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Interview with Gene Yang, author of A:TLA – The Promise

September 12, 2011

Earlier this month, Dark Horse Comics announced Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise Part 1, a sequel to the original series and a bridge to the new series, Legend of Korra. This graphic novel will be written by award-winning Asian American writer Gene Luen Yang (with A:TLA creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko) and illustrated by Gurihiru Studios.

Avatar: The Last Airbender fans must be the luckiest fans in the world. Not only do we have one of our own crafting the bridge novels for the animated series, Yang also happens to be one of the most talented modern young adult graphic novelists!


Yang’s doodle from his blog post announcing his Avatar project!

Author Gene Luen Yang is best known for his graphic novel American Born Chinese, which won the Eisner Award and the American Library Association’s Printz Award, and was also the first ever graphic novel to be nominated for a National Book Award. Yang’s most recent graphic novel, Level Up, was released in June 2011.

On the Avatar front, Yang has been a long time fan of the series. Alongside fellow writer and artist Derek Kirk Kim, Yang spoke out against the ‘racebending’ in the The Last Airbender film adaptation in 2009 and 2010. Yang also participated on Racebending.com’s 2011 WonderCon Panel.

Yang very graciously took some time out of his busy schedule to answer some of our questions about his past and future works, including Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise Part 1. We gathered your questions from Facebook and Twitter and sent them in!

RACEBENDING.COM: How did you get started as a comic book writer, and why comics as a medium?

YANG: In the fifth grade, I bought my very first comic book. Then within a few weeks, I went from being a comic book reader to a comic book creator. A friend and I made superhero comics that we sold to our classmates for fifty cents an issue. In comics, the line between reader and creator is very thin, very permeable. All you really need to cross it is a pencil, some paper, and a healthy ignorance of your own artistic limitations. That’s actually one of my favorite aspects of comics.

“In comics, the line between reader and creator is very thin, very permeable. All you really need to cross it is a pencil, some paper, and a healthy ignorance of your own artistic limitations.”

YANG: I’ve always loved drawing and I’ve always loved stories. The comics medium is a great way to tell stories through drawing.

RACEBENDING.COM: Like Racebending.com supporters, you were disappointed by the casting decisions in the The Last Airbender movie. Why did you choose to use a comic to convey your concerns?

YANG: It seemed like a natural thing to do. I’m a cartoonist. The medium I’m most comfortable with is comics. And also, because Avatar: The Last Airbender was originally a cartoon series, it seemed appropriate to voice our concerns through cartoons.

RACEBENDING.COM: When it comes it comes to your work, what inspires you?

YANG: I’m very much inspired by my fellow cartoonists, especially my personal friends. When I was first getting started in comics, I was lucky enough to fall in with a group of amazing cartoonists: Derek Kirk Kim, Lark Pien, Jesse Hamm, Jason Shiga, Jason Thompson. We were all at about the same point in our careers. (Or, more accurate to where we were, our “careers” with the finger quotes.) We got together once a week to draw, talk shop, and critique each other’s comics. Their friendship, advice, and work really inspired me. They still inspire me.


Gene Yang with “American Born Chinese” from an interview with the San Francisco Chronicle

RACEBENDING.COM: Your stories American Born Chinese, Level Up, and The Eternal Smile have featured coming of age stories for young men. Your protagonists mature and better understand themselves as the stories progress. Why do these themes appeal to you?

YANG: In addition to cartooning, I also teach high school. I’m surrounded by young people who are “coming of age.” There’s something about that period of your life — triumphs seem extra triumphant and tragedies seem extra tragic. Literally anything seems possible. I think that’s why those themes popped up in American Born Chinese, Level Up, and The Eternal Smile.

RACEBENDING.COM: Will we also see these themes reflected in Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise?

YANG: The original Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series is essentially an American coming-of age-story set in an Asian fantasy environment. Aang learns skills, but he also learns how to shoulder responsibility. Katara learns to make peace with her past. Zuko learns to tell the difference between right and wrong.

With the comic book, we’re really hoping to maintain the spirit of the original series. The ending of the original was so satisfying to me that when I first started on this project, I had a hard time seeing how to continue those coming-of-age themes in a meaningful way. Having regular contact with Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko helped tremendously. I remembered that growing up happens in fits and starts. For many of us, it’s two steps forward, one step back. It’ll be the same for the Gaang.

Growing up happens in fits and starts. For many of us, it’s two steps forward, one step back. It’ll be the same for the Gaang.

RACEBENDING.COM: How did you get the gig for Avatar: The Last Airbender- The Promise?

YANG: Samantha Robertson, an editor at Dark Horse, e-mailed me out of the blue late last year. She’d read American Born Chinese and liked it. She also knew about my deep love for the original series because of the posts I did around the time the movie came out. Samantha has since moved on to another media company, so I’ve been working with another Dark Horse editor named Dave Marshall. All the folks at Dark Horse have been great.

RACEBENDING.COM: Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise is your first foray into franchise and a “shared sandbox.” After creating so many original works, what is it like to collaborate in and contribute to a licensed universe?

YANG: It’s been a lot of fun! I’ve learned a lot. I’ve always loved the intimacy of comics- the fact that one creator can have complete control of a project from beginning to end. A comic can express a single, unified vision a lot better than any other visual storytelling medium. When you’re working on a franchise, however, things just aren’t like that. You don’t have nearly as much control. But the flip side is that you get to mix your ideas with other people’s. You get to an up-close look at other people’s creative processes. And often, the results are bigger, and better, than what you could’ve pulled off on your own.

One of the big reasons I wanted to do the project was that I wanted to see how Mike and Bryan put a story together. I wanted to get a sense of what their instincts are like. And I’m happy to say that I have.

RACEBENDING.COM How long after the series does A:TLA – The Promise take place?

YANG: It begins immediately after the end of the original series.

RACEBENDING.COM: Who is your favorite Avatar character to write?

YANG: I’ve always loved Zuko. He’s the most complex of the main characters. He’s the Yin to Aang’s Yang. In the beginning, especially, Zuko was bad with a spot of good, whereas Aang was good with a spot of bad. A lot of folks can relate to Zuko’s struggle to be good, to know what good even is. And that’s certainly true for me.

A lot of folks can relate to Zuko’s struggle to be good, to know what good even is. And that’s certainly true for me.

YANG: After I got started on the project, though, I was surprised by how easy Toph is to write. Her voice is so distinctive. She’s like a bratty little sister who sometimes annoys you, sometimes endears you, and always threatens to whup your butt.

RACEBENDING.COM: The Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series ended with many cliffhangers. Big ones include what really happened to Zuko’s mother and what happened to Azula at the end of the series. Will we get any answers to these unresolved plot threads in The Promise?

YANG: I plead the fifth.

RACEBENDING.COM: The Promise takes place after the Gaang has won a war that has lasted hundreds of years. Will The Promise cover some of the fallout from their experiences and actions, especially since the Gaang was so young and experienced a lot as child soldiers, and nearly everyone alive in the Avatar-verse has lived their entire lives during a time of war?

YANG: Can I plead the fifth on this one, too?

RACEBENDING.COM: You’ve said in the past that you feel that Avatar: The Last Airbender is uniquely Asian American. Can you elaborate on that? Will The Promise also reflect this?

YANG: Like I said before, I really see Avatar: The Last Airbender as an American coming-of-age story set in an Asian fantasy environment. Each of the four nations draws heavily from specific Asian or Inuit cultures. The Avatar-verse is Asian the way Middle Earth is English. Air Nomad culture, for instance, is Tibetan Buddhism as seen through a fantastical, mythologized lens. It’s apparent in Aang’s clothes, in his philosophy, even in his food.

However, many of the coming-of-age milestones in the series are American, or at least modern and Western. The young people have to define themselves apart from their parents and families, relying primarily on their peer group. Friendships and romantic relationships develop along modern, Western patterns.

In the episode “The Beach” (one of my favorites), Zuko, Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee get invited to a “popular” boy’s house party. Many of the supporting characters in this episode are Avatar-verse versions of American high school archetypes. And one of the episode’s big tensions — that Zuko & Co. have one dynamic when they’re just by themselves and an entirely different dynamic when they’re around the “popular” kids — is familiar to anybody who’s gone from a small middle school to a large high school with a group of close friends.

The “Asian-ness” of the series is no accident, of course. Not only are Mike, Bryan, and their team incredibly talented, they also did their homework. They carefully studied the cultures that they were pulling from. And they actively sought creative partnership with the Korean animators who worked the series. From what I can gather about the animation industry (admittedly, I’m no expert) this is unusual.

Avatar: The Last Airbender obviously resonates with people of all backgrounds, but many Asian Americans are especially drawn to it because of this blend of East and West. We recognize both the cultural references and the coming-of-age narrative.

Avatar: The Last Airbender obviously resonates with people of all backgrounds, but many Asian Americans are especially drawn to it because of this blend of East and West. We recognize both the cultural references and the coming-of-age narrative.

RACEBENDING.COM: You were very vocal about the “racebending” in the The Last Airbender movie adaptation. Has protesting that film influenced your perspective as you approach this project?

YANG: I really hope that the comics capture the feeling of the original series. We want to tell new stories and we want the characters to continue to develop, but we also want fans of the animated series to be at home with the comics. And to do this, the comic books have to stay true to the underlying cultures being represented.

I really hope that the comics capture the feeling of the original series. We want to tell new stories and we want the characters to continue to develop, but we also want fans of the animated series to be at home with the comics.

YANG: I never saw the movie. I don’t plan to ever see the movie. Everything I’m going to say here is my own opinion. I actually haven’t talked to Mike or Bryan or anyone at Nickelodeon or Dark Horse about the movie at all. Our conversations have all centered around making the comics the best they can be. So, grain of salt, etc. etc.

It seems to me that one of the movie’s big mistakes was this: In order to make their use of yellowface not really seem like yellowface, they had to pretend that A:TLA grew out of some bland mix of “world cultures.” They had to pretend that each nation took a little from this culture and a little from that culture, that there was no correspondence between the four nations and real-world cultures. But that simply isn’t the case.

For instance, while it’s true that not everything about Ba Sing Se is Chinese, there’s no question that the foundation of this fictional city is Q’ing Dynasty China. Sure, to fill out the details, they did pull from other cultures, but the underlying roots of Ba Sing Se are unmistakably Chinese. The same dynamic is at work beneath every culture in A:TLA.

When you deny this because you don’t think yellow and brown faces will attract a big enough movie audience, you’re denying an essential part of A:TLA‘s magic. For the comic, I want to stay true to the cultural foundations that were set by the animated series.

For the comic, I want to stay true to the cultural foundations that were set by the animated series.

YANG: Again, this is all me. I’ve never talked to anybody involved with the animated series about any of this. But I also believe they did their homework well enough that the foundations are obvious to anyone with some knowledge of Asian and Inuit culture.

RACEBENDING.COM: Will you also continue to write independent books for First Second Books (we hope so!) and if so, what can we look forward to in future novels?

YANG: Yes, absolutely! I love First Second Books. They’re really my creative home these days. Just a couple months ago, First Second released Level Up, a graphic novel written by me and drawn by my good friend Thien Pham. It’s a coming-of-age tale about a videogame addict who’s told by a some angels that he has to go to med school. The story’s inspired by my brother who’s now a medical doctor. (He’s the good Asian son.) When he was in med school, he would come back and tell me all these crazy stories about his class assignments. Let me tell you, you have to do some really disgusting things if you want to become a doctor. Anyway, one day he called me up and told me he’d done a colonoscopy for class, and it was like playing video games up somebody’s butt. That’s the basis of Level Up.


Level Up

YANG:I have a couple of other First Second projects in the works, too. I’m working on a two volume historical fiction story about the Boxer Rebellion. It’s set in China in the late 1800′s. (Some of that research actually came in handy for the A:TLA project!) This has been a real labor of love for me. The whole thing will be written and drawn by me and colored by Lark Pien. I’ve been working on it for years. I’m very, very excited about it.

I also have a 1930′s superhero story coming out from First Second, written by me and drawn by Sonny Liew. Sonny and I did a short story for Secret Identities, the Asian American superhero anthology. We liked working together so much that we wanted to do it again.

RACEBENDING.COM: Do you have any book recommendations for fans who have already read all of your works and/or fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender while we eagerly await The Promise?

YANG: Man, there are so many great comic books out there right now. Here’s a list of books that are (like Avatar: The Last Airbender) middle grade or YA, but with broad appeal:

And here are some amazing books by amazing Asian American cartoonists:

If you haven’t checked out the webcomic TUNE by Derek Kirk Kim and Les McClaine, you can find it here: http://www.tunecomic.com/

RACEBENDING.COM That should keep us busy until Part One of The Promise comes out next January!

For more information about Gene Yang and his work, including updates on his Avatar: The Last Airbender project, check out his blog at Humble Comics.com.

For more information on A:TLA comics, visit the website of the publisher, Dark Horse Comics.

Racebending.com would like to thank Gene Yang for this interview!

Categories: blog, Current Diversity Highlights, Featured, Interviews
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About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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  • madeerylou

    Thanks for posting! This is a great interview. I love American Born Chinese. I gave it to my younger brother as a Christmas present since he loves drawing and making up his own characters and stories. He’s also a fan of Avatar: The Last Airbender so this news, though a couple months old now, made me super excited!

  • http://profiles.google.com/omega215a Jay Chan

    When the cartoon came out, Aang looked like a child version of my old Sifu at the Shaolin school. My sifu loved the idea of the cartoon because it focused so much on authentic arts and beliefs despite being in a fantasy world. 

    Sadly, the Shaolin Kung Fu school was tapped to promote the movie by doing live performances in various parks and venues along with the world Premier in Lincoln Center. Had I known about the protests going on (I wasn’t a fan of the casting from the start) I would’ve used my bench time protesting instead of handing out fliers*.

    *I was a senior student at the school tapped to do a lot of performances with my group until some unfortunate things happened and I was replaced (me having the flu before our 1st performance was the last straw).

    I would post a link but I feel some idiots will troll and cause bad blood between me and my former school (there was some when I left). Would give the photos or videos to known members of racebending. 

  • http://profiles.google.com/omega215a Jay Chan

    When the cartoon came out, Aang looked like a child version of my old Sifu at the Shaolin school. My sifu loved the idea of the cartoon because it focused so much on authentic arts and beliefs despite being in a fantasy world. 

    Sadly, the Shaolin Kung Fu school was tapped to promote the movie by doing live performances in various parks and venues along with the world Premier in Lincoln Center. Had I known about the protests going on (I wasn’t a fan of the casting from the start) I would’ve used my bench time protesting instead of handing out fliers*.

    *I was a senior student at the school tapped to do a lot of performances with my group until some unfortunate things happened and I was replaced (me having the flu before our 1st performance was the last straw).

    I would post a link but I feel some idiots will troll and cause bad blood between me and my former school (there was some when I left). Would give the photos or videos to known members of racebending. 

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