‘The Last Airbender’ Q&A: Exploring ‘Zuko’s Story’ With Co-Writer Dave Roman

Last week, we gave you the first look at “The Last Airbender” prequel comic, “Zuko’s Story,” which hits shelves tomorrow (May 18) from Del Rey.

Written by Dave Roman and Alison Wilgus and illustrated by Nina Matsumoto, the manga-influenced comic leads directly into M. Night Shyamalan’s upcoming big-screen adaptation of the hit animated series. “Zuko’s Story” chronicles the initial travels of the Fire Nation’s exiled prince (played by Dev Patel in the film) as he begins his quest to locate the Avatar, a person capable of controlling all four of the world’s elements.

Our preview of “The Last Airbender Prequel: Zuko’s Story” generated so many comments from readers that we decided to follow up with one of the book’s writers, Dave Roman, to get some answers to the burning questions on fans’ minds.

MTV NEWS: How familiar were you with “The Last Airbender” before taking on this project? You worked at Nickelodeon Magazine for a while, so I assume you were pretty familiar with Aang and Zuko already…

DAVE ROMAN: I was actually there when the TV show first started. Whenever there was a new show on Nickelodeon, if it was successful enough we would do a comic based on the show for Nick Magazine. Those were usually just one- or two-page comics. So I was working with the creators of the show, Mike [Dante DiMartino] and Bryan [Konietzko], specifically Aaron Ehasz, who’s the head writer on the show. We specifically wanted to do comics that were really canon — comics that fit into the continuity of the show and you could actually pinpoint what episodes these comics would fit between and stuff like that.

So, over the course of the run of the show, we kept doing more and more, because I became a really big supporter. With comics based on a show, sometimes they’re a lot of work, and sometimes the creators are really into it and sometimes they’re not so into it. And sometimes I’m not into it, so I don’t push for more. But with “Avatar,” we found that not only were we really excited by them, but we actually hear from fans and a lot of the “Avatar” fan sites really championed these comics.

MTV: Well, with this comic specifically, how will it relate to the live-action movie and the animated series? Is it going to retell stories we’ve already seen in the animated series, tweaked for the movie? Will it be entirely new stories featuring Zuko? What area of the “Airbender” mythology will the book explore?

ROMAN: In a lot of ways, it’s like an expanded origin. With the film and the series, there are differences and there are places where they split off, but the setup for both is exactly the same — so when you’re introduced to the characters, that’s the part where they’re completely identical. When we wrote the prequel manga, we were writing a prequel to the series in a lot of ways, because our starting point was exactly the same.

There are certain things you know about Zuko as a character. There are certain events that take place — specifically, the fact that he battles his own father. His father scars him for life, and then banishes him from the kingdom. These are things we knew from the series and they show you certain details, but they don’t spend a lot of time on it, because the nature of episodic television is that you’ll spend a minute with a flashback then move on. So there were still a lot of questions, and there’s this three-year gap when Zuko was on his quest, and you never see anything about what that quest was like or what specifically kept him going during that quest. So the prequel allowed us to really explore it in a lot more depth. It showed you things you might have assumed, or things you might not have.

One of the best episodes of the series is called “The Blue Spirit,” and it’s also a scene that is integral to the film. M. Night just loved it, and everyone just loves that episode. So of course, the bulk of that episode is in the movie, but there’s no time to really explain it in the film, and there was barely any time to explain it in the series. So we were really able to delve into that in the prequel. It was really fun to give it a little bit more of an origin.

MTV: One question we keep getting asked about the prequel is whether it will address what happened to Zuko’s mother. Everyone wants to know about Zuko’s mother…

ROMAN: [Laughs] I’m just now realizing that this is going to be the biggest mistake we made with the prequel. Still, I think I’m a little biased, because the way it plays out on the show is that they kept it pretty vague and they build this ambiguous mystery about what happened to his mom. At first you think that she was killed, and then you think maybe she was banished, and then there’s a lot of hints that probably she’s still alive — but you don’t know exactly where. But creatively, the writers of the show decided not to answer the question, and sort of leave it up to the audience.

As a writer, I didn’t want to step on their toes in that aspect of the story. This is a unique project for me, because I’ve worked on things like X-Men, but I never met Stan Lee, I never met Chris Claremont, and I don’t know the people that shaped that mythology very closely. Whereas with the “Avatar” writers, I have a pretty good working relationship with them.

MTV: So you talked to them about the book?

ROMAN: I did, I did. I don’t know if I was supposed to, though, because it was… Well, I’ll talk about it publicly now, but when I got the job, both myself and Allison were a little nervous about it because of our relationships with the show. I really respect Mike and Bryan and Aaron, so I felt like I needed to get their blessing.

MTV: These are people you’ll have to see face-to-face at some point…

ROMAN: That’s exactly it — there’s a good chance I will see these guys again, and I do not want to be embarrassed and feel like I ruined their thing.

MTV: So does “Zuko’s Story” lead right into the start of the film? Is there a gap between the comic and the movie timelines, or does one segue right into the other?

ROMAN: Yeah, the last panel of the manga is basically the first time you see Zuko in the film, so it builds right up to it.

MTV: As an established fan of the series already, what was the most important element for you to include in the book? What was the one element that you’re most happy about being able to script in the world of “The Last Airbender”?

ROMAN: For me it was really just to be able to spend more time with Zuko as a character, and get a better sense of what kept his motivation going over time. What gets me excited about comics is characters and emotions, and I found that the idea of Zuko being on this hopeless quest with only his uncle as his support system is fascinating. I just wanted to be able to expand on what we saw on the show and what we get to see in the film.

MTV: Finally, while I have you here, I need to ask you a question that’s only semi-related to “The Last Airbender.” Do you consider this book a “manga” or a “comic book,” in your eyes? I’ve been taking a lot of flak about the definitions of “manga” and “anime” in my reporting on this project, and I’m curious where you stand on it, having written quite a bit of popular manga yourself.

ROMAN: I’ll totally go on the record about this. I’m sure there will be no good way to explain it, but… I don’t care, personally. I think that at the end of the day, it’s all comics. I think that comics as a whole always have name issues. There are people who love the phrase “comics” and there are people who hate the phrase “graphic novels.” And in the same way, there are people who hate “American Manga” as a term. There have always been always been so many names for these things, and no one is ever completely happy with them — but a lot of times the label is just to help sell books. When it’s a manga publisher, they bill the kind of comics they do as manga, no matter how they look or what the style is.

Technically, when I first started doing the X-Men manga, I described it as “manga-inspired,” because that’s closer to the truth. I think that these are books that are inspired by manga, but it’s a slippery slope, because manga is technically just the Japanese word for “comics” — so in Japan, everything is manga. I think it’s ignorant and naive to say there aren’t specific styles that influence and inform a lot of people who do comics in America, and you could obviously say they’re “drawing in a manga style.”

It’s a no-win situation, and a lot of people want to say “Avatar” was produced in America, so therefore it’s just an American cartoon. But for a lot of people, when they watch it, they’re like, “Wait, this looks like anime.” They want to characterize it as such, and I think that everybody has a little bit of a right to complain, but as long as the anime or the cartoon or the manga or the comics are good, I don’t get worked up about what they call it.

“The Last Airbender: Prequel: Zuko’s Story” hits shelves Tuesday, May 18. Let us know what you think in the comment section or on Twitter!