What is it about nostalgia?
If the pragmatists can be believed, and the price of death is to be forgotten then nostalgia is, in the least, a kind of haphazard life blood; the resurgent flow of which has kept the heroes and villains of popular culture from becoming the irrelevant prisoners of the distant past and instead allowed them to flourish and thrive in the collective consciousness; well beyond their predicted expiries.
There is an indelible fascination then—and at times a hard-pressed fixation—to be had with the past; a torrid kind of love-affair that pulls back and tethers us each to this history—shared, collective, or otherwise—much like a cosmic drawstring through time. The magnetic impulse to favor and appreciate the past seems almost hard-coded into so much of the creative enterprise, that it would be a challenge to deny how much of consumed-media depends on, derives from, and defines itself by what has come before.
Yet nostalgia channels more than a mere dictate of the past; more than homage or allusion, even. Instead it hovers well beyond those ideas, with an elemental sort of quality; wholly indivisible and intangible but certainly quantitative. After all, it is this calculable fondness of the bygone that has managed to drive and sustain industries, markets as well as, of course, art itself.
And comic books are no exception.
To the contrary in fact, nostalgia may very well be tantamount to a fundamental force in comics today. The itch to glance through the rear-view; to absorb the sights and sounds of present through the colored-lenses of the past is a raw desire and it should come as no astonishment to reflect that art is, after all, about feeling.
But is it at all effective?
While there is an unquestionable measure of manipulation—either self-derived or pre-manufactured—peppered into any nostalgic formula, not all artistic sentimentality yields compelling or even practical results. Works can on occasion, fall victim to uninspired storytelling, uneven tone, and—ironically enough—unfavorable comparisons to the past and these half-baked results are customarily met with more hesitant reproach than open arms.
And yet as IDW’s revival series, Samurai Jack, so fittingly proves, occasionally does not always have to equate to always.
The follow-up project to the sublime new-millennium animated series of the same name, Samurai Jack is somewhat of a cultural conundrum. Born almost a decade following the abrupt demise of Cartoon Network’s eccentric animated program and the brain-child of animator-director Genndy Tartakovsky (of Dexter’s Laboratory fame), IDW’s two-year, twenty-issue run may come as too-little-too-late for the faithful but there are a plethora of reasons to—much like the eponymous hero himself—take a journey back to the past.
The original 2001 animated series followed the untimely (pun-intended) adventures of a nameless samurai from the antique lands of feudal Japan; flung through the currents of time and into the mechanized, urban-dystopia of the future by a malevolent, shape-shifting demon, who now rules with impunity. Early thematic comparisons to Frank Miller’s manga-influenced limited-series, Ronin, aside, Jack quickly established itself as much more than a re-skinned reinterpretation. The series was instead a fresh-faced attempt at though-provoking television; fusing elements of genre-films, art-house sensibility, and cultural mythology and bundled all that brimming creative potency into a twenty-two minute thrill-ride.
Samurai Jack’s futile attempts to return to his own time ended fifty-two episodes later, sans definitive conclusion and within the blink of an eye the ronin-prince disappeared from screens—but not from hearts. There has long been a consistent hope (nearing on demand) to give Samurai Jack a proper send-off. And until only recently, nothing had materialized.
February 2013 saw IDW launch Samurai Jack back into history with a revitalized series that continued the time-travelling samurai’s grand quest to defeat his tormentor, Aku, and return to his own present. Since its debut, the series has successfully and succinctly managed to maintain the unwritten charm of its parent series to grand effect and the creative decision to continue Jack’s story rather than conclude it proves to pay dividend for all parties.
The series’ first arc—smartly re-introducing Jack with its familiar and iconic animated series opening—The Threads of Time, sets up a renewed sense of purpose both for readers and the warrior-prince himself, as he wanders through Greco-Roman ruins, mountainous highlands, snowy-vistas, and the like, on his hunt for a mythic artifact that promises to return him to his own time.
Samurai Jack deftly weaves its established roots into new ground and its new medium with surprising effortlessness thanks to the thoughtful writing of Jim Zub and playful art of Andy Suriano—who channels Tartakovsky’s bravado style with practiced ease. The series continues with its predecessor’s signature appreciation for cinematic quality including dialogue-less panels (even virtually an entire issue), long-takes bookended by bursts of brilliant violence—the likes of Kurosowa and classic Westerns—a playful commitment to comedic brevity, and of course compelling drama. Everything fits so well that the twenty issues together feel more as though Samurai Jack returned for a fifth season than they do a mere comic book run and if this was the commitment of the creators then it would certainly be an accomplished intent.
Suriano’s artwork is edgy, lush, wild, and at times the action is outlined with such ferocious line-work that the panels capture the savage nature of Jack’s tribulations with excellent intensity. Colours burst from the pages with all but an audible crack and each issue manages to capture the artistic sensibility that made the original so novel without ever missing a proverbial beat; stark blacks; swirls of exploding primaries; jaggedly stained panels; a patchwork of visual stimuli that readers can’t help but explore and discover—it’s all here.
For the most part.
While the series (wisely) favours to conclude with a creative bookend the story, readers will find—much the like the animated series—remains an open target that has yet to be struck and without a definitive ending, it would seem that some would be hard-pressed to justify exploring the series.
But the absence of an ending not without cause.
Despite its playful nods and references to the series from which it draws existence, Samurai Jack is still (and it could be argued, always was) largely a vehicle for the nostalgic and this is the crux of the quandary that makes it and the overall story such a compelling series for those with one eye on the past: it simply fits. From readers’ desires to revisit the wandering samurai’s journey, to Jack’s own pangs of longing to return to the past, and everything in between all help to serve the deep-seeded idea that that the past is not always simply the past.
It can be a means to the future.
Samurai Jack is welcome breath of air that manages to simultaneously reinvigorate the past while carving its own path.