by Aaron Halls

The past decade has treated fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender, Nickelodeon’s classic cartoon series, kindly. Since the show’s finale aired in 2008, a well-received sequel series, Legend of Korra, has been released and recently, a live-action retelling of the original series was announced for Netflix. Also helping keep Avatar fans satisfied is publisher Dark Horse Comics, which has released a number of graphic novels that continue the stories of Avatars Aang and Korra.

At this year’s New York Comic Con, the Beat sat down with artist Peter Wartman, who’s working with writer Faith Erin Hicks to bring to life one of the next tales in the Avatar universe. Together, they’re crafting Avatar: The Last Airbender-Imbalance, a three part story that focuses on Avatar Aang and his friends.

According to the official Part One synopsis released by Dark Horse, the first graphic novel follows Team Avatar visiting a town where there’s a conflict between benders and non-benders.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Aaron Halls: Can you talk about your relationship with Avatar: The Last Airbender prior to working on this series?

Peter Wartman: It was a show I watched in college, basically. It was sort of like — it showed me you could tell deeper stories in kind of this style. I hadn’t really been into anime or anything like that, but this show sort of was like a gateway to that kind of thing. It made me more interested in telling stories like that, and also stylistically it was a big influence. It was a big thing to me in a lot of ways, I guess.

Halls: Was there a particular episode that made you go “Oh, ok!”?

Wartman: There was that early episode called “The Blue Spirit.” That’s when it really went from being just a pretty good Nickelodeon show to being like ‘Oh, they’re going somewhere with this.’

“The Blind Bandit,” after that, was another level up [moment] and there was one more episode — the one with Hama– I can’t remember the name of the episode [“The Puppetmaster”], but it was that creepy ghost story. It’s still one of my favorite episodes of TV even though I can’t remember the name of it. This show was a huge thing to me.

Halls: What do you think it is about the Avatar universe that allows it to successfully connect with so many fans– not just on a screen, but also on the pages of a comic?

Wartman: I think Avatar really benefits from having these great characters. I think that’s the main thing that really makes it work, [characters] who all have these interesting dynamics with each other. They can be kind of goofy sometimes; they can be just playing around and being kids, but they all have a past that’s a little more serious and there’s a curve of this wider dialogue about war and how that changes things.

This show manages to at once be silly and fun and also meaningful. I’m not sure how much that is due to the world building as opposed to just good writing, but everything seems to work together to create this better whole; even the elemental stuff can push those metaphors too. Aang has to overcome his fear of fire after he burns Katara — that has a resonance with his need to pay more attention. Stuff like that really makes this show so strong; [and] Zuko’s arc is just one of the best redemption arcs.

Halls: Can you tell me a little bit about what it’s like working with writer Faith Erin Hicks?

Wartman: Yeah, Faith is great. Because she’s also an artist, the scripts she gives me are written with the visuals in mind. She gives me a lot of places to play with character emotions and really think about how I want to pace things — she never gives me too much to do in a panel. I think her ideas’ about the politics of this world and how this city is changing things and how Aang has to change; all these characters have to change, and deal with problems they don’t necessarily see. I’m really excited about where it’s going.

I can’t give too many spoilers away, but I think we’re both on the same wavelength about trying to keep in mind all those things I said about how this show has this hidden depth under its fun exterior. I think she’s doing a great job of really digging into that and understanding the characters.

Aang character designs by Wartman

Halls: You’re also working with original [Avatar: The Last Airbender] series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko on this comic. How exciting is that?

Wartman: It’s crazy. It’s really crazy getting notes on my art from Bryan — like really good, really detailed, ‘Here’s how you should be doing it.’ I learned so much from it. [It’s] really intimidating too because you have to get the kung fu right because he’ll notice. I think that makes it so much stronger if you have someone who really cares about us and they definitely do. [They’re] willing to make sure that you’re treating it correctly.

So it’s been hard, but in a really good way, knowing that the people I’m making this for care about it as much, or more, than I do which is nice. It’s fulfilling maybe? It’s great. It’s fun.

Halls: The Avatar world is extremely imaginative— you’ve got animal hybrids, spirits, benders— all that stuff. Creatively speaking as an artist, was this an exciting universe to be able to jump into?

Wartman: Yeah, it’s interesting. There’s a lot of that but because it draws so heavily upon the real world, all these different Asian cultures, I spent a lot of time trying to make sure that I’m researching those things. The show’s already done a lot of the heavy work. I have this amazing book of all the concept arts, that came out a long time ago, but it shows their process and has all of the different nations, buildings, and stuff.

I’m referencing that a lot, but I’m also referencing a lot of photos, and trying to make sure that everything we do is grounded. So even though the world is kind of crazy, like you said, it also owes a lot to the real world; I actually have to do a lot of research to make sure that all works.

Halls: I know you talked about this at the [Dark Horse] panel a little bit, but you have your own Avatar-ish young adult [comic] series with Over the Wall and Stonebreaker. Do you feel like working on these helped you prep for working on Avatar?

Wartman: I think so. I mean, it definitely taught me how to tell a story visually, which is super important when you’re trying to do 72 page books in this short period of time; you have to know what you’re doing, so in that sense it taught me a lot. I think also my style sort of looks a lot like the show so that helps me I guess. It was definitely a necessary step for me to do this — to really figure out how to write and draw and all of that.

Halls: In working on a web comic [with a project like Stonebreaker], compared to working with a publisher now, was there any hurtles or anything like that?

Wartman: To switching to working for the publisher?

Halls: Yeah.

Wartman: Working with Faith’s the first time I haven’t also been the writer of my own work, so that was a big shift, but mostly I haven’t found it to be too hard. It’s a very different thing to interpret someone else’s words. It’s a very different thing to have to send your images in and have them get critiqued. Everything has been very positive, where it’s never been something I’ve disagreed with, it’s always been about making it better. It’s been also fun to learn how to collaborate instead of just [doing] everything yourself. It can lead to different places and lead to characters having different interactions then you necessarily would have considered — it’s better that way. So yeah, I’ve enjoyed it.

Halls: I know you talked in the panel about your favorite characters to draw, but can you talk about why artistically you like drawing them? I think you said Toph —

Wartman: Toph is fun. All the main characters are very distinct shapes and their designs are great. It’s really fun to draw Sokka because he’s so noodly. Toph is fun because she’s very solid; even the way her hair is always covering her eyes kind of giving her that, maybe not even like mysterious, but mischievous kind of thing.

Every character gives you different things to play with. Katara is very thoughtful, and that’s a different kind of body stance. Aang is a bit more playful, but he can also be thoughtful. It’s fun to always have these different ways you can draw expression.

Katara character designs by Wartman

Halls: Just to wrap everything up — why should fans, both old and new to the series, be pumped for Imbalance?

Wartman: I think Faith has written a really interesting story that is going to be really exciting.  It’s bringing the original series a little closer to Korra — showing some of that connection. I think it still has [those] serious undertones while still being pretty funny at times. I hope I’ve done a pretty good job with showing the city, and putting a lot of time into that, and making the fighting look cool. I hope that will make it an exciting thing to see and live up to the show.

Avatar: The Last Airbender-Imbalance Part One is scheduled for release on December 18, 2018 with its second part scheduled for April 16, 2019. The third part’s release date has yet to be announced by Dark Horse Comics.

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