Hasslein Blog: GUEST BLOG: Cubing—Avatar: The Last Airbender


Hasslein Blog

Thursday, May 16, 2013

GUEST BLOG: Cubing—Avatar: The Last Airbender

I don't watch a lot of TV. Oh, I used to, when I was a younger man (i.e., in high school and college), but then I stopped. See, six years ago, I underwent spinal fusion surgery, and it kept me more or less bedridden for a few months. And in that time, when even lifting a book cost some effort, about the only thing I really did was watch a lot of TV. So by the time I was recovered, I got really restless whenever I tried watching anything.

(This is all leading somewhere, I promise.)

Since 2005, I've constantly gotten recommendations to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender, but I just never got around to it, partly because of my schedule (2005 was my senior year in college, so I was busy, um, studying) and partly because of the restlessness I spoke of. But last year, a friend of mine sent me the DVDs. I still kept putting it off, until this year started, when I promised myself that I'd spend less time on the Internet, be healthier, and exercise more. As part of that new regimen, I got an exercise bike. Now, I thought, I needed something to watch, to keep me from getting bored on the bike, yeah? And lo, the Avatar DVDs came out.

Avatar: The Last Airbender is the story of a boy named Aang, who was born to a race called the Air Nomads. Within them is the ability to manipulate or "bend" air, just as to other races are born people with the ability to bend water, fire, or earth. Aang is the Avatar, meaning he's the one person in the entire world who can control all four elements. He disappeared for a hundred years, at which time the world to be taken over by the Fire Nation, until he was found by the siblings Katara and Sokka. He needs to learn how to control all the elements so he can fight the Fire Lord and take down the Fire Nation, but it's not easy, what with the entire Fire Nation, including the banished Prince Zuko, looking for him.

I worked out in my living room, just watching Avatar, maybe one or two episodes a day, with Mrs. Cube over in the dining room working on her laptop, kind of absorbing it by osmosis. She doesn't have patience for serial storytelling, conking out on Starman about 30 issues in and favoring Seinfeld and The Simpsons, TV shows with stand-alone episodes.

By the 12th episode, the exercise bike had disappeared, with me just watching multiple episodes in one sitting. By the end of the first season, Mrs. Cube had left the dining room and taken a seat next to me. A few days later, during a national holiday, we ordered pizza from Shakey's and just watched the entire third season in one day. This is an impressive feat for any show, because, like I said, neither one of us watches a lot of TV (or movies, for that matter). We usually just meet them with disinterest. But even more than that was how much we rewatched certain episodes afterward. After immersing ourselves in the world of Avatar, we couldn't get out.

So what was it about Avatar: The Last Airbender that got us so much? Well, if you will, here are some scattered reasons with no pretense of smooth transitions within paragraphs. Bullet list it is! (Oh, and there are spoilers in here.)

  • The characters are great. There is no bad character in this series, even if it's possible that some of them might get on your nerves. They're all dynamic, and they show a tremendous amount of growth. Katara goes from unsure young girl to a confident and assured waterbending master. Sokka goes from someone pretending to be their leader to someone who legitimately deserves that title. Aang goes from a goofy little kid to the full-fledged Avatar. Toph, the earthbender who joins them in Book 2, has less of an arc, but that's because she's already kind of settled in to who she wants to be right away. And Zuko, the villain with a heart of gold and the kindly old Uncle Iroh, grows (and regresses) more than anyone in this series.

    Zuko in particular was a source of frustration and pride for me, causing me to audibly groan (this never happens, ever) whenever he was faced with the decision to switch sides and he'd make the wrong one, and causing me to actually jump off the couch and scream "YES!" when he finally made the right decision, as if it were my own personal triumph (again, this never happens, ever). It's my favorite moment in the whole series.

  • It's beautiful. Comic books are my medium of choice, and I don't really like talking about what is or isn't art, since that usually involves a big debate about what counts as "art" and what doesn't and that's always pretty uncomfortable. But I think Avatar is legitimately artistic. The music perfectly captures the mood of whatever is being shown, including poignant and pensive moments. The animation couldn't be better, as it's fluid and crisp, and the motions are just eye-catching.

    One episode in particular, "The Firebending Masters," has a sequence with dragons, a dance, and a whole spectrum of colors. It almost brought Mrs. Cube to tears because it was so beautiful, and I couldn't argue the point.

    The entire series lives up to that standard. Every aspect of animation, from the voice acting to the actual animation to the music all come together to form a whole that's greater than the sum of its parts.

  • The fight scenes are great. Every single one of the bending styles is based on a real form of martial arts. It's explained here:

    Working alongside Sifu Kisu, their martial arts consultant, gives the fight scenes a sense of believability and adds a touch of realism to the entire thing without being constrained by the usual traps of faux-realism (I'm resisting a great urge to make fun of a certain set of superhero movies right now). It gives the animators a starting point that already makes it visually dynamic, and it also gives the characters a variety of styles that makes the fight scenes more diverse. A fight between Katara and Zuko isn't going to look like a fight between Toph and Aang. It keeps the fights (which I think are often dismissed by audiences as unimportant or "just fights," something I think is unfair because a good fight scene can not only tell a story but also shed light on the characters) fresh for 61 episodes, because there's such little repetition.

  • The world building is comprehensive. Of all the factors, I think this is the main one that accounts for the fact that I've had a hard time moving on to a different fictional universe after Avatar. There's a strong sense of place that you're immersed in, since Aang and his friends travel the world, and you feel like you're discovering it along with them. There's also a strong sense of history, as events in the past are constantly referenced without hammering the audience over the head with them. There are also cultural markers, such as folk songs ("Leaves from the Vine" is heartbreaking), nation-specific slang, and food. And most of these things are things you won't even notice unless you're paying attention or have watched the series a few times. There's an attention to detail that just lends another layer of believability and a sense of being there to the series.

  • It's legitimately all-ages. With its clear and more obvious anime influence, Avatar comes off as a kids' show to anyone giving it a quick glance, what with its big heads, overexpressive eyes, and exaggerated expressions. And it even starts off as such, more or less, but it gradually progresses along with the rest of the series. As the characters grow, so does the show, although it never loses its levity, its humor, and its sense of fun. My nephew watched it when he was seven years old, as did everyone in his school, and after I watched it, he watched it again, now fourteen years old, and he still loved it. Not everything you see as a kid ages that well (I'm looking at you, GI Joe: A Real American Hero). Avatar is as complex as you want it to be and as simple as you want it to be. It has layers and there's nothing wrong with enjoying just the one on the surface just as there's nothing wrong with digging deeper into it as much as you want.

    There's one episode, "The Guru," which dealt with the concepts of spirituality and chakras, where Mrs. Cube just paused and said, "Can you imagine being ten years old and being introduced to these kinds of concepts?" And I couldn't. Not at 10 years old. My cartoons didn't have that kind of thing, didn't delve into them. Avatar didn't talk down to its audience. It assumed its audience could get it, and if it couldn't, then there was all the other stuff to keep it moving and keep them into it. Like all the superpowers and the funny stuff.

I finished watching Avatar: The Last Airbender a month ago and I only now felt comfortable writing about it. I don't think I did it justice, especially since I spent the last 1600 words trying to fight off the urge to say "AVATAR IS AWESOME!", and it might be too soon to call it my favorite cartoon ever, but it probably is. I don't think I ever rewatched a cartoon so much, or felt so much like a fan. I tend to have the mindset of a critic (a curse, I know), trying to predict where these stories are going to go and being disappointed when they don't go that way, but it didn't feel that way with Avatar. I just enjoyed the ride. And when it was over, I enjoyed it again. Avatar is awesome.

Except I was supposed to make it last several weeks and I finished it pretty quickly. I need something new for the bike now.

Duy Tano is a popular Internet blogger and comic book expert. Check out his blog, The Comics Cube!, at www.comicscube.com, which tackles all sorts of different topics for all sorts of different forms of sequential art. Superhero comics, indie comix, komiks, manga, BD—you name it, it's a valid topic for discussion.

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