In 2012, Dark Horse began publishing the comic sequel to the hit animated series Avatar: The last Airbender, helping bridge the gap between that story’s world and characters to the currently running Legend of Korra. So far they’ve released two volumes and are midway through serializing a third, but for many people – both fans of the animated series and comics fans – they may not know it’s even available. This week, Dark Horse attempted to change that.
Over the summer, the Oregon-based publisher released a low-cost preview of the series in the form of a $1 except from the Avatar: The Last Airbender comics storyarc, The Rift. In this story, series writer Gene Luen Yang and the artistic team known as Gurihiru show Aang, the titular star of the series, taking his students to celebrate a long-forgotten festival created to honor his predecessor, and get wrapped up in her rarely-heard story.
Newsarama talked with Yang about this preview book for his Avatar: The Last Airbender comic series, as well as the broader aspects of this series, its future, and the briding between the two animated series and the two storytelling mediums. The Rift part 3 is due on store shelves November 5, 2014.
Newsarama: This summer, Dark Horse re-released part one of Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Rift as a special $1 entry point for prospective new readers. Why do you think that story, with Yangchen’s Festival, is an ideal entry point for new readers?
Gene Luen Yang: The Rift is a great entry point for new readers, especially for fans of the Avatar: The Last Airbender show who haven’t yet tried the comics. Our story is all about the tension between the old world and the new, between tradition and technology. Yangchen’s Festival, one of the highest Airbender holidays, plays a central part in our story. In The Rift, you learn about Aang’s culture alongside Toph, Katara, and Sokka.
Nrama: These three Avatar: The Last Airbender series you’re doing at Dark Horse are acting as a sequel to the original series as well as a prequel of sorts to the current Legend of Korra series. What’s it like for you, charting this course to tie one to another conclusively? And how much do you work with the television series’ creators and current writers?
Yang: Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the creators of the original show, have constructed an amazing world with a rich history. Long before Dark Horse Comics brought me on to write the graphic novels, Mike, Bryan, and their team had already figured out how the world of Aang was going to transition into the world of Korra. The big pieces were there.
That said, Gurihiru and I still get a good amount of creative elbow room. Our stories have to fit into a larger historical narrative, but there’s plenty to play with. Mike and Bryan are committed to the comics, so they’re very involved in the process. They give me notes on every outline and script I write. The comics take place just a year or two after the last episode of Avatar: The Last Airbender, so we want them to feel like the first show with hints of the second.
Nrama: For people that only know Avatar: The Last Airbender from the two series, how would you describe this in-between period – after the Hundred Years’ War but before the formation of the United Republic?
Yang: Everything’s in flux in the in-between period. In The Rift, a new form of government gets established, technology changes the relationship between benders and non-benders, and tensions rise between the Spirit and human worlds. The nations have to forge new ways of relating to one another. Not everything is new, though. All your old friends from Avatar: The Last Airbender are there, helping to figure things out.
Nrama: Legend of Korra jumps quite a bit from Avatar: The Last Airbender, leaving you the possibility to tell the juicy stories of the older Avatar characters who don’t show up in Legend of Korra. Is there one in particular you hope to do more of, or have enjoyed already?
Yang: I love the five principal characters, of course – Aang, Katara, Sokka, Toph, and Zuko. Their stories definitely aren’t finished yet. I’m also fascinated by Aang’s past lives. In the cartoon series, we saw a fair amount of Roku, some Kyoshi, and very little of anyone else. We’ll learn more of Yangchen’s story in The Rift. Yangchen was the Airbender Avatar before Aang. In her brief appearances on the show, she’s stoic and wise, but she wasn’t always that way. In The Rift, we show her at the very beginning of her Avatar career, when she still has a lot to learn
Nrama: The two previous graphic novels – The Promise, and The Search – have focused on many Avatar characters, but not all. I see Toph showing up in The Rift, but are there more characters or settings or situations from the original animated series you hope to revisit at some point in these graphic novels?
Yang: When I was watching the show, my favorite character was Zuko. I loved the duality at the core of his identity. We can all relate to his struggle between good and evil. Since signing on to write the comics, though, I’ve just fallen in love with Toph. She’s so easy to write! I close my eyes and I can hear her yelling at me.
I really missed Toph during The Search. For a variety of reasons, we felt it necessary to leave her out of that story. It’s been a lot of fun to throw the spotlight on her in The Rift.
Besides Toph? We haven’t yet heard from a certain seller of vegetables. Maybe that will be remedied in the current series?
Nrama: As a child you wanted to be an animator, but ended up doing computers and comics. What’s it like now to be doing a continuation of an animated series – your first passion – but as a comic?
Yang: I’m a fan of animation, but at my very core I’m definitely a comics guy. I just love comics. I love the intimacy of reading. I love the amount of control a comic book gives its creator. I love putting panels together to create a story – it’s a lot like putting together a puzzle.
The Avatar: The Last Airbender comics gives me the chance to vicariously indulge my childhood passions. I get to collaborate with two of the most talented animators on the planet. I get to write characters I grew to love through an animated show. And I get it to do it all through comics, my favorite storytelling medium.
Nrama: The potential audience for these Avatar: The Last Airbender comcis intersects somewhat with the traditional American comic book audience, but also goes far past it with the widespread viewing of it on television. What’s it like doing a comic that will be read moreso by new comics readers versus the more ardent comic fans?
Yang: It’s both exhilarating and intimidating. I try to make all my comic books as clear and as readable as possible. I want the reader to get caught up in the story, rather than lost in the mechanics of the storytelling. Fortunately, the graphic novels are drawn by Gurihiru, a team of artists with a deep understanding of the comics medium. They’re expert visual storytellers. I really hope, if a new reader enjoys what Gurihiru and I have done, that they’ll go seek out other graphic novels.
Nrama: That being said, for someone who reads primarily superhero comics what would you say is here in Avatar that you think they’d enjoy?
Yang: If you like superheroes, you’ve got to give Avatar: The Last Airbender a try. The entire world is built on bending, which is basically a superpower. Certain people within the world can manipulate one of the four elements – earth, fire, air, water. And they do it through kung fu moves! How cool is that? We’ve got enough action and adventure to satisfy even the most hardcore superhero fan.
Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Rift TPB vol 3 is due on store shelves on November 5, 2014. Volumes 1 and 2 are available now.