Thursday, November 1, 2012

A Review of Avatar: the Last Airbender - The Promise

 I love Avatar: the Last Airbender. It's my favorite animated show of all time. I love the story, the characters, and the setting. I love The Legend of Korra, and I long to cosplay Tenzin. I have written fanfiction for the setting, and I consider it to be one of the best fanfiction stories I've written. So when I learned that they were releasing a comic series to bridge the gap between Avatar: the Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, I had no choice but to read it. Alas, it did not live up to the greatness of the show.

 "The Promise" was not the first official comic to take place in the Avatar world, but it was the first to tell a complete, serious story. There have been numerous comics previously that told short, usually silly stories. These were previously collected in "The Lost Adventures," a hit-and-miss anthology that I would recommend to Avatar fans. The art also has a wide range, with the best stories being drawn by Johane Matte. Matte is also the creator of an excellent, unofficial fan comic, Water Tribe, which tells a sort of "What if?" story of what might happen if Zhao had survived the battle at the North Pole. Unfortunately, the art in "The Promise" isn't quite up to Matte's level, and the storytelling is mediocre at best.

"The Promise" is written by Gene Luen Yang, best known for American Born Chinese, and drawn by Gurihiru, a two-person team who also drew some comics in "The Lost Adventures." The story was created with the involvement of Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, the co-creators of Avatar. It takes place immediately after the series finale of Avatar: the Last Airbender, and deals with the tensions between the Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation after the end of the war.

Specifically, "The Promise" is about the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom. The Earth Kingdom citizens want the colonists out, but to many Fire Nation colonists, it is the only home they have ever known. Adding to the complication is the fact that the oldest colony, Yu Dao, has both Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom citizens, so it's something of a hybrid. But does it belong to both nations, or neither?

The conflict soon finds the characters from the original show at odds with each other. Aang believes that the best chance for peace is the "Harmony Restoration Movement," which has the colonists returning to their "homes" in the Fire Nation. Zuko sees his people living in peace in the colonies and realizes how disruptive it would be to have them return home, so he rejects the "Harmony Restoration Movement" which he had earlier endorsed. Meanwhile, the Earth King insists on the colonists leaving, and soon things escalate and the Earth Kingdom and the Fire Nation are arming up for what could be another war.
I understand that tensions are high after the fall of Ozai, but I didn't buy how quickly things fall apart in "The Promise." Things felt so hopeful at the end of the TV series: good had triumphed over evil, hope and unity had triumphed over conquest and divisiveness, and it looked like there could finally be peace. Then, a year later, the nations are again at one another's throats. Worse, Team Avatar has fallen apart. Just when it looks like Zuko is part of the gang and he's learned to trust his friends, he goes to Ozai of all people for advice on how to rule his kingdom. I understand that Zuko was never a great decision-maker, but why doesn't he talk to Aang, or Iroh? There's some hand-waving about how he wants to let Iroh enjoy his retirement, but it doesn't hold up.

Zuko isn't the only character who is behaving irrationally. When I had finished the third book, I decided that all of the main characters must have been sleep-deprived for the duration of the story, because they all act irritable and make dramatic declarations at each other throughout the story. Aang, who seemed to have settled into his role as the Avatar when he defeated Ozai, now can't seem to get anyone to listen to him. He wrestles with indecisiveness, and Katara reassures him and tells him he'll figure it out, but it takes her until the end of the series before she actually helps him do so. Sokka's plans are slapdash at best, and Toph is in the story just to be Toph, without contributing much to the plot.

"The Promise" is made of three rather slim volumes, but it tries to deal with some very big issues in its limited space. It doesn't do itself any favors by spending a lot of the limited space on unnecessary distractions. There are several subplots and lots of characters, some brought back from the TV show and some created specially for the story. One of the subplot deals with the resistance movement within Yu Dao, which includes Smellerbee and Longshot from Jet's old gang. Then there is the comic relief subplot about Sokka helping Toph set up a metalbending school. All of Toph's students, whom she insists on referring to as "Lily-livers" ad nauseum, are cardboard characters who each have one joke to tell. None of their jokes are funny, but that doesn't stop them from telling that joke every chance they get.

It's not surprising, given how big the conflict is in "The Promise" and how much time is spent on other stories, that the resolution to the story comes suddenly and is not entirely satisfactory. If anything, it invites the question of why the whole conflict got so out of hand in the first place.

I bought the series because I wanted to know what happens, and I don't regret it in that sense. That said, I feel like it was a wasted opportunity to expand on the Avatar world. The same creative team will be working on the next Avatar comic series, "The Search," which will (finally!) tell fans the story behind what happened to Zuko's mother. I really want to know what happens, so I hope the creators learn from their mistakes and tell a leaner, tighter story the next time around.

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