Avatar: The Last Airbender is one of the most beloved animated properties of the new millennium, combining rich character development and political commentary with a lovable sense of humor and exciting action sequences. The TV series ended in 2008, but the story has lived on in graphic novel form, with writer Gene Luen Yang and artist Gurihiru maintaining the spirit of the show while evolving these heroes in compelling new ways. They worked on the series for four years, but this week, a new creative team arrives to explore how industrial development is changing this world. Writer Faith Erin Hicks, artist Peter Wartman, colorist Ryan Hill, and letterers Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt. are bridging the gap between Avatar and its industrialized sequel, The Legend Of Korra, with Avatar: The Last Airbender: Imbalance—Part One, a graphic novel that pits benders against non-benders in a small town undergoing a major commercial boom.
“Avatar is everything I want in a story,” says Faith Erin Hicks. “It has incredible, complicated characters, huge emotional stakes, a complex and beautiful world, it has literally everything I aspire to in my own work. I also have a deep attachment to it because of when it came into my life. I went to college for animation and desperately wanted to work in the animation industry, which I did for four years. Those years weren’t great, and I didn’t get to work on properties that were inspiring or challenging. I remember feeling so ground down and miserable during that time, like there was no place for me in animation and like there was nothing being produced that was made for me as a young woman who loved animation.”
“And then Avatar appeared. It was like this shining light, showing me what an amazing animated show could be, a well written story filled with characters your heart bleeds for, animated to an incredibly high standard. My fiancé is an animator, and we had just started to date when season 3 of Avatar was premiering. I remember watching it with him and just being blown away. To this day it’s one of our favorite animated shows, and we still re-watch it together to this day. The other day my fiancé described Avatar as a miracle, and I agree! It’s a miracle it exists, a miracle that Bryan [Konietzko] and Mike [DiMartino] and all the animators and writers and other artists could produce something that still looks so good, more than a decade on. Avatar holds up, as both a story and an animated work of art.”
Peter Wartman has a similar connection to Avatar, which he credits for helping him develop his visual storytelling skills. “Avatar had a huge influence on me in college, both on my artistic style and on the way I think about stories,” says Wartman. “The show managed to be at once goofy and serious, to have lots of cool fights without ever forgetting that the most important thing was its characters. I learned a lot about how to tell stories from it, about creating believable worlds with real stakes and imperfect characters who learn and grow. It’s been really cool, and a little surreal, to be able to add a little bit to something that is important to me as Avatar.”
Avatar was a major influence on Hicks’ work on her creator-owned The Nameless City graphic novel trilogy from First Second, and that series prepared her for taking on the property for which she has such strong affection. “Before working on The Nameless City, I wasn’t really into writing stories with a lot of plot or multiple character points of view,” says Hicks. “Most of my previous comics had been slow paced, where one or two characters go on an emotional journey. Because I wanted to do something like Avatar with The Nameless City, I studied a lot how the ATLA writing staff built their plotlines and handled multiple character arcs. It was a big challenge for me, juggling the entirety of Team Avatar in Imbalance, and trying to make sure they all got their moment in the sun. The Nameless City was a crash course in writing and drawing my own fantasy series, building a world filled with conflict from the ground up. I was really lucky I had that experience under my belt before diving into Avatar, otherwise the learning curve would’ve been even steeper.”
These exclusive preview pages of Imbalance: Book One spotlight how well this creative team captures the look of this world as well as the voices of these characters, and Wartman’s top priority is nailing the expressions of the cast. “The most important thing, at least for Avatar, was trying to get the acting of the ‘Gaang’ down,” says Wartman. “If the characters don’t feel right—if they don’t act in a way that is true to the show and to who they are—then nothing else will really matter, art-wise. I didn’t really specifically try to bring my own style to the comic, I think that happens naturally. I like drawing cities (and, luckily for me, Faith gave me a lot of city to draw), and I enjoy drawing machines, and that will probably come through in the books.”
“Peter is just a crazy good artist,” says Hicks. “I like comics because I get to control pretty much every aspect of a story, and sometimes it can be hard for a control freak like me to hand off a script I’ve worked so hard on and see someone else interpret it. But Peter would take my scripts and make them better, draw them in ways I didn’t even imagine. I remember one scene he had characters standing on a staircase while they were having a conversation, which was a lot more complex than what I’d written. I’d just had them standing around while they discussed something, but he decided to make the scene so much more visually appealing! Drawing characters standing on a staircase is harder than drawing characters just standing around, so he totally made more work for himself, but the scene was so much better because he did that.”
“Being able to work with these characters is the most exciting, but being able to fill in a little of Avatar’s history is cool as well,” says Wartman. “I’ve always liked Faith’s work, and I was excited that her script focused on dealing with a changing, industrializing world. Times of transition have always been the most interesting moments in history for me, and it feels very relevant to right now.”