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CBR TV: Gene Luen Yang on “Avatar: The Rift” & His First Superhero

Acclaimed “Boxers & Saints” cartoonist Gene Luen Yang visited the CBR Tiki Room at WonderCon 2014 in Anaheim to chat with CBR TV’s Steve Sunu about his latest adventure into the world of “Avatar: The Last Airbender.” Yang talks about beginning work on “The Rift,” the third series of “Avatar” graphic novels he’s writing for Dark Horse, making the transition from fan of the animated series to steward of its characters and the challenge of bridging the gap between the series and its followup, “The Legend of Korra.” Yang also discusses his other comics work, including his Eisner nomination for “Boxers & Saints” and his first foray into creating superhero comics with “The Shadow Hero,” a collaboration with artist Sonny Liew that revives a forgotten Golden Age hero.

On finally being able to focus on the character of Toph: “The Rift” is the third of these miniseries that we’ve done, and the second one, “The Search,” was all about Zuko finding his mom. So early in the stages of writing that book we discovered that Toph really didn’t fit very well in the storyline. It was a difficult decision to make because Toph has really become one of my favorite characters. When I was watching the show I loved Zuko; Zuko was my favorite. The complexity of his character I think mirrors a lot of the struggles that all of us go through and the choice between good and evil. After I started writing this book Toph really took over my heart.

I think Toph is just easy to write. I feel like I close my eyes and I can hear her yelling at me. I think that Mike [Dante DiMartino] and Bryan [Konietzko] and their writing team really created a very strong character, and a very memorable character, and a character that almost writes herself. So when we started on “The Rift,” one of the dangling threads from the original show was what happened with Toph and her parents. They never reconciled — we never saw the reconciliation, so that was something that we wanted to deal with in the comics.

On the tall task of advancing his story while working within the confines of the animated canon: There’s seventy years between the end of “Airbender” and the beginning of “Korra,” and the comics are supposed to fit into that seventy-year gap. So far we’ve only dealt with the beginning of those seventy years. So character-wise they’re still pretty close to where we left them at the end of the original series. For me personally it’s been a joy working on this. I was such a huge fan of the original series it’s wonderful to get to play in this small corner of the Avatar-verse. We did talk a lot about how to continue these characters. I love that original show so much — I love the finale so much — that it was, in the beginning, it was difficult for me to think about how to continue the story. I found the ending of “Avatar: The Last Airbender” so emotionally satisfying that I thought, I’m not sure how we’re gonna go with this. But then, in talking with Mike and Bryan, we realized that — well, I realized — that character growth often happens in fits and starts. Often it’s two steps forward, one step back, and that’s sort of the approach that we’re taking now.

On making the transition from fan to creative force behind something he loved: It’s a little freaky, ’cause “Avatar” isn’t just the show. For a lot of folks, it’s kind of a way of life. Early on, I remember with “The Promise,” one of the first e-mails I got in response to that book was from a guy who called himself a Fire Nation military historian, and he talked to me about how the helmets were wrong in that original book. So there are people that take it really, really serious, who are really intense about it. So that was a little bit freaky. I feel like, I get notes from Mike and Bryan, for every script I do and every outline that I do, I get notes from Dark Horse and Nickelodeon as well, so I feel like it’s not just me. I’m part of this team that’s carrying these characters forward, and I think that’s part of what helps me get over that freaked out-ness.

On what inspired him to finally move into superhero comics with “The Shadow Hero”: I grew up reading superhero comics; that was most of what was around. I think I have a deep, pre-logical love for the genre. I just feel a deep, emotional attachment to all these superhero characters I grew up with. And I don’t know why it’s taken me so long to do something in superheroes; I’ve been wanting to do it since I started working in comics fifteen or sixteen years ago. I’m just happy to do it. It’s been a joy. There are so many amazing characters from the 1940s, all those Golden Age superheroes are just wacky and crazy and their costumes are really funky. It’s awesome. I feel like it’s really a gold mine.

On how difficult it can be to tell meaningful stories with “Avatar” characters when the future of various characters is already known: I really appreciate having something to write to with the “Avatar” comics. We know what the future looks like because the future is “Korra.” It’s on Nickelodeon, right? So I really appreciate that. I feel like because we’re at the beginning of the 70-year gap I just have to seed a few things. I don’t feel limited by the world of “Korra,” but as a fan it’s gratifying to think about how the world of “Korra” began and I’ve really gotten a lot of joy out of that.