Tuesday, April 24, 2012

GN Review -- Avatar: the Last Airbender: The Promise, part I / Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru

If you thought the adventure was over at the end of Avatar: the Last Airbender for Aang and his friends, you'll be happy to know that's no longer the case.  Nickelodeon has gotten the story to continue in graphic novel format, directly continuing the exploits of the characters from the animated series.

In the immediate aftermath of the animated series finale, Aang has defeated Firelord Ozai, and Prince Zuko has ascended to the throne of the Fire Nation.  He and Aang pledge to bring peace to the world, and agree to do so by evacuating the Fire Nation-controlled colonies of the Earth Kingdom--an initiative dubbed "The Harmony Restoration Movement" by Sokka.  In a moment of somber introspection, Zuko asks Aang to keep him in check by "ending" him if Aang sees Zuko turning into the kind of man his father was.  Ironically, it is Zuko's father who has the knowledge of ruling a kingdom and the pressures that come with it, who might be able to guide him through this period, though Zuko refuses to acknowledge it at the time.

The Harmony Restoration Movement is met with much enthusiasm at first, but as we fast-forward a year into the future, we see that things have changed.  The pressures of the throne are getting to Zuko, who hasn't slept soundly for some time, and who barely thwarts an assassination attempt on his life.  When he discovers the assassin is the daughter of one of the governors of an Fire Nation colony in the Earth Kingdom.  He travels to this colony, called Yu Dao, to personally enforce the colony's removal and relocation to the Fire Nation, but then mysteriously reverses his position, summoning Aang and his friends to figure out his true motives.

After a brief spat of violence, the friends calm down and Zuko explains that Yu Dao has deep ties to the Earth Kingdom.  Relocating them to the Fire Nation would break up families, community and business ties that go back much further than either of them had at first realized.  Zuko can't bring himself to allow this.  Aang understands, but also knows that there is enormous pressure for the Harmony Restoration Movement to be successful, so something has to happen.  Agreeing to be present at a summit involving Aang and the Earth King, Zuko returns to the Fire Nation.  In a cliffhanger, he asks his imprisoned father for advice, at which point Ozai smirks confidently.

How I only learned of this book's existence in the last few days is a mystery to me.  I'm a huge fan of the animated series, and was one of the fans howling about the unanswered questions and loose ends left hanging at the series finale.  Where was Zuko's mother?  What would become of the airbenders over the years?  What would become of Ozai?  Also, Gene Yang is a comic book creator whose writing I very much admire.  So, it's a bit of a shock that this volume made it to the public eye without my knowing.

This story feels exactly like the genuine continuation of narrative of Avatar: the Last Airbender that it is.  There are plenty of amusing developments and character moments that remind you how charming, silly, and downright involving this series was, even as it confronts complex issues such as colonial relocation and the pressures of royal power.  Katara and Aang call each other sweetie as they watch each other's backs, much to Sokka's delightfully squeamish disgust.  Toph, who has started a metalbending school, calls her student lily livers and treats them with much of the same hardheadedness she showed towards Aang when he was learning earthbending from her.  It all carries a wonderful recollection of how the animated series felt, and progresses it forward convincingly.

One question that bears asking: where's Azula?  I know she's effectively out of commission, but there were so many guest reappearances that I'm surprised she didn't even rate a mention.  Hopefully we'll see her in part II of this story.

Artistically, I very much enjoyed this story as well.  It was done in much the same style as the series, and almost felt like one could have been taking stills from an animated episode and using them as panels for the comic. I know it's not the case, and perhaps the art isn't quite up to the animation's standards, but it's still good enough to really feel like you're almost watching an episode.  Almost.

Overall, I think fans of the series will be very happy to see continuations of that era's stories.  I'm personally overjoyed to see Gene Yang writing the script, and feel he's brought a great story to life in The Promise.  I'm eager to see more, and I know Avatar: the Last Airbender fans are as well.  Highly recommended.

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