It was down to standing room only for Dark Horse Comics' "Avatar: The Last Airbender" panel for their new "The Search" series at WonderCon Friday. Subtitled "The Search For Zuko's Mom," the hour-long discussion covered the gamut of the comics adaptation of the cult favorite Nickelodeon cartoon, as writer Gene Luen Yang took the mic answering fan questions.
"When the series aired, I was just a fan," he said of his origins with the property. At the time the show first aired, the high school students Yang taught math to became obsessed with the show, the character and their relationships. He initially dismissed their discussion of who would hook up with whom, but eventually his friend and cartoonist Derek Kirk Kim convinced Yang and his wife to watch it all the way through.
Yang found his gateway to working on "Avatar" via fandom as his own response to the development of M. Night Shyamalan's big screen adaptation of the show took fire online. "The casting drove me crazy. I think I may have foamed at the mouth," he explained, saying how the film fit in with the longstanding Hollywood tradition of "Yellowface" – casting white actors in roles that should culturally fit Asian actors. "When they announced the casting, we were mad about it, and we decided to do something about it. Derek started a boycott on his blog and I signed it. To this day I have not seen that movie."
As part of his protest, Yang drew a two-page web comic explaining his feelings on the movie, and that was seen by former Dark Horse Editor Samantha Robertson who contacted him to write the "Avatar" continuation as a series of graphic novels. "It's been kind of a crazy thing. It's been really crazy to get so deeply involved in the Avatar world. It's an amazing fanbase." He compared Airbender fandom to a lifestyle all its own.
After a first trilogy of graphic novels with the art team Gurihiru called "The Promise" was published, the team has now moved on to the first installment of "The Search." The book recently went on sale and explores a dangling plot thread from the "Avatar" cartoon. Yang recalled watching the launch to the storyline on air. "In the last episode, there's a scene where Zuko goes in with his dad and says 'What happened to my mom?' and then it cut. And then my wife and I both swore! We don't usually swear.
"We decided not to start the comic series by answering this question," he added, noting they wanted the first trilogy of books to be an "establishing shot" for their run -- an overview of the world after the cartoon ended. "The search for Zuko's mom is going to be a much, much more personal story."
Yang said the original pitch for this story came from show creators Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko who wanted Nickelodeon to make a TV movie in the "Avatar" world called "The Search." The pitch was passed on by the network, but the proposal became the core of what Yang turned into a comic. He collaborated very closely with DiMartino on the final version of the story, saying, "Mike and I will get on the phone, we'll have a long conversation and go back and forth on the script... 'The Promise' was pretty collaborative. 'The Search' is really, really collaborative."
The writer recalled that he had to be interviewed by DiMartino and Konietzko before he got the initial gig writing the graphic novels. "I was really nervous and had all these notes, and then immediately when they came on the phone, I couldn't read all my notes," he laughed. "Then about ten seconds into the call, I said, 'Okay, what happened to Zuko's mom?'" Eventually, the creators asked him to pitch what he thought each of the core characters would do next in the world, and his ideas on that front won him the job.
Yang spoke about his "Avatar" work in relation to his own cartooning, comparing the show's ideas to the themes of his graphic novel "American Born Chinese," which explores the lives of Asian American kids whose parents are immigrants. "Doing that comic got me interested in cultural issues, specifically the meeting of East and West," he said. "That's part of the reason I was attracted to 'Avatar: The Last Airbender' as well. It's an American cartoon created by two American animators for an American cable channel, but it's very influenced by Asian culture... one of the things that interested me most about 'Avatar' is it has this Asian mythological foundation, but then it incorporates a bunch of American ideas." As an example, Yang noted the coming of age milestones like beach parties, first kisses and final exam anxieties are more associated with America than Eastern teen cultures.
Asked who his favorite character was, Yang cited Zuko. "He embodies the struggle between good and evil we all face... and he embodies it even in his face. He's like the Asian Two-Face!" he said to laughter from the audience. "Initially when I was offered the series, I had a hard time thinking about how to extend his story... then I got some advice: when people move forward, it's often two steps forward, one step back. Within 'The Promise' we wanted to make it seem like he was taking a step back, but he was actually on to something about how to make a new multicultural world."
The panelists showed off the covers to "The Search" parts 2 and 3 as Yang talked about the art team Gurihiru. "Supposedly they're two ladies living in Japan, but if you see how quickly they put all this out, I have a hard time believing it's two ladies. I have a hard time believing how two people can do so much so quickly!"
The collaboration on the series is a different one for Yang. While he's written comics for other artists before, those projects were always done with close friends whom he speaks with often. His "Avatar" comics are created with the aide of a translator at Dark Horse. "I'm amazed at how well we track. In a lot of instances, they're able to take what was in my head and put it on the page in a way that's way, way better than I ever expected."
When the floor opened up to fan questions, one person wanted to know how many ideas from old episodes would influence the post-war world in the new comics. "Before I even came on the project, it was set that Republic City would grow out of the five nation colonies. It was set that the world would become more multicultural... but I had to look at the details. So I looked at what happened to Japan in the wake of World War II," Yang said, noting post-war Japan is not exactly the same as the Fire Nation. Still, there were plenty of parallels he could find including visual ones like the war ships the Fire Nation used in the show.
Yang said that an early note he got on the series was to not let new secondary characters take over the plot too much. His goal is to use secondary characters to illuminate things about the five principal cast members.
Currently, there are no plans for Yang to explore the rise of the Equalists from the new "Legend of Korra" spinoff TV show in the comics, but he's intrigued by the possibility the characters can serve as a metaphorical mirror of Chinese politics in the 20th Century. "Basically, Mike and Bryan give me little pieces of 'The Legend of Korra.' Maybe 10% of what the general public doesn't know. I try to use those pieces as something to push the world towards.
"Something I've learned since becoming the writer of the "Avatar" comic is issues of 'shipping' can become very dangerous," Yang joked when asked who the father of Toph's kid is in "Legend of Korra" before adding, "No comment." He did reveal Zuko's uncle makes an appearance in the pages of "The Search."
On the hardcore fan front, Yang stated if he could be any bender, he'd be an earth bender. This is because all other benders see their elements dissipate when they're done bending, but earth sticks around. "If I make something out of earth, it stays that way. It's permanent! If I had earth bending, I'd fill my whole backyard with all this awesome earth furniture."