Avatar: The Last Airbender is a cartoon show that aired on Nickelodeon and wrapped up its three-season-long story line earlier this year. It's a kids' show, filled with obnoxious kid humor and all kinds of lowbrow sight gags. Why should anyone past the age of 10 or 12 pay attention to it? Because all that stuff is mixed with really fabulous art, fast-moving action, sophisticated themes, and much more, including a sure-footed sense of fantasy that I've never seen on TV before. Sure, there are elements of condescension in the way that it sometimes caters to the younger end of the cartoon audience, but all in all it's a remarkably polished package. I don't remember any fart jokes, so that puts it above the majority of comedies on the big screen. And the fantasy elements feel classic and substantial, like Earthsea or Amber. Visually, it owes a huge debt to the movies of Hayao Miyazaki (see comments below), which is cribbing from the master.
Fantasy implies worldbuilding, and here Avatar is on solid ground. This is a world where the four elements—fire, earth, air, water—each have a school of magic, called bending, associated with it. If you're a water bender, you can heal with water, freeze an opponent in ice, and so on, while airbenders can create giant gusts of wind, float themselves up in the air, and much more. There's only one bender per generation that can do all four types of magic, and this is the avatar of the title. The other part of the title refers to the fact that airbenders have almost completely died out: the last airbender is Aang, an avatar who was frozen in ice for 100 years. While he was out of commission, the Fire Nation has been trying to take over. All of his airbending friends and family are long gone, and when he's found in the ice by a brother and sister from a water tribe, that's where the show kicks off.
As both parts of the title make pretty clear, Aang, the avatar, the last airbender, is the main character. He's a kid, though, and despite the serious moments, a great deal of the humor comes from him and his buddies, who are mostly kids as well. Aang and friends fight a lot of battles and face some serious enemies, but part of the charm of the show is that they still don't grow up. By the conclusion of the show, Aang has just fought in pretty much the best superpowered showdown I've seen—yes, it blows anything in the movies or other TV shows out of the water—but I can easily see him going out the next day to play pranks on someone or laugh at someone who gets sneezed on by his giant flying bison (which happens more than once in the show). I see this approach as key to how the show operates. One of the biggest problems facing this kind of story is what to do with a superpowered character; Superman has his kryptonite, which gets tiresome since it has to be trotted out so often, and Heroes has stumbled on this issue as well. See my comments on Heroes below—I've lost track of the show, but apparently the show's creators gave the most powerful character a case of "little kid's mind in a grown-up's body," and if that's considered a knockout blow, then that's an insult to Aang. He does quite fine on his bending skills with his twelve-year-old mind, thank you very much; the crux of each story line is often his emotional immaturity or the sheer amount of bending he has yet to learn, but his age is never his kryptonite.
Prince Zuko, exiled by his father the Fire Lord, is the other key character of the show. In fact, a lot of the interesting aspects of character development are handed off to him. In the first season of the show, he's consumed with the desire to revenge his honor and regain his father's respect, and he's convinced that if he catches the Avatar and makes him knuckle under to the Fire Nation, all will be resolved. It's not quite that simple, though: his uncle Iroh, his fellow exile, is convinced that he can train Zuko to become a responsible, honorable young man, and Iroh's idea of honor is not the same as the Fire Lord's. The changes in Zuko's character are telegraphed from the very beginning, but the developments are handled well all the way along, and the twists and turns are given room to breathe. Just like it's rare to see a story do a good job with powerful characters, it's not often that a show has antagonists as compelling as Zuko and his father.
As for the ending . . . what a wrap-up! I've noticed over the years that I'm more and more judgmental, ruthless in fact, on the topic of endings, especially on long series like this. Unfortunately, endings are hard, and good endings are few and far between. TV shows that are serialized have an especially tough slog, since they have to provide entertainment on a week-to-week basis, yet still build toward the final resolution of some mystery. That's even harder. Will all the answers at the end of Lost be worthy of six seasons of buildup? Maybe, maybe not, with the odds on the latter. The show's creators have probably done themselves a favor by giving a hard deadline; see my comments about Battlestar Galactica below, a show that has a definite conclusion in mind, but ran out of steam way too early. Avatar blows out all the stops for its four-part finale, and that's action-wise, character-wise, the whole bit.
One observation looking back on the three seasons: the tone is remarkably consistent throughout. The show starts out as kid-focused, sophisticated storytelling and all, and it ends kid-focused. I like the coherence across three volumes (seasons) and 61 episodes. As a point of contrast, it's worth looking at Harry Potter. The first Harry Potter outing was a wisp of a book in comparison to the monster tomes that followed, and the endearing humor gave way to darkness of a near-brutalizing nature. The generation that grew up reading Harry Potter from the beginning were fine with it, since the books took a decade to come out, but kids starting now have to wait a few years in order to grow up, just to finish the series. The Harry Potter series gets much darker and grown-up, while Avatar somehow keeps its kid-friendly magic all the way through. Maybe it's a good thing they kept it to three seasons! A side note in Rowling's favor: the internal logic of her series works just fine, the break between the fourth and fifth books is pretty clearly Harry entering adulthood. Aang never grows up in the same way.
Originally, I thought that since each season is labelled with one of the elements—Water, Earth, and Fire respectively—that we would get four seasons. But no, it wrapped up in three seasons. I guess the air aspect was something that Aang already knew, and there was certainly no one left for him to learn more airbending from. All three volumes of the show are available in handy box sets. So what's next for Avatar? In a development sure to chill the bones of everyone, the show has become the next big movie project by M. Night Shyamalan, a man who has been turning interesting ideas into badly-written and badly-directed movies for quite a few years now. Maybe this is his big moment of redemption, but I think I'll go with Chris Roberson's take in his blog post entitled A Trainwreck Waiting to Happen. Like a fan of a book that has just received a horrible movie adaptation, all I can do is comfort myself with the notion that I'll always have the original. And that's no small comfort in this particular case.
Writing about the series finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender feels in a lot of ways like a follow-up to most of what I've written for Strange Horizons as a columnist. I first mentioned Avatar in my third piece about Miyazaki, and later on it was a centerpiece of my look at cartoons for kids. It made me wonder . . . what are the other things that have I written about that have seen new developments? I tracked down a few items and a short list follows.
In these three columns, I talked about all nine of the movies that the famous Japanese animator, Hiyao Miyazaki, had directed up to that point. Looking back, I would list My Neighbor Totoro and Princess Mononoke as the two titles that every genre fan should watch, pitched perfectly for younger and older audiences respectively. Spirited Away would be the compromise. I greatly disliked Miyazaki's last movie, Howl's Moving Castle, putting me in lonely company.
Fast forward a few years. Miyazaki's latest movie, Ponyo on the Cliff, was released in 2008 and it did well at the box office in Japan, but the hype machine that usually follows his movies has been strangely silent. I'm not sure why that might be. Ponyo will apparently reach our shores sometime in 2009.
I watched the version with Japanese audio—thanks to the wonders of the Internet, I can watch material from all around the world, but there's still no way for me to directly download a new language into my brain (so far), so I missed an entire layer of what was happening. I'm curious to see the movie once I can actually understand what the characters are talking about. Visually, the movie is a strange marriage between Totoro and Howl's Moving Castle (with the Totoro-like elements losing some of their charm because of the mix). I don't think the pieces fit together all that well, but then again, maybe there's a convincing explanation in all the narration!
Literary Musicians (May 2005)
In this column, I talked to two writers, Scott Mackay and Louise Marley, whose musical and literary inclinations are mixed together tightly. Scott Mackay's latest book is Omega Sol, an adventure that follows in the foosteps of 2001, but this time around the alien artifacts are crushingly indifferent to us. I've lost track of Marley's recent novels, but her short story collection, Absalom's Mother, is highly recommended.
Vanity, DIY, the Multicorp, and You (July 2005)
Jim Munroe and J. Fitzgerald McCurdy, two writers who had gone the indie-publishing route, were the subject of this column. Since then, McCurdy has been publishing her Mole Wars series with HarperCollins. As a contrast, Munroe has continued his indie ways, but has branched out of novel-writing into other projects.
Munroe's Therefore Repent! is a graphic novel and a sequel of sorts to his earlier novel, An Opening Act of Unspeakable Evil; specifically, it imagines a future where the Rapture has happened. Therefore Repent! matches wits with Ted Chiang's similar story "Hell is the Absence of God," and comes away with an image just as horror-filled as the condemned man in Chiang's version.
Munroe has also made a movie, a "lo-fi sci-fi movie in seven episodes" as the tagline calls it. Infest Wisely is highly recommended: it's a science fiction film of credible nature, made for only $700! Lots of neat technological and social speculation, blended heavily on the social aspect to make up (successfully) for the low budget. It's all online at www.infestwisely.com.
Star Wars Videogames (October 2005)
I indulged in some nostalgia here, looking back at some favorite videogames, many of which happen to be Star Wars-related. Since then, it's been one disappointment after another, with one giant disappointment most recently: The Force Unleashed. This was a massively-hyped project—a story that links the Star Wars prequels with the classic movies—that was supposed to span all kinds of media but the focus was the videogame version. I fell for the hype for this one, and the game simply did not live up to it. The much-vaunted story line was a soggy firecracker: the potential was there, but something had definitely gone wrong along the way. I played the Wii version, and both the graphics and the control scheme were abysmal. And one of the things I loved about the earlier Star Wars games was the sense of exploring the various worlds in a way that never happened in the movies; The Force Unleashed constrains the player into bizarrely small areas, and there's one level that you have to visit three times! Everything about the game seems small and unambitious. Where was the fancy and amazing game the creators were talking about for so long? Nowhere that I could see.
No Superheroes Allowed (May 2006)
A column about science fiction in comic books. I already followed this one with Final Issue in March 2008 about the conclusion of the Y: The Last Man series. Wondering what the best science fiction or fantasy might be in other media? For fantasy, I would say Avatar, and for science fiction, it's definitely Y.
Reading Fantasy Again (November 2006)
Here I talked about coming back to reading fantasy after many years of focusing on science fiction. My biggest find of the intervening two years would definitely be Megan Whelan Turner's Attolia series (thanks, Chris!). Unfortunately, Turner is a slow writer, so now we settle in to wait.
I don't have as much time to read big fat fantasies as I did in the past, but I did take a look at Brandon Sanderson, for the same reason that a lot of former Wheel of Time fans have recently: he's been hired to write the final volume of the series left unfinished at Robert Jordan's death. Sanderson's books are really quite clever, and I'm hoping he doesn't get too bogged down in the Wheel of Time quicksand and can go back to his own material posthaste.
From the Formative Years (April 2007)
From the formative years indeed: Patricia A. McKillip, Robin McKinley, and Roger Zelazny were all fine writers that I revisited with the pleasing discovery that I'd been pretty lucky as a kid to find them. Since then, I've only revisited one author, Dean Koontz, with not as pleasant results. I'd still like to take another look at Dan Simmons, who was my big discovery in high school. I used to reread Tolkien annually—I might tackle that one next year for old times' sake. Now that the memory of the movies has faded a little bit, the books can stand on their own again.
Summer Movies 2007 (August 2007)
As much as I shouldn't have, I did the summer movie thing again in 2008.
Giving Up (November 2007)
In this column, I talked about trying to let go of my completist nature, especially in the face of multiseason TV shows available on DVD. A prime candidate for elimination from my schedule was Battlestar Galactica, and I must confess that I went back and caught up on seasons 3 and 4, which was a mistake. Season 3 of BSG was tedious, tedious, tedious, and season 4, while an improvement, did not show any signs of wrapping up the show in a satisfying way. I was concurrently watching season 3 of Avatar, and the comparison did not work in BSG's favor. I watched the truncated second season of Heroes, also a vast disappointment. I stuck it out for about two episodes in the currently airing season but gave up with what I hope is some finality. Again, the contrast with sure-footed Avatar is stark, and it's especially obvious in the case of Heroes, since the show's writers seem to lack even the most basic ideas about how to handle superpowered characters. If anything, this process of giving these two shows one more chance (and being disappointed) has made me more ruthless, since I gave less time to Fringe and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles this fall than I would have otherwise.
One other related item: I finished watching both Buffy and Angel. I loved the conclusion of Buffy's seventh and final season, very satisfying. Buffy never had an overall story line that united the seven seasons . . . at least an overt one. In retrospect, I would argue that the main theme was Buffy's loneliness. She's the slayer, she's the one that all the bad stuff falls on, and the writers of the show never stinted on showing the emotional pain that would accompany such a role. In that sense, the final moments of season 7 are unutterably sweet; Buffy definitely earned the big ending.
Glitz, Flash, and Fun (August 2008)
Ah, videogames. So much time wasted, so little to show for it. Since writing at great length on this exquisitely useless topic in 2008, I've only had the chance to play Fallout 3. This blockbuster game about trying to survive in a post-apocalyptic East Coast environment is about as good as it had any right to be. For example, I was looking around the wasteland of D.C. and thinking to myself, well, there's not much to do anymore. Then I looked at the time stamp on my most recent savegame and realized that it said I had spent 55 hours on the game! That's an amount of entertainment that can be measured in bulk, like work weeks in a project management meeting. Thankfully, it looks like the game is about to get modded by a lot of people who can twist the game into a new form—check out this video that brings some wildly inappropriate levity to the rubble of a radioactive future.