Creating Mythology: The Search for Zuko’s Mother Continues…

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As most of you know by now, at the end of The Search part 1, Zuko finds a letter from his father that suggests he may not be Ozai’s son after all.

This cliffhanger seemed to leave people either excited or angry. Like I wrote about in this post when The Search was released, the expectations for this story were such that no matter what happened, I figured more than a few people would be upset with the way it all played out.

But that was just the first of a three part story. (Part 2 is out now, part 3 released in November.) And a story’s job is to throw a wrench into the character’s and the reader’s experience. The reader stands in Zuko’s shoes when he finds that letter and is left to wonder along with him, “Is Zuko’s whole life a lie?”

This question won’t be answered until part 3, but I love that it brings up so many emotions and questions for people (and for our characters).  As part 2 begins, even Aang is upset and, echoing many of you out there, says: “It can’t be true. Or at least, it shouldn’t be!”

I find it fascinating when readers or viewers are upset by an unexpected turn of events in a story, because this is the very reason we like to read them — to be surprised, to find out what happens next, to have a vicarious experience through another’s eyes. When stories don’t deviate from the expected, they become boring. And no one likes a boring story.

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What I love about the revelation at the end of part 1, is that Zuko finds a sense of freedom in his new knowledge. If he’s not Ozai’s son, that means he’ll be unburdened from his past and all the horrible things that happened to him. He thinks he can start fresh. In fact, Zuko seems to be the most relieved of his friends to find out this news — they’re all looking at the big picture and wondering what it means for the world if Zuko isn’t the rightful Fire Lord. Meanwhile, Zuko just smiles and says he feels hopeful.

This story is not just about the external plot of Zuko searching for his mother, but also his internal search for who he is (or who he thinks he is). And that’s what makes this particular chapter in the Avatar saga much more than just a mystery to be solved.

From a storytelling perspective, the facts of Ursa’s whereabouts was never as interesting to me as what this search means for Zuko.

When stories balance a hero’s external quest with his or her internal one, the tale resonates. I love trying to find that balance in storytelling. I enjoy coming up with plot, action, and the “what happens next” of it all, but if the character’s emotional needs and wants are missing, the story falls flat.

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Bryan and I have been asked many times how much of the Avatar world we knew when we started. Did we already have the idea for Korra when we were making The Last Airbender? (No.) Did we always know where Zuko’s mom was, and were we just keeping that juicy information to ourselves? (Again, no.)

The truth is, there would be no way we could’ve known every detail or character in the Avatar world. When we pitched the series, we laid out a lot of the groundwork for books 1-3 of A:TLA, but characters like Zuko, Zhao, and most of Aang’s adventures had yet to be created.

As J.R.R. Tolkein said in the foreword to Lord of the Rings, “This tale grew in the telling.” Even the godfather (grandfather?) of fantasy didn’t know everything about his own creation.

In developing each book of Korra and the Avatar comics, I have advocated creating the mythology to suit the story and its characters, rather than conform a character’s story to some pre-determined mythological encyclopedia.

When I look at sites like Avatar.wikia, I’m amazed at the volume of characters, places, and creatures that now exist in the Avatar universe. And to be honest, I’ve had to consult it now and then to fact check. Bryan and I may have established the building blocks, but many other writers and artists have helped us construct this growing, living mythology.

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Me and Bryan with Gene Yang, the writer of the Avatar comics

The Avatar tale has grown so much in the telling, and I hope will continue to grow for many years to come.

Comic-Con, Korra, and Being an Introvert

San Diego Comic-Con can be an inspiring, magical place or a hive of frustration and discontent, depending on your expectations going in. It’s been both for me over the years. I attended my first Comic-Con in ’97 or ’98 (I can’t remember exactly…)  At that time, it was a pretty big affair, but nothing like what it is now. Those were the good old days, when you could get a pass the day of, see any panel without waiting in line for days, walk the floor relatively unimpeded, and maybe even score a hotel room last minute. According to Wikipedia, attendance those years was a mere 42,000. By comparison, last year drew over 130,000. Ah, the simpler times…

Comic-Con 2004: Our very first Avatar panel drew a couple hundred people.

Comic-Con 2004: Our very first Avatar panel drew a couple hundred people. (From left to right): The moderator, Bryan Konietzko, Lauren MacMullan, Anthony Lioi, me, Dave Filoni, Giancarlo Volpe, Eric Coleman

In mentally preparing myself for this year’s con, I watched Morgan Spurlock’s Comic Con Episode IV: A Fan’s Hope, which is now streaming on Hulu. I remember hearing that he was shooting the doc at the 2010 SDCC, which was the first year we were there promoting Korra. It’s a great story about fans and creators that depicts a small, but from my experience accurate, portrayal of life at the con.

Last year, we had our first panel in Ballroom 20, which holds around 5,000 people.  Photo by Bryan, who was sitting next to me. Behind me are Joaquim Dos Santos, Janet Varney, David Faustino, PJ Byrne, Seychelle Gabriel, and Andrea Romano

Last year, we had our first panel in Ballroom 20, which holds around 5,000 people. Photo by Bryan, who was sitting next to me. To my right are Joaquim Dos Santos, Janet Varney, David Faustino, PJ Byrne, Seychelle Gabriel, and Andrea Romano

I have a love/hate relationship with Comic-Con, but watching this film made me appreciate what it has become and why it’s important to popular culture. Sure, it’s  more crowded and Hollywood-focused than it used to be. But through the people he followed, Spurlock showed how despite all that, it’s still a place where fans come to meet the creators of the things they love, express themselves through cosplay, and pursue their dreams as artists and future creators. The people interviewed in the film expressed how the Con was a place where they felt like they belonged. They didn’t feel weird or worry they’d be made fun of. They felt like they could really be themselves, which is a pretty beautiful thing.

Me and Bryan signing posters at Comic-Con 2004

Me and Bryan signing posters at Comic-Con 2004

It’s amazing to look back at that first SDCC I went to and where I am now. At the time, I never imagined being part of panels attended by thousands of people, or sitting at a booth where hundreds line up to get my autograph and picture. The thing is, I’ve never sought attention like that. Historically, I’ve pretty much tried to avoid being noticed. Part of that was from being self-conscious and fearing what others would think of me. The other part was from being an introvert. But that’s the amazing thing about Comic-Con, it can bring out the extrovert in all of us introverts (who I’m guessing make up 99% of the attendees.)

Susan Cain wrote a great book about introverts called Quiet. (She also did a TEDtalk about it.) I highly recommend it for all you introverts out there. Two big takeaways for me:

1. We live in a society that worships and rewards extroverts, despite the fact that many of the great innovations and creative leaps in the world were made by introverts.

2. We are born with certain personality traits, but we aren’t bound by them.  Cain writes, “Introverts are capable of acting like extroverts for the sake of work they consider important, people they love, or anything they value highly.”

Me and Bryan in an early interview at the Nickelodeon booth

Me and Bryan in an early interview at the Nickelodeon booth, before we became the media-savvy guys we are now.

That’s why, at an event like Comic-Con, where thousands of eyes are on me, I’m able to overcome my natural shyness and become extroverted for a while. I love Korra and the world I’ve helped create and I’m passionate about sharing it with others and meeting  fans of the show. It’s an exhausting event for sure, but always rewarding, especially when a fan shares his or her personal story about how Avatar has touched their life in some meaningful way.

Amon and Beifong cosplayers pose for Bryan

Amon and Beifong cosplayers pose for Bryan — Comic-Con 2012

I’m looking forward to this year’s Con more than any other. Book 2 is coming together beautifully and I can’t wait to finally share some of what we’ve been up to since last year. Hope to see you there!

Man of Steel: Why the Story of Superman Still Matters

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I thought Superman’s time had long past. And I didn’t expect to enjoy the new movie as much as I did. How can there be anything interesting left to do with a character who has been around for 75 years and is all powerful? I thought as I headed into a 10:30 AM screening this past weekend (yes, I go to the movies alone in the morning sometimes). I found myself surprised by how much the story resonated with me.

Here’s what I loved about it: It’s a story about having the courage to be who you are. I’m not well versed in Superman lore beyond film and TV, so I realize this theme probably isn’t unique to this film, but it really hit home for me in this moment. Sometimes stories come along at just the right time and resonate with what you’re thinking about at the time.

The crux of the film for me was the father/son relationship between Jonathan and Clark Kent. Clark lives his childhood and early adult life not being able to reveal who he really is because his father taught him that the human race wasn’t ready to learn that that an alien with superpowers lived among them. His father, feared what others might think and how they would react. In fact, he staked his whole life on it.

There is a powerful scene where young Clark saves his schoolmates from a bus crash. (It was in the trailer, so I don’t think of this as a spoiler). Everyone is about to drown, and Clark is given a choice: let them die, or save them and risk showing them who you are. He wisely chooses the latter. But later, his father is upset with him. Clark asks him, “What was I supposed to do, let them die?” And his dad replies, “Maybe.” His dad is so set in his worldview — that people aren’t ready to understand the truth — that he would be willing to let innocent souls perish. It’s pretty cruel, but makes for a great conflict that challenges Clark to decide what he believes in and what kind of person he wants to become.

Even in spite of this, I found myself sympathetic to Jonathan Kent and didn’t find him completely unlikable. His words and actions were his way of protecting his son. But he was misguided. Who made him the one who decides if the world is ready or not to handle the existence of an alien?

The father represents any parent, or institution, or religion, or government that wants to prevent you (or me) from coming into our own and expressing who we truly are. This covers the gamut, from corporations not wanting employees to think outside the box, to a society that still isn’t entirely okay with gay marriage. They (the father figure) thinks they know best. They say they have your best interests at heart and they will protect you. But they are just fearful of what will happen when people are living their best lives. I think this part of the film got under my skin because I absolutely hate when someone assumes they know what is best for me.

There have been some articles written about the Christ symbolism in the film (which I found too heavy-handed). But I did find the movie spiritual in other ways. It encourages us to live an authentic life, one in which we follow our instincts as we struggle to figure out who we want to be and what we want to do.

What did you think of the film? What parts resonated with you?