Avatar: The Last Airbender creators reveal Zuko was originally imagined as an adult, plus more show tidbits
On the new podcast Avatar: Braving the Elements, co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko discuss being "two white American dudes" making a hit show inspired by Asian culture.
Hosts Dante Basco (the voice of Zuko/General Iroh) and Janet Varney (Korra) chat with the creators of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, whom they affectionally dub "our two dads," on Friday's episode of their new Avatar recap podcast, Braving the Elements, which launched its first installment Tuesday.
In the conversation, the first of two parts, DiMartino and Konietzko dropped fascinating tidbits about making Avatar: The Last Airbender, how they met and came to work together, fan responses to the series, and more. Check out EW's highlights from the interview below.
Zuko was originally imagined as an adult
Zuko's journey from bitter, misguided teenager to open-minded, mature young man is among the best arcs in the animated series, but it almost didn't happen. Konietzko reveals that the character "completely came out of a note from" Nickelodeon executive producer Eric Coleman, whom they came to dub "the godfather of Zuko."
"We had our big Fire Lord [Ozai], the big, bad boss at the end of the story," Konietzko recalls. "Eric was like, 'Yeah, that's cool, but you need some boots on the ground. You need someone who's going after them the whole time.'"
The duo wanted that character to be an adult, to which Coleman replied, "Wouldn't it be scarier if it was a kid who was really driven?" Konietzko adds, "And I said, 'Can he have a scar?' And that's how Zuko [came about.]"
One thing the creative partners (whom fans have affectionally deemed "Bryke") always intended, however, was for Zuko to have a redemptive storyline.
"It's in the series bible," Konietzko says, referring to the world-building notes showrunners often turn to while developing projects. "We knew that Zuko was going to become Aang's teacher."
From Dante to Dante
Another fun Zuko anecdote offered in the podcast comes after Basco jokes that he was "convinced" he got the part because both he and DiMartino have "Dante" in their names. DiMartino admits that their shared names did catch his eye at the start of the audition process.
"We'd get the auditions on CD back in the day... and they did list the actors' or actresses' names on them," Basco says. "I remember seeing 'Dante Basco' and I jokingly said, 'That's our guy right there. That's gonna be him.' And sure enough, it really did end up being you."
Family Guy ties
DiMartino and Konietzko first met while studying at the Rhode Island School of Design. The former was two years ahead, and he was already a director on Family Guy at the age of 24 by the time Konietzko moved out to Los Angeles. Its creator Seth McFarlane (another RISD alumnus) and Fox loved DiMartino's episodes. "They were like, 'Why can't you all be more like this guy?'" Konietzko recalls.
Konietzko was able to land a gig on his second day in L.A. after DiMartino took him to his job. DiMartino casually instructed him to whip up some characters, which got him noticed.
"I just started drawing them in the Family Guy style. It was first time I was drawing it," he says. "The art director came in and he was like, 'Who are you? Where did you come from? Do you want to take a test?' Usually you get a week to take a test, but I turned it in the next morning and got hired."
Basco remembers having an epiphany one day when he realized "Bryan is Zuko and Mike is Aang." Bryke confirms the comparison, and though DiMartino says he sees aspects of himself in every ATLA character, he "had a soft spot for Aang, and Bryan's always identified with Zuko a little more."
"Mike is like a peaceful, mellow [airbender], perfectly round head," Konietzko says. "And I am definitely much more fiery and passionate, and driven in a sort of self-destructive way sometimes, but we balance each other out."
Later in the episode, Konietzko explains that his co-creator is better at looking at the "big picture" (much like Aang) while he's often fixated on small things (like Zuko).
"If he's directing an episode, he's thinking about the entire episode. If he's doing a scene in Act 3, he's thinking about how that might reference a scene in Act 1," Konietzko says. "I, being like Zuko, the obsessive, I might zoom in and be like, 'I'm gonna squeeze as much life out of this moment, out of this scene, out of this one turn of character, or something.'"
Avatar wasn't intended only for kids
Although it aired on Nickelodeon, home to many children's cartoons, Avatar found fans in kids and adults alike. Konietzko says the show's wide appeal "never surprises" them because they didn't specifically make ATLA for children.
"We've always said like, 'Our test audience is Mike and I.' That's it - just make sure we like it," he says. "There's so many kid shows made for kids that I can't sit through. It's like screeching nonstop. And I'm like, 'Why would anyone want to work on that?' We made a show we wanted to watch and that we wanted to work on."
Is Avatar anime?
The creators don't provide a specific answer to the oft-asked question, "Is Avatar: The Last Airbender considered anime?" and think if you posed that same query to 20 top directors in Japan, "you'd get 20 different answers."
For Konietzko, it's not really important whether Avatar is considered anime. Rather, his focus is on taking inspiration from the genre to make his work and American animation even better.
"I'm looking at Furi Kuri in 2000 or 2001 and going, 'Okay, we're 20, 30 years behind here. Like, what are we doing?'" he says. "'And how could we even get a little bit of this magic into an American show produced by an American studio?'"
Thus, the duo wanted ATLA to be "a love letter to anime and not just copy it," Konietzko says. "It would have looked better if I had just copied stuff, but I was trying to do our little crummy version."
"Two white American dudes"
After Basco notes that conversations around onscreen representation in the early 2000s hadn't reached the heights they're at now , DiMartino says he and Konietzko were "conscious of" respecting ethnic diversity while working on Avatar.
"Part of the reason we created [Avatar] was admiration of [Hayao] Miyazaki's films and Asian culture," DiMartino says. "So it was just natural to try to honor it as best we could… Sure, we made some missteps along the way, and now we're obviously even more aware and more conscious to do it right."
Konietzko also acknowledges that while they've had misses, their priority was to "try not to do 'othering,'" or marginalize people from other cultures.
"Even the Avatar world isn't monolithic - it is very multicultural," he says. "We are two white American dudes, but there isn't one person who could represent the entire Avatar world. It's very much about these different cultures coexisting, and the beauty and the pain that comes out of that."
The second half of Konietzko and DiMartino's interview will come out in the next few days. Avatar: Braving the Elements is available on Apple Podcasts, the iHeartRadio app, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts. Listen to the latest episode below.