1,” Season One, Episode 11). The Scotsman is still one of the best characters, I think.

My job for Samurai was always to make characters feel like they were part of the environment and also pop off the backgrounds. Genndy was going for a really stylized beautiful show from the get-go. The style had no outer lines to characters and props, which is different than a lot of shows at the time. Taking off all the lines the way we did in those years was way more time-consuming than it is today, with cleanups being done in programs like Illustrator. In those early seasons, cleanups were still done on paper, scanned in, and we digitally erased every line. I think Genndy just always knew he wanted to make features, so Samurai was a step towards feature qualities for the time. For one show, I could send Jack’s ‘white’ robe in many different hues, which made him feel like he was going through all the different scene palettes.”

Of course, Samurai Jack wouldn’t be complete without its share of talented voice actors. Japanese-American actor Mako Iwamatsu was casted for the role of the evil shape-shifting Aku. Mako was credited as playing the roles of Akiro the Wizard in Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Destroyer, and later on in Avatar.

Actor Phil LeMarr, who at the time was best known for his work on Mad TV and Pulp Fiction, auditioned for the role of Jack. After the show’s producers expressed interest in LeMarr joining the show’s production, LeMarr told MASS APPEAL he was invited to read off a few lines with direction from Genndy Tartkavski. Tartkavski described Jack as a “Young Asian Clint Eastwood,” leaving Lemarr to read off numerous lines as the character in a stern voice.

He told MASS APPEAL how he got the inspiration for Jack’s voice:

“I spent a good bit of time working with a predominantly Japanese comedy troupe here in LA called Cold Tofu. We used to rehearse in Japantown and do shows out there. It was really cool because it was mostly second- and third-generation Japanese actors. It was interesting to hear that there were commonalities among people who grew up in Japanese-speaking households but spoke English. One of the earliest thing Genndy said during the audition—because Jack is described as a Japanese Samurai—is ‘I don’t want a heavy accent.’ My thought was, well I will basically give him a ney-say accent instead of a native Japanese speaking English. That, with Genndy’s feedback, is where I drew the accent part of the voice. The tone, the timber, the stuff like that—again, that was the physicality of the character. He was a hero: fit, young, strong. It made no sense cluttering it up. He has a clean, clear way of speaking.

“[Jack] has a strong man’s voice. He’s not like, roided out. Genndy guided me to a place where the voice matched the vision in his head.” —Mako

“Clint Eastwood is the go-to person that doesn’t talk a lot, but when he does, you really feel it,” Genndy Tartakovski revealed in a Red Carpet Report interview. “That was the thing with Jack, because we knew we wouldn’t have a lot of dialogue. So when he does talk, we wanted it to be great and underplayed. Underplayed is something that isn’t done a lot.”

This is especially true in cartooning. In fact, when Mike Lazzo initially tried selling the idea of Samurai Jack to Turner Entertainment Networks, Cartoon Network president Brad Siegal was skeptical of the show’s subtleness. ”The first thing he said was ‘It’s a little slow, isn’t it?,’” Lazzo told Entertainment Weekly. “Then he showed it to his kids. He walked in the next day and said, ‘Never mind.”’

 

With a crew assembled and Tartakovski on a mission to create an explosive start to his cinematic animation, they began working on the show, kicking off with three episodes of Samurai Jack, otherwise known as The Premiere Movie (a compilation of “Episode I: The Beginning,” “Episode II: The Samurai Called Jack” and “Episode III: The First Fight”). Paul Rudish joined Tartakovski to help write the premiere, in addition to helping with storyboard work and character design. Also aiding with character and prop design was newcomer Andy Suriano, who, at the time, was on hiatus from working on Fairly Oddparents.

“A friend, Chris Savino [Nickelodeon’s The Loud House], told me about [Genndy’s] show that was about to go into production at Cartoon Network and told me I’d love it,” Andy Suriano told MASS APPEAL. “He showed my portfolio to Genndy and told him he had to look at my work. I was still relatively new [to the animation industry]. I met with Genndy and he gave me a small design test of like, five character designs to do of mutants, warriors, dancers—standard Cantina fare—over the weekend. I came back with 26! I was so into the concept and the development art I saw I guess it showed in my ‘audition.’ having only done one design job previously, I had a steep learning curve, but it was always my dream!”

The Premiere Movie first aired on Cartoon Network in August of 2001. It was focused on not only introducing the heroic Jack and evil Aku to an audience of children, but also showing off the show’s structure. It was apparent to Cartoon Network’s young audience that this show was different—far from a typical cartoon.  The show’s colors popped from its characters without any bold black lines. Characters were flat, almost melting into each hand-painted background. The music guided most of the film, helping to create an atmosphere and building on cinematography not found anywhere else in animation. Most viewers were so engaged, they probably didn’t notice the lack of dialogue between characters which, at one point, lasted for over 10 minutes.

Thanks to the combined efforts of Tartakovaski, Paul Rudish, Brian A. Miller and overseas Korean animators Yu Mun Jeong, Yeol Jung Chang and Bong Koh Jae, the show’s pilot was a success. Samurai Jack: The Premiere Movie would be nominated for an Emmy Award in the category of Outstanding Animated Program (One Hour or More). Annie Awards would be given to Dan Krall, James L Venable, and Bryan Andrews for their work on production design, storyboarding and music, respectively. Scott Wills was also nominated for an Annie for his production design work.

Scott Wills was a major key to the show’s overall look and design. He told us via email what inspired his feeling for Jack:

“Common influences like Eyvind Earle’s work on Sleeping Beauty and Mary Blair’s on Alice in Wonderland. Disney design from the ’50s and ’60s is truly astonishing and is unsurpassed to this day. Another big influence is the Looney Tunes shorts from the ’40s and ’50s. Maurice Noble and Paul Julian are two designers I adore. For more experimental ideas, I would look to fine art painters like Paul Klee, Kandinsky, Joan Miro and others. The list of influences is a mile long, but I guess the pool of influence is art and design from the ’40s to the ’60s. These seem to be the peak years of experimentation and creativity. A golden age of design.”

From the show’s pilot onward, the episode rushed by in a blur. Combining artwork that felt like Little Golden Books with stories that felt surreal, experimental and full of wonder, Jack became a forward-thinking powerhouse in animation. Between the years  2001 and 2004, Samurai Jack aired on Cartoon Network without much of a break for its creators. A movie was planned in 2002 but was unfortunately scrapped due to the financial bust of the Powerpuff Girls Movie.

 

Genndy and his team of animators and artists hashed out ideas in the series that would go down as some of the more recognizable and substantial pieces of cartooning in the 2000s. Mark Andrews (now at Pixar) and Bryan Andrews (now at Disney) created the epic episode “Jack and the Three Blind Archers,” which focused on sound design and strong storyboarding for Jack to fight three heavily skilled archers in near complete silence. The two would also work on the episode “Jack and the Scotsman,” introducing another lively character who was the polar opposite of Jack, but a hero nonetheless, voiced by John DiMaggio.

Jack and the Spartans,” directed by Genndy and Randy Myers and written by Bryan Andrews and Brian Larsen, saw a tribute to Frank Miller’s 300 with Jack helping an army of warriors prevail in a massive battle. “Tale of X-9”, written by Bryan Andrews and Genndy Tartakovsky, may be one of the series’ coolest, most stylish and brilliant episodes ever, telling a noir story of a retired robot hitman named X-9 in search of his dog.

 

Samurai Jack ended its initial run on September 25, 2004 with its final episode in season four, “Jack and the Baby.” The show wasn’t picked up for a fifth season. Tartakovski and some of his crew were working on a dream project for George Lucas, Star Wars: Clone Wars. A proper finale for Samurai Jack was just not an idea that would have worked in 2004.

“At the time, doing an ending was too daunting for me.” Genndy said in a roundtable feature on the series’ Season Four DVD. “I couldn’t handle it mentally and physically. [We thought], we’ll do it later, we won’t end the [fourth] season in a spectacular fashion. I didn’t know what would be the fate of Jack. I was burned out, I had a baby too and I needed to stop for a second.”

With Jack’s fourth season ending, Tartakovski set off to finish Star Wars: Clone Wars in 2005. Later, he would co-create a short-lived show for Cartoon Network called Sym-Bionic Titan with Bryan Andrews and Paul Rudish. Phil LaMarr, of course, worked on several video games (including the critically panned 2004 PS2 2 game Samurai Jack: The Shadow of Aku), television shows and films providing voiceover work for other properties. Most of the series’ crew went on to work in feature films or for studios like Disney, Pixar or Nickelodeon.

After Samurai Jack’s fourth season, each passing year slowly pushed the series into an abyss of nostalgia. Although the television show was adored by its audience, many children and teenagers who grew up with Jack simply matured and later deemed it a kid’s cartoon. At its peak, it was a show worth growing up with, until the day we developed an urge to look away from our television sets and go outside. But that didn’t last long either.

Of course, this was the time where the Internet was just beginning to pop off. From MySpace to Xanga to Tumblr to Facebook, the millennial generation had grown to love impersonal interactions, forming digital “friendships” over the internet via message boards and blogs. These platforms helped younger folks share the feeling of happiness over nostalgia, instantly attracting members of Generation Y who loved the cartoons of their youth. Within the past decade, with the rise and dominance of the internet, easily shareable media and the millennial attraction to nostalgia, Samurai Jack’s popularity boomed again.

Further proof arrived when, in 2013, character designer Andy Suriano jumped aboard a project with Skullkickers writer Jim Zub to produce a full-on Samurai Jack comic book with publisher IDW. The comic book series picked up exactly where season four of Samurai Jack left off, with our titular hero finding a lost baby and searching for a mother. Zub and Suriano teamed up to put an ending to the original Samurai Jack tale— with Genndy Tartakovski’s blessings of course —and give fans some sort of closure. The comic book series ended in 2015 with an homage to season three of Samurai Jack, with the episode “Jack and Travelling Creatures,” in which Jack is portrayed as a king and legend.

It wasn’t until December of 2015 that fans of Jack would finally dare to hope for an actual ending to Samurai Jack. The return was officially confirmed and announced by Tartakovski and Cartoon Network’s sister channel, Adult Swim. Just two years ago, we were given more than enough to hold us over until the magical year of 2017. But of course, questions were immediately raised and details were scarce.

Is he finally going to kill Aku? Will he return to the past and undo the evil Aku has created? Could this really be the end of Jack’s tale?

“In those 12 years [since the season four finale], we’ve seen five different studios try and develop a [Samurai Jack] movie and it never went anywhere,” said Tartakovsky earlier this year at a press event with Cartoon Network. And in those 12 years, Samurai Jack hadn’t lost its grip on millennial minds. It remained a constant, existing as a beautiful work of art that had an appeal more powerful than simple nostalgia. Obviously, it hadn’t left the mind of Tartakovsky. It wasn’t ever intended to be put on the back-burner for eternity or left alone by any of the artists who worked on the show. It was meant to be finished.

And this year, we’re seeing its ending. Stay tuned this Saturday, May 20, as Jack finally puts an end to his struggle, and Tartakovsky puts a nail in the coffin, and stakes his claim once and for all to be the king of TV animation.

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