In the early 2000s, fantasy epics were experiencing something of a sudden resurgence into popular culture. The Harry Potter books and films were everywhere, and the Lord of the Rings movies were just coming out. There was a real apatite for mythology on a grand scale; legends and lore were the order of the day at every studio, including the children’s network Nickelodeon.
In 2002 Bryan Konietzko and Mike DiMartino were asked to pitch an action-adventure series. The pair had spent months developing a world of magic and myth that became the universe of Avatar: The Last Airbender.
“Mike and I were big fans of Harry Potter and the Lord of the Rings, yet we did not have any interest in creating yet another British-based, wizard-driven property. Instead we made the show out of everything we loved, pulling from our interests in Asian cultures and philosophies, traditional martial arts, yoga, anime, and Hong Kong cinema to create our own mythology.”
– Bryan Konietzko – Avatar The Last Airbender: The Art of the Series
In 2005 the show was first broadcast and became something of a cult classic. Unusual for the network, Avatar was a sequential story that continued from week to week, building to a larger story arc.
In this world there are people who can bend the elements; air, earth, water, and fire. The bending disciplines are split between four nations – Earth Kingdom, Water Tribes, Air Nomads, and the Fire Nation.
Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony, but then everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked.
Aang, the main protagonist, is the last airbender. But he is more than that; he is the Avatar, the embodiment of a powerful spirit who alone can bend all the elements and bring balance to the world. Only he can stop the war.
Simple enough, right? The chosen one must bring down the Dark Lord.
But there is more to this show, something deeper, raw and rich. Characters are ruled by their choices, their mistakes and ambitions. Often guilt, perceived inadequacy, and anger are the driving forces behind actions with some characters desperate for redemption, and others who don’t know what they want.
Aang is a fun-loving kid with a goofy sense of humour and makes friends eagerly. But the weight of responsibility laid on him by his identity as the Avatar is too much for him. On top of that, he discovers that he will be taken from his closest friend and guardian to begin training. Overwhelmed, he runs away and abandons his duties, eventually getting trapped in an iceberg where he remains for one hundred years.
While he has been frozen the Fire Nation has wreaked havoc across the world and destroyed his people and his entire culture. He is emotionally devastated and angry, but he hides from it. He hides behind fun and games; he hides behind a mask of silliness and humour.
In parallel, the antagonist, Zuko, is the banished prince of the Fire Nation, cursed to search for the Avatar. At first he seems an angry teenage brat. But as the series progresses we see that he is more than he first appears.
He was once a well-meaning, but naive boy who spoke out against a military plan he thought was wrong. Zuko is challenged to a duel, which he accepts. However, it is Zuko’s own father, the Fire Lord, who fights him, because Zuko’s actions disrespected him. Zuko is literally on his knees begging his father for forgiveness, but he is ignored and the Fire Lord burns half of Zuko’s face as punishment.
Crippled by his need to restore his honour, he hides behind discipline and ruthlessness, but it is a thin veil.
“I want the Avatar. I want my honor, my throne. I want my father not to think I’m worthless.”
– Zuko, The Avatar State (2.1)
He lives in the shadow of his sister, Azula, the childhood prodigy who always excelled where he fell behind.
“Everything always came easy to her. She’s a Firebending prodigy, and everyone adores her. My father says she was born lucky. He says I was lucky to be born. I don’t need luck, though. I’ve always had to struggle and fight, and that’s made me strong. It made me who I am.”
– Zuko, The Siege of the North Part 2 (1.20)
The supporting characters also bring to the table a serious amount of pathos to the show. Katara, a young waterbender, has strong emotions and a need to replace the mother she lost in the war. She is angry at the Fire Nation, but is also compassionate and a strong moral centre. However, in her search for vengeance against the man who killed her mother, Katara goes on something of a rampage. Though she is told that revenge won’t help, she still seeks it. But when it comes to the moment, she realises that the monstrous murderer she sought was little more than a pathetic old man.
And yet, she does not forgive him. She cannot forgive him. This may seem like an odd message to send in a children’s cartoon, but it is a very real emotional response. Sometimes people don’t forgive, sometimes they can’t. But Katara remains a loving and charitable person regardless.
Sokka, Katara’s brother, is a fan favourite. Ostensibly the comic relief, he is a man of insecurities. Deemed too young to fight in the war he nevertheless presents himself as a warrior determined to defend the homeland. But he never quite matches up to the image he has of his own father.
But the most interesting thing about Sokka is his ability to learn. He has many prejudices and horrible assumptions, but he manages to unlearn them and become more enlightened. He begins the series as very obnoxious, selfish, and sexist but he learns when he sees how wrong he is.
In The Warriors of Kyoshi, he is bested by a group of warriors who are all women. At first he is sarcastic and rude to them, but eventually learns the error of his ways and, rather than giving a grudging acknowledgement, he bows to them, on his knees, and humbly asks for their help. And this is not in the middle of some crisis where he is forced into humility; it is a choice he makes by himself.
Sokka becomes the brains of the outfit. Though he has none of the magical elemental bending powers, he has great tactical and engineering skills. Though often hopelessly pessimistic, he still manages to grow and learn and become a better person, one more worthy of his father’s admiration than he ever imagined.
Toph, a young blind girl, joins the heroes in the second season and has a gigantic fan following. Skilful and sarcastic, Toph was an amazing character to watch; she grew up in a rich household where she was coddled and over-protected. Her family refused to see her for who she truly was, and because of her blindness, they always underestimated her.
She embraced her blindness, took it as a fundamental part of her identity, before making it her greatest asset. It made her more powerful, it made her better at what she did, and she knew it. She went on to break the boundaries of what was thought possible within her discipline.
That art in this show is staggeringly breathtaking. Every nation has its distinct style and every character has their own features, but it is in the details that we see how deep the world building goes. Things that are not even explicitly mentioned but give a whole new breath of life to the world are what make world-building so magical.
For example; the Air Nomads had four temples – north, south, east and west – that they used as places of meditation and cultural centre. The temples in the north and south have statues of male nomads only, while the statues in the east and west have female nomads only. It was never spoken in the show, but we see it. One wonders what the gender politics of the air nation was, how it came to be that way, and what it was like.
The amount of research that went into each scene is phenomenal. So much so that there are a series of books of The Art of the Animated Series that explore how much went into the show. From sweeping landscapes to intimate, quiet moments, a lot of work went into every frame.
Much of this dedication from the artists came from the way Konietzko and DiMartino ran the program. Having worked as artists at the bottom rung of the industry, they knew how tough and soul destroying it could be, so they set out to make the work as as possible. Konietzko spent a lot of time with the Korean animators and became firm friends with many of them, some of whom he promoted and took on in chief positions for the sequel, The Legend of Korra.
The music is another element where the show’s creators showed their dedication. Jeremy Zuckerman, the composer, was more of a rock musician, more comfortable with electric guitars than anything else. But the Asian slant of the design made him lean towards instruments obscure to western ears. He ended up dedicating obscene amounts of time and effort into the project. Indeed, when the four-part grand finale came about in 2008, Zuckerman was determined to use live strings and was willing to pay for it out of his own pocket.
Stories like this bring home the fact that this was a labour of love from top to bottom. The characters were so nuanced that you felt like they were real. To the point where in a fan favourite episode towards the end of the final season, the creators were able to poke fun at themselves through a play performed within the show, detailing the past adventures in ridiculous and over the top manners.
After the show finished, Nickelodeon would broadcast repeats occasionally. Konierzko tells the story of an executive telling him how the repeats never did well in the ratings when they were shown out of sequence. But as soon as they started showing them in sequence again, the audience grew and grew. It grew so much that, in 2011, they offered Konietzko and DiMartino another series.
The Legend of Korra picked up some fifty years after the end of The Last Airbender and gained a whole new audience. This series pushed boundaries even further, and despite some set backs, managed to cement itself as a true successor to Avatar. The art got more breathtaking, the music more spectacular, and the characters won hearts all over again.
Go out and grab the box sets of Avatar: The Last Airbender, or watch it in whatever format works best for you. It may take some time to marathon, but it is ultimately more than worth it.
Next week I shall be taking a deeper look at The Legend of Korra and what kind of social impact the show can have through its message.