Talking to the Animator Behind Your Favorite Cartoon Network Characters

We caught up with Genndy Tartakovsky, who was instrumental in 'Samurai Jack,' 'Dexter's Laboratory,' and 'The Powerpuff Girls.'

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Apr 6 2017, 6:15pm

Samurai Jack is one of the most under-appreciated cartoon series of the past 20 years. Following a nomadic samurai who regularly gets into skirmishes in a dystopian techno-punk future, its debut—between 2001 and 2004—was on the children's TV channel Cartoon Network. However, it's anything but childish: When it comes to cartoons being considered "art"—both on an aesthetic and emotional level—Samurai Jack is up there with anything from Fantasia to that Simpsons episode where Homer's mom has to go into hiding and the credits roll over him staring up at the stars.

If you need convincing, watch "The Birth of Evil Part I & II," the Emmy award–winning two-part episode that details the beginnings of the series' main antagonist, Aku, and try to tell me it's not as visually impressive or moving as anything else on TV.

Samurai Jack's creator, Genndy Tartakovsky, is a low-key genius. You may have never heard his name before, but the 47-year-old Russian American was instrumental in Cartoon Network's holy trinity: Dexter's Laboratory, Samurai Jack, and The Powerpuff Girls. He created the first two, and he wrote, directed, and produced all three.

The climactic final season of Samurai Jack premiered on Adult Swim last month, so I got in touch with Tartakovsky to find out how it feels to have impacted an entire generation with his cartoons.

Tartakovsky during the production of the latest season of Samurai Jack. Screenshot via YouTube/Adult Swim

Firstly, though, why did he want to release the conclusion to Samurai Jack now, 13 years after the last episode was shown? "Well, the story was never finished, so it definitely felt like we needed to," he explained. "The show's popularity has increased as time's gone on, so I felt eventually we needed to finish it."

As well as steadily gaining more fans since it first came out, Samurai Jack—along with Dexter's Lab, and Powerpuff Girls—has seemingly gotten better with age. I know when I look back at episodes like Dexter's "Omelette Du Fromage"—one that somehow remains hilarious for all ten minutes, despite the only words uttered being "omelette," "du," and "fromage"—I still shake with laughter. And when I re-watch the Powerpuff Girls, I notice how they were, as silly as it sounds for a children's cartoon, sort of televisual feminist pioneers, in that they were three undoubtedly feminine characters who were completely unbound by gender constructs. They kicked the shit out of grown men, they outsmarted the bad guys, and they saved the day without ever relying on male assistance, unlike many other female heroes of the time.

In all of Tartakovsky's programs, there is a depth and subtlety that goes way beyond what other animated shows were doing at the time, and you could argue they laid down the blueprint for injecting subliminal adult humor into children's films, which is now the standard for any Pixar or Disney computer-animated feature. But he seemed pretty nonchalant when I suggested this to him.

"It's just all the stuff that I wanted to see on TV," he said. "Whenever I needed to think of ideas or stories, I thought of myself watching TV and would think about what I would want to see or feel."

But surely he must realize his work has been hugely influential to younger generations?

"Yeah, it feels good," he said. "Nothing makes me feel warmer than when people come up to me and say they do what they do in art or animation because of one of my shows."


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Artistic inspiration comes thick and fast in Tartakovsky's work. You need only look at the imaginative Powerpuff Girls villains, like HIM and Mojo Jojo; or the detail that goes into the average Samurai Jack landscape; or the comic inventiveness that runs throughout the whole visual world of Dexter's Lab. Mind you, artistically this wasn't strictly down to Tartakovsky himself, but from working with long-time collaborator Don Shank—whose unique retro future stylings can also be seen in Up, The Incredibles, and Ren & Stimpy—as well as fellow animator Craig McCracken, who created The Powerpuff Girls.

You can also flip all that on its head, and look at the range of influences Tartakovsky has managed to inject into his own work. In Samurai Jack alone you can see traces of films like Seven Samurai, and Shogun Assassin, as well as anime like Ninja Scroll, and Speed Racer.

"It's funny that a lot of my influences aren't actually manga and anime," he explains. "For Jack there are a lot of 70s films: The Conversation, Apocalypse Now, Sergio Leone westerns, Sam Peckinpah films, as well as [Akira] Kurosawa, of course."

Samurai Jack certainly has a more cinematic feel than any of Tartakovsky's best Cartoon Network stuff: there are more widescreen, more atmospheric silences lingering on a single shot, and more tension. Considering it's primarily aimed at children, Tartakovsky's work has just as much durability as your average standalone episode of ER, The X-Files, or any other iconic television program aimed at adult audiences. It's more imaginative, more vibrant, and boasts more variety from episode to episode.

Now we're living in a post-Simpsons world, where people want adult themes in their cartoons, and in an age in which anime and manga have never been more popular, it seems like the right time for Samurai Jack to return to our screens. For me, it's still one of the best TV shows—adult or otherwise—of the last 20 years.

Follow Tom Usher on Twitter.

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