SDCC 2015: Interview with Gene Luen Yang

Gavin Gronenthal ’16//Emertainment Monthly Editor

Avatar The Last Airbender: The Rift Volume 2 cover. Image Credit: Dark Horse Comics
Avatar The Last Airbender: The Rift Part 2 cover. Image Credit: Dark Horse Comics

The third volume of the Avatar: The Last Airbender comic, The Rift, was recently released as a complete set. Written by Gene Luen Yang it follows the continuing story of Team Avatar as they struggle to maintain peace in their newly united world. Mr. Yang, who has also just started his run on Superman for DC Comics, won an Eisner Award last week for his work on the Avatar book series. At SDCC last week, just two days before his award we sat down with him and interviewed him about the book.


You’re writing these characters who are pretty iconic for a huge generation of people. How do you approach writing that? Do you focus more on writing a story, on more on specifics in character?

I feel lucky because I get to talk to Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the creators. They give me notes on every outline of every script that I do. What I’m trying to do is embody the voice that they created when they did the show. I wanted the plots to feel like they belonged in the show. So that’s how I approached them. And in terms of individual story lines, I think it’s a combination. You start by talking about the world: how the world of the Airbender transitions to the world of Korra. And all of the character stuff really flows out of that stuff really flows out of that.


And you can see seeds being planted that will eventually lead into Korra. Do you get to pick where you want pieces of the Korra world to be placed?

Some of it. And some of it just comes out of a discussion I have, either with Mike or Brian or both.


So, going off of that, even though these books obviously appeal to a large generation, you also want these books to appeal to people who haven’t seen the show yet. How do you manage to balance that.

Well I always tell people, go watch the show! (Laughs) “Have you watched the show? No? Go watch the show!” But I do think the characters that they created are strong enough to stand on their own. I don’t think you have to watch the show from beginning to end to enjoy it, I think you can watch a random episode and get something out of it. It’s better to watch the whole thing, obviously, but the episodes do stand on their own, and we’re hoping the comic book does as well.


A big decision you made in this book was bringing back Toph’s father to her life. How did you go about making that decision? Why did you think this was the right time to reintroduce her father?

We’ve talked about the loose threads that the show left. And the show left it intentionally, because often life is like that. We have loose threads in our lives, and most things in our lives don’t come to a perfect ending. One of the big ones was what happened to Zuko’s mom (addressed in the last volume, The Search), and another one was if Toph ever reconciled with her family. And after The Search, which was all about the giant thread that was left, and to follow up with that, we wanted to tie up a thread, but we didn’t want that to be the focus of the book. So the story was really about the balance between the spirit world and technology, the human world and the spirit world, but within that, maybe we could explore this dangling thread a little bit.

photography by Albert Law :
Author of Boxers & Saints, American Born Chinese and the Avatar: The Last Airbender graphic novels, Gene Luen Yang. Source: Goodreads. Photo Credit: Albert Law


And in a similar vein, you talk about how the effects of this book will bleed into Korra’s world as opposed to Avatar, and that is a huge moment at the end of your book. So how did you approach that.

A lot of that was just following the lead of Korra. We were making this book, as they were finishing Spirits, Season Two of Korra, and they had been defining the rules of the spirit world within that. So we just talked about which pieces of what they were doing with Korra we could foreshadow into the comic.


To follow up on that, there’s a more minor question I have: you introduced a few new characters, namely Satoru, a love interest for Toph. So now that we’ve seen him and a few other characters from previous books appear, are we going to see reappearances for him? Maybe ties for Toph’s future?

(Laughs) Maybe? You’ll have to read the next book to see! We have another book coming out this September, the first part of a new volume of the story. It’s called Smoke and Shadow, and unfortunately Toph isn’t going to be a part of that. The focus will be on the Fire Nation, so it’ll all be Zuko and Fire Nation Royal Family drama.


So, for the future, are you planning on having early characters from Korra? As in descendants of the characters from that series? Are you planning on connecting the series’ even more, or are you really focusing on this post Avatar: The Last Airbender line?

Well, we are definitely closer to the first series in the timeline, It would be awesome if the books ran long enough to connect the two series together, like a whole bookshelf of these Avatar comics that would connect one series to the other. I don’t know what the future holds, but I am having a ton of fun writing these books and I want to stay on as long as I can!


Right, of course. So, I mentioned you writing iconic characters in the beginning, and you are now writing a very iconic character for DC. So what would you say is the difference between writing characters who are gaining an iconic status, like in Avatar, as opposed to a character like Superman, who’s been iconic for almost a century?

In both instances, it’s a bit nerve wracking. Superman and Avatar both have passionate fan bases, with good reason. They each mean a lot to the people who love them. So it’s been a little bit crazy. The good thing about Avatar is that the creators are still around, I can actually call them up and talk to them about it. Whereas Superman has gone through so many creator’s hands, that who he is has changed multiple times. So for Avatar it’s more about mirroring something as a complete body of work, but for Superman it’s more about looking into his past and finding pieces of him that resonate with me and writing out of those pieces.


You’ve managed to balance something that the show does very well, which is that it was very appealing to people who were young, but it also appealed to people who were older and not the target audience. So when you write, do you always think about it as an all ages book, or does the story come before that?

I try to think about a story first. I generally don’t think about age demographics at all when I write. My story telling voice naturally falls into the teen/tween space, the young adult space, but we also have Nickelodeon. Nickelodeon constantly gives us feedback about what would be age appropriate. One of the pieces of feedback they’ve given me recently is that we can’t do any kicks to the head. (Laughs) Another note I got was they didn’t want me to use the word death too much. So there are little things like that. But in general, I’m working on the armature of the story. Plus, we let legal handle that (laughs).

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