Gene Yang Plots the Next Stage of "Avatar: The Last Airbender"

For three seasons, it was one of the best-loved cartoons in the United States, an unexpected, American-generated show incorporating Asian culture and mythology with a blended anime style. This week, "Avatar: The Last Airbender" continues in comics, courtesy of Dark Horse. The first book, "The Promise - Part 1," is written by Gene Luen Yang with art by Gurihiru and picks up right where the cartoon left off.

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, "Avatar" is set in a world where tribes which can each manipulate one of the four elements -- Air, Water, Earth and Fire -- have been at war for centuries, and are now dominated by the ruthless Fire Nation. The Air Nomads have been hunted seemingly to extinction. But a strange boy found frozen in ice turns out to be a surviving Airbender, and also this generation's Avatar -- one who can tame all four elements.

Aang, the Airbender and Avatar, quickly became close with his rescuers Katara, a Waterbender, and Sokka, her brother. They are eventually joined by Toph, a feisty, blind Earthbender, and enter a sometimes tenuous alliance with Prince Zuko, son of the ruthless Fire Lord Ozai. The Nickelodeon cartoon "Avatar: The Last Airbender" concludes with Aang defeating Ozai and Zuko ascending to the throne. The Dark Horse series of digest-sized graphic novels starts immediately afterwards.

Comic Book Resources spoke with Yang about writing in the "Avatar" universe, developing sophisticated yet accessible stories and his plans for the series. And check back tomorrow for more with the cartoonist on his graphic novel "Level Up" with artist Thien Pham.

CBR News: Gene, you're known primarily for your indie, creator-owned work like "American Born Chinese." In what ways does "Avatar" represent a departure from that, and how does it play to your strengths?

Gene Luen Yang: This is my first major project with characters that aren't my own, where I'm writing within a history established by someone else. With "A:TLA - The Promise," I really tried to stay true to the characters' voices in the original TV show. For weeks before I began writing, I played "A:TLA" episodes over and over in the background while I worked on my other comics.

Artists Gurihiru join Yang in expanding the Last Airbender universe

This project has been much more collaborative than any of my other graphic novels. Usually it's just me or just me and a close friend. Working with Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko has been an incredible learning experience. I've gotten to see how they work through a story up-close.

"A:TLA - The Promise" gives me a chance to explore a recurrent theme from my other books: the clashing and coming together of cultures. The series itself is a mix of Eastern and Western cultural influences, so it all fits together really well.

The story picks up not long after the cartoon -- you give a quick recap, then a prologue of what's to come. But before we get into the specifics of this book, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the original series and how you and the series' creators thought through the direction of where "Avatar" should go next.

Yes, the story picks up immediately after the end of the original cartoon, like the moment after. I loved -- LOVED -- the original cartoon. My good friend and fellow cartoonist Derek Kirk Kim convinced me to give it a try. He told me about this American cartoon that drew heavily from anime -- Miyazaki films in particular. He said it was the best-written American cartoon he'd ever seen. He was right.

The Avatarverse is thoroughly constructed, with believable cultures and subcultures. Like Miyazaki's characters, the "A:TLA" characters are nuanced. Every good character has moral flaw, and every evil character a spot of good.

The comics bridge the gap between the original "Avatar: The Last Airbender" series and the upcoming "Legend of Korra" cartoon. The world of "Korra" is very different, and with the comics we want to show how those differences come about.

As we see, the world is finally at peace in the new book, there is much celebrating but Aang also makes Zuko a certain promise. From Zuko's perspective, why does he feel he needs this safety net? Is this something the Earth and Water tribes would consider necessary for their own rulers, now that they're out of the Fire Nation's sway?

Throughout the three seasons of "A:TLA," Zuko struggled to do what's right -- to even know what's right. His moral development is a major focus of the story, and with him it's always two steps forward, one step back. The show ends with him finally making a series of good decisions, but becoming the leader of a nation can't be easy, especially when you're just a teenager. We want to explore that. The promise Zuko asks of Aang fits into this journey he's been on since the beginning.

Zuko also asks a question that a lot of fans have been waiting for, but getting the answer from his father might be dangerous. What does Zuko fear Ozai might tell him?

I think more than anything else, Zuko fears Ozai not telling him anything!

As new Fire Lord, Zuko makes some significant changes to the Fire Nation, but it seems not everyone's happy with Zuko's reforms. Who stands to lose the most from his rule?

Every nation in "Avatar: The Last Airbender" draws from a real-world culture. The Fire Nation is loosely based on Meiji Era Japan. So to write the story, I looked into what happened after Japan lost World War II. Japan had to pull out of territories that it had been occupying, places like Taiwan and the Chinese city of Qingdao. In some of those places, Japanese families had lived there for many, many years. They'd developed deep ties with the surrounding communities. For instance, I have a friend whose Taiwanese grandparent was adopted by a Japanese couple. Forcing folks like that to leave must've been difficult.

Right. And from there, the plot of this book involves the Fire Nation, now at peace with the other three tribes, attempting to dismantle its colonies in the Earth kingdom. You're digging into some complex territory here, since some of the colonists have lived in the cities for generations, and it's hard not to see the real-world resonance. How difficult is it to tell a story like this for "all ages" -- meaning, not that it's in danger of being over kids' heads, but rather that you achieve a level where the story is enjoyable for both kids and adults?

The original cartoon did a great job of this. "Avatar: The Last Airbender" was first marketed as a kids' show. Eventually, though, it gathered a fan base that included folks from every age group. It was able to do this precisely because of how Mike, Bryan and their team told stories. The stories were very complex. They dealt with difficult topics like loss, family, war, culture, and modernization. And they did it with humor, imagination, and grace. I'm trying to capture that same spirit in the comics. The closer I get, the more likely it will be that both kids and adults will enjoy the comics.

We see that, in the colony Yu Dao, the divisions between Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom are not always clear cut, and Aang also experiences some conflicting allegiances in this story. Does his unique perspective as Avatar, though, give him an advantage in working through the situation?

"The Legend of Korra" will take place in a multicultural city, much like New York or London or Shanghai. Whereas in the old world the four nations lived separately, in the new world they will live side by side. So how do we get from here to there? Aang, of course, will play a vital role because he's the Avatar -- the embodiment of the four nations coming together. In "The Promise," he'll learn to see the world in a new way, through a more modern lens.

You're working with the Gurihiru studio on this book. What makes them a good match for "Avatar?"

Man, have you seen their work on "A:TLA - The Promise?" It's amazing! It holds true to the show, but also takes full advantage of the comics medium. The facial expressions, the settings, the pacing of the panels -- everything is just dead-on. And like the show, Gurihiru blends Eastern and Western influences together. Honestly, their stuff is shockingly good.

Anything else you'd like to share about "The Promise: Part 1?"

This project has been an absolute blast! The folks at Dark Horse and Nickelodeon have all been wonderful to work with. And I hope some of that joy comes across on the page!

Check back on CBR tomorrow for a look inside Gene Luen Yang and Thien Pham's "Level Up" graphic novel.

Tags: nickelodeon, dark horse comics, gene luen yang, gurihiru, avatar the last airbender

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