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Thursday, August 16, 2012

Graphic Novel Review: Avatar TLA - The Promise Part 1

Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise Part 1
Author: Gene Luen Yang
Artist: Gurihiru
Dark Horse Comics
76 pages

Spoiler warning: Review contains spoilers for the Avatar: The Last Airbender series up to the point of The Promise.

This series of digests rejoins Aang and friends for exciting new adventures, beginning with a face-off against the Fire Nation that threatens to throw the world into another war, testing all of Aang's powers and ingenuity! The continuation of Airbender and the link to its upcoming sequel, Legend of Korra! (Source: Goodreads)
You have just finished the final episode of book three of the Avatar: The Last Airbender series, and are excited for more stories featuring the Aang Gang. You think Legend of Korra looks cool, but you wish there was a story that would link together these separate stories and justify the canon time skip between the end of ATLA and the opening of Korra. Something with your favorite characters, going on adventures and staying best friends in a post-war world.
So you end up months later with the first volume of The Promise in your hands, book one in a three book series, and you wonder if this is what you asked for. The answer to that question, like a lot of things, is mixed. This is not to say that The Promise's premiere volume is a total wash, but for me it was not the successful comic I was looking for as a long-term ATLA fan to satisfy my Aang and friends cravings. Although if you come into it just for Toph, you will not be disappointed.

The artwork is probably the highlight of the whole book; Gurihiru does a fantastic job of translating Avatar's intricate Asian aesthetic onto the page, and keeps every character very recognizable visually. I also give major props to the color palette, reinforcing the fact that the Avatar verse is dominated by characters of color despite the best efforts of the Hollywood adaptation to say otherwise. The bending best represented in this comic is water bending - Gurihiru's scenes of Katara water whipping fools is very reminiscent of similar scenes in the television series.
The story itself is, on the surface, decent enough. It's peace after a long war, and the Fire Nation's new ruler is trying to reunite the people of the world - and did I mention this new lord is Zuko? Naturally, everything falls apart and Aang has to intervene to stop war from breaking out, bringing him into direct confrontation with Zuko himself. I found it kind of jarring how Zuko asked Aang to promise him to end his life if he went the way of Ozai, but it's so hideously Zuko I can forgive the awkwardness of the scene. And then there's awkwardness being a noticeable trait of Zuko's character, so that helps too.
As for the issue of Fire Nation colonies in Earth Kingdom territory: wow, what a terribly handled plot line! Never mind that the Fire Nation has been a occupying force for over a hundred years; even Aang realizes this when he tells Zuko that there can't be "balance if one nation occupies another". And yet the story wants to paint those who live in these illegally constructed colonies in a positive light. 
If this is some sort of Gaza Strip fictional parallel, it's doing a bad job of conveying the painful intricacies of two groups living in the same place, each believing they have the right to stay there while the other doesn't. I don't expect tie-in graphic novels to do a fictionalized political narrative justice, but The Promise's job of it isn't even close.
You know what is awesome, though? Toph. Who now has her own earthbending school and is still as awesome as she was on television. Her teasing of Sokka sometimes makes me wish they had gotten together (although I do love Sokka with Suki . . . and the Moon). I imagine she's very busy, teaching metalbending to her students, as that is pretty much the hardest skill a earthbender can learn. Plus, she gets some pretty sweet lines while she's whooping bender butt. I only hope she gets more page time in the next graphic novel.
I actually like the Katara/Aang scenes in this book, despite popular opinion. Yes, them calling each other “sweeties” can get irritating, but it actually makes sense in a way? It's the kind of schmoopy stuff they didn't have time for while fighting the Fire Nation. Although Sokka's immaturity in the face of their relationship wonders how far he's gotten in his own with Suki. Still, as far as relationship dynamics go, it's certainly something that has transferred well from the original series to the comic. 
Although I'm surprised Zuko hasn't married Mai yet, considering he is king now and I would imagine a nation would want their king to step up to the plate and at least ask his long-term girlfriend to marry him. And then they can have hot hot married se--- hugging. Hugging. With firebending. Just . . . hugging.
So, overall, was The Promise disappointing? No, I wouldn't say so. It does end with something both frustrating and fascinating: Zuko coming to his father's cell in the middle of the night for advice of all things. Hell, he'd probably be better off asking Azula. Is it a masterpiece of Avatar fandom? No, not really. It doesn't handle a lot of issues very well, especially the issue of Fire Nation colonialism. 
But what The Promise is an entertaining, quick read that will definitely lead readers to want to get their hands on volume two if only to find out what happens next. And as long as Toph and Sokka get more page time and Zuko gets his head out of his butt long enough to realize how much of a doofus he's being, volume two could be very good indeed.