Gene Yang, the writer of the Avatar: The Last Airbender continuation comics, chatted with Hypable about getting to create new stories in a world he loves.
Hypable’s Interview with Gene Yang
What were your experiences with Avatar: The Last Airbender before you started working on the comics?
Before I was asked to write the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics, I was a huge Airbender fan. A friend of mine named Derek Kirk Kim (brilliant cartoonist – you should check out his series Tune when you get the chance) introduced me to the animated series. Three episodes in, I was hooked.
In fact, I got the job because I was so mad about the live-action movie. When they announced the casting, I couldn’t believe it. To my mind, it was the latest example of Yellowface, of Hollywood’s practice of taking roles that would most logically go to Asian or Asian American actors and giving those roles to white actors. I wrote and draw a webcomic advocating for a boycott of the movie.
An editor at Dark Horse Comics read my webcomic and discovered I was an Airbender fan. She liked some of my other stuff, so in 2010 she Itcalled me up and asked if I’d be willing to write the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics. I jumped at the chance.
What was it like to move from being a fan to a creator in the Avatar-verse?
It’s been great. It’s been a dream come true. I mean, I e-mail Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and they totally e-mail me back. Ha ha. I’ve learned so much by seeing how they approach story and character and plot.
I have to admit, it’s also intimidating. These characters are so beloved by so many. I try my best to do right by them.
What were some of the challenges in taking on established material, instead of your own original work?
This is my very first project working with other people’s characters. It’s also the first project where I had a page constraint. When I do my own books, I can go as long as I want. Each Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novel has to be exactly 72 pages. It took me a while to get used to.
Also, when I’m doing my own work, I’m trying to get a vision I have in my head down onto the page. With the Avatar: The Last Airbender books, I really want to capture the spirit of the original series as faithfully as possible. We want to take the characters somewhere new, of course, but we want them to still feel like themselves. It’s a hard balance.
Are Mike and Bryan’s ‘hands on the pen,’ so to speak, along with you as you write the comics?
I feel like we’ve found a good balance. Every book begins with a conversation between me and Mike and/or Bryan. We talk through possible themes, possible character arcs, possible plots. If something goes against the Avatar-verse timeline between Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, they tell me.
After that, I do an outline. I get feedback from Mike, Bryan, the folks at Nickelodeon, and the folks at Dark Horse. That goes through several drafts.
Then I write the scripts. Again, I get feedback from Mike, Bryan, the folks at Nickelodeon, and the folks at Dark Horse. Like the outline, the scripts go through several drafts.
Once we have a solid script, it gets sent to the wonderful artists at Gurihiru.
I’m working within an established world, an established lore. There’s guidance when I need it. Mike especially has been incredibly helpful at the outline stage. But I also feel like I have a decent amount of creative elbow room to explore what I want to explore.
What are your thoughts on The Legend of Korra? Who is your favorite character in that series?
It’s a stunning series, isn’t it? The world they’ve built is just incredible. It makes you go both, “Wow!” and “Oh yeah. Of course that’s what the Avatar-verse would be like 70 years after Aang.” For fans of the original series like me, it’s a perfect blend of the familiar and the fantastical.
My favorite Legend of Korra character is probably Bolin. He made me laugh at him and feel sorry for him at the exact same time. That’s hard to pull off.
Take us through the process of creating The Search.
The Search is all about the Fire Nation royal family. It’s about Zuko. It’s about his relationships with his missing mother, his insane sister, and his imprisoned father. So the story can’t just be about finding his mother, it has to be about Zuko. Will finding his mother change him? Will it change his role in the Fire Nation? And how will Azula react to it all?
We started The Search with a conversation where we talked through all that.
Did you find any difference between the writing of The Promise and The Search?
I started off by signing to write three books, the books that eventually became The Promise. I wasn’t sure how the readers would read them. Would the readers approach the three as three separate units, like three episodes, or as a single unit, like three parts of one episode? I wrote them thinking they’ be seen as separate. On hindsight, it seems like most readers read them as one continuous narrative.
I felt much more confident on The Search. I had a year’s worth of Avatar: The Last Airbender comics under my belt. Mike and Bryan also sent me a pitch document. They’d originally planned to address the question of Ursa’s fate in a TV movie, but Nickelodeon nixed the idea. We started our conversation about The Search with that pitch document.
You’ve mentioned that, like many fans, Toph is your favorite character. Can you elaborate on why she is so awesome?
Well, Zuko was my favorite character when I was watching the animated show. Even in the first season you could tell that he was more than just a typical villain. He had a depth to him. Even when he’s at his most despicable, you still root for him because you can see yourself in him. That struggle between good and evil — it’s so hard on him that it’s even manifested on his face! That’s something we all can relate to.
After I started writing the comics, though, Toph became my favorite. She’s just easy to write. Mike, Bryan, and the Avatar creative team did such a great job establishing her character that I almost don’t have to write her. I just close my eyes, listen to her yell at me, and write down what I hear.
Are there any characters you find particularly challenging to write or to understand?
Even though he was my favorite character, it took me a while to get a handle on Zuko. I loved his arc in the animated series. It felt so complete to me that I had a hard time figuring out how to move him forward. In the end, I realized that people don’t just mature in one fell swoop. Often, it’s two steps forward and one step back.
Azula and Zuko’s emotional journey in The Search is incredibly powerful and does not suggest many easy answers. What was it like to craft this arc?
I love Azula. She’s such a great character. She’s totally in control for most of the animated series, and then at the very end, she cracks. She goes insane. We wanted to keep both her controlling side and her crazy side in the comics, so we gave her something of a split personality. We also wanted to figure out what it means to care for somebody like that, somebody who vacillates between evil and insane. That’s what Zuko has to do in The Search. I think a lot of us can relate to that. Most of us have at least one family member or friend who we find difficult to love. That person probably isn’t as messed up as Azula, but we can sympathize with Zuko when he deals with his sister.
The tone of The Search is moody and intense, while The Promise (though it dealt with deep ideas) was generally lighter. Where will the newly announced comic The Rift fit on this spectrum?
The Rift probably sits in the middle of the spectrum. We’ll be dealing with some pretty weighty issues again, but we’ll also be showing more of the Air Acolytes. They brighten everything up.
Can you give us any hints as to what The Rift will be about? The title seems a little ominous!
In The Rift, we lay a few more pieces of Republic City’s foundation, but It’s really about Aang and Toph. It’s also about the Spirit World and the human one, about the balance between the old and the new.
If you could write a story set at any time and place in the Avatar-verse (whether or not it has been established in canon) what would that story be?
I love the Avatars before Aang. Not just Roku and Kyoshi, but all of them. Every time I see them roll out in a long line with their eyes glowing, I want to know more. I would love to write a story about an old, old Avatar, one we haven’t gotten to know yet.
If you could be a bender, what kind would you be?
This one’s easy. I’d be an Earthbender. I’d use my earthbending to make all sorts of awesome outdoor furniture in my backyard.
Can you tell us about your other work in writing and drawing original comics?
I’m probably most well-known for a graphic novel that was released in 2006 called American Born Chinese. It’s about the Asian American experience. It’s magical realism, which is probably my favorite genre to write. It’s got the Monkey King in it.
Earlier in September, First Second Books released Boxers & Saints, a two-volume graphic novel about the Boxer Rebellion. It’s taken me over six years to write and draw this project. Together the two volumes total over 500 pages of comics. The Boxer Rebellion is a war that occurred on Chinese soil in the year 1900. I find it fascinating on so many levels. I feel like it embodies this conflict between East and West that Asian Americans sometimes struggle with. I wanted to examine both sides of the Boxer Rebellion, and that’s why it’s two volumes. It’s kind of like those Clint Eastwood World War II movies. The good guys in one volume are the bad guys in the other.
For more about Gene Yang:
Gene Yang has been working in comics since 1996. His graphic novel, American Born Chinese, was awarded both the Prinz and Eisner awards in 2006. You can learn more about Gene through his website, GeneYang.com, check out his blog, and connect with him on Twitter as @GeneLuenYang.
The final installment of Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search will be released in comic book stores on Oct. 30, and to general booksellers on Nov. 12. Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Rift, Part 1 is scheduled to be released in March of 2014.