EXCLUSIVE: Yang Guides "Avatar: The Last Airbender" Through "Smoke and Shadow"

"Avatar: The Last Airbender" fans rejoice -- though "Legend of Korra" is finishing up its final season, Dark Horse's "Avatar" original graphic novels will release a fourth volume next year. CBR has the exclusive announcement that the critically acclaimed series of OGNs continues with "Avatar: The Last Airbender - Smoke and Shadow" by Gene Yang and Gurihiru, set for release September 23, 2015.

"Smoke and Shadow" -- to be released as three volumes before being collected into a single hardcover edition -- follows the events of "The Rift," shifting the focus back on the Fire Nation and a segment of the population none too happy with the rule of Fire Lord Zuko. Some malcontents have even set up a new rebellion called the New Ozai Society -- headed up by none other than Zuko's ex-girlfriend's father.

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If all this sounds familiar, don't worry -- you may very well have seen some of these elements before. "Smoke and Shadow" takes place right after the "Avatar: The Last Airbender" Free Comic Book Day 2013 story, which followed Mai after her breakup with Zuko in "The Promise." New Ozai was also the name given to Earth Kingdom city Omashu during the original animated series after Azula conquered it.

CBR News spoke exclusively with Gene Yang about his plans for "Smoke and Shadow," getting back to Zuko (his personal favorite character), having the chance to further develop Mai and to depict a healthy relationship between Aang and Katara. Plus, he emphasizes how much time will pass between the comics and the start of "Legend of Korra," hints at Azula's return and suggests that a time jump may be in the series' future.

CBR News: Gene, this is your fourth "Avatar" OGN series with Dark Horse, and you've covered a lot of ground so far. How does "Smoke & Shadow" continue to progress the time between "The Last Airbender" and "Legend of Korra"?

Gene Yang: Well, I'm excited about this one. When I was watching the show, my favorite character was Zuko. We left Zuko out of "The Rift" because he took up so much of the focus of "The Search," and now we're bringing the books back to Zuko and the Fire Nation. The story will begin with Zuko bringing his mom and his mom's family back to the Fire Nation for the first time since the end of the show. It actually ties in to the Free Comic Book Day story from two years ago -- the very first one that we did -- which was focused on Mai, Zuko's ex-girlfriend. In that story, Mai discovers that her father is the head of this secret society that's bent on removing Zuko from the throne. It's called the New Ozai Society, and they will be the focal point of the first book. It'll be all about how Zuko deals with rebellion and this group, the New Ozai Society, that's bent on getting him off the throne.

That name has a lot of significance, considering that it's Zuko's father's name, and Zuko just got reunited with his mother. It seems like the shadow of his father still hangs over his head.

That's right. The book will be about Zuko protecting his mom and her family from this group and from the legacy of Ozai. The New Ozai Society is actually a reference to the name that was given to Omashu after it was taken over by Azula in the show, and the control of it was given to Mai's father. That's why he names his society New Ozai.

A big part of what's distinguished "Legend of Korra" in its final season is the concept of politics in the "Avatar" world. Does "Smoke and Shadow" have any parallels to that sort of political intrigue?

Well, sure. That's something that I really appreciate about both animated series: how well and how deftly they deal with political issues. The world is constantly in flux. The first show was all about the resistance of the world going from four nations into one. In the beginning of ["Korra"], it was all about how four separate nations and separate cultures live harmoniously, and later on, it became about how does the human world live harmoniously with the spirit world.

In our books, the comics that take place between these two series, we really want to echo a lot of those themes from both the original and "Korra."

Both "The Search" and "The Rift" dealt pretty heavily with the spiritual side of the "Avatar" universe. Will "Smoke and Shadow" deal more with politics, or will it also have some of that spiritual plot to it as well?

It'll be both. We actually have a spiritual component to it -- there's a spiritual component to all of Mai's father's actions.

"Smoke & Shadow" not only sees the return of Zuko, it's also the return of Mai. What was it like getting to really dig into her character? She hasn't been developed much since the show ended.

I really liked Azula's group -- I liked Ty Lee, I liked Mai. They were really well fleshed-out. They contain echoes of people that we all know in real life. We all have people that are a super happy in the way that Ty Lee is, and we also have friends who are a little more on the melancholy side the way Mai is. I just through that the characters were so well fleshed out that I really have been wanting to do something with them.

Coming back to Mai is a thrill. We were able to focus on her for eight pages in the very first Free Comic Book Day that we did, and she will play a central role in these upcoming three books.

How has the relationship between Mai and Zuko changed or evolved since we last saw them together in "The Promise?"

In "The Promise," they broke up. Mai couldn't deal with the fact that Zuko wasn't letting her in. In the Free Comic Book Day issue, we showed that she was still pining after him. In these three that we're doing now, we finally hope to resolve the question of whether she's going to move on from him or she's going to get back together with him.

That's certainly an actual genuine mystery -- it's not something that's been touched on at all in "Legend of Korra." Since readers last saw Zuko in the OGNs, he's actually made his appearance in "Korra" as a much older man, and we've found out he has a daughter. Will fans start to see seeds of his future in "Smoke and Shadow?"

There's a lot of time still between the comics and the beginning of "Korra." Zuko's still a teenager in the comics, so a lot can happen between the comics and the animated series. I think we're going to hint at pieces in the future, but we're not going to -- we're just going to hint. I think in general, the world itself still feels more like the world of "The Last Airbender" than the world of "Korra."

So, you're saying that Zuko is not going to magically get his dragon during this series.

[Laughs] No. No, he's not going to get his dragon yet.

Speaking of relationships, it's interesting to see Aang and Katara's continue to develop across these OGNs. Their romance is of huge importance to fans -- what kind of challenges do you have planned for them through "Smoke & Shadow" and beyond?

We've actually talked a lot about throwing some of the focus onto the water tribe, onto Katara and Sokka and Katara's relationship with Aang. We were not able to fit that in to ["Smoke and Shadow"], but we're really hoping to do that at some point. I think their relationship is an opportunity to explore romance in general, to explore -- I think that in modern day drama, you don't see a lot of healthy relationships. [Laughs] It seems like most of the time when you see romantic relationships, they just do the beginning part and it ends as soon as they're together. Or, if they are together, it's about the problems that they have with one another, and it's all about how romance can bring about neuroses in one another.

But I think Aang and Katara's relationship -- one of the appeals of it -- is that it's fundamentally healthy. Through that, we can actually explore that. We can watch the progression of a healthy relationship from the very beginning to what it eventually becomes when they're adults.

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As an aside, this is your fourth "Avatar" OGN, and your fourth working with Gurihiru as well. Do you feel like it's gotten easier to write?

No, I definitely don't. I think every book is a challenge, and the challenges have been different. I think that's true in general. When you're writing, every time you start a new project, you have to re-teach yourself how to do what you do, how to write, how to plot, how to work on characters. The characters themselves, we hope that they change, that they shift from book to book and we hope that the world itself shifts and changes from book to book.

At the beginning of every project, every one of these books, I go through this period of fear and doubt. I have to wrestle with that before I feel comfortable starting it. Up to this point, I think "The Rift" was probably the toughest one for me to write. At that point, I think right before we started talking about the plot for "The Rift," I thought, "I've done two of these, this should be smooth sailing." Then, it was just hard. It was really, really hard. This new one has been a little bit easier, but even so, it's just a challenge. Every one has been a challenge. Every single one of my books in general has been a challenge.

I'm fortunate to be part of such an amazing team. Gurihiru is amazing, Mike and Bryan have stayed heavily involved. We work with great editors both at Dark Horse and at Nickelodeon. It's been a thrill to be a part of it.

A fan-favorite character, Iroh, has already shown up as fully engrained in the spirit world in "Legend of Korra." With everything coming back to the Fire Nation, what kind of plans do you have for Iroh as "Smoke and Shadow" starts?

Iroh will be there, definitely. It's been established that his heart really belongs to the tea shop now. His heart is really in his tea shop in the Earth Kingdom. But when Zuko left for "The Search," he asked Iroh to watch over the Fire Nation while he was gone. That's how the story begins -- with Iroh still in the Fire Nation. As the action progresses within the Fire Nation, he'll play a part in that.

A return to the Fire Nation also brings to mind the fact that Azula is still out there. Is that something that you're hoping to deal with in "Smoke and Shadow?"

Well, it kind of makes makes sense for Azula to be there, right? You'd think she would be there. If the story is all about the Fire Nation and the royal family, you'd figure Azula would be there.

[Laughs] How far ahead are you looking for these characters? Are you looking at how "Smoke and Shadow" might lead into the next two or three stories?

We have talked about the next one. Nothing's definite, nothing's in stone, but we've talked about it. As I said earlier, I feel like we've talked a lot about the Earth Kingdom and we've done a lot with the Fire Nation, but we haven't done as much with the Water Tribes. It would be great to explore that culture and those characters.

Do you have any desire to jump ahead and write Team Avatar when they're adults?

You know, when I first signed on for the project, one of the things we talked about was if we ought to jump ahead; if we should just start with the characters in their late teens or early twenties. I did some outlines with that in mind, and they just didn't feel right. It felt like we were leaving out a chunk of the story. It felt like things would have happened to them immediately after the show that would have been interesting, that would have led to character development and a deeper understanding of them as characters and their world.

The world is in such flux after the war is done. Now that we've told some of those stories, by the end of "Smoke and Shadow," we'll have done four volumes out, it may be time to jump ahead a little bit. But that's not just up to me. That's something that I would have to talk about with the rest of the team.

Wrapping up, are there any cool design elements that people should look forward to in "Smoke and Shadow?"

Yeah! Gurihiru is amazing, just freakin' amazing. Everything about them is awesome. Every time Mike or Bryan or I throw out a design challenge to them, they come back in spades. I love what they did with a lot of the spirits that were in "The Search." For this one, we have more spirits that look amazing and creepy. The title of the book, "Smoke and Shadow," is a reference to the spirit that plays a major role in the book. They also did awesome designs for the New Ozai Society.

"Smoke and Shadow" Part One hits stores September 23, 2015. Part Two releases December 16, 2015.

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