One of the things Avatar gets praised for the most is the fact that it deals with mature issues and has a compelling enough story and characters to engage adults, despite being initially aimed at children.
But now that I have the opportunity to watch the show with my own children, I'm realizing just how well it works for its original audience as well.
Kids in elementary school see the world in black and white, and most of the shows they watch reflect that. Good guys always do good things. Bad guys always do bad things. There's never a question of anyone crossing this line, even when there probably should be.
In one of the first episodes of another Nickelodeon show, the TMNT reboot, one of the turtles is attacked and swipes his sword at the stranger in defense. The blade hits, slicing through the man's head, revealing that it is actually a robot. Our supposed good guy, however, had no way of knowing this ahead of time and was perfectly fine with brutally murdering someone he could have easily outrun. As the protagonist of a kids' show, his actions were justified without question.
But Avatar is not your typical kids' show.
One of the first episodes I watched with my son (who is, in fact, in the elementary age bracket) was ""Jet"". As he watched the story unfold, he voiced that Sokka wasn't being fair and that Jet was good. After all, Jet had been seen fighting the bad guys, so he had to be a good guy. But when it's revealed that Jet is willing to flood a village and attack a helpless old man simply because they're from the Fire Nation, things become much less clear. By the time the episode was over, my son had the look of a person who'd just had their whole reality turned upside down and was amazed at the new possibilities. No other show had dealt with the fact that people can have good motivations, but their actions can still be wrong. And of course, being Avatar, the show goes on to demonstrate how the reverse is also true.
We recently watched ""The Blue Spirit"", and my son quickly named the titular character as ""the mystery guy."" He commented that he wondered who it was but didn't make any guesses. When the Blue Spirit's identity was revealed, his eyes widened, and when we got to the end of the episode, all he could say was, ""Wow. That. Was. Amazing."" In case you were wondering, no, that is not his typical closing statement to a TV show. But this is what the best storytelling does -- it inspires us.
When it comes to work for children, it's easy to make the villains robots or monsters or something else that can never be morally gray. (Bonus easy points if it's something you can destroy without feeling even a twinge of guilt.) It's much harder to use humans; it requires any decent writer to acknowledge that people do both good and bad things, to recognize that human lives, all of them, have value. Not only does Avatar introduce kids to fantastic storytelling, but it also paves the way for conversations about the real world. After several rounds of pretending to be the Avatar characters, my son and I had a talk about how Aang doesn't like hurting people and how he saves Zuko from Zhao even though they are enemies. We talked about how Aang tried to make friends with Zuko afterwards and only ran away when Zuko chose to attack. (Interestingly enough, when we started the series, my son simply called Zuko ""the bad guy."" Now, he tells me, Zuko is ""a good guy to most people and only bad when he's chasing Aang."")
I know my kids are going to run into a lot of people that they don't agree with, even some people who are antagonistic towards them. How awesome would it be if their first reaction isn't to be antagonistic back, but to ask, ""Is there any way we could be friends?"
For this ship of the issue, I have decided to write about Ty Lokka. As I’m sure many of you know, it the ship between Sokka and Ty Lee. It is also sometimes referred to as Tykka.
Ty Lokka is one of the “four main ships” involving Sokka. It set sail as soon as Ty Lee developed a crush on Sokka. It seems as if there was a mutual attraction between them as they flirted at one point while inside of the drill. When Sokka and Ty Lee fought in Ba Sing Se, Ty Lee continued to flirt with him. However, Sokka was dating Suki at this point so he rejected her romantic advances. This did not stop fans from shipping Ty Lokka and some would rather see Sokka with Ty Lee instead of Suki.
I never really shipped Ty Lokka. I ship Sokka with Suki and Yue and I did also ship him with Toph at one point. This biggest issue is that they were technically enemies during the war. While the two flirted inside of the drill, it seemed to be entirely based on physical attraction as the two did not know each other on a personal level. There used to be an avid Tokka fan on Avatar Wiki and he did a very good job with pointing out the flaws in this pairing. It was mainly based on physical attraction.
Some believe that Sokka is the reason why Ty Lee betrayed Azula along with Mai. I serious doubt this because if this was the case, then why didn’t she side with him sooner? Ty Lee was friends with Zuko and Mai and Azula was about to attack the latter. I feel that this is the main reason why Ty Lee betrayed the Fire Nation.
- They had a mutual attraction to each other at some point.
- Sokka and Ty Lee both have goofy personalities so they have a lot in common.
- Sokka and Ty Lee were on opposite sides of the war for a long time so it couldn’t have worked.
- Sokka is now with Suki and even told Ty Lee about his relationship with her when the latter was flirting with him during their battle.
I don’t really have a problem with Ty Lokka but I do not see it working at this point.
Time for another installment extolling the virtues of Avatar: The Last Airbender! This issue, I wanted to cover an idea, or rather, a challenge that faces many movies and television shows: screentime and time constraints. Often used to excuse shoddy writing and poor characterizations, the idea of time constraints—be it shorter episode length or less episodes per season than the norm—are used to hand-wave things that just don’t add up.
“Well, they didn’t have the luxury of time to do what they wanted to do. These characters could only be built up so much.”
Well, I’m here today to do two things: disabuse anyone of that notion, and praise one of my favorite TV series in the process. And I’m going to look at one simple episode to do so: The Avatar and the Firelord.
So, what’s so special about this episode? What does it contain within that makes it worth mentioning?
This episode not only brings the protagonist, Aang, and the deuteragonist, Zuko, closer together in terms of mirrored journeys, it also manages to do that while telling a completely separate story with characters, stakes, drama, action, and heartbreak. And the time it takes? Twenty-two minutes. In the average runtime of an episode, the writers of A:TLA gave us a story that worked on its own and continued building a relationship between two characters that had been weaved throughout the show from the beginning.
How does this feat get accomplished? Well, we are told the story of former Firelord Sozin and Avatar Roku through two different perspectives. One is Zuko reading an account by his grandfather detailing their friendship, while Aang goes on a spirit journey with Roku as a tour guide of his life. The setup grants us two viewpoints, two characters to follow. Roku’s half details his experiences as the Avatar, learning to bend the four elements, as well as his increasingly strained relationship with Sozin. Meanwhile, we see Sozin beginning to bring forth a vision of unity and prosperity that, in his eyes, will lift every nation. It is upon Roku’s return from his training that things begin to strain. We see two best friends become increasingly at odds with one another as Sozin tries to move forward with his plans against Roku’s wishes. This culminates in a battle that, while one-sided, destroys a friendship in the process. Neither man walks away unscathed. That would be enough to make this a worthy episode, but it doesn’t end here. The story within a story truly reaches its end as the best friends are brought together one final time, only to have betrayal and death shatter what remains.
It is bitter, it is harsh, it shows us that Roku ultimately failed in his duty, but it also shows a glimmer of hope in Aang, the next Avatar.
And it is done in twenty-two minutes.
Is every character within it fleshed out? No. Do we miss much of their lives? Yes. But the most important question, and the one I believe this episode answers in the affirmative, is this: Did we get a clear picture of friendship, conflict, despair, and hope?
I believe we did.
The Avatar and the Firelord paints a two-sided story in a brilliant way that makes us feel for this broken friendship, for these men who were torn apart by duty on the one hand and ambition on the other.
So when someone complains that a show or movie only had so much time, and it’s flaws can be excused by that lack of time, I tell them about The Avatar and the Firelord. Or Baccano!, because I will never pass up a chance to mention the utter insanity that is Baccano!.
At any rate, The Avatar and the Firelord is yet another example of why Avatar: The Last Airbender is so brilliant. It does things with its story, tone, and characters that allow it to transcend the mark of a simple kids’ TV show. It is a masterpiece, as I’ve said before and I’ll say again. And that just makes me happy, because I get to keep writing these.
Mako and Bolin are the world-renowned fabulous bending brothers. They were both orphaned at a young age and had to fend for themselves before training to become Probenders and then joining Avatar Korra in her struggle against evil.
Mako is a fierce firebender, well adapted to the fast-paced fighting style of Republic City. He was known for his characteristic 'cool under fire' fighting style in which he would dodge most attacks with little wasted effort. He is also a skilled lightning bender, using it to temporarily stun Amon and even kill Ming-Hua.Mako is a brilliant tactician, being able to use his environment to his surroundings. This was shown when he was able to kill Ming-Hua with a brilliant use lightning and the surrounding water. He is very much the leader of Team Avatar, being a very quick thinker.
Bolin is a brilliant earthbender. Unlike a typical earthbender, he is capable of being quick and light on his feet when the situation calls for it. This style is very suited for pro-bending. However, he is also capable of traditional earthbending styles. In addition, he is the only known lavabender to be living by the time of Book 4. However, he is not a metalbender. It is also likely that even if Mako can get past his brother's defence, Bolin will be able to carry on fighting.
For these reasons, I'm going to give Bolin the victory. What does everyone else think?
Bolin is a tank. He is able to absorb many attacks and even carry on fighting with a dislocated shoulder. In the final battle against the Colossus, he managed to incapacitate a metalbender by ramming him. To me, it seems that a battle between them would be decided by a few factors. Mako is more agile than Bolin and a better tactician. In terms of raw power and endurance, Bolin seems far superior. So it seems that if Mako can use his environment to his surroundings and use his superior agility to his advantage, he would be able to overcome Bolin. That is, of course, if he could get past his brother's rock-solid defences and dangerous attacks of both stone and lava.
For these reasons, I'm going to give Bolin the victory. What does everyone else think?
Which two should face off next? Make your suggestion in the comments!
| Interview with Gene Yang: |
Extra Insight into the Avatarverse
If you weren't aware already, Smoke and Shadow Part 3
has been released earlier than the planned date. Snatch it fast and see the marvelous work of Gene Luen Yang. And before you read the discussion below, I have to give a shoutout to him yet again for being one of the kindest, most passionate authors there are out there. Thanks for everything, Gene, on behalf of the Avatar fandom!
Hi Mr. Yang! How are you?
- Good, good – How are you?
Pretty good. Thank you so much for taking the time to answer our questions today.
- No problem. Thanks for calling!
- So, have you wrapped up everything with Smoke and Shadow?
- Yeah! With the production schedule, I’ve finished my script for about a year or so now. It takes a while for it to be drawn, you know, especially with the time and labor it takes to do the artwork.
- Oh yeah, definitely. How do you feel during the anticipation – you know, that period before text comes to life in the drawings?
- Well, it’s great. It’s great to see it come to life, especially when you’re working with artists like Gurihuru. They’re just absolutely stellar at what they do.
- Although this is an interview for the fans, we don’t get to hear very often what you think of your own work. Out of all the Avatar comic series you’ve written, do you have a favorite so far?
- I think my favorite of all is always the current one I’m working on just because I have to be really involved and in love with it to have the energy to finish it. Definitely the most challenging one was The Search. I think with The Promise, I was still learning. I was figuring out what the correlation was between the episodes and the comics. But The Search was the one that was most challenging because it had so much pressure on it, with part of the finale and all.
- It must have been pretty scary being in charge of answering that huge question, “What happened to Zuko’s mom?”
- Yeah, absolutely! But you know, it was also a team effort with Bryan and Mike. Especially Mike – he and I collaborated pretty closely to get all that going.
- As a writer, how much liberty are you given with the storyline? Do Bryan and Mike leave it up to you for the most part, or are they pretty involved?
- I feel like I really get a decent amount of creative elbow room. Every book starts off with a conversation between me and Mike, or both Mike and Bryan. We’ll bat around some ideas, go over some outlines, and usually I’ll do three or four drafts with notes from them each time. Based on that outline, I do the scripts for the comics.
- How does it feel when you sit down before the next book, knowing a whole new story’s about to unfold?
- Well, it’s great! But you know, it’s not exactly a blank canvas since I’m working in a world that's already been established, with existing characters and interesting personalities. It’s a world that I love. I was a huge fan of Avatar before I was asked to do the comics, so it’s really been an honor to be a part of this world.
- I’ll bet! So recently, the comics have been featuring the Fire Nation Royalty a lot. It seems like Ozai’s still as evil as ever even behind bars. Do you think he actually has a heart somewhere in there?
- (Laughs) Ozai? I think Ozai is hardened enough that if he has a heart, he’s not in touch with it anymore. It would take something really traumatic to bring it out, and so far nothing has really been traumatic enough.
- Do you think he really cares about his family at all?
- I think he cares about his family and his nation in his own way. I think he’s kind of a classic narcissist, but he cares about his family and nation more as a reflection of his image. But you know, even narcissists are human. All of the characters of Avatar (and this is what makes it so great) have a little bit of good and a little bit of bad in them. Still, I think it would take something very traumatic for the good to surface in Ozai.
- Well, Ozai seems to have a lot of bad in him compared to good. How exactly did that imbalance between him and Iroh happen? Since I mean, Iroh seems to be the opposite where there's lots of good compared to the bad.
- I think Iroh was one of the most interesting characters. He and Zuko have a parallel history, but it’s just that his journey happens off-screen. The spirit world and the loss of his son definitely had a lot to do with Iroh’s good surfacing.
- In the Fire Nation Royal Family, it seems like the siblings are always an interesting case. How do the dynamic between Zuko and Azula compare to Iroh and Ozai back in the way?
- Like I said, Iroh and Ozai’s past happened largely off screen, but it’s still very much a parallel to Zuko and Azula. You’ve got the more power hungry, narcissistic one, and when push comes to shove a very difficult choice is made; like when Iroh gives up the throne instead of choosing power.
- Why do you think Azulon preferred Iroh for the throne, even though Ozai was so much more ambitious?
- I think a lot of that was just out of tradition. A lot of the Fire Nation was patterned out of Asian culture, especially pre-world war Japan.
- Speaking of Asian culture and history, we’ve really been loving what you’ve done with the spirits in your comics. What sources of inspiration do you draw from for those? They’ve been really, really creative!
- Well thanks! During The Promise, the harmony restoration movement was largely drawn from post World War II Japan and also, late 1800 China. In each case, an Asian country was severely weakened and trying to restore itself. In The Search, we’ve got the Mother of Faces. That one came from a lot of sources. One of them was the Chinese goddess of mercy, Guanyin, who I used in another one of my books and so she comes to mind a lot. It was also inspired by Chinese opera, which I also studied loads of. The actors in Chinese opera tend to wear these amazing masks, so it was within my subconscious as I was working on the Avatar books. As for The Rift, that was largely a response to Korra, and that’s something that Mike and I talked about a lot. It’s awesome, the different world of Korra, and we kind of wanted to show the transition into that world. And finally, for Smoke and Shadow, the center of the story of the Kemurikage is actually from an idea that Mike and Bryan had for the original series but that they just didn’t get to put in. They wanted a Fire Nation version of the Kyoshi Warriors, and we were able to put them in the comics.
- Oh wow, I can see it. That’s really cool!
- (Laughs) Well you know, it was a really vague concept on their part, but we’re working on fleshing it out a little in the comics.
- Out of the entire Avatar cast, who is usually the most difficult for you to write for and why?
- The most difficult for me to write? You know, I feel like each cast member, each of the five major characters, has such a distinct personality and are established so well that they’re all really a pleasure to write. Out of all of them, though, probably the easiest to write is Toph. I think she’s so distinctive that when I close my eyes I can just hear her yelling and I just write down what I hear. But I don’t know if I could name someone that’s particularly difficult to write, and I think that's a testament to the groundwork of the series. They did such a great job establishing those characters that all of this work in the comics is just sharing that joy.
- Since there always has to be a shipping question sooner or later, it seems like your comics have created a romantic rollercoaster. Do Mike and Bryan let you keep those comic-exclusive love interests you write long-term, or are they happening more as phases?
- The shipping stuff is always an ongoing discussion. The characters are young, and most of us when we’re young go through sort of a romantic rollercoaster. Avatar Aang and Katara would probably be the exception to that. As for the current pairings? (Laughs) You know, that’s really anybody’s guess right now, and there’s a lot of questions!
- Oh, you nailed it. We just have no idea what’s going to happen and people are speculating and going crazy! But speaking of shipping, do we ever get to revisit the more minor pairings from the show? People like Pakku and Kanna, for instance?
- Yeah, I love a lot of those side characters and I was really happy to be able to bring so many of them into the comics. But yes, those more minor couples will definitely be making their way back into the comics for sure.
- Now here’s the scary question: Now that The Legend of Korra has finished, how do you think it compares to Avatar: The Last Airbender? Can you choose one?
- (Laughs) I have to say that because I work on the Avatar comics, because those characters are in my head as part of my job, I definitely feel closer to those characters. But, that said, I think Korra turned out to be - well, I think they’re really different. I kind of think of Korra like a young adult story, while Avatar is more of a middle-grade story. Although, both of them deal with really intense topics in their own really sophisticated ways. But I think they’re different enough that they each deserve a place on the table, and I think that’s part of Mike and Bryan’s genius. With the sequel, they didn’t just try to repeat themselves, they tried to do something that echoed the first one but was still entirely new.
- Oh yeah, definitely. So do you think that there’s anything that one series did better than the other? Strong suits unique to each?
- I think the action sequences in Korra were amazing. (Laughs) All the bending fights were just crazy. They were awesome. Especially that first season, before I even got used to it. As Korra went on, you sort of expected the fighting series, but the choreography in that first season was just mind-blowing. As for humor, I think that the first series was a little funnier. Korra was a bit more serious.
- Yeah, she dealt with a lot! And in Korra, we see a lot of imbalances. It seems like a lot of stuff that Aang’s Team Avatar established kind of fell apart - like how Ba Sing Se seems to have gone back to exactly how it was before (maybe worse), and that whole grudge between the Northern and Southern water tribes. In your comics, will we be led to how those things happened and how they fell apart?
- Yeah, we’ll definitely see some of that for sure. I think that’s the typical nature of history in general, that things go up and down. Things that get together fall apart again. We’ll show some of that for sure.
- What became of the Jasmine Dragon, by the way? In Ba Sing Se.
- Oh, it’s still there! It’ll show up in the comics every now and then.
- Between each trilogy, sometimes it feels like everything happens really fast, and Team Avatar is just never given a break. How much time exactly passes between each? You know, between The Promise, The Search, The Rift, and so on.
- It’s all really fast for sure. I mean, there’s a year long gap at the beginning of the comics, but after that it’s pretty much one thing after the other – especially
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with Smoke and Shadow and North and South, which is the next one. They’ll be overlapped; pieces of them will take place simultaneously. I think that’s just part of the nature of the Avatar to be constantly called to duties. They’re with you until you die.
- That’s very true. And now we’ve just been told that there’s going to be another comic series, in the water tribes this time, and we’re really thrilled to hear that!
- Yeah! That’s something that we’ve been wanting to do for a long time. I feel like Katara and Sokka haven’t gotten their spotlight yet, so we're really happy that we probably get to do it.
- We see that after Aang and Katara marry, his air nomad roots are very prominent in the next generation, with the whole Air Temple Island setup and such. But how much of Katara’s culture is incorporated into their family? Her betrothal necklace, did he make her one? It’s hard to tell from The Legend of Korra.
- You know, a lot of those questions you’ll just have to keep reading the comics to get the answers to. In the Legend of Korra though, you can see that one of their kids is a waterbender, so their family would really operate as a mix of the two cultures. I do think that since Aang was the last one, he had a special mandate that maybe Katara didn’t have about preserving culture, you know? But their family was still a mix of the two cultures.
- So was it really as bad as Kya and Bumi said, about Tenzin getting the spotlight? Or is that just sibling rivalry?
- (Laughs) That again, you’re gonna have to just keep reading. And hopefully the comics will be popular enough for us to get to that part.
- I’m glad that we’ll find out!
- Yeah! We’ll see how things go. A lot of that is the decisions by the higher-ups of both Nickelodeon and Dark Horse, and how long they’ll let us go on. But so far, I think it’s been going really well.
- You’re probably aware of some of the mysteries that the fans have been pulling their hair out over – like Lin and Suyin’s fathers. Do Mike and Bryan purposely just leave stuff open like for us to find out later in the comics?
- Some of that is just a storytelling technique; if you ever want to show the entire iceberg, you only show it a bit at a time. And some of those questions may be answered in the comics, again. You’ll just have to read! Now there’s a Korra comic coming out, written by Mike, and as a fan I’m really excited about it. For some of these questions that you’re asking, maybe the answers will happen there as well.
- Alright, last one. So when you became a writer, did you just know that you would get into this? Did you jump into formal work pretty fast, or was it a gradual interest that grew into something big?
- Oh, in the beginning I just made comics because I loved them, that’s why. I wasn’t really planning on making a career out of it, since it didn’t seem like it was possible at the time. But I started off as a self-publisher, I would print a comic, I put it out myself, and eventually publishers started paying attention. For this job, one of the editors at our post had read some of my books so far. She was aware of my work so she called me up and offered me a job, and I was thrilled to take it. It took about ten years, though. It took about ten years from the moment I got serious about comics and started self-publishing, and to the moment I started attracting some publisher attention.
- Well, it’s turned out great! Did you always like writing spinoffs of existing series the way you’re doing for Avatar now?
- No, no, as a kid I mostly did my own stories with my own characters. Avatar: The Last Airbender was really the first time I wrote somebody else’s characters, and it was a thrill. I’m absolutely happy that I’ve been able to work in that world for so long.
- Yeah, and you’ve done great!
- Well thanks! I really appreciate it, and thank you so much for calling today! It was great to talk to you.
- Thank you so much for taking the time so much to answer these questions! You’re really cool for doing this for us.
- Well, cool! (Laughs) Thank you! I hope you have a great day.