Michael DiMartino knows a thing or two about building detailed fictional worlds. His new book, Rebel Genius, is set in Zizzola, a fictional fantasy world reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance populated with magical artists and the Geniuses (bird-like guardian spirits) that protect and inspire them. In some ways, Rebel Genius is reminiscent of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the animated series DiMartino created over a decade ago with Bryan Konietzko, set in a fantasy world based on medieval Asia, where kung-fu fighting is connected to elemental magic. The story of a messianic young boy destined to restore balance to the world was both visually striking (mixing elemental magic with dynamic kung-fu fighting) and deeply felt (topics included genocide, war, and cultural differences). It left its mark on a generation of kids, eventually returning in the equally-acclaimed sequel series The Legend of Korra, which wrapped up in 2014.
Like Avatar, Rebel Genius focuses on a group of young children (homeless sketcher Giacomo, friendly musician Aaminah, stand-offish sculptor Savino, and graceful painter Milena) learning to use their magical powers to stop a maniacal overlord from conquering the world. The system’s a little different this time, though, as is the setting. Instead of fighters, these kids are artists living in a Renaissance-flavored fantasy world called Zizzola, and they produce magic with the help of their Geniuses (bird-like guardian spirits) that help them channel the energy of the universe. This energy is guided through sacred geometry, an old belief system that each shape has a corresponding number (i.e. the circle is “one,” a line is “two”) and that these connections can unlock the secret power of the world. The ultimate power in Zizzola, however, rests in the three Sacred Tools (Compass, Straightedge, and Pencil) that the mythical Creator supposedly used to create the world, and the kids soon set out to discover them before the forces of evil can.
Ahead of Rebel Genius‘ release this week from Roaring Book Press, EW spoke with DiMartino about the book’s genesis, the future of the series, and the legacy of Avatar. See a few of DiMartino’s illustrations from the book below, as well.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: This book has such an intricate world. How did the whole thing start out for you?
It really started with this idea of having artists be able to do magic, or some kind of magic world where artists are the heroes. It’s an idea I first had over 10 years ago, probably. It was when we were probably in the first season of Avatar, like 2005-ish. Writing was something I just did on the side, and I wanted to write a book, so this is the idea I’ve had for many years that came to fruition. That was the initial idea, and I went back and forth over the years about how to tell that story, and figure out an interesting way to tell a story about people being creative without them just sitting around drawing. I always like stories about the artists, but they’re hard to dramatize because it’s such an internal process. So the idea of making the Geniuses actual creatures, that was the first step to being able to externalize creativity and make it something you could see and dramatize.
Is that one reason for the Renaissance period, since so many different kinds of art — sculpture, painting, drawing, music — were flourishing at that time?
When I was trying to come up with scenarios for the story, there were other scenarios I had where it was more of an Alice in Wonderland-type thing, where someone finds a portal into another world, but those never felt quite right. When I settled on a fantasy world setting, the Renaissance is something I’ve always been fascinated with, and as far as artistic nexus of creativity, it’s a good place to start. I didn’t want it to be too modern of a world, but I didn’t want it to be too ancient. The more I read about the time period, especially with Leonardo Da Vinci, it’s pretty interesting how much he was a scientist and astronomer. All that stuff is super fascinating to me, so it was a good time period to set it.
How do you go about constructing these fictional worlds?
Part of it is grounding them in something real. With Avatar, it was grounding the magic in different styles of kung fu. When I came to develop magic in this world, that’s always in my mind: How does the magic work? Kung fu was such a dynamic clear thing you could see in action. So what was gonna be the thing for this world? I wanted the kids to be able to be drawing and stuff, but manifesting some power through art. So the idea of sacred geometry, I researched more of that and it seemed like a perfect fit. It takes all these shapes that exist in nature, and all the shapes have corresponding numbers. So the circle’s number one, and the triangle’s number three, but there’s ways to construct the shapes that just made sense with a kid learning to draw and stuff. So I grounded all the magic in the sacred geometry. They were kind of drawing on this energy that exists in the universe. The other part of that whole system is the Geniuses. They’re using their Geniuses as a way to channel the energy into the world.
The idea of a Genius as a creature, that came from your research as well, right?
They didn’t call Da Vinci a genius, they would’ve said he had a genius, or the city had a genius watching over it. Once I hit on that, I was like “oh that’d be cool.” That idea of genius back in the day wasn’t this internalized thing, it was a creature you could see and interact with. I had the idea they would become the artist’s protector and their muse, and they became the channel through which the kids could summon this energy and project it.
What was it like doing this new story without Bryan?
It’s definitely been a new experience. There’s the partnership with Bryan, but then there’s also just working totally alone. I don’t have a whole crew of writers to bounce ideas off with. I do like working alone, I like going off on my own and trying to figure stuff out, but there are definitely days where I wish I had a room full of smart people with me trying to figure this out. There are days when things don’t make sense and you get stuck in one idea. So there’s pluses and minuses, but I don’t totally miss the production side of an animated series. Like writing a book is hard but once you’re done you’re done. There’s definitely a little more freedom in transmitting what’s in your brain directly on to the page.
How do you distinguish characters’ different styles, both the kids with their art and the mercenaries with their unique weapons?
There’s a practical side, which is that since you’re not gonna see them, you need to associate green light with a certain person or Genius. Thus the idea that these Geniuses have a little bit of their artist in them. Savino’s kind of a tougher kid, so he’s got a cool falcon. Milena, who’s more graceful in her art, has a graceful crane, and Aaminah has a cute fluffball of feathers. Everyone likes animals and creatures, and if you give them specific personalities, people respond to that. Everyone thinks their pet has a personality.
In the first draft, other than the leader, the mercenaries were kind of generic. And so as I read it I was like this is kind a boring, all these guys should be colorful and fun and interesting. It’s funny because there’s that one character whose name is Baby Cannoli. It’s literally just a ridiculous thing I came up with, but a lot of people who have read the book are really excited about Baby Cannoli. Little things like that always amaze me when people connect with it. Just giving him a funny name gives him bit of a personality even though he doesn’t do much in the book.
What are your plans for future installments? Will there be one book for each Sacred Tool?
It’s gonna be a three-book series. I’m in the middle of writing the second book, where they’re looking for the Creator’s Straightedge, and they end up journeying to Rachana, which is another big empire. They’re gonna have horse-like Geniuses, like pegasi. And then there’s the third empire, where they have flying cat Geniuses. It’s a new challenge with each book cause I have to start over coming up with a new culture and figuring out what they believe and how their society works, but it’s a good challenge.
It sounds kind of like Avatar, where they went to a different country each season.
I think that’s in my bones somehow. We can’t stay in one place, we gotta go! I think one of the other main similarities is it starts out in their own culture but it becomes a more global issue and involves learning and appreciating other cultures, other people, other types of creativity. In the other cultures, their Geniuses are related to different things. Like in Rachana, it’s a warrior culture, so their Geniuses are more about physicality and strength and being an awesome fighter, stuff like that. But I’m getting ahead of myself there.
More than 10 years after the premiere of Avatar, and now with Korra wrapped up, how do you look back on that whole saga?
I’m super proud of it. It’s amazing to me that people are still into it. New kids are watching it and people are still rewatching it and people are still going to Comic Con dressi>ng as the characters. It feels like it’s not really over because we’re doing the Avatarthe first Legend of Korra graphic novel for Dark Horse, and I’m working on the scripts for that right now. Then there’s toys and other books, so it still feels like it’s part of my life, though it’s not as overwhelming as it was before. It’s cool that it’s still living on. People are still enjoying those characters and that world.
What can you tease about that Korra graphic novel?
It’s gonna take place right after the finale, so it’s focusing on Korra and Asami’s relationship as a new threat emerges. It’s kind of like the aftermath dealing with the new portal in the city, and all the evacuees coming back to find their homes wiped out cause of the portal, and Korra has to figure out how to find a new balance in the city with all this stuff that’s gone on.
Avatar‘s theme song is so memorable for the way it concisely explains the world and setup (“Water, Earth, Fire, Air/ Everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked/ I believe Aang can save the world”). How would you explain the world of Rebel Genius in a similarly concise way?
Artists using their Geniuses to manifest power from the universe, and there’s three things they have to go find. I think that’s probably one of the things I found with the novel: It is harder to distill down into a quick summary, because there are so many different elements. There’s like the whole belief system of the world and the Creator and what means, and how the kids relate to this godlike figure. It’s kind of like Avatar, with the spiritual stuff and stuff about chakras.
With Rebel Genius, I just wrote the book I would’ve been really into as a 12-year-old. As a young artist, I probably would’ve loved it. I liked stuff that was a little challenging and a little bit older than I was. So there’s stuff in the book about the sacred geometry and how that works. That was something where I really had to think about, how can I distill this down into something digestible? I thought a lot about the Guru episode of Avatar, where we were talking about chakras, this very esoteric, complicated subject. People have written many books about them, but we had to distill each one into its essence, and I was trying to do the same thing here with the shapes and numbers. In this book I focused on the first three shapes: the circle, line, and triangle. Then I’ll get into square and hexagon and what those represent, spiritually and to the themes of the book. It definitely gets more complicated.