Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Yes, I know.  I'm 10 years late.

I backed into this series due to my interest in the work of comics writer/artist Gene Luen Yang.  Having read his books American Born Chinese, The Eternal Smile and Boxers/Saints, I discovered that he had written several graphic novels based on the Avatar TV series.  I read them and was extremely impressed with the political sophistication of the stories.  The Promise has to do with two ethnic groups both laying claim to the same land.  Anyone who follows the news can easily see the resemblance to the middle east or Ukraine.  The Rift has to do with the tension between technological progress and ecological preservation.  Like life, these books don't present easy answers, showing that there are valid claims on all sides.

I should also mention the art by the Japanese team known as Gurihiru, which is very attractive.

So, knowing nothing of the backstory of the animated series but being impressed, I wrote Yang and asked where the stories came from.  Did he originate them?  He replied to me that they were written in collaboration with the series' creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino.

Hearing this, I wondered if the series reached the same standard that the graphic novels had, so I've now watched all 61 episodes.  I am very, very impressed.

Briefly, the series is set in an Asian world where there are four tribes based on the elements of fire, water, earth and air.  In these tribes, there are some who can manipulate their namesake element.  In essence, they're superheroes, though free from the cliches that have encrusted themselves around superheroes.  The fire nation has attempted to conquer the rest of the world and the Avatar, who is the only one to master bending all four elements, works to end the war and restore a balance in the world.

I can no longer claim to be an expert on animated TV series.  I haven't watched a lot in the last 15 years.  However, in my experience, I've never seen a series like Avatar.  When I was working in production, there was a strong resistance from broadcasters for continuity between episodes.  They wanted the ability to run them in any order without causing audience confusion.  I'm amazed that Nickelodeon agreed to letting a story play out in continuity over several seasons. 

The result is a story that is novelistic.  Characters come and go and their histories are filled in bit by bit.  They have time to truly develop based on their experiences, so they grow organically.  Just about every character gets screen time to become fully rounded.  In too many children's TV shows, there are a handful of personality traits assigned to a character that they never move beyond, but in Avatar, characters reflect on their pasts as they try to figure out how they should move forward.  The characters are driven by their emotional needs, not simply manipulated for the benefit of the plot.

In addition to well-developed characters, there are themes here that are also rare for children's TV:  war, genocide, racism, fascism, brainwashing, reincarnation, mysticism, loss of loved ones, and family relations that run the gamut from nourishing to dysfunctional.

The fights and action scenes remind me a lot of Jack Kirby's work at Marvel in the 1960's.  While there are explosions, collapsing buildings and characters thrown through the air who slam into objects, there are no broken bones and practically no blood.  I was surprised to find myself caught up in what would happen to the characters.  With so much formula storytelling on TV, for adults and children, that was a novelty for me.

I would love to know how the creators managed to get this series approved.  Did they reference The Lord of the Rings or Harry Potter in order to show that children would accept material this dense and downbeat?  (There is a lot of comedy in the show, but a story built around a hundred year war is hardly a giggle fest.)  I consider it something of a miracle that this show ever got produced, as it breaks so many of the accepted norms of children's TV, which tends to be relentlessly shallow and cheerful.

It isn't perfect, but TV animation never is.  The animation itself, done in Korea, suffers from the compromises of TV budgets, with animation on 3's, 4's and 6's.  There's a six-legged bison character  they never did get a believable walk cycle for.  There are lots of held cels with only parts of characters moving.  However, there are fight scenes and action scenes that are elaborately choreographed.  The facial expressions are sometimes pushed too far based on the rest of the design approach, but even with the limited animation, the characters genuinely act.

There are some episodes that feel like padding, included to fulfill a 20 episode season.  However, there are interesting episodes that break expected patterns.  "Tales of Ba Sing Se" features vignettes of each of the leading characters, allowing them time to develop outside the overarching plot.  "The Ember Island Players" is meta-textual, where the characters watch a play based on their own adventures in earlier episodes and reflect on how they're being portrayed.

I know that the creators followed this series with The Legend of Korra and I'll now work my way through that.  Yang and Gurihiru have another Avatar graphic novel coming out in September called Smoke and Shadow.  Their novels are broken into three parts and come out at three month intervals.  This week, Yang's first written issue of Superman is in comics shops.

I am surprised and encouraged that material this good has made it into TV animation.  I might be the last person to discover this show, but if I'm not, I highly recommend it.  It's been a long time since I've felt this good about an animated TV series. 


Anonymous said...

The story behind Avatar's creation is interesting. Apparently the development executive at Nickelodeon was totally enraptured by the team's pitch, which went much longer and way more in depth than the average cartoon pitch. The co-creators also had much more respect for their outsourced colleagues than Western creators usually do, both being fans of anime and animation done in Asia. So they gave the Korean artists a lot more input into the work. One of the lead animators on Avatar eventually became a storyboarder in California and had a vital role in the creative side of producing The Legend of Korra.
The series was also really strengthened by having Andrea Ramano as the voice director. A series like this would have been awful if the voices hadn't felt genuine. Thankfully Ramano has experience is casting from all the DC series like Batman The Animated Series through Justice League. Those series have some of the best voice work in TV animation from the last 20 years.

As for Legend of Korra, it also touches on even more mature subject matter, because the characters are older. And some of the villains are a lot more nuanced than Ozai. But it falls short in some places and the pacing can seem off. The first season is definitely worth watching. Personally I stopped watching somewhere in the fourth season, but I'll probably pick it up again at some point.

Shane Skekel said...

Unfortunately for me, this was released long after I stopped watching Nick. However, the production art is really well-done. By the way, I saw a pilot for Constant Payne by the same guys, and thought it wasn't bad by any means. Finally, I was wondering if you considered reviewing Violence Jack by Go Nagai? (You don't have to do it right now.)

Anonymous said...

American cartoon have been going in an interesting direction these days. Adventure Time, while still dealing mostly in self-contained stories that can be aired in any order, deals with some very dark subject matter. The Great Mushroom War and Simon's past are both unusual subjects for TV animation aimed at kids.

There's also mini-series like Over The Garden Wall which have amazing art direction, dark subject matter, and tight storytelling. The art director for that show actually went to Sheridan for illustration in the 90s.

There's also some Netflix series coming soon with more continuing plotlines, like Kulipari and some of the Dreamworks series. Most of those are actually produced in Canada.

Lots More Fun To Come said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Terri Sajecki said...

Hello Mark!

I recommend picking up a copy of "Avatar The Last Airbender, The Art of the Animated Series". Mike and Bryan recount their pitching experience in the first few pages. Bryan had been the art director on Invader Zim. After it was abruptly cancelled, he met with Nickelodeon vice president of animation development, Eric Coleman to discuss pitching. Eric told Bryan that Nickelodeon was looking for an Action, Adventure, Fantasy-Lore series in response to the Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings fanbase. Mike and Bryan pitched Avatar a month later, and Eric Coleman produced it. Eric has since left Nickelodeon to become the Senior Vice President of Disney Television. He is often credited with producing quality, creator-driven series with strong, developed characters. He also produced Spongebob and greenlit another amazing creator-driven series that I highly recommend, Gravity Falls.

I got to speak with Mike and Bryan at length, during my internship at Nickelodeon. They praised Nickelodeon for giving them full creative control over Avatar, with very little instructional feedback. Mike and Bryan were directly involved with all aspects of development, and the production operated much like Disney/Pixar feature in which the story and episodes were discussed, pitched and developed in a team atmosphere. I got to sit in on some of these pitches and they were an incredible experience!

Nickelodeon had a creator-driven policy back then, so much of their shows were developed in this way. I don't know if things have changed since Eric Coleman left. Based on Korra's development, I fear Nickelodeon has become more corporate since then.

I fell in love with the term "Creator-Driven" in California. Most of the creator-driven shows I've seen have been exceptional, including Avatar, Gravity Falls, Steven Universe, and Over the Garden Wall. I wish Canada would adopt this production model.