Samurai Champloo. Afro Samurai. Manga/anime centered on Bushidō warriors against the backdrop of hip hop culture mixed with imagery of feudal Japan injected into a semi-modernized world. These Japanese creations have found there away across seas and have been translated and merged into geek culture here in America. However, all of these hip hop samurai owe homage to the man who appeared before them here on American (albeit ironically being a character of Japanese descent) soil: Samurai Jack. Some of you unfortunately may not have had the chance to experience the glorious world of Cartoon Network’s Samurai Jack in the early 2000’s. Fret not, because IDW has provided a compact director’s cut of the show’s original first few episodes in the form of explosive comic book mayhem and storytelling in Samurai Jack Special Director’s Cut.
The first thing that captures the reader and drops them into this reimagined world of Samurai Jack is the cover art drawn by Bill Wray that combines the iconic geometric-esque artwork that the writer and original TV show creator Genndy Tartakovsky (Dexter’s Laboratory, Samurai Jack, Star Wars: Clone Wars) is known for with the dark and intense comic style made popular by artists such as Frank Miller in the 80’s and into the 90’s. What is grand about this approach to the cover (which is unfortunately, in my opinion, left out of the internal pages of the comic) is the ironic or possibly purposefully intended connection to Frank Miller’s art that hardcore fans of the original cartoon series will pick up on. Tartakovsky has acknowledged before that a couple of his many influences for the show came from Miller’s works such as the plot of Miller’s comic series Ronin and the plot of 300 that inspired an episode titled “Jack and the Spartans.” So it is appropriate enough that the cover of Samurai Jack Special Director’s Cut resembles a splash page out of one of Frank Miller’s creations.
The initial pages of the comic faithfully adapt the “moment-for-moment,” as artist Wray calls it, action of the cartoon show. The ancient evil wizard Aku rises from the prison he has been placed in by Jack’s father, the Emperor, as Jack listens to the story of the battle in Feudal Japan between the Emperor and Aku told by his father who imprisoned Aku many years before with an enchanted sword forged for him by three monks in the mountains whom possessed great mystical powers. After Jack hears the tale, his father leaves the room as the child Jack slashes the air reminiscent of his father as the young emperor fighting the demon wizard in the years long past (Insert mental image here of you as a child with your Toys ‘R’ Us plastic sword laying a brutal beatdown on your little siblings, little cousins, and your parent’s furniture…No? Just me? Ok, whatever). Suddenly, Aku returns to the land and begins to destroy it with his evil wizardry as Jack’s father is captured and the Empress whisks Jack away in a previously created plan made by Jack’s parents uttered by the Emperor as he is dragged away. The comic fast tracks the montage of Jack being trained in different disciplines across the globe from adolescence into his early adult years before finally returning home to his mother who hands over the enchanted sword once used by father to imprison Aku. Jack frees his father and some other slaves while cutting down Aku’s minions in a mine before facing the wizard in an epic battle. Aku shapeshifts into many forms, each defeated by Jack, before finally falling underneath Jack’s blade face to face with his impending death. However, before Jack can make his final blow, Aku whisks Jack away into the distant future through a portal trap set by the wizard that transports Jack into a sci-fi world filled with towering skyscrapers and flying cars (The Fifth Element, anyone? “KORBEEEEEEEN”).
Jack ducks and dodges the flying cars and futuristic construction drones as he falls to the ground from the portal that opens above the city, unknowingly watched by a group of urban teens. The teens humorously baffle Jack with street slang narrating and cheering Jack’s entrance, filled with multiple forms of “Yo” and “Sahn” and other jazzy talk reminiscent of “izzle” speak that would make Snoop Dogg face palm while laughing at the same time (“Yea, that joint is the Bizzy Bizzoam!”). Jack stumbles into an establishment the teens direct him to where he stumbles into aliens and other creatures who are foreign to him frightening him while mistakenly causing a brawl where he gains the upper hand against some big nasties he has accidentally offended. A group of anthropomorphic dogs which he initially incorrectly identifies as “demon dogs” approach and recruit Jack to help them free their brothers who Aku has enslaved to mine lands that the civilization of dogs were excavating in archeological digs to discover the lives of their canine ancestors. Jack does so successfully in a big brawl against more of Aku’s drones in the dessert and alerts Aku to his reemerged presence in the future; Aku is ready to make sure Samurai Jack does not win this new battle that is on the horizon.
Samurai Jack Special Director’s Cut is an exciting leap into nostalgia for 90’s kids such as myself who miss the zany yet deep storytelling of the twisted cartoons that we grew up. Though inevitable differences between television animation and comic books leave out scenes and artwork such as the Japanese woodprinted images that could be implanted in a 30-minute TV show, the essence of the story remains intact. My only complaint is the Hip-Hop soundtrack of the show and pop culture self-awareness that could not be translated into the comics because of obvious sound effects that can’t be placed into visual arts. This venture into adapting Samurai Jack into comics may be more fully realized in a digital comic equipped with musical soundtracks and voice overs. Though all-in-all, for those on the go who may find it more convenient to pick up a comic at their local comic book retailer on their way to work, Samurai Jack Special Director’s Cut provides a great read inspired by a contemporary cartoon classic. (Side Note: If you have access to Netflix, the first season of the Samurai Jack is available to view in all of its glory as a precursor to reading this adaptation).
My Rating: 4/5