By MARK LASSWELL
August 28, 2005
HALF a dozen years ago, the Pokémon craze established that American kids could become besotted with fanciful Japanese action-adventure animation (and the related toys, trading cards and video games). But the most popular children's TV network, Nickelodeon, remained notably cool to the anime genre. While Cartoon Network, Fox Kids and other programmers loaded up on imports like "Dragonball Z" and "Yu-Gi-Oh," Nickelodeon stayed on the sidelines.
Then earlier this year, just when the overcrowded genre of animated stories about young heroes battling dark forces seemed played out, the cable network that is home to "SpongeBob SquarePants" finally came out with its own entry, "Avatar: The Last Airbender," and its patience was quickly rewarded. For the first half of 2005, "Avatar" was the most popular show on TV with boys 6-11 years old, and regularly won its 8 p.m. Friday time slot with children 2-11, according to Neilsen Media Research. After a summer of reruns, new "Avatar" episodes begin on Sept. 23.
One thing that stands out about "Avatar" - the story of a 12-year-old boy named Aang who must learn to harness his supernatural powers in order to protect the peace-loving Water, Earth and Air nations against the evil Fire nation - is that it is not Japanese. Nickelodeon calls the cartoon "Asian influenced," but it is the brainchild of Michael DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, American graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design who are both veteran animators of the network series "Family Guy" and "King of the Hill." In 2002, Nickelodeon was in the market for an action-adventure cartoon, having commissioned a few anime-inspired pilots that didn't go anywhere, and rejected a few Japanese series as either too derivative or too mature for the Nick audience. Enter Mr. Konietzko and Mr. DiMartino.
"These two guys were just unbelievably passionate about the story that they had in their heads," said Cyma Zarghami, president of Nickelodeon Television. Indeed, even though Mr. Konietzko, 29, grew up in Atlanta and Louisville, and Mr. DiMartino, 31, is from Vermont, and even though "Family Guy" owes more to "The Simpsons" and "South Park" than to "Yu-Gi-Oh," the two animators seem intoxicated by the opportunity to create what they call an homage to the anime genre.
"We were really into yoga when we started this show, which is probably why we wanted to do something that was Asian influenced," Mr. Konietzko said. Mr. DiMartino is still a yoga devotee - he's working on an "Avatar" story with what he calls yoga's "philosophy and benevolence" as a theme - but Mr. Konietzko turned to kung fu while the two were still devising the "bible" they would use to sell Nickelodeon on the "Avatar" story. "I right away started to look for a teacher that I knew we could sort of groom into a martial arts consultant," said Mr. Konietzko, who ultimately signed up the instructor Sifu Kisu of the Harmonious Fist Chinese Athletic Association in Los Angeles. A kung fu adviser for an animated TV show might seem superfluous, but Mr. DiMartino and Mr. Konietzko wanted to avoid simply mimicking fight moves cribbed from movies and other shows. "Even though people might not consciously know it," Mr. DiMartino said, "I think people recognize when something is authentic." The pair also signed up a Chinese calligrapher, Siu-Leung Lee, who lives in Columbus, Ohio, to render any writing on the show.
The bid for authenticity also led Mr. DiMartino and Mr. Konietzko to visit South Korea, where much of the world's animation is executed, before settling on two companies, JM Animation and DR Movie. Because animation is so time-consuming, with networks always clamoring for new episodes, the Korean studios are often treated as little more than factories. But Mr. DiMartino and Mr. Konietzko said they resolved to give their counterparts in Seoul an unusually free hand.
"We wanted them to have some creative investment in the show," Mr. DiMartino said. The Americans were delighted with the result: A simple storyboard direction that called for a character to faint came back in animated form as a man foaming at the mouth and collapsing. "We loved it," Mr. Konietzko said. "That's the kind of thing we want to encourage."
Frequent touches of humor, like the foaming-mouth man, or the cabbage vendor whose cart gets smashed no matter where he moves it to get it out of harm's way, help "Avatar" draw a sizeable female audience - only about 5 percent below the male numbers, Ms. Zarghami said. (The show also features a strong female character, Katara, a teenager who, along with her brother, Sokka, accompanies Aang on his adventures.) But "Avatar" may also have a broader appeal for the simple reason that it is easier to follow than the typical anime series, which can require deep knowledge of every character's back-story just to sort out who's fighting whom and why.
Nickelodeon initially ordered six "Avatar" episodes, quickly upped the order to 13 after the show's premiere in February, then increased it again to 20. Currently the first 13 episodes are in reruns; seven new installments will show in the fall, completing the first "book" of Mr. DiMartino and Mr. Konietzko's story. The entire tale runs to three books and 60 episodes - which happens to be the number that Nick likes to have in hand before "self-syndicating" a show, running it Monday through Friday to create a habit for its audience. That's the formula that turned "Rugrats," for instance, from a middling success to a phenomenon.
Ms. Zarghami is not ready to declare victory yet ("I think that probably at the two-year mark you know if you have a bona fide hit on your hands," she said), but Nickelodeon is already gearing up to capitalize on the franchise. A trading card game will be released in January, and a video game is in the works. But Sean McGowan, a toy industry analyst at the Harris Nesbitt investment bank, cautions that the glory days of Pokémon's licensing billions are long past. Last year, he said, he counted 30 different trading card games, most of them anime-related. "If there's a new property," he said, "it really needs to have something more than the look of anime, because that's been done."
The early indications are that "Avatar" might indeed have something more. With a second installment of 20 episodes on order for next year, the show's makers are striving to continue their success. They could take heart from one of Mr. Konietzko's kung fu lessons. "Things that don't work, my teacher always says they die on the battlefield," Mr. Konietzko said, laughing. "The ones that work, they walk home."
Mark Lasswell is an editor at Broadcasting & Cable magazine