When I first saw commercials for Avatar: The Last Airbender, I didn’t really give it the time of day; I wrote it off as the kind of schlock that was trying to cash in on the anime boom at the time, and doubly discounted it because it was a Nickelodeon cartoon and I’d moved on from Doug and Rugrats to more adult fare. Today, my face couldn’t be covered in more egg; the series is terrific, and I’ve been watching episodes in a manner that can only be called “voracious.” When I was approached by Dark Horse about the release of their new tie-in graphic novel, Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search, Part I, I was similarly skeptical, because adaptations of successful franchises – regardless of medium – tend to have a reputation for being lousy. Again with the face omelettes. It’s a good thing I enjoy breakfast nearly as much as I enjoyed this comic, which you can preview in this exclusive book trailer below.
The Search, Part 1 serves to flesh out the universe of the show, filling in part of the gap between the events of the original series and spiritual successor Legend of Korra. With art by series stalwarts Gurihiru, a story written by Gene Luen Yang, and co-developed by Avatar creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the book is a wonderful reintroduction to the world of Aang and his merry band of benders and serves to answer one of the most burning questions for the show’s fandom: What happened to Zuko’s mother? To get the skinny on what we can expect from the book and future installments, I caught up with Gene Luen Yang to talk to him about unfortunate cabbage merchants, jumping back into the world of Avatar, and what’s next from the American Born Chinese scribe.
Nerdist: First and foremost, I know that you’re a fan of the series. How have you been enjoying Legend of Korra?Gene Luen Yang: Yeah, absolutely. I have really been enjoying it. The action, in particular, I think they really stepped up the animation for the action. It’s been amazing. I’m really impressed with the new world they’ve built. It’s obviously connected to the world of the old series, but they’ve created something really new and fascinating.N: I agree. I actually saw Legend of Korra before I saw Avatar, which wasn’t really on my radar at the time. I was worried about how accessible it would be, but it prompted me to go back and check out the original series.GLY: Oh, okay. You’re one of the first people I’ve talked to that’s approached the world in that way. That’s really cool. You were able to follow all of the stories?
N: For the most part, yes. I probably missed some of the references to the original that diehard fans might have picked up on, but I feel like I was able to piece it together pretty well.
GLY: Yeah, I think they took a lot of the concepts that played a lesser role in the first series and made them really prominent in the second series. Like the metal bending, for example. They built an entire police force off of that.
N: Let’s talk about The Search and what readers can expect. As an Avatar novice, I found it very accessible even without knowing everything that came prior.
GLY: The mini-series, to answer that question, the one question Mike [Dante DiMartino] and Bryan [Konietzko] introduced at the end of the last series was, “What happened to Zuko’s mother?” That was in the last ten minutes or so of the final episode. I remember it because when I was watching that episode, I wasn’t connected to the property at all. That was one of the most cliffhangery things to do, especially for the series finale. In the last few moments of the last episode, there’s a scene with Zuko and his dad, and Zuko asks what happened with his mom, and the scene cuts before you get an answer.
N: Oh god, that’s the worst.
GLY: Right? [laughs] I think I screamed some sort of expletive at my TV when I watched. Now, three years later, I’m part of the team that’s going to give the answer to that question. Life is a weird thing sometimes. That’s the overarching purpose, though. We also wanted to dive into the dynamics of Zuko’s family. He was probably my favorite character in the original series. He was so complex and really embodied the struggle between good and evil to the point where he sort of resembled Two-Face from Batman. Half is good, half is evil. Mike and Bryan didn’t create the character in a vacuum; he was part of a family that went back four or five generations, so we’re going to explore some of that. Almost half of it is flashbacks and the other half takes place in present time.
N: To clarify, the “present time” is the period in between the events of Avatar: The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra?
GLY: Yeah, closer to the original series. It’s about two years out.
N: And I know this is part 1, but how long will it ultimately be?
GLY: It’ll be like The Promise, so three books.
N: One of the things I really enjoyed about the The Search – Part 1 is how it delved into the supernatural side of Avatar and the spirit world. What attracted you to highlight these elements?
GLY: That’s something I really loved about the original series – how supernatural it got. The whole concept of the Avatar and Aang’s powers are all rooted in the spirit world. The focus on the spirit world gradually increases as the series moves on. In The Promise, the first three volumes of the comics, we didn’t really touch on it at all. We had a little bit between Aang and his predecessor, Roku, but we wanted to touch on it in a bigger way. In the original series, there’s all these little nuggets that are embedded in the spirit world and we wanted to play with those.
N: How closely do you work with Mike and Bryan on the comics? Is there an editorial edict that you’re given or are you given a set of narrative points to hit and the freedom to tell the story your way?
GLY: For both The Promise and The Search, the story started with a long conversation between me and Mike and Bryan. During the conversation, we’ll talk about the history of the world they’ve built. They’ve thought quite extensively about the world of the Avatar and how Korra is connected to the airbenders. There are big pieces that are set in stone – like Aang reestablishing airbender culture. In the initial conversation, we’ll talk about the big pieces, some things that might happen around those pieces, and from that conversation I’ll write an outline. Then that goes through several rounds of edits with them, and from there I’ll write the scripts. Then the scripts go through several rounds of edits. Mike and Bryan give a lot of creative input, but we also get input from Dark Horse editors and editors at Nickelodeon, so it’s pretty collaborative. The work on The Search, though, is even more collaborative than in the past. We really went back and forth on the back story.
N: I can imagine, especially because it has such a complex mythology.
GLY: That’s right. There are scenes that overlap between the series and the comic. Some scenes in the comic serve as extensions of scenes from the show. There are several flashback episodes, so we used elements of those.
N: That makes the comics even more special, because there’s only so much you can fit into a 22 minute episode.
GLY: Yeah, that totally applies to comics, too, man. There’s so many times when I’ve been working on comics and wished I had double the amount of space. [laughs]
N: Oh! Before I forget, I think I know the question on everyone’s mind: will we see our favorite cabbage merchant pop up?
GLY: [laughs] Ummm, you’ll have to read the comic. No comment.
N: Right, right, no spoilers and all that.
GLY: I do love that guy, I’ve got to say.
N: What are the challenges in writing an original, creator-owned project versus writing for a well-established franchise like Avatar?
GLY: It has been quite a challenge to work on it, but it’s also been a real privilege. I think when I’m working on my own stuff, I’m trying to express some sort of vision I have inside myself. When I work on somebody else’s stuff, I really want to try to stay true to what’s been established before. I really want to capture the character’s voices. And with something like Avatar, it’s a difficult thing to do. A lot of people have some deep-seated emotions attached to these characters. When I first started working on Zuko’s mother’s back story, I had a hard time because I found the ending of the original series really emotionally satisfying. I didn’t know how to extend the story beyond that deeply satisfying ending. So, the challenge is how to capture the essence while moving these characters forward.
N: That’s very interesting. I’m so used to hearing that people hated an ending, so it’s refreshing to hear about your struggles with what you saw as a story that had been wrapped up tidily.
GLY: I really did like how it ended. [laughs]
N: Well, I certainly think you rose to the occasion.
GLY: Oh, thank you. I really appreciate that.
N: Coming of age seems to be a recurring them in works like American Born Chinese, Level Up and even Avatar. What keeps you coming back to this theme?
GLY: Yeah, I don’t know. I think for the most part it’s unconscious. I’m certainly not unique in this, but that part of my life is probably where I have the most vivid memories – whether that has to do with hormones or the sheer amount of change I was going through during those years – but because my most vivid memories are from that time, I have a lot to draw from.
When I was starting in comics – the comic book market isn’t as rigidly segmented as the book market is – and when I started selling in comic book stores, I wasn’t really thinking about it. When you sell directly to comic book stores, you don’t really think about the age categorization. It was only after I published American Born Chinese with First Second that they started thinking about it and they categorized it as “Young Adult.” Now that it’s happened, I think that’s a really good place for me to fit, because that’s where I’m drawn a lot, with the emotions behind the stories.
N: You mentioned self-publishing and I wanted to talk to you about that. Many of our readers are content creators themselves or aspiring content creators. What were some of the challenges of self-publishing, and what’s a piece of advice you would give to them?
GLY: Well, first, I think it’s a totally different world now than when I started. When I started, it was the ’90s and the Internet was this totally unformed thing. Nowadays, most of them start off on webcomics, and you can automatically reach the masses. It’s really efficient in an intense way, so I kind of envy comics that are starting now in a way. Me, I was hand-drawing my comics and selling them at local conventions and comic book stores. For cartoonists, now they can just draw comics and put them on the web, share with friends, and build an audience. I think it’s pretty awesome…. Production and distribution costs – we were worried about having enough money to get it printed and getting it into stores to have people see it. You don’t need to worry about that stuff anymore. The power is in the creator’s hands. You can email it to review sites yourself, put it up yourself and get a huge audience.
I think the real challenge these days is on the creative side and making it stand out from the pack. So, what I tell people when they ask for advice is that you have to develop a habit, some sort of creative habit. You have to block off some time, sit down for a couple of hours where all you’re doing is writing and drawing. And you have to have people keep you accountable to make sure it’ll get done. You need to have people in your life that will make you feel bad about yourself if you don’t finish your work, kinda like a boss. You need to have that for a few years until you internalize those voices. For me, when I first started writing comics, I was living with a couple of college friends and I told them that, at the end of the day, I would have a page done and if I didn’t have it done, they should make me feel bad about myself. And that’s how I got my first comic done. These roommates made me feel bad about myself. So, really, the habit is the most important thing to get down.
N: What else are friends for? That’s really funny, but it makes sense. It’s so easy to have projects in various states of incompletion, so having those people as a motivating factor is a smart tool.
GLY: That’s the other thing – learning how to finish something even when you don’t really like it. I’d start on a project and be really into it, but then a few days, months, weeks later I’d get bored of it and want to move on. And you have to finish something in order to move on to the next one.
N: You have to fight the urge to move on to that fresh new idea. Speaking of new ideas, tell us about your upcoming project Boxers and Saints. What attracted you to writing about the Boxer Rebellion?
GLY: Yeah, yeah! I’ve been working on Boxers and Saints for, like, six years; I had to do a lot of research. I was actually working on The Search during the same period, so I’m sure there are some ideas and themes that bled over. I’d be interested in seeing if anyone picks up on that. So, the Boxer Rebellion was this war that occurred on Chinese soil in 1900 – over a hundred years ago – between European powers and these poor, illiterate Chinese teenagers. Back then, the Chinese government was incredibly weak after a century’s worth of war against Japan and England, so they couldn’t defend themselves All the major European powers set up bases of operation in the major port cities called “concessions.” They were basically colonies, and the official government couldn’t do anything about it. The poor, the farmers basically, felt really embarrassed by this foreign presence in their homeland, so they invented this ritual where they would call upon the Chinese gods to come down and possess them, giving them these superpowers. Then, armed with these superpowers, they ran through the countryside killing off European soldiers, missionaries and Chinese Christians, who were seen as traitors to their people at the time.They’re called “Boxers” because their martial arts reminded the colonists of European boxing. The Boxers almost won; these poor, illiterate farmers almost beat off these professionally trained European armies. Unfortunately, by the summer of the next year, they were definitively defeated by reinforcements that came from India. But before that, it almost looked like the Boxers would win. The historical event fascinates me on many different levels. The Boxers remind me of modern-day geeks and nerds in a certain way. They didn’t learn about Chinese gods from textbooks; they learned about them from travelling Chinese operas, which was basically their pop culture. They would watch these colorful characters duke it out on stage and it was like good television at the time. They were so inspired by these heroes that they wanted to become like them; it was almost like cosplay. During that ritual, they became these gods, so it’s a lot like modern cosplay where people put on costumes to become these characters. They were really inspired by the pop culture of the time, a fact which I found particularly inspiring. Another aspect that fascinates me is the Chinese Christian aspect. Back then, if you were a Chinese Christian, you were really seen as a traitor to your own people. It intrigues me as to why people reacted this way. The Christian missionaries actually got tons and tons of converts. These people who were unable to find a place within Chinese society looked to the stories of another culture to find themselves. They began calling themselves by Western names; they’d get baptized and assume European names and refer to each other as such, and that aspect really reminded me of modern day manga fans. This is definitely not true of all American manga fans, but there’s a certain segment of readers who have a hard time finding themselves in American culture and stories, and when they read Japanese manga, they find stories that are so different from the culture that they live in that they’re able to relate through the lens of other people’s culture. It’s a two-volume project – the first volume has the Boxers as the protagonists and the second volume has the Chinese Christians, the Saints, as the protagonists.
N: Oh, wow, that’s a really cool narrative split. I like that two-pronged approach.
GLY: Thank you! We’ll see how it goes. It’s several months away, a September release.
N: What comics are you reading and enjoying right now?
GLY: I’m reading through Fables right now. I have a co-worker who’s really into it, so he’s been loaning them to me. I’m also reading the My Little Pony series with my kids and, I have to say, I’m enjoying it a lot more than I expected to.
N: Oh my… would you classify yourself as a brony?
GLY: Ha, I’m not there yet. I’ve only read the comics; I haven’t actually watched the cartoon show. My kids watched it and they’re both into it, but I haven’t made the leap yet. We’ve also been reading this series called The New Crusaders from Archie Comics with my nine year-old, but it’s really good.
N: I’m not too sure what’s going on with the world of Archie these days. They’ve got one coming out called Afterlife with Archie where a zombie apocalypse breaks out in Riverdale.
GLY: Really? They’ve got some really innovative stuff over there; it’s not the same old Archie.
N: Last question – what’s in your ideal burrito?
GLY: My ideal burrito? [laughs] You know what I like is the parts of the animal that no one else likes to eat like tongue and stomach, like tripe, so it’d be all the throwaway pieces of the animal.
N: [laughs] Just the discarded animal parts?
N: Most people say “carne asada” or “pork” when I ask this question, but there’s always room for good lengua.
GLY: Right! It’s a burrito that tastes you back. [laughs]