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With Avatar: The Last Airbender arriving on Netflix in May, the animated series has since settled into its next incarnation, with several new viewers discovering the series — as well as its sequel, The Legend of Korra, which will soon be joining it on the streaming platform, thus opening up the animated world further.
But even before the former Nickelodeon originals took on this second life, it’s had a devoted legion of fans, which have further inspired the development of the shows’ universe in the form of YA novels, comics, and graphic novels.
This year’s Comic-Con@Home panel celebrated that with Faith Erin Hicks (The Nameless City), F.C. Yee (The Epic Crush of Genie Lo), and Eisner winner Gene Luen Yang (Superman). Together with one of the series’ creators, Michael DiMartino, they discussed the franchise's growth and some of the changes that have taken place since that first series ended 12 years ago.
“Avatar shaped and broke the mold for an entire layer of creatives,” said Yee, the author of The Rise of Kyoshi and The Shadow of Kyoshi, two YA novels that focus on one of the previous avatars in the show’s universe. “It inspired so many of us. It’s where our heads go, and what we really love, and what we would love to be like, and what we would like to accomplish as creative professionals.”
Hicks, who’s currently penning the Dark Horse continuation comics set between Avatar and Korra, as well as an original Katara-centric graphic novel coming out this fall, agrees.
“Avatar is the platonic ideal of what is an amazing fantasy story for kids. It has everything,” she says, citing its influence in her own original graphic novel trilogy The Nameless City.
“It’s established that it’s a living world,” says Yee. “It’s got a past. It’s got a future. It’s got a present.”
When it comes to the essence of what it is that makes Avatar (and by extension, Korra) stand the test of time, Yee, Hicks, and Yang all agreed that it’s the combination of the shows’ impressive worldbuilding and characters who grow and change over the show’s three-season run, something that was unusual in American animation at the time Avatar was airing.
“The characters are incredibly real,” says Yang, who penned five arcs' worth of comics for Dark Horse set after the original run of Avatar. “They all have very relatable flaws. Even the hero, Aang, struggles with anger and cowardice. These are all things that we all deal with on a daily basis.”
According to Hicks, part of the show’s success also comes from the range of female characters it featured at the time.
“Now we’re having this huge surge of women in animation and shows with female leads, which is important,” she says. “But back then, in the ‘90s, it felt rare to have a show with multiple female leads. We had Katara, Toph, Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee.”
Yee feels it also has to do with the quality of villains showcased in the show’s run, from Zuko, the disgraced prince of the Fire Nation, to his ambition-driven sister Azula, to Ozai, their father and the current Firelord himself. “I joke that it’s why anytime anyone of a certain age sees a compelling villain you always see [them ask], ‘How are they going to be redeemed? What kind of redemption arc is going to happen?’ Because that’s my ideal storytelling.”
Avatar co-creator DiMartino thinks that it's this kind of long-form serialized storytelling that’s made the show particularly successful on Netflix, where it’s remained in the platform’s Top 10 streamed shows list for weeks.
“At the time, doing a continuous story in kids’ animation was not a thing that was happening. It was more common in Japan, but certainly not in the U.S. or on Nickelodeon,” says DiMartino of his and co-creator Bryan Konietzko’s experience making Avatar. “Part of the reason that the original series is doing so well on Netflix is it's because it fits that format already. It’s a continuous storyline.”
As for expanding the show’s universe through comics and novels and letting its legacy continue that way, DiMartino admits that he may have been a bit hesitant at first.
“I was wary of becoming the kind of property where it was like, ‘Here’s the novelizations and here’s the comics,’ without adding any value to the property,” says DiMartino. “That’s why Bryan and I have tried to stay as involved as we have while trying to give them the space to put their own spin on things.”
For Yang, that’s involved answering all his burning questions after the series wrapped — including what happened to Zuko’s mother, while for Hicks, who actually picked up writing the comics after Yang’s tenure, it’s involved slowly developing the Avatar world so it turns into the one that fans will recognize in Korra.
Meanwhile, Yee coined "dust-stepping," a way for the avatar to bend dust, something DiMartino says could only really be explored in prose, as opposed to animation.
All three creators feel that Avatar and Korra’s influence runs deep and will probably be felt in future creations as more people discover the show through Netflix, especially fans who may not have been born during the shows’ original runs.
“It’s hard to describe the extent of the influence of that show,” says Yang. “I think you can find it in almost any story that’s being told right now, especially for kids. Even if it’s not a fantasy story, I think there’s an element of Avatar in there.”
Hicks agrees, pointing to recent Netflix series that have inspired their own devoted fandoms.
“Looking at all these animated shows, like Hilda, and She-Ra, that feels like Avatar: the next generation,” she says. “These creators are inspired by Avatar are now getting their own shows, which is so amazing.”
Avatar: The Last Airbender is currently available to stream on Netflix. The Legend of Korra will join it on Aug. 14.
Click here for SYFY WIRE's full coverage of Comic-Con@Home 2020.