Water, earth, fire, air—and cabbages. With Avatar: The Last Airbender streaming on Netflix, viewers are rediscovering all the fantasy series has to offer. That includes a fan-favorite character: the cabbage merchant, whose coincidental run-ins with the show’s heroes always end with the destruction of his prized product.
Despite not even having a name, this purveyor of leafy greens has found himself at the center of elaborate conspiracy theories, inspired cosplayers to dress up like him at conventions, and been honored with his very own Funko collectible (cabbage cart included, of course). Slate spoke to key players from Avatar’s cast and crew to find out more about the produce-loving legend, starting with his first appearance in Season 1’s “The King of Omashu,” in which an overzealous guard destroys his cabbage cart before allowing him inside the city.
John O’Bryan (staff writer, Avatar: The Last Airbender): We do a lot of things as a room, but I’m pretty sure this just came out of me writing the script for that episode.
Joshua Hamilton (writer’s assistant, later staff writer): It was all John O’Bryan. The way I remember it, there was no discussion in the room. It just showed up in the script.
O’Bryan: I relate, and I’m sure a lot of people can relate. It’s that thing where you put a lot of work into something, and you spend your whole life focusing on something, and then it just gets knocked over. And that’s a very valuable life lesson.
Hamilton: [The cabbage merchant] also shows what the threat could be. When the guys are sneaking into Omashu, they’re kind of like, no problem, we’ll get right in, but when the guards destroy the cart, suddenly there’s this real threat.
Andrea Romano (voice director): While it’s always difficult to cast main characters like Batman or Superman, it’s equally a challenge to cast incidentals and guest stars. Our bosses want us to work within a budget, and the Screen Actors Guild essentially allows us to hire one actor for three voices, so if we’re bringing someone like James to play the cabbage merchant, I also want James to play Guard Two and Thug Three, all three voices sounding completely different. That’s the sort of thing I could hire James Sie for.
James Sie (voice of both the cabbage merchant and the guard who first antagonizes him): I did mostly what you would call utility players, the supporting roles. They’re usually people who aren’t going to be recurring. They just move the action forward in a specific episode. I knew that I had to play both the guard and the cabbage merchant, so you have to make sure that the voices are distinct. With those kind of characters, you don’t have time to build up who they are and create an arc for them. You’re in and you’re out, so you have to make an impression right away. What is the function of this character?
Romano: What’s fun about James talking to himself is that you can hear how versatile he is and what a good job he did distinguishing between the two voices. Even if it’s just an incidental, you want it to have a full life. You want it to sound like the actor has thought through what the character is going to be. And James did a terrific job of creating this kind of easily upset, picky guy who wants justice and who is absolutely crazy about his cabbages.
Sie: I never invested too much in his backstory because I didn’t think he would be coming back. I just knew that he had a deep, abiding, somewhat strange attachment to his produce. That was my guiding principle, that he loved his cabbages. His life was cabbages. Andrea was so gifted a voice director, so precise in what she wanted to hear. For the cabbage merchant, she would play with certain degrees of anguish and how shrill he would be.
Romano: We record all of these voices before we animate, so we don’t always know what these guys are going to look like, but I can give certain physical direction that might help the actor find some separation for the voices. So I can say, “Let’s give the guard really big shoulders” or “He’s a muscular guy, give him a tough, deep voice.” That helped him separate from the cabbage merchant, who might be a little bit older, a little bit higher, certainly prone to higher energy screams.
Sie: It wasn’t like they pulled me aside to tell me, “Oh, there’s a major role of this cabbage merchant. He’s coming back.” It was absolutely just a one-off character.
Aaron Alexovich (the character designer credited with designing the cabbage merchant): Things get hectic on animated productions. … He looks like maybe one of mine? If so, I’m happy to see he’s gone on to make something of himself.
O’Bryan: He certainly looks like an Earth Kingdom cabbage merchant, and the voice is perfect. That’s a very stressed out man who could probably use a vacation.
Though originally intended as a one-off character, the cabbage merchant returned just a few episodes later in another O’Bryan-penned episode, “The Waterbending Scroll,” where his cabbage cart is destroyed once more.
O’Bryan: I think [Avatar co-creator] Bryan Konietzko actually may have had the idea to bring him back, though it was so long ago. I remember him saying on one of the anime shows that he watched, Cowboy Bebop, there are characters like that on every planet they go to. And I haven’t seen it enough to know what he was talking about, but I remember thinking that was hilarious. Like, we should just have him already there when they show up at this other city, and then they fuck up his cabbages again.
Hamilton: That’s where I think we started to fall in love with this idea that there’s this character we can bring back.
Romano: We probably laughed and joked about it with James, because I don’t think we knew yet. It was still the first season. The show hadn’t even aired yet.
Sie: I never imagined that the cabbage merchant would catch on as well as he did. You thought that we’d never see him again, and suddenly there he is. It was all a gift.
Aang and friends cross paths with the cabbage merchant again in the second season, twice. First, at the ferry station to Ba Sing Se, where his cabbages are destroyed at customs. His crop is ruined again inside Ba Sing Se when Aang unleashes a runaway rabaroo.
Hamilton: When they’re going to Ba Sing Se, we’re setting up the bureaucracy, and it’s like, this is what can happen to you if you get caught. A platypus bear could eat you like cabbage. I remember [James Sie] coming back and recording the line for the cabbage merchant, and that was his only line, to say “My cabbages!” All the other actors are there for four hours, and he walks in and says one line and then it’s like, “OK, see you later.”
Though the cabbage merchant does not appear in Season 3, he does get a shoutout in “The Ember Island Players,” when the characters watch a play about their adventures and learn that the playwright consulted among his sources “a surprisingly knowledgeable merchant of cabbage.”
Hamilton: We don’t have these characters like—if you look at The Simpsons—Comic Book Guy or Moe or these characters that the main cast can run into over and over again and we can get to know, because [Avatar] is a traveling show. They go town to town and meet new people. So the cabbage merchant became the guy we get to run into and we saw over and over again. By the time we were writing the play, he’s the one guy who was with them and has the knowledge about them.
Romano: James Sie would get fan mail for the cabbage merchant, which is just—you never know what the audience is going to react to, how they’re going to respond, what things they like and what they pick up on and what they relate to. But everybody seemed to love the cabbage merchant.
Sie: It’s become the biggest touch point that people know me for. I’ve done other, similar recurring characters, but this is the one where people almost swooned when they say, “You’re the cabbage merchant?!” There are music remixes of the cabbage merchant saying, “My cabbages!”
The cabbage merchant’s popularity with fans earned him a place of honor in the sequel series The Legend of Korra when it premiered in 2012. There we learn that after The Last Airbender ended, the cabbage merchant became an automobile tycoon in the rapidly industrializing world, founding a car company called Cabbage Corp. When the company is wrongfully shut down, James Sie returns to play the cabbage merchant’s son and give a familiar wail: “Not my Cabbage Corp!” The onetime vegetable retailer’s transition from humble merchant to titan of industry is a subplot of the three-part comic series The Rift.
Gene Luen Yang (author of The Rift and other Avatar comics): The theme of all of the comics, because they sit in between Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, is the old world bumping up against the new world. In The Rift, specifically, we wanted to talk about technology. We know from Korra that he became this Steve Jobs–ian icon. He made it. He symbolizes that transition: He couldn’t make it in the old world, but in the new world he’s super successful.
While the cabbage merchant’s fate after The Last Airbender is known to us, his origins remain a mystery. Why is he roaming the globe? And why cabbage?
O’Bryan: I don’t know if it was his plan all along to go to Ba Sing Se, or if people just get tired of cabbages after a couple of days and he has to move on. Cabbage is so real-world and mundane that it’s the perfect thing to be destroyed by elemental magic. Like, what’s the most boring thing that they could disrupt? And I’d imagine he takes great pride, like, “These are organically grown, I did everything correctly. I grew them entirely by hand, and they are a special strain, a special breed of cabbage that I got by crossbreeding these particular plants to give you the most flavorful leaf, and I have them neatly arranged on my cart here.” I can sort of imagine him being that type of guy. He takes a lot of pride in his work, I think it’s obvious.
My daughter is 8 and my son is 12, and she is way more into [the show] than him. Here, I’ll ask her. Hey, what do you guys think of the cabbage merchant?
O’Bryan’s son: He’s funny.
O’Bryan’s daughter: I think he’s pretty stupid.
O’Bryan: I think because kids make messes naturally, and they piss grown-ups off in doing so, they sort of see the appeal. It’s like, “Oh, Aang and his friends just ruined everything this guy was trying to neatly arrange, just like with dad.”
On Electric Company, there was a guy who was a grocery store worker who would arrange cans of food into this pyramid, and somebody would come along and take one off the bottom, and the whole thing would collapse. It’s kind of just a classic cartoon gag: Somebody has done something extremely well and has arranged their product in a very professional manner. Someone comes along, and not only do they ruin what the person does for a living, but they don’t know that they did. I don’t think Aang and his friends ever really acknowledge him. To them he’s just another guy they run past.
In The Rift, the cabbage merchant does get a chance to finally confront the Avatar for all the destruction when Aang pops in on his new, cabbage-themed restaurant—only to realize that Aang barely remembers him.
Yang: That kind of mirrors the viewer and the reader’s relationship with [the cabbage merchant]. We never know his name, he’s just part of the scenery of the original show. But of course, by Korra, he’s famous. He’s the only character who receives a statue in the city outside of the core five [characters]. All of those books started with a conversation between Mike [DiMartino] and Bryan. It seemed like a natural development for his character to have a cabbage-themed restaurant.
As for the future of the character in our world, it’s not yet known what role the cabbage merchant might play in Netflix’s live-action Avatar: The Last Airbender series, but Sie says he is prepared, if the call comes.
James Sie: Of course, now I’m more at the age of what the cabbage merchant was then. I will cultivate that little beard if they need me to. And because my face is quite expressive, I’m perfect for a live-action version of an animated show. I’m ready.
Until then, those involved in the cabbage merchant’s creation can only speculate as to why he’s been such a hit.
Hamilton: I think on Avatar fans have come to believe that every character has a backstory. They feel very real. Our main cast all have these deep personal journeys, so when you come across these smaller roles, you start to believe they’re real characters too, which says that we did a good job.
Yang: It could be because the cabbage merchant is the one character no one argues about. There are so many controversies within the fandom. I get a lot of emails about Azula. With Aang, it’s about whether he should have ended up with Katara. I heard from a Fire Nation military historian who said we got the helmets wrong in the comics. But it seems like maybe with the cabbage merchant, that’s where we can all agree.
O’Bryan: I see people dressed as him at conventions and stuff. It’s such an odd choice, but I think people project a lot of what they want onto him, because everyone has problems and everyone gets knocked down.
Romano: It sounds so silly, but we all have our cabbages. There’s something that’s important to us, that we get frustrated about how it’s handled, how nobody else respects it, and we seem to be alone in the world. Sometimes we just feel like everybody’s against us. And that’s how the cabbage merchant feels sometimes too, that everybody’s against him.
Sie: He’s that encapsulation of all of our frustrations and exasperation. We are all the cabbage merchant.