Michael Dante DiMartino talks tackling the sequel in Warrior Genius, and looks back at recent developments in the Avatar-verse.
Best known for his role as co-creator of the epic Nickelodeon series Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, DiMartino also recently published Warrior Genius, the second book in his Rebel Geniuses trilogy. DiMartino spoke to Hypable about the challenging art of the sequel, how his own experiences have impacted his work, and what’s ahead for his further creative pursuits.
Interview with Michael Dante DiMartino
How was the experience of writing Warrior Genius different from the first book in the series?
It was a lot harder! It took a lot longer, it took like a year and a half maybe, to get it to the final copy edits. Even though I had a sense of where the story was going, there was still a lot of stuff to figure out. We go to a new empire, called Rachana, it’s a new culture [with] new characters and all that stuff.
I think part of what was difficult too was, I had so many characters and giving them all interesting things to do that served the story was really hard to figure out.
Veering a bit into George R.R. Martin territory, maybe?
Not quite that much! But yeah, I was like, “Why do I have these people? Can I just cut them out?” I think I figured out some ways to do it so in the end it all came out good, but it felt like a harder struggle.
Book 2 is a pretty tough mountain for any author to climb. Were there any sequels that you looked for for inspiration?
I guess I was looking more at movies. I was looking at Empire Strikes Back, and I was like, what did they do? Nothing, Luke just hangs out on a planet for a while. That’s pretty good! That one in particular, everyone thinks of that movie as like, so — and it’s a great movie, but it’s not a typical sequel… It had been a while since I’d seen it, so I’d forgotten the different storylines, and how they’re apart for so much of the movie. But yeah, Game of Thrones too, I was thinking of, although that does kind of meander around.
Because I was still trying to keep this as a self-contained story that could stand on its own. When I’ve read sequels to books, the ones that don’t work for me are the ones where it feels like it’s all setup for the third book. There is a lot a of setup [in Warrior Genius], but it still has its own self-contained adventure story.
Does Warrior Genius follow the trend of second installments going to darker places than the original?
There’s definitely some darker stuff. In this new culture Rachana, it’s based on India and the Mughal Empire in the 1500s, so I was trying to look at what was going on in different parts of the world. Because everyone knows about the Renaissance, but what was going on in different parts of the world during that time period?
So you kept it analogous to the Renaissance-inspired time period.
Yeah, I was trying to keep it so it felt like it could exist in that same time period. So yeah, like when the Taj Mahal was built — that’s the most iconic thing everyone could think of, but that’s like the height of that period. So it’s more of a warrior culture, but they have Geniuses that are horses, like [pegasi] that can fly. But it is a little darker, because the Geniuses in that country are dying and they don’t know why. So Giacomo gets there and because of his discoveries in [Rebel Genius], he’s uniquely suited to figure out what’s going on, and help them.
Your female protagonist Milena and antagonist Nerezza get points of view in Warrior Genius for the first time. What was that like for you to write?
It was great! It was nice to break it up. Milena has a lot, and Nerezza has some key chapters. She starts the book off, and it’s the day after Book One ended, and her reaction to what happened, and what to do next. Setting up her goal to hunt down Giacomo.
Do you have to get in a different head space to write the villainess of the series?
Nah, I guess that stuff just comes naturally from Avatar and Korra. You’re never doing it from [the villains’] point of view, but you are trying to get into the characters’ heads and figure out where they’re coming from. [Nerezza’s] motivations get much more fleshed out and there’s some of her backstory, and it definitely deepens the characters and the world, and their relationships.
How do you hope fans feel at the end of Warrior Genius?
They might feel sad! They might feel a little worried about some of the characters. I went a little bit with the Empire, downer, things aren’t so good at the end of Book 2, but there’s a new dynamic within the book in Book 3. And they’re going to go to yet another empire in the last book.
Does being a dad influence the way you work on your stories?
Not so much with this book, but I am more aware of kids’ books, and stories for kids. Because my wife and I love books, so we just want to get them a lot of books! It’s one of their main toys in the morning, putting out a bunch of books for them to check out. We read to them a lot, but they’ll also just sit there with a book and play with it! Seeing through their eyes, what makes something interesting in a book to them — obviously, it’s not really the plot — there’s so many things moving in the book. So many things you pull and slide, and so they definitely really like those types of things, like textures. There’s a cool book, Never Touch a Monster, it’s got these little prickly things on all the pages and stuff.
The books I write, they obviously won’t read them until they’re a little older. But I am excited to one day read them to them, or have them watch Avatar.
So turning to Korra, how is the Turf Wars series going?
It’s three volumes, and I just finished the script for the third volume and finished that little story arc. It’s been a long-gestating project, but it turned out really cool, so I’m really excited.
What can you tell us about the overall arc of the story?
Once people read Volume I they’ll get a better sense, but the villain who emerges out of this story goes through a transformation of sorts, and becomes a bit more powerful and dangerous and scary…. it’s the type of villain that I’ve been wanting to do for a while, and it fits in with what’s going on in Republic City.
Were there any ideas that you were able to incorporate in the comic that you hadn’t in the show? Of course, there’s Korra and Asami’s relationship…
Yeah, that’s probably the biggest one, but it’s more extending out from the show. The biggest challenge of this was that there were too many storylines! It’s the same problem I have with my book. We had all these characters, especially with Avatar, there’s like a million characters, and all these storylines that I needed to deal with.
There’s also a presidential election going on in Republic City. I have to ask, were you at all inspired by current events?
You know, it ends up being somewhat related, I suppose! [laughs] But when I started it, it was well before the election. I think it was before anyone knew who the main candidates were. But I guess Raiko has a little Trump in him sometimes! [laughs]
His wife actually looks a little like Melania…
That’s so funny. I tried to get her in the comic — not Melania! I tried to get Buttercup Raiko in there, but it just didn’t work out. She was one that I couldn’t organically weave into the story.
How much are you working with your Avatar co-creator Bryan Konietzko on Turf Wars?
I basically would pitch him ideas, and we would go back and with developing the stories, and stuff he wanted to see in the books. And he’s also been helping out consulting on the art with [artist] Irene [Koh]. So he’s definitely involved in making sure it feels like the show!
Do you have any future projects in mind for after you finish Rebel Geniuses?
I’ve got a bunch of story ideas, [and] I’m trying to decide which one I want to pursue next, and what format. Maybe graphic novels would be fun — writing Korra was my first graphic novel script, and it was fun to collaborate with one artist on it. I learned a lot about telling a story in that medium, which I really enjoyed. So maybe I’ll explore that down the road!
Warrior Genius and The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part 2 are available from booksellers and comic book stores today!