First two 'Smoke and Shadow' Covers
Dark Horse’s Avatar series is one of the company’s best sellers, regularly appearing on ICv2’s Top 10 Kids/Tween Graphic Novel Franchises (see “Top 10 Kids/Tweens GN Franchises—Fall/Holidays 2014”).  ICv2 caught up with Avatar writer Gene Luen Yang, recently nominated for an Eisner award for his work on the title (see “The 2015 Eisner Award Nominees”), to talk about Smoke and Shadow, the new series that premieres this fall. 

Dark Horse tells us that you’re starting a new Avatar series this fall.  Will Avatar continue to have multiple story arcs, each with multiple volumes in the arc?

That’s correct. They’re all chronological. So far we’ve done three, three-issue story arcs and each issue is an 80-page book, with 72 pages of story.

How does the chronology in the book relate to the chronology in the show?

There are two shows set in the universe that Nickelodeon has done so far.  The first one was called Avatar: Last Airbender; the second one is called The Legend of Korra. Our comics fit right in the middle, but they are definitely much closer to the first show than the second. They feature all the same characters from the first show; in fact are our first story arc, The Promise (which came out three years ago now), the very first scene in the book is just moments after the very last scene in the show.

There’s a pretty long gap between Avatar and Korra, isn’t there?

Yes, it’s a 70-year gap with this world.

Tell us about the new series.

In the last series, The Rift, we didn’t feature Zuko at all.  Zuko is the new Fire Lord, so he’s the leader of one of the four major nations in the world of Avatar, the Fire Nation. He wasn’t featured at all in our last arc so we’re returning to him. This new arc is kind of a follow up to the second arc which was The Search

On the show one of the major dangling plot threads was what happened to Zuko’s mom.  In these flash-back scenes in the show you saw that she left the Fire Nation and she just wasn’t heard of after that.  Since the show ended the big question among fans was what happened to Zuko’s mom. In The Search we show what happens to Zuko’s mom, and in the new series called Smoke and Shadow, we show what happens.  Zuko finds his mom and then in this new one he brings his mom and her new family back to the Fire Nation. 

It’s all about family. In the comics we’ve really used Zuko as a way of exploring the family dynamics and family relationships. The Fire Nation royal family is super unhealthy, truly dysfunctional so we get a chance to talk about family issues within the context of this really dysfunctional family.

Are you working with a new artist on this one?

No, it’s the same artists. It’s a team of artists. They’re amazing. They’re two women who go by the pen name of Gurihiru.  One of them does all of the penciling, the other one does all the inking and colors. They work out of a studio in Japan. They do a lot of work for the Japanese comics market and the Japanese videogame market, but they’ve done some work for Marvel as well.  I’ve had the pleasure of working with them for all of my story arcs so far on Avatar.   They’re absolutely stunning.

Can you tell us about the other creators names listed?

Mike DiMartino and Brian Konietzko are the creators of the original show. They conceived of the show. They created the entire concept. They created the entire world.  That’s part of the reason they’re credited; the other reason is that they actually are very intimately involved with the comics. Every single outline I do, every single story idea I have, every single script I do goes through at least one of them and I get notes from them on feedback.

These are in-canon stories, and what we really want to do with the comics is create a bridge between the first show and the second.

How many years are you into that 70-year gap between shows?

We started our story immediately after the end of the show and then we skipped a year. And from then until now it’s probably a year or two out from there. We’re about two years out from the original show. We have about 68 years of work left.

These comics have been so fun to work on and so fun to be a part of.  If I get to do this for another 68 years of Avatar time, I would be happy to.

What kind of feedback do you get and who are the readers?

Before the book comes out I work closely with Mike and Brian and also with team of editors at Dark Horse and a team of editors at Nickelodeon. It’s definitely a team effort. In the same way an animated show is a team effort, these comics are a team effort.

In terms of reader feedback, we’ve heard a lot of positive stuff from fans of both shows. When the show was on the air, I was a fan.  I wasn’t connected with the property at all, I just loved watching it. I thought it was so well done, so well written. I thought the characters were believable and well thought out. And when the show ended they did purposely leave these plot threads hanging.  Part of the reason is that’s the way life kind of is. When we live our lives there are things that are sometimes unresolved. To get to work on these comics which resolve at least some of these threads has really been a thrill.

Who are you writing this for in terms of the target audience?

The original show was aimed at seven and up, but as you can tell from me and the entire fan base, age-wise it’s a really wide demographic. We’re hoping the comic will cover the same kind of thing. I think that the original show, the main characters were all pre-teens, or early teens, all between 11 and 15. In the second show all of the main characters were a little bit older. At the beginning of the show they are all late teens; 17-18-19, around there. We want our comics to sit in the middle of that but at the same time have a wide demographic appeal. We’re hoping fans of every age will like it.

A lot of properties are called “all ages” and are really for kids, but this seems to really be for all ages.

I think so. Just as a fan of the show I think what they did was really remarkable.  The way they were able to explore some really deep, adult topics in a way that kids could understand was amazingly well done.

Anything else our readers should know about this next series?

We’re going to be bringing back some fan favorite characters that were not seen in the last story arc.  In general, the Avatar comics are a bridge for potential life-long comic book fans to come into the medium. It’s been a really pleasure for me and a privilege to be a part of that. To see that these comics have brought in new readers, folks who may not normally step into a comic book store be willing to do it because they have such deep attachment to these characters.