On July 19, 2008, the world lost Avatar: The Last Airbender. An era of impeccable storytelling ended in the best possible way: a four-part finale that satisfied on all counts—save one.
“Where. Is. My mother?” Zuko demands to his father, erstwhile Firelord Ozai.
And viewers everywhere punched their screens.
For years the creators of ATLA, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino (colloquially known as Bryke), trolled their audience with coy reticence on the matter. The first episode of their second show, The Legend of Korra, delivered a sucker punch of a line when Jinora asks her grandma Katara to tell her the story of Zuko’s mom— and motormouthed sister Ikki interrups.
Sometimes, late at night, I can still hear the screams of fandom anguish.
Apparently Bryke intended to make a movie chronicling the Gaang’s adventures searching for Zuko’s mother, but Nickelodeon chose instead to renew The Legend of Korra for a second season. Poor choice, Nickelodeon. Poor choice.
So the duo then turned to a new format to answer this particular burning question and found Gene Luen Yang, author of award-winning American Born Chinese, to help write and illustrate it, along with Japanese illustration company Gurihiru.
But here’s the rub: Beyond the obvious of getting the artwork similar, how could anyone translate the success of ATLA’s world from screen to page? How could they recreate that special ATLA feel? Determining an adaptation’s success is often like seeing an old friend after many years. Do you fall in step as if you’d only been separated a day, or do you twiddle your thumbs and talk awkwardly about the weather before one of you says she’s got somewhere to be?
So what made ATLA an old friend to so many?
Balance of Humor
ATLA managed to strike a perfect blend of humor, drama, and action. That’s something The Legend of Korra, whose tonal shifts always felt a bit jarring, never quite achieved. In all honesty the ATLA comics don’t rise to the show’s lofty heights either, but as they continue, the balance becomes more and more natural. This consistency in tone helps connect the two mediums together to become seamless parts of the same whole.
It doesn’t take years of training to recognize ATLA’s basic plot (Evil tries to take over the world, Good Chosen One must prevent this) as cliché. But in stopping the Big Bad, ATLA captures our imagination though its unique mashup of martial arts and elemental manipulation in stunning action scenes. As the series matured, fighting sequences became high art, with stellar animation, inventive angles, and creative use of the elements.
Are the comics still creative? Do they bring the martial arts bending action in a visually striking and imaginative way?
Yes: we view action through fresh angles, perspectives, and distances, characters debuting a new move, different fighting pace, or simply painting dynamic panels that give the impression of movement.
Character Integrity: Respect for Spirituality
The protagonist is a freaking monk! It’s hard to make that lifestyle action-packed and compelling—and also avoid making your hero a boring pious snob.
A character like Aang only shows up every so often. Heroes who adhere to a dogmatic way of life are frequently potrayed as “faithful but stuffy” or “cool and sacrilegious.” Aang gets to be devout and cool. He goofs off and lazes around, but he also meditates, practices vegetarianism, and enthusiastically continues the traditions of his people.
This characterization continues into the comics: Aang solves problems maturely while staying true to his beliefs and heritage, yet retains his carefree and fun-loving nature. As in the show, sometimes the Air Nomad legacy becomes crucial to the plot (Yangchen’s Festival in The Rift), but mostly it’s as subtle as Aang eating vegetables while his friends enjoy seal jerky.
And good thing too. ATLA couldn’t remain ATLA unless its main character’s soul remained intact. Abandoning such a theme would cause a great disconnect between show and comic, as this type of material is so rare in any form of entertainment and therefore is more essential to ATLA’s atmosphere.
ATLA’s top-tier characters certainly captured our hearts, but more impressively ATLA’s second-rung players made the world of all four nations feel lived in. We had princesses and cabbage merchants and random fire nation soldiers who couldn’t believe the captain remembered their birthday. We had men and women and children and heroes and cowards and animals and spirits and losers and preeners. Each was memorable, even if they only spoke a few lines, and each brought personality and depth to a make-believe world and made us care about its fate.
More importantly, they taught us more about our main characters by showing us how Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, and Zuko reacted to new situations and people.
Later comics in particular have likewise demonstrated this same ability to use random encounters to further the story and initiate character development, such as the old storyteller in North and South, or the wolf spirit in The Search.
Commitment to Complex Conflicts
ATLA’s attention to exploring ambiguity in its central conflicts elevates the show beyond humdrum children’s programming. Beloved complex conflicts include Azula’s eventual downfall, Ba Sing Se’s response to the war, and sweet, gentle Aang’s unwillingness to take a human life, even when that life is the son-maiming, father-murdering, world-destroying 100% evil Firelord’s.
Seriously. The show doesn’t even back down from discussing whether or not Avatar-style capitol punishment is okay. Even more remarkably, it allows its characters to disagree on the matter, leaving conclusions to the audience.
Those are just the big moments, though. ATLA consistently finds ways to keep the audience considering new angles in the small moments too. Katara doesn’t understand why she’s upset with her father for leaving even though she knows he needed to fight in the war. Earth Kingdom soldiers, the “good guys,” can sometimes be bullies. The Gaang intentionally deceives Wan Shi Tong so they can use his library for a purpose he despises—violence—and they pay for it.
Obviously the comics can’t tackle as much as a full series can, but each story seeks any and all perspectives on the central conflict and often leaves the audience siding with multiple characters at once. Zuko’s responsibilities as Fire Lord sometimes conflict with his personal needs. Sokka and Katara disagree on how to develop the Southern Water Tribe for a new age. Zuko’s mother, well…you’ll have to read that one.
How do you beat that finale?
Yeah, ATLA’s finale is a tough act to follow. The writers tied up every loose end save the aforementioned giant gaping tease, so frankly, imagining another season or two leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Nothing could ever be the same again.
But what about all those questions and what-ifs? Enter comics.
Three-part comics allow the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender to fill in the gaps between the series finale and the opening of The Legend of Korra in a short, episodic format. How did Aang and Zuko create Republic City? How did the world become so industrialized so quickly? How did the Air Nomads reform?
A television series couldn’t stretch out these small ides, but a brief stop in the world can tell a tight, tension-filled story and keep the audience wanting more. The main characters go to a new place to fix a problem, and then once the issue is sorted out, bam! It’s over. Until next time…