Genndy Tartakovsky is undeniably one of the major figures in modern animation. His work on television shows like “Dexter’s Laboratory,” “Samurai Jack,” “Star Wars: Clone Wars” and “Sym-Bionic Titan” ranges from imaginative to downright groundbreaking, and his transition to the big screen with the critically acclaimed and box office topping “Hotel Transylvania” was virtually seamless.
In recent years, Tartakovsky has been focusing on getting a number of other projects off the ground including “Popeye” and a new “Samurai Jack” miniseries. But until those see the light of day, fans have his first Marvel Comics work to tide them over.
“Cage,” announced years ago, has finally arrived in comic stores worldwide. Though the project was dropped when Tartakovsky became too busy, recurring fan demand had it pop up on the comics industry's radar here and there until, finally, the animator returned to finish the comic.
With the first of the four issue miniseries written and penciled by Tartakovsky with inks by Stephen DeStefano and colors by Scott Willis, now on sale, Tartakovsky spoke with CBR about the book. We also dove into the status of some of his animated projects, and got a little deep about how artists can self-sabotage their work, and, perhaps most importantly, his love of Dynomutt.
CBR: “Cage” was first announced years ago, and has finally been released. What made you interested in making a comic in the first place, because you haven’t made many in your career?
Genndy Tartakovski: When I emigrated to America in the late '70s, I discovered comics and I fell in love. I grew up an '80s kid, with comics and artists like Frank Miller’s “Daredevil,” John Byrne’s “Fantastic Four.” Making a comic, a Marvel Comic especially, was always a fantasy. I always wanted to do it, but never thought I could do it professionally. I was bitten by the animation bug, but it was always on my list of things to do. Do a real, sanctioned Marvel comic.
Why Luke Cage? Were you a big fan?
I was always a fan of Iron Fist and Luke Cage and Master of Kung Fu. When I got an offer to do a comic, Cage was on my list of stuff I wanted to do. To do this more '70s cartoony variation on him. All my ideas were like that.
This is how you saw the '70s, looking back on it?
I initially got to know the character in the '70s, in that kind of setting. It felt like a he came out of all that stuff and so it felt truthful for me to do it that way. There are plenty of people re-imagining nowadays. I wanted it to be authentic to what it was in my brain. Especially when I re-read all of them, they’re pretty silly in a way. Even though there’s some serious stuff, there’s always a cartooniness to comics back then. Like where he’s fighting Mr Fish and The Mace, who has a giant mace for a hand. [Laughs] You can’t take that stuff too seriously.
Nowadays, comics are much more real, which is cool, it’s fine, but when you’re a kid and you have a perception of what they are and that sticks in your brain, you don’t really outgrow it. That’s the way I always saw it.
Reading the first issue, it felt like you were checking off a lot of boxes about how Luke Cage was portrayed, but now we laugh at those over the top aspects.
Exactly. I was such a fan of the comics, I didn’t want to just undo everything that I knew and do “my” version and change the origin story and all that stuff. I wanted to recreate the feeling of how I interpreted it.
“Cage” #1 read like a love letter to those comics and that period. The way you use language, the thought balloons and other elements.
For sure. It was so much fun doing it. In the middle of the whole process, I was like, is anyone going to like this or appreciate this nowadays? I haven’t really followed comic books for a number of years because once the art style started to change and become more real and less exaggerated, in a way, it turned me off. It’s like my movies. We’ve got so much reality in life -- and not all of it great -- sometimes we want escapism.
You mentioned some of the Marvel Comics you were a fan of, but I’m guessing that you were a “Mad Magazine” fan as a kid, as well.
That didn’t come until later. I was a superhero purist -- though I have this secret love of funny animals. Nobody’s ever known this before. [Laughs] I loved Dynomutt and Blue Falcon. I loved Hong Kong Phooey. I really loved the superheroes as animals. “Mad Magazine” came much later for me, when I discovered Harvey Kurtzman and Jack Davis and Wally Wood. All that stuff blew my mind much later.
Were you were mostly interested in the more offbeat, stranger heroes?
To a degree. I did love “Avengers” and “Fantastic Four.” To be honest, I was a fan of art, so I would follow the comics that the artists drew. Whatever Frank Miller or George Perez or John Byrne or Paul Smith or whoever were doing, I would read, even if I wasn’t crazy about the superhero. You know how sometimes you get fooled because the artist who did the cover didn’t draw the inside? [Laughs] As a kid, that really upset me, so from a young age I distinctly remember I always checked the inside art to see who was drawing it. If it was that artist, I would always buy it.
Everyone I think pretty much knows that you started this comic, and then it fell by the wayside when you got busy. What made you interested in picking it back up and finishing it after so many years?
One, it was always in the back of my head. I felt like I failed Marvel, and I failed myself and didn’t see it all the way through. I think, on a subconscious level, if you want to go deep for a second, it was about actually finishing it and having it come out as a real comic. We’re all insecure as artists to a degree. and it’s like, oh my God, it’s going to be out there and it’s my drawings and they’re going to judge it. It’s my childhood dream come true, and sometimes you’re always self-sabotaging.
But then, I was looking through one of my backup files and I saw it, and I looked through it. I thought, it still holds up and the ideas were still there. I was still laughing at it. So I thought, let me put it out in the atmosphere and see if it comes back and works out. And it did.
How much had you done? How much was left to finish?
I had all four issues roughed out and written. My roughs are pretty clean. The posing and cartooning is part of the story process for me, so I had it figured out. It was just tightening it up, drawing things a little better now than I did eight years ago, and finishing it.
Stephen DeStefano is inking the book, and Scott Wills is coloring it. You’ve worked with both of them over the years on different projects.
Stephen’s been working with me since I first discovered him on the “Dexter’s Laboratory” comic, which he drew amazingly. We’ve worked together ever since on “Sym-Bionic Titan,” he’s helping us out with “Samurai Jack.” I used him on “Hotel Transylvania” and “Popeye.” He’s a great talent. I asked him if he would ink it, and luckily, he agreed. Scott’s been with me since the “Samurai Jack” days and so we’ve pretty much been working together nonstop for the last fifteen years. Scott begrudgingly agreed to do it, even though he’s not really from a comic book background. But just his colors and his sense of storytelling with color are amazing. I couldn’t do it without Scott or Stephen.
In recent years, you’ve been directing the “Hotel Transylvania” films among other projects. I think those films really pushed CG animation in different ways, but I can’t help but feel like after working in CG, there’s a reason you wanted to hand draw something that was yours.
Absolutely. As much fun as I had making that CG more cartoony and more of my sensibility, my true love is something hand drawn. I think we forget the experience of watching that kind of hand-crafted look on the screen. I mean, we still see it in comics, but I miss drawing when I’m directing. I still draw, but none of it gets to the screen, directly.
I still really believe in the 2D image. It all started for me when I was fourteen or fifteen and they reissued the old Disney “Jungle Book.” I went to see it in the theater, and it mesmerized me. There’s nothing like drawings that big, moving that beautifully with that kind of beautiful color and storytelling. It’s a completely different experience than CG. CG is very detailed and slick. It’s beautiful in its own right, but it’s very real. It’s obvious through all of my work that I do like a point of view on things. I don’t like to just mimic reality. I think that’s what makes us artists, in a way. I wanted to make sure no matter what I did -- whether it be CG or hand drawn -- that you could say, only Genndy could do that.
Since I have you here, I have to ask a few short questions about animation. One, you’ve mentioned a feature film “Can You Imagine” a few times over the years. Are you still working on it?
Unfortunately, “Can You Imagine” is on a hold for now. It’s just part of the feature process. You start a project, and it goes a certain direction, and then perhaps the studio doesn’t want to go in that direction. So right now, it’s on pause. I’m not working on it, actively.
Are you directing “Hotel Transylvania 3?”
Yes, we just started.
Will the sequel have more Mel Brooks?
The plan is to have Mel back. I mean, he’s pretty amazing. [Laughs]
We know you’re finishing “Samurai Jack” right now. Does it have a release date yet?
Not yet that we can announce, but it’s coming up. I’m actually storyboarding the tenth episode right now.
Is there anything you can say or want to say about it? I know a lot of people are really excited about the return.
You’re going to have to wait a little bit longer, but from all the reactions I’ve been getting from the storyboards, it’s going to be worth the wait. I know that’s saying a lot, but it’s the best work we’ve done. It’s the next level for Jack, and for anything that I’ve done.