Broken internet didn't allow me to post this on the day but Saturday was the tenth anniversary of Avatar: The Last Airbender, one of the best cartoons ever. I'll admit I was late to the party, only checking it out around the time the HERESY... ahem, I mean “film” was being advertised. There was a lot of buzz about how good the series was but I'd only vaguely heard of it (not a fandom I'm connected to, honestly) so I decided to check out a couple of episodes, one or two, just to try it...
I think I got all the way to Sozin's Comet in about a fortnight. It grabbed me, it really grabbed me in afew series do. Its a great piece of work on every level: the stories are well-structured and engaging; the animation is first rate; and, most of all, the characters are genuinely complex and fascinating. You could lecture on those characters. Even a few years down the line Azula is still one of my favourite villains ever and I think Sokka is right up there with Xander Harris as one of the best “everyman” fantasy sidekicks of all time.
Apropos of nothing, every time I re-watch the series I'm always surprised how little Suki is in Fire. The memory cheats and I do so love that character.
It takes a lot for a cartoon to impress me, quite simply because my generation always has Batman: The Animated Series to compare things to. One of the greatest legacies of the Batman series, as well as its fantastic writing and art direction, was its long history of getting away with shit. Time moves on, though, and every legacy will be bettered. Over a decade separates Batman and The Last Airbender so obviously the technical side improved: Avatar's animation was smoother, it was written more as a serial instead of an anthology, but most of all it got away with more shit than Batman could.
We're talking about a series here whose main character is the sole survivor of a genocide; where another was facially mutilated by his own father; and multiple characters suffers enduring emotional scars from bereavement. Hell, there's at least one pretty obvious gag about Sokka and Suki sneaking into each other's tents at night. Each and every villain has a solid, explicable motivation and none are irredeemable (except perhaps Ozai, who's less a character and more a force of nature in the narrative).
And that's all before going into Legend Of Korra, which actually managed to sneak in the development (even if not the actual culmination) of two of its principal female characters becoming a couple. Be quiet, they are, that's textbook walking off into the sunset, right there.
Why is getting away with stuff so important? Well, it ensures that art is remembered. As I say, my generation's go to example is Batman because nothing else we watched as kids had villains using actual guns or would make any of them as evil as the Joker, who actually killed and left the victims' corpses with horrible rictus grins. People who grew up in the Seventies still remember the golden age of Doctor Who when it was a horror series that delighted in scaring the pants off them. Pushing boundaries isn't the only reason these things are remembered but I do think it was an important factor in making a quality product with a traceable cultural legacy.
Pushing boundaries also respects the audience's intelligence. I have a lot of younger cousins and I have watched some absolute dreck aimed at their age bracket. I concede that I found some awful stuff entertaining when I was their age and there's no shame in that, kids are kids and critical taste develops with age and experience. I do think its important for children's fiction to respect their intelligence. Kids understand more than most adults think they do, subtext is not an alien concept to them because if it was then fairy tales and religious parables would be pointless as teaching tools.
The Last Airbender and Legend Of Korra are series about complex young characters inheriting a screwed up world from the older generation and using their creativity and fresh perspective to make a better world. Brilliantly, this is even true of Korra, where the characters are inheriting and fixing the world the Last Airbender kids inherited and fixed because progress should be continuous. Both series operate with an explicit spiritual dimension not to proselytise but to foreground individual personal development against the huge overarching plots of war and social unrest. Whole essays could be written on Korra's body type in light of her being the series lead; on Sokka's evolving attitudes towards women; on Zuko's morality; on how the series treats the concept of destiny; on Toph's spirituality; the glorious confidence trick of Varrick in Spirits; and any number of other subjects.
And you know what? I think I'm gonna. These are two of my favourite series of all time, I want to celebrate them for a while and a tenth anniversary seems as good an excuse as any.