It’s been a fantastic year for fans of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Not only did the “Legend of Korra” animated series debuted to near-universal critical and fan acclaim, but Dark Horse continued to up the “Avatar” ante with its graphic novel series “The Promise,” which helps fill in the gap between the end of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and “Legend of Korra.” Written by “American Born Chinese” creator Gene Luen Yang with art by Gurihiru Studios, the three-part graphic novel series wraps in September — but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of Avatar Aang’s adventures.
This weekend at the American Library Association, Dark Horse announced Yang and Gurihiru will return for a second “Avatar: The Last Airbender” graphic novel series called “The Search,” which explores the biggest unsolved mystery in “Avatar” lore: what happened to Prince Zuko’s mother?
CBR News spoke with Yang, a longtime “Avatar: The Last Airbender” fan, about his work on “The Search,” wrapping up “The Promise, his feelings about “Legend of Korra,” the challenge of linking the two shows and their characters together and the return of Princess Azula.
CBR News: Gene, the last time you spoke with CBR, “The Promise: Part One” hadn’t been released yet and “Avatar” fans were still chomping at the bit for “Legend of Korra.” Now, “The Promise: Part Two” has just dropped and “Legend of Korra” just aired its season finale. First off, as a fan of the series, how have you been enjoying “Legend of Korra?”
Gene Luen Yang: I’ve loved every episode of “Legend of Korra” so far. The animation in the original show was great, but the Korra stuff is really in a league of its own. The bending fights are nothing short of spectacular. And also there’s this dynamic — all our old friends from the first show are now legends. So far, we’ve seen statues of Aang, Zuko and Toph. It reminds us of something that’s true in the real world, too — the actions of a few, even a few teenagers, can have big consequences down the road.
Of all the Korra characters, my favorite is probably Tenzin. I appreciate how different he is from his dad. I like that he’s so uptight. And with kids of my own, I really relate to what he has to deal with.
This weekend, you announced “The Search” as the next miniseries in the “Avatar” series of Dark Horse’s graphic novels. As a fan of the original “Avatar: The Last Airbender” series, I’d really love that title to refer to Zuko’s long-lost mother — what can you tell us about the significance of the title?
I’m not totally sure how much I’m allowed to say — but you’re right! It’s really, really surreal. Like every other “Airbender” fan out there, I gasped at the end of that scene in the last episode, where Zuko confronts Ozai. How could Mike and Bryan just leave us hanging like that?! In the last episode, with no immediate plans for resolution! And now, for me to have a hand in answering some of those questions — like I said, surreal.
Beyond the title of the book, is there anything you can tell fans about the storyline of “The Search” and where it’ll take Team Avatar?
I’ve always loved the supernatural elements of the Avatarverse. The
Season 1 finale was one of my favorite sequences in the series. We didn’t really do much supernatural in “The Promise” since that story was focused on the political ramifications of the War’s end. But I’m happy to say, writing “The Search” is giving me the chance to explore that side of Aang and his world.
“The Promise” has been a continuation of the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” story, featuring a closer look at the politics that are involved in the world’s reconstruction. Will “The Search” continue to explore the political side of the Avatar’s world or will you be taking it in a slightly different direction?
The politics will be there — they’re difficult to avoid when one of your main characters is the leader of a large nation. However, we’ll be shifting our focus from the nation to the family. Within Confucian thought, there’s a connection between nation and family — the family is a microcosm of the nation. I actually reference that in “The Search.”
One of the great things about “The Promise” is how faithful to the source material the book has been. As you’ve been building this story, how challenging has it been to continue developing the characters in your own way while still staying true to their core?
This project is different from my other projects. With “American Born
Chinese,” “Prime Baby” and my other books, I was really trying to express something about me. I wanted what was on paper to match what was in my head. With the “Airbender” project, I’m trying to mimic someone else’s storytelling voice. I don’t want the characters to grow in a direction that suits me or expresses something about me — I want them to grow in a direction that fits their world and their established history.
Now, that’s not to say that there isn’t room for self-expression, but the self-expression occurs where my passions overlap with the Avatarverse. For instance, a recurring theme in many of my stories is culture. That’s also a deeply important part of the Avatarverse, and the basis for a lot of what happens in “The Promise.”
This line of graphic novels is meant to fill in the gaps between the final episode of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and the premiere of “Legend of Korra. So far, we’ve gotten a chance to see Toph’s metal bending academy and Aang’s struggle to unite the nations. How will this struggle increase in “The Promise: Part 3” and into “The Search?”
“The Search” focuses on Zuko and Azula. Aang, Katara and Sokka will be there, of course, but the Fire Nation royal siblings are really the drivers of the action. In “The Promise,” we see Zuko struggling with his responsibilities as Fire Lord. “The Search” is the next stage of that struggle.
One of the advantages of “Legend of Korra” is the plethora of flashbacks audiences get, seeing Aang, Sokka and Toph come into their own as leaders of Republic City — but even in the flashbacks, they’re significantly older than in the original series. What’s your plan for making these characters age, if any?
Those are my favorite parts of “Korra!” In “The Search,” the Gang are still teenagers. “The Search” takes place immediately after the end of “The Promise.”
You’re still working with Gurihiru studio for “The Search.” How did you collaborate with them to change up character designs a bit?
Gurihiru’s art in “The Promise” is phenomenal, isn’t it? I feel so lucky to be working with them. I believe they are the perfect combination of Eastern and Western cartooning influences, which in turn is a perfect reflection of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” They work more directly with Mike and Bryan on character designs, especially when it comes to new clothing for existing characters. I throw in a comment when I can (usually “WOW!”).
Two characters of the original Team Avatar have been conspicuously absent from the “Legend of Korra” flashbacks. Most pressing is Zuko, who currently plays a huge role in “The Promise.” While I’m sure you’re not able to spoil much here, will we get to discover why his influence hasn’t been seen in Republic City at all during the course of “The Search?”
Um… you’ll just have to read the comics.
Speaking of Zuko, he can’t catch a break. After all the heartache he went through in the original series, he’s now getting drawn back in to his father’s web, Mai has left him and the Earth Kingdom is about to declare war. What are the chances he’ll be able to find some happiness when this is all over?
Well, like Ozai said, “Zuko was lucky to be born.” That struggle is who he is. Don’t you know people who are like that? I have an acquaintance who is like that. Great guy, but life just seems to have it in for him — his health, his relationships, nothing seems to go his way. Even so, you can see him making progress over the years. Often it’s two steps forward, one step back, but when you take the long view there’s definitely progress. That’s how I imagine Zuko to be. And frankly, I find folks like that more admirable than folks who get everything handed to them.
Speaking of Zuko’s family, what’s Azula been up to? Her stay in the Fire Nation mental institution has got to be incredibly interesting.
In “The Search,” we’ll see what a prolonged stay in a Fire Nation mental institution does to a person.
Katara and Aang’s burgeoning relationship is certainly something fans were clamoring for since the announcement of “The Promise.” Thanks to “Legend of Korra,” fans now know they get married and have a child, but what trials will their relationship have to go through before getting to that point?
At the beginning of “The Promise,” Katara and Aang are still in that lovey-dovey stage of their relationship. They call each other pet names and are way too affectionate. By the end of “The Promise,” they will have gone through their first conflict. Their relationship will continue to mature in The Search, but it will take a backseat to the Fire Nation Royal Family. After all, that is one messed up family. They need all the panel-time they can get.
So, Toph eventually has a daughter. Will readers actually get to see what Toph is like in a relationship in “The Search?” What is it like knowing you may have to explore that aspect of her character in coming installments?
I love Toph. She was my favorite character to write in The Promise. Sadly, though, she doesn’t have a big role to play in The Search.
And for a slightly silly question, what about Cabbage Corp? You’ve already dropped a few references to the incredibly unlucky cabbage merchant — are there plans to chronicle his rise to power in the background?
It’s an inspiring story, isn’t it? An unlucky cabbage merchant, through elbow grease and sheer will power, grows his one cart into a huge, multi-generational corporation! That guy is my hero!