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.