Archive for September, 2009

Avatar: The Last Airbender

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

This is a review of Avatar, one of my favourite TV shows, which I wrote in my liverjournal earlier this year. I’ve made a couple of modifications but it’s mostly the same. It seems like a good way to kick off this blog, since I’ve already referenced the show a couple of times in my comics.

Prior to watching the show, I’d been putting it off for ages because I thought the concept was ridiculous, even though my brother and sisters all liked it. And, well, obviously I wasn’t wrong about that – but at the same time, they’ve put together such an intelligent treatment of that concept that in the end it really doesn’t matter at all. In many ways, they have taken basic fantasy elements and turned them into an allegory that is truly representative of reality, instead of just using them as an excuse construct a simplified worldview (which is the usual fantasy modus operandi, in my view). And what’s even more remarkable is that this is a children’s show; normally the natural provence of lazy writing. I am struggling to think of any precedent it could be compared to.

There are numerous factors which have been brought together in order to achieve this. First is the strong grounding in Asian and Inuit philosophy and culture, which runs much deeper than the obvious superficialities, such as the anime-eqsue art style and the use of Chinese calligraphy. All of the fighting styles were drawn from real-life martial arts forms, before being exaggerated with magical powers. Architecture, fashion, and various other cultural idiosyncracies are woven in as well, along with Buddhist and Hindu philosophical influences. Even politics plays a part, with the dominant city of Ba Sing Se being a clear reference to communist China, whilst the Fire Nation’s war campaign draws numerous parallels with American imperialism, and indeed various other empires throughout history. All of these elements are drawn together to create an entirely believable world, complete with its own extensive history and distinct cultures. And to top it all off, the show doesn’t brag about the richness of its world, either. It just leaves you with the lingering feeling that there is far more going on beneath the surface, and that if you wanted, you could totally nerd it up and seek out more information than could possibly have been included in the show itself.

Another factor is the characterization. Maybe I just didn’t have particularly high expectations, with this being a children’s show and all, but I was really quite amazed at the depth given to even the minor characters, let alone the main ones. And not only do most of the characters go through interesting and believable development arcs, but they often deal with themes which are quite challenging and complicated. Whilst there is inevitably some simplification and lack of subtlety, this show is really at a level which is, again, far beyond what you’d normally see in children’s entertainment. Even better is the strong strain of progressive idealism which influences many of these arcs. Aside from the anti-war message kept up throughout the run of the series, Zuko’s search for redemption, and Aang’s anti-violence philosophy, there’s also plotlines which deal with sexism, racism and xenophobia, fascism and totalitarian governments, and various other issues. And then there’s the diverse range of characters, including various ethnicities, a blind girl, a dude in a wheelchair – there is even a transgender character! (Or at least, that was how I interpreted that scene, though they didn’t go as far as stating it outright. It was a definite statement of gender non-conformity at the very least, however.) I’m not going to say there weren’t problems, the foremost of which was undoubtedly Azula (hard to explain why without resorting to spoilers), but overall, it is really awesome to see kids being exposed to these sorts of influences, with a surprising lack of patronization to boot.

All of these character arcs are woven together into a properly well-written and engaging story. The show lasted for three seasons, and whilst only one season was commissioned to begin with, looking back I can only conclude that they had the entire thing planned out in advance, in some basic form at least. Often times I felt like some plotlines had been abandoned or somehow forgotten about, only for them to suddenly come back into play at a much later stage. Additionally, a second watch-through reveals numerous instances of sneaky foreshadowing, even early on. The story moves forward with a real sense of purpose, and there is an overall feeling of completedness which makes the experience quite satisfying to look back on. And the ending, whilst ultimately predictable, was still well done, with a single twist thrown in to complete the overall anti-violence message.

Perhaps one of the most important things, for me at least, was the way they handled the show’s central concept: the mystical “bending” powers which enabled the characters to shoot fireballs and waterjets and stuff like they were some kind of Pokémon. One of the main reasons why I’d avoided the show for so long was because at first glance, these powers just seemed like a superficial DragonBall Z rip-off. And whilst that was undoubtedly an obvious influence of the show, the powers are not just a gimmick, either. They are so deeply interwoven with the show’s real-life cultural and philosophical influences, and they are used in so many inventive ways, that it ends up being a concept that was really worth exploring. To use one of my favourite analogies, it’s like Joss Whedon deciding to make a spaghetti western set in outer space: you hear about it and think “what?” but then you watch it and just go “…oh.

As if the show needed anymore good points, it also looks amazing, and is funny as hell. Even though it was strong enough to get by without it, they added a plethora of jokes to break up the more serious sections. Some of them were overdone and kind of annoying, but to a large extent they really work, even though the target audience is far, far less mature than myself. Pssh, kids these days, am I right? At least I will have my revenge when the live-action Avatar movies are released, and the kids realise that their standards and expectations have been raised just in time for them to find out exactly what Hollywood does when it gets its cold, heartless claws around something you love.

Uh… basically what I’m saying is, I guess I kinda liked this show a little bit. I started watching it at a time when I was asking myself a lot of questions about the value of fiction and fantasy and the ways in which it is pursued, and Avatar really reminded me of the basic appeal of telling stories which are entertaining but also present a positive message and, I guess, encapsulate a worldview in a way that is difficult to replicate otherwise. That is the power and potential of fiction. I think anything I create in the future will owe a debt to Avatar for reminding me of this – and it’s certainly not a coincidence that I re-started my webcomic less than a month after first watching it.

Blogical Interlude…?

Tuesday, September 29th, 2009

Hi, humans and nosy aliens. Tim here. This is my new blog, which I have put together to tie in with my webcomic. So I will probably be blogging mostly about things which come up in relation to my comics, but since I like to make comics about my political and social views anyway, this opens up a fairly wide range of topics. In particular I am becoming increasingly interested in the idea of systemic problems which are passed from generation to generation almost unconsciously, as I think these are the areas where the various rights movements have had the least impact. I will also be writing about feminism, science and skepticism, and maybe a little armchair psychology as well, since it is always fun to pretend to understand humans. I’m hoping this will also help improve my comics, since having a place to rant about things should give me more freedom to show instead of tell, as they say.

So, yeah. Blogical Interlude. I like the name, because it seems like a clever pun at first glance, but when you look a little closer, you realise it’s just ridiculous.

I’ll probably be updating even more sporadically than my actual comic, so you might want to follow the RSS feed (link at the bottom of the page) or my Twitter.