Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Asian-inspired American cartoon, has thrilled fans for over 13 years. Set in a world where people bend the classical elements using martial arts, the story follows that of Avatar Aang, a young boy who is tasked with bringing balance to a world ravaged by war. While the original series concluded in 2007, it has successfully launched a sequel, The Legend of Korra, and several volumes and trilogies worth of graphic novels.
At this year’s New York Comic-Con, AsianCrush had the opportunity to sit down with Minnesota-based comic book artist Peter Wartman, who illustrates Imbalance, the latest ATLA trilogy.
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Just realized I never posted this to my own account :V. Here's the cover to Imbalance, the Avatar comic I'm working on, first in a three part series! @faitherinhicks is writing and Ryan Hill (@booster661 on insta and on Twitter at josephryanhill) is handling colors, while I'm doing the other art bits. Super excited to be working on this, and can't wait for you all to see more!
Otter Lee (AsianCrush): How did you become involved with Avatar?
Peter Wartman: I got an email one day, saying “Do you want to work with Faith Erin Hicks?” A lot of the work I did before this had sort of the same feel. It was sort of young adult oriented about this young girl who’s in this big city and stuff, so I think it fit what they were looking for.
Were you familiar with Avatar before you started working on it?
I was a big fan of it in college. The show was one of the things that got me into this kind of form of storytelling. It was a huge influence on me.
Who was your favorite character?
Sokka is my favorite. I always like the character who’s sort of the normal guy among all these super-powered people, who just has to kind of figure these things out. He’s this noodle-y, goofy guy who is sometimes allowed to do more serious things. I think a great strength of the show is that everyone has that kind of depth to them.
Do you consider yourself that sort of goofy guy?
Haha, people tell me I am sometimes.
When did you realize visual art was your calling?
I was definitely one of those kids who was like, drawing all the time, from the beginning. I originally wanted to go into video games. I went to MCAT, the arts school in Minneapolis, and I thought I was going to do video games, but then stuff like Avatar and Miyazaki and those kinds of storytellers—they made me realize that what I really wanted was to tell stories visually. And I discovered I wanted to do these kinds of weird, fantasy things.
Is there a huge amount of geek culture or conventions out in Minnesota?
Not so much for conventions. There’s a small community of comic-book artists out in Minneapolis. It’s definitely not a Portland or somewhere like that. We are kind of in the middle of everything though, so it’s easy to fly out to SPX in Washington or San Diego Comic-Con. It’s like the same distance. You have to travel all the time, but it’s not hard.
How have you been enjoying NYCC?
It’s been cool. Honestly, it’s bigger than I expected, which I guess makes sense because it is in New York, but it’s my first time at NYCC (it’s been 10 years since I was in the city of New York)—I’m going to spend some time to see the city for myself a bit. It’s been really cool so far though.
How do you meet deadlines?
I ALWAYS need some kind of outside pressure, so like even with the book I did before this, which was a web comic, a self-directed thing—I needed to make it a web comic so I could set a deadline every week and get a page done. For me, if I know that someone’s counting on it or that the readers want it or the publisher needs it, that’s always been enough to get me there, to make it happen.
Tell us about Imbalance? Where are all the characters at, in terms of location and journey?
It takes place pretty close to right after the last comic. It takes place in Cranefish Town, which becomes Republic City later on. In many ways it’s like connective tissue between the two series. Without giving too much away, it’s about the tensions between nonbenders and benders, the beginning of that stuff, and Aang having to deal with yet again, things not receiving a clean ending. Things aren’t cleanly better after the world was saved at the end of the series. I think that’s great, a very Avatar thing.
Did you find some characters easier to draw than others?
For whatever reason, I have a lot of trouble drawing Katara, even though she’s one of my favorite characters. I don’t know what that is—I think it’s her little hair things maybe. I always have to figure out how to draw her hair.
Toph is quite easy to draw because all of her expressions and emotions are just totally over-the-top. Same with Sokka. I think the less reserved the characters are, the easier it is for me to draw them and pick it up. Often, Katara is a lot more subtle in the way she emotes, which I think is a great thing, but it is harder to capture.
Did you get to design any new members of the cast?
A few of the characters in the book, I got to go through a bunch of designs with Brian and Mike. I’ve been able to add a couple characters to Avatar, which is cool, but also anxiety building. For the most part, there’s been a lot of space for us to experiment.
Are there any new faces we should be on the lookout for?
There will be two bad girls who show up.
What was it like working with Faith, Bryan, and Mike?
Faith was really easy to work with because she’s an artist herself, so like her scripts are designed to be drawn. You never have something where there’s like a million things happening in a panel. Panels always flow. It’s just been a joy. I think she really gets the setting too. There’s a lot of that depth I mentioned: goofy moments followed by darker things, politics, or emotions right after that. She’s really got that mix down, and it’s been a lot of fun. This is actually the first time I’ve worked with someone else, instead of just writing it myself. Collaborating’s been great!
Bryan and Mike have also been great. Whenever I send in pages I get like a bunch of notes and drawings from Bryan with like everything fixed. It’s a really great learning experience. His sense of what works and doesn’t always makes the pages a lot better. It’s really cool that the creators are so engaged with the process still with these comics, and that they make sure they’re hitting the right quality.
Tell us more about your previous webcomic, Over the Wall.
Over the Wall was the first book and the sequel is called Stonebreaker, which is still ongoing. Over the Wall and Stonebreaker are about this fantasy city that has been abandoned by humans and covered by this magical barrier, and the only creatures living inside are these weird demon-creatures that have taken over the city. The first book is about a young girl who has to rescue her brother from this place—pretty straightforward. The second book is about what happens when that doesn’t end cleanly. The consequences of breaking all these rules and taking your brother back from this abandoned, forbidden place. I’m very interested in YA stories but also stories where things are allowed to be complicated, and you don’t always get that perfect ending.
What kind of bending do you think suits your personality?
The answer I gave on the panel is that I’d just do whatever Sokka does and throw my boomerang.
So you’d be a non-bender?
I’m cool with being that guy who just has to figure things out and figure out how to be the clever person. Maybe that’s just the character type that’s most interesting to me.
I saw on your Twitter that you just finished your work for Imbalance Part II.
It’s crazy both how fast AND how long [it feels like] things have taken to get this stuff finished, but I’m happy with how it’s turning out.
Thank you for taking the time to let us interview you, Peter!