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"Avatar: The Last Airbender Art of the Animated Series" a Must for Fans

by on August 5, 2010

If there is ancillary merchandise that fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender should be saving their pennies for, it’s the DVD boxed sets for the three seasons of the show. However, fans should also be saving up for the beautiful new art book published by Dark Horse Comics and available now. Authored by series co-creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, the book is a wealth of wonderful artwork from the series accompanied with a ton of behind-the-scenes information, all wrapped up in a handsome hardcover presentation.

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Art of the Animated Series follows the show’s origins from the days when Konietzko and DiMartino were working on Family Guy, King of the Hill, and Invader Zim all the way to its wildly successful third season. One chapter is dedicated to each season of the show, with one at the start for early development art and one at the end for ancillary artwork (e.g., ads, posters, or video games). The artwork on display would easily be its own reward, considering how beautiful and richly detailed the series was even from its inaugural season. There is a plethora of artwork from throughout the development process: early sketches, model sheets, head shots from the series bible, background paintings, vehicle designs, unused concept artwork, storyboards, and more.

Attempting to describe it in words is futile, since the art is more than capable than speaking for itself. One of the best things about this art book for a dedicated fan is that it allows for much longer and deeper examination of work that sometimes flashed on screen for mere seconds. The richly detailed costumes and the meticulously detailed backgrounds can be fully appreciated in these pages, and the numerous preparatory sketches and alternate concepts reveal only the slightest hint of the tremendous amount of work that went into the show.

Fans will also be rewarded by the accompanying text written by DiMartino and Konietzko, which yields far more behind-the-scenes information than has been dispensed in the past in interviews, DVD commentary tracks, and Nickelodeon’s Avatar website. The story of how Avatar was picked up by Nickelodeon has been told in the past (most notably in the Not Just Cartoons, Nicktoons! coffee table art book), but never in this much detail and never with this much accompanying early artwork. It is fascinating to see how Avatar began life as a science fiction series with a 40-year old Aang, a robotic Momo, and a polar bear/dog hybrid animal that evolved into Appa, and also to see the evolution of the show’s main cast members from the earliest sketches from the series bible to their final finished designs.

While the commentary thins out considerably for the remainder of the book, there are still plenty of rich tidbits to be mined from the captions and descriptions in this book’s pages, like the inspirations for many of the series’ characters, the real-world influences on architecture and design, and the surprising number of times the consumer products department got involved despite the general lack of successful Avatar merchandise. Reading between the lines also makes it easy to conclude that the disappointing lack of good Avatar merchandise was largely because consumer products didn’t understand the appeal of the show at all. Between chapters, three brief asides focus on specific work that crossed over multiple seasons: the contributions of the Korean animation studios, the show’s hybrid animals, and the Chinese calligraphy that is seen throughout the show (along with English translations). The foreword by M. Night Shyamalan is probably a little more comical than was intended, considering the reception of his live-action adaptation of the series, but it’s more than made up for by the joke that follows in Konietzko and DiMartino’s introduction.

Any complaints I have about the book are minor. While each episode of the show gets at least one page of artwork, some episodes get a surprising amount of space dedicated to them while others seem to be shortchanged. Episodes like Season 1’s “The Great Divide” or Season 2’s “Avatar Day” probably don’t deserve much more than a page, but Season 3’s two-part “The Boiling Rock” only gets one page as well, despite the numerous characters on screen and sets in the episode. There are relatively few storyboards in the book, but the ones that are included really make you want to see more of them. We can only hope to see more of those someday in a follow-up volume.

Pictures from Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Art of the Animated Series are taken from the 15-page preview of the book available at Dark Horse Comics’ website.

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