The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 71 | Further notes on “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and a quick look at “Blue Estate” #9

Leaving Proof 71 | Further notes on “Avatar: The Last Airbender” and a quick look at “Blue Estate” #9
Published on Thursday, February 9, 2012 by

As you may have been able to tell from last week’s review of Dark Horse Books’ Avatar: The Last Airbender–The Promise, Part One, I’m a bit of a fan of the show that it spun off from. One of my favourite aspects of Avatar: The Last Airbender is how it excelled at synthesizing traditional Eastern thought, contemporary Western sensibilities, subtle socio-political commentary, and Chinese literature, all while being consistently entertaining.

There are the obvious Asian (and more generally, Eastern) influences—most evident in the character and setting designs and the stylized martial arts sequences modeled after real forms—but one feature of Konietzko and DiMartino’s show that seems to get overlooked in popular discussion (and even in the DVD box set mini-documentaries) is how much its primary cast design borrows from the 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West. Let’s examine these similarities in detail.

Aang, the series’ main protagonist and the eponymous Avatar, is modeled after Sun Wukong, the Monkey King, with some of his personality and motivational elements derived from the monk character of Xuanzang. Like the Monkey King, he joins the story after being freed from a most unusual imprisonment (the Monkey King was buried under a mountain by the Buddha for 500 years, Aang was trapped in an iceberg for 100 years). Aang is outfitted in yellow and orange garments similar to how the Monkey King has been frequently depicted in classical illustrations (in Buddhism, yellow is a symbol of “The Middle Path” while orange represents of the virtue of wisdom). Aang’s abilities as an airbender mirrors Sun Wukong’s powers: The former uses his control of the air and wind to jump superhuman distances and glide and he occasionally travels on a rolling “ball” of air while the latter is able to leap across oceans and frequently travels on a flying cloud. Both use a staff as their primary weapon.

Katara is the cast’s primary equivalent to Xuanzang, and this is reflected in the subplot of Katara’s search for the Waterbending Scroll, which correlates to Xuanzang’s search for the Sānzàngjīng (Tripiṭaka in Sanskrit) scroll containing the Buddhist sūtras (although a less literal parallel for this story element can also be seen in Aang’s quest to learn control of his Avatar powers and in Prince Zuko’s attempts to regain his honour and the approval of his father).

Sokka is Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s stand-in for Journey to the West‘s human/pig hybrid Zhu Bajie. Both ostensibly serve as the “comic relief” and are generally portrayed as simple-minded buffoons who are nonetheless eminently skilled in physical combat. Like Katara, the connection between Sokka and his counterpart in Journey to the West is made indelibly clear in a running subplot: In the show’s first season, Sokka is involved in a tragic romance with the Northern Water Tribe princess Yue, who becomes the Moon Spirit after she dies. Those familiar with Journey to the West will immediately see the parallel with Zhu Bajie’s ill-fated relationship with the Goddess of the Moon.

Toph Bei Fong seems to be the series’ counterpart to the novel’s Shā Wùjìng. Shā Wùjìng was a fearsome sand demon, which corresponds somewhat with Toph’s abilities as an earthbender and her fiery temper. I can’t think of other analogous features off the top of my head, but that’s probably due in part to the fact that it’s been a while since I read Journey to the West.

The show doesn’t simply re-tell Journey to the West, however. Instead, it uses the novel as a base upon which Konietzko and DiMartino build their own original narrative, one that is informed very much by contemporary Western fictive tropes. The series firmly espouses the point of view that—in the words of Hugo Award-winning science-fiction editor Ben Bova—”[t]here are no villains cackling and rubbing their hands in glee as they contemplate their evil deeds. There are only people with problems, struggling to solve them.” In place of the “ostensibly evil” villains, Avatar: The Last Airbender instead features antagonists: people whose goals and philosophies put them in direct opposition to Aang and his confederates but who nonetheless think they are acting in the service of a good cause. It is this psychological realism that lends a layer of complexity and maturity to the characterization and character interactions not often found in episodic fantasy/action-adventure animation made for American television.

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Viktor Kalvachev and crew were kind enough to send along a preview copy of Image Comics’ Blue Estate #9 (“Survival Instinct”) earlier this week. Alas, it came too late for me to write and post a proper preview article for it (the issue went on sale today). Still, since Leaving Proof largely covers trade paperbacks, graphic novels, and one-shots, just think of the following images as a preview of the to-be-announced third trade paperback volume for the series

 

 

Blue Estate is a sexy, irreverent, and hilarious comic book, and the “mixtape” method applied to the visuals by the book’s artist collective is a refreshing approach to the craft of sequential art. Check it out (reviews of the first two collections can be found here and here).

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