ASM San Diego Comic Con 2005

Welcome to ASM's San Diego Comic Con 2005 Coverage!

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Amy Lipkowitz, General Reporter

On Saturday, the third day of the San Diego Comic Con, we were treated to a panel with the writers and producers for "Avatar: The Last Airbender". "Avatar", for those who are new to the show, is an epic fantasy set in a war-torn world where special individuals have the ability to "bend" or control the elements. Each tribe has a specific element associated with them, but only the Avatar is able to control all four...

The "Avatar" series is strongly influenced and inspired by the mythology and martial arts of China. The creative team went to Beijing for some reference material in their attempt to be authentic to Chinese and Asian landscapes and architecture. All four elemental magics use movements from different martial arts, as demonstrated by Sifu Kisu of the Harmonious Fist Chinese Athletic Association. Writer Bryan Konietzko has gone so far as to study Northern Shaolin, the movements of which are used by the Firebenders.

Since the creative team is dedicated to having no English text in the series, a Chinese calligrapher is on staff to translate the writers' English into the culturally, stylistically and modally appropriate Chinese phrase. For one scroll he might use archaic Chinese; for a Wanted poster, he might use handwriting appropriate to a low-level clerk. The writers and producers seemed very excited about this neat little detail.

As part of the presentation, we got many tantalizing hints about the rest of the season, which covers the second half of Book One.

Each Book consists of twenty chapters. So far, thirteen chapters have been aired.

The Avatar, Aang, and his companions Katara and Sokka of the Water Tribe have been on a long trek from the Southern Water Tribe's holdings to the Northern Water Tribe, where there may still be water-benders who can train both Katara and the Avatar. In the second half of Book One, their voyage will finally begin to bear fruit. Katara will learn a powerful new ability, Aang will begin to learn fire-bending, and Sokka will have a romantic episode. A young girl named Meng will be introduced, and she may or may not have a slight crush on Aang. In addition, we'll be seeing the Northern Air Temple.

When a fan questioned the lack of female Airbenders, the series writers revealed that there are actually FOUR Air Temples, in the North, South, East, and West. The North and South Air Temples are exclusively male.

The Northern Water Tribe was not as ravaged by the war as the Southern Water Tribe was. They fought off the Fire Nation with greater success, and thus their culture is more intact. The sketches showed beautiful ice-sculpture fortresses with canals and waterways.

Many character sketches were shown, with some information on what inspired them (but less information on their role in the series). A stern white-haired man inspired by the Korean animation studio's president was shown, with a suggestion that he might be related to Aang learning firebending.

A beautiful sinister woman named Jun was displayed. Apparently she will be a bounty hunter that Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation meets.

Another mysterious sketch involved a mad inventor-type with wooden fingers. This character will be encountered at the Northern Air Temple.

Katara and Sokka's missing father was shown off, along with a 13-year old (much younger) Sokka.

We also got a name for Paku, a figure that is allegedly the first person shown in the opening sequence for "Avatar."

Finally, the writers noted with amusement that one of the characters they planned to feature later was added in a scene just as a bit of foreshadowing... and the fans on the discussion boards were buzzing as to her identity the next day. This character is Zula, Prince Zuko's younger sister. The writers noted that they made a conscious effort to avoid making Zuko a cartoon villain. While he is driven and obsessed and intense, he is not evil... but Zula, on the other hand, is. Zula is also the same age as Sokka.

After the character sketches came the creatures and gadgets of "Avatar". Writer Bryan Konietzko admitted that as a child, he loved combining different animals to create new creatures. So far, "Avatar" has featured penguin/otter hybrids, flying musk ox-buffalo with beaver tails, and what Bryan called "Komodo rhinos". The "Komodo rhinos" are the steeds of the Fire Nation, giant chameleon-like creatures with large horns and a low center of gravity to aid them in fighting the Earth Nation's Earthbenders.

New creatures included Shushu, a wolf-anteater-mole creature that is blind, but sees with its star-shaped mole nose. This sinister creature will be wrangled by the bounty-hunter Jun.

Another new creature is the platypus bear, which will appear in episode 14.

The world of Avatar is primarily a pre-Industrial Revolution one, with a focus on ships and navies. The second half of season two suggested a shift in the battle strategies, however, with gliders created for warriors who cannot airbend, hot-air balloons for the Fire Nation, and a terrifying Fire Nation tank with two pilots and a pivoting firebender in the center. This tank was so complex that the animation studio could not animate it, and a CG model had to be used.

The reference footage was wonderful fun, with side-by-side comparisons of the video and animated footage. Master Sifu Kisu's movements were nothing short of amazing. Apparently he has been collaborating for the past three years, shooting each bending sequence two to three times.

The preview clip of Episode 14 was, as the writers said, for the "shippers" in the audience. I was a bit startled that the writers were so aware of online culture and discussion boards, but it was wonderful to watch the audience react to the romantic humor of the scene. Both adults and children laughed and smiled, which really bolstered my favorite thing about "Avatar"; it's not only beautifully animated and cleverly written, it's enjoyable on a multitude of levels. If you're not watching it yet, you're missing out on something great. Try to catch a few episodes in a row, and you may be pleasantly surprised.

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