Gene Luen Yang Goes Penguin Sledding With ASN
Gene Luen Yang

ASN: What made you pursue making comics as a career? Can you give a little retrospective about your writing process? For example, things you think worked really well, things you regret, ideas that you weren't able to work in, and little inspirations? How long does the comic-making process take, and what is your favorite step? Anything to say to aspiring comic makers out there?

Gene: I've always loved stories, and I've always loved drawing. Growing up, I wanted to be a Disney animator. I think Disney influence still shows through in my artwork. After I began collecting comics in the fifth grade, though, I became more and more interested in making comics.

The comics medium is an amazing, wonderful medium. It's intimate. Unlike an animated film, a graphic novel doesn't require dozens of people to create. Because of this, one person or a small team of people can tell exactly the kind of story they want. And there aren't very many gatekeepers, either. To become a cartoonist, all you need is a pencil, some paper, and a healthy ignorance of your own artistic limitations.

I feel very lucky to be involved in comics right now. I believe that we're going through something of a graphic novel renaissance, where many of the best graphic novels ever created are being published right now. We're seeing a creative explosion in the field.

That said, comics take forever to make. I have a pretty simple drawing style, but even with my simple drawing style a page can take me anywhere from 4-8 hours to complete. Multiply that by the 200 or so pages it takes to complete a graphic novel -- that's a good chunk of your life.

As for regrets... my one big regret with American Born Chinese is that I didn't make the Chin-Kee character even more monstrous. Most people get it. They understand what I was trying to do with that character. But every now and then, someone comes up to me at a convention and tells me that they thought the Chin-Kee character was "cute." "Cute" was not what I was going for. Not at all.

ASN: This is your first experience writing for someone else's characters. As a fan of the series, how did it feel to work with the creators? What are some elements of the story that you invented yourself, and which ones came from Mike and Bryan? Was it hard to make certain decisions for characters, and if so can you give us some examples? Do any of your ideas from the comics affect "The Legend of Korra"?

Gene: Yes! I did do a small project for Marvel's Strange Tales series, but this is the first big project where I'm playing with other people's characters. I loved working with Mike and Bryan. As anyone familiar with the show knows, Mike and Bryan and their writing team are masterful storytellers. I feel lucky that I got to see how they break down a story. I learned a lot from them, especially about building tension in sustained, episodic stories. Their notes have been incredibly helpful.

The notes from the editors at both Dark Horse and Nickelodeon have been really helpful, too, even from the folks whose main concern isn't story. One small example: There's this extremely fearful character in the book named Ho-Tun. He's one of Toph's students. In my first draft, I had him obsessing over death. The Nick folks thought it wasn't appropriate for the target age group, so I replaced death with "doom." It works sooo much better. Doom is way funnier than death.

The comics began with a conversation between Mike, Bryan, Dark Horse, and me. Mike and Bryan talked about the world of Korra, about their visions for each of the main characters. I understood from the beginning that I was writing within an established history. They gave me plenty of creative elbow room, but the major tides of the Avatarverse were set before I ever came onboard.

ASN: The members of have been collectively discussing and theorizing for years. Have you ever searched through the older discussion threads of fansites for inspiration, or to see if some fans were on the right track with their theories?

Gene: To be honest, I haven't. I didn't really have a lot of experience with A:TLA fandom before signing onto the series. I've been very surprised by the deep passion of many fans. I think it's a testament to the quality of the original series.

ASN: Knowing that Aang is a pacifist, who goes out of his way to avoid killing anyone, why did he agree so quickly to the promise that Zuko was asking of him? And why was Katara encouraging him? And later on, why are Aang and his friends so quick to assume that Zuko is turning into Ozai and that the promise must be fulfilled? Have they grown apart during the last year?

Gene: Here's my understanding of Aang: Aang's big "flaw" is his love for his friends. It makes it difficult for him to become a fully-realized Avatar. In "The Guru" (one of my favorite episodes) he turns away from his own spiritual development because of his love for Katara. When Appa is kidnapped, he loses his inner peace and becomes uncharacteristically angry. When Toph and Sokka start conning people out of money, Aang goes along because he loves being with them. His attachment to his friends is in constant tension with his Airbender ideals. Aang makes the promise to Zuko because Zuko is his friend. Zuko says the promise is something he really needs, and Aang has a hard time saying no to his friends.

ASN: The last page showed Zuko going to Ozai, of all people, to ask for some kind of advice. Why, after so much character development, would Zuko go back and seek help from his father? Why not go to Iroh instead, who has always given him great advice? And speaking of Iroh, where is he in the comic? A lot of fans are worried that he might be dead...

Gene: Iroh, and Zuko's relationship with Iroh, will come up in a future volume.

ASN: Does Avatar Roku know that his great grandson is the new Firelord? Will Zuko ever tell Aang that Roku is his great-grandfather?

Gene: This issue, too, will be addressed in a future volume.

ASN: What are your plans for the canon couples? For example, you mentioned that you wanted to introduce conflict into Katara and Aang's relationship. What kind of conflict do you have in mind? We see no Sokka and Suki interaction in the comic, are they still a couple? Do you plan to introduce conflict with them as well? Zuko has been Fire Lord for a year now and he doesn't appear to be engaged to Mai yet. Any problems in their relationship? Will we see any of these couples getting engaged in the duration of "The Promise", or perhaps a time-skip where they're all grown up, married and with kids already?

Gene: For the relationships, all I can say is this: Katara and Aang eventually marry and have kids. This is already established in the back story of The Legend of Korra. For everybody else, you'll just have to keep reading. :)

ASN: Will we see any character development for Suki, Ty Lee, and Mai? Will they have any bigger part in the future comics? And how about Toph, will she have any closure with her parents? Will we get a hint in the comics as to who will be her future husband, the father of Chief Bei Fong?

Gene: When I was watching the show, I really liked Toph. After writing her, though, I now love her. She's such an awesome character! The second volume of The Promise will focus on Toph and her new role as a metalbending teacher. And we'll definitely be seeing more Suki, especially in the third volume.

ASN: In "The Promise, Part 1", we are reacquainted with Smellerbee, Longshot and Sneers of The Freedom Fighters. Has the membership of the group grown significantly, and is Smellerbee now their leader? How big a role do they play in the comics? Do they become a big challenge for the Gaang? Are Smellerbee and Longshot a couple, or do you intend to portray them that way in the comics?

Gene: In The Promise, Smellerbee leads a group of protestors angry about the continued Fire Nation presence in the Earth Kingdom. In a sense, they're patriots. They can't understand why the Harmony Restoration Movement is taking so long to dismantle the Fire Nation colonies.

I've always liked Sneers, even though he had so little screen time in the cartoon. We'll see if we can rectify that with the comics.

ASN: Will we see or learn anything about Azula in Parts 2 or 3, like a possible recovery? If she's indeed in an insane asylum as has been hinted at, could you tell us what the conditions of the asylum are? Has anyone visited her? And speaking of women in the Royal Family, do you know what happened to Ursa? Since this trilogy focuses on the founding of Republic City, are there any plans for future comics that cover Ursa?

Gene: Recently, I've heard from more than one Azula fan asking about her fate. She isn't dead. She is indeed in an asylum, and she does make an appearance in the comics.

As for Ursa, that was the first question I asked when I got on the phone with Mike and Bryan! Ultimately, what Ursa's absence means to Zuko is more important than what actually happened to her. Mike and Bryan pointed that out to me. They're right, of course. But that's not to say we won't eventually find out the specifics.

ASN: What role will the White Lotus play now that the war is over and their secret society is no longer needed? Will we see any of the members in new leadership roles as the struggle for harmony progresses?

Gene: In the new world of Republic City, the four nations live side-by-side. In many ways, the White Lotus Society and even the Avatar himself foreshadow the new world.

ASN: Will we see new Flying Bison or Winged Lemurs in the comics? Will it be revealed how they came to be repopulated, or how Aang found them?

Gene: No new flying bison or winged lemurs. For now.

ASN: Do you know if there are plans for more comics after "The Promise" that would further tie in the events of "Avatar: The Last Airbender" with the future events of "The Legend of Korra"? If so, will you be involved?

Gene: I haven't heard any news about more comics after The Promise. The time span that The Promise covers is so short -- just a fraction of the seventy years between the two series -- that there's plenty of room from more great stories.

ASN: If you were a bender, which element would you choose and why?

Gene: Earth, so I could make all sorts of awesome outdoor furniture in our backyard.

ASN: Thank you so much for answering our questions today. Before we wrap up, can we ask you one more question? Will you go penguin sledding with us?

Gene: Of course! :)
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