Ink & Pixel: Avatar: The Last Airbender

Last Updated on August 2, 2021

Ink & Pixel is a source of pride and joy for me as a writer and as such, I’m always striving to take this column further for those who read and enjoy it. If you yourself, or anyone you know, helped to make any of the amazing feature animated films found within this column, I would love to talk to you to further my knowledge. Please contact me at [email protected] so we can discuss it further.

Water, Earth, Fire, Air – these are, in the classical worldview, known as the four basic elements. Defined as “the simplest essential parts and principles of which anything consists, or upon which the constitution and fundamental powers of anything are based” – these elements were thought to fuel and govern our daily lives. The elements were ancient beliefs based on natural observation and there’s no telling how our entire universe would be described or understood without them. Each of these elements has been represented in our film and television history as being a gateway toward salvation, rebirth, and in some instances, destruction. Naturally, it was only a matter of time before they became the primary source material for an action-packed animated television series. No, I’m not talking about Captain Planet. I am, of course, referring to Nickelodeon’s AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER.

Set within an Asian-influenced fantasy world, AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER aired for three incredible seasons on the Nickelodeon network from the years 2005 to 2008. The series features the adventures of a twelve-year-old boy named Aang (Zach Tyler) – who, with the help of his spirited, young friends: Katara (Mae Whitman), Sokka (Jack De Sena), and Toph (Jessie Flowers), travel the world, hoping to bring about peace and unity to a host of nations that have been divided by an event known as The Fire Lord’s War.

Hot on Aang and the gang’s trail throughout the series is Prince Zuko (Dante Basko) of the Fire Nation. Once humiliated and exiled from his own kingdom , Zuko has sworn to his father (the Fire Lord) that he will bring the Avatar(who ancient scripture says will bring about the defeat of the Fire Nation after mastering all four of the elements) back to the Fire Nation – where the Avatar will then face either imprisonment or death. It’s up to Aang to escape his would-be captors and learn how to become the harbinger of unification and hope that the world so desperately needs him to be.

AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER was co-created and produced by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. The idea for the show first began back in 2001 when Konietzko was rifling through some of his old sketches and found one of a balding, middle-aged man. Konietzko immediately started tooling around with the sketch once more until eventually that old man was re-imagined as a child. As the sketch of the child evolved, the newer drawings of the character depicted the child herding bison under?through? an open sky. Fans of the show will recognize this moment in the show’s evolution as the birth of the character Appa – a flying bison – who, aside from being Aang’s dear friend, makes a great form of transportation on Aang’s harrowing journey toward becoming the ultimate Avatar. Konietzko then shared the revised sketch with DiMartino – who at the time was researching a story about explorers trapped in the South Pole. The idea for the Avatar began to take shape shortly after the merging of these two concepts.

Now, you might be asking yourself, “Steve, what makes AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER so special?” Well, I would venture to say that part of the reason is the show’s inclusion of the spiritual martial arts form known as “Bending.” Bending is the psychokinetic manipulation of the elements for use as weapons of the body and spirit. What I find to be fascinating about the “elemental factor” of the show is the way that each element coincides with the personalities of its assigned nation.

For example:

The Water Nation consists of primarily of healers, who not only use water (ice) to build their homes, but also use the natural liquid as a healing agent (hydrotherapy) throughout the series. You’ll also find that the majority of characters that hail from the Water Tribe are caring, and do their very best to remain calm, even while at war with their neighboring nations.

The Earth Nation, by comparison, is chock full of gruff, hardworking sorts. Quite frankly, they’d rather spend their time and Bending abilities constructing/creating with boulders and sand than fight a seemingly un-winnable war. They’re seen as the stolid types of the series and are never one to back away from a good fight. Known throughout the Four Nations as “builders”, the citizens of the Earth Nation are responsible for much of the architecture you see throughout the series.

The Fire Nation is a land where the people have been scorched by hate and discontent. Their fiery attitudes toward the other nations often lead to the destruction of those nations’ homes and families; as well as the spirit of those who still believe that better times are just beyond the horizon. They work tirelessly to subdue and subjugate the other nations – and will not stop until every last beacon of hope is but ashes left to be carried away on a hot, choking wind.

The Air Nation, unfortunately, has been hunted into extinction since the time when Aang was tapped to be the Avatar. The Air people are described as being a very lighthearted and advanced group of people who looked to the skies above for their inspiration and soundness of mind.

So what exactly is an “Avatar”? The word “Avatar” was established in the year 1784, and hails from the historical Indo-Aryan language of Sanskrit – taken from the Sanskrit word for “descent” (of a deity to the earth in incarnate form). As defined by the Chinese characters seen above the show’s titles during the opening credits – the cards literally mean “the divine medium who has descended upon the mortal world”. So now that you have this nugget of information – do you think that it’s pure coincidence that Aang is initially found frozen within a massive glacier, floating nearby the Water Nation? He is after all a deity destined to heal the world. Think about it.

AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER not only features tremendous character development throughout its three season run, but it also boasts a magnificent attention to detail in its depiction of various martial arts practices. When planning the martial arts sequences for the series, DiMartino and Konietzko turned for guidance to Sifu Kisu of the Harmonious First Chinease Athletic Assosiation. Under Master Kisu’s expertise, the film-makers of AVATAR worked very hard to match the characteristics of each fighting style with the element it was meant to represent – thereby creating a visual mirror of sorts.

The art of T’ai Chi was used to represent the fighting style of “Waterbending”. T’ai Chi and Waterbending both draw their inspiration from the concepts of proper breathing, visualization, body structure, and proper alignment of the body and the mind. Contrary to the fluidity of Waterbending was the use of Hung Gar for the “Earthbending” tribe. This is a style that focuses heavily on the use of power strikes as well as the importance of maintaining a firm stance.

Additionally, the art of Northern Shaolin was used to represent the “Firebending” style. With its emphasis on maintaining a wide stance, quick advancement and retreat tactics, and whirling circular blocks, Shaolin was the perfect style to depict the fanning of flames as well as to give the fighter a more menacing demeanor. Last but not least was the use of Ba Gua, which literally translates to the words “Eight trigrams”. Trigrams are a figure composed of the three solid or interrupted parallel lines, especially as used in Chinese philosophy or divination according to the I Ching. Trigrams represent all natural phenomena as described in the ancient Chinese text of divination, the Book of Changes – perfect for Aang; the last Airbender.

AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER was an astounding success for Nickelodeon during its time on the network. The show not only met with rave reviews, but was also presented with several prestigious awards for its outstanding excellence in the animated medium. These awards are include (but are not limited to) The Pulcinella Award for Best Action Adventure TV Series and Best TV Series, Best Storyboarding in an Animated Television Production during the 33rd Annie Awards, and the Outstanding Individual Achievement in Animation during the 59th Primetime Emmy Awards. Please keep in mind that this is but a mere few of them, there were lots more!

In my humble opinion, AVATAR: THE LAST AIRBENDER is the single best animated television show to come along since BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. It’s attention to detail, rich character histories, and action-packed fight sequences make it a modern marvel of animation that everyone should experience at least once. I nearly jumped out of my skin the day I heard that a brand new entry in the series entitled THE LEGEND OF KORRA would debut in the summer of 2012. The new series has since been picked up for a second season which will consist of another 14 amazing episodes in the AVATAR lore. Yip yip!


About the Author

Born and raised in New York, then immigrated to Canada, Steve Seigh has been a editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. He started with Ink & Pixel, a column celebrating the magic and evolution of animation, before launching the companion YouTube series Animation Movies Revisited. He's also the host of the Talking Comics Podcast, a personality-driven audio show focusing on comic books, film, music, and more. You'll rarely catch him without headphones on his head and pancakes on his breath.