Avatar: The Last Airbender (The Promise – Part 1)
by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru
Genre: Comic book, fantasy, comedy, DRAMAZ
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
Summary: The story of Avatar: The Last Airbender picks up right where it left off (i.e. Aang and Katara smooching on a balcony) in this first of three parts. We learn that Aang, Earth King Kuei, and Zuko have decided that the only to way restore peace in their war-torn world is to remove all Fire Nation colonies from the Earth Kingdom. Aang agrees to oversee the “Harmony Restoration Movement.”
There’s a huge celebration when the movement is announced, and everyone is happy. Until Firelord “Debbie Downer” Zuko asks Aang to promise to kill him if he ever starts turning into his father.
A year later, the Harmony Restoration Movement grinds to a halt when Zuko suddenly withdraws his support. Earth Kingdom citizens threaten to start another war. And Aang realizes he might have to kill one of his best friends. In the lighter days of the Nickelodeon cartoon, we could assume everything would turn out fine. Now… I’m not so sure.
WARNING: MAJOR SPOILERS for Avatar: The Last Airbender and “The Promise” – Part 1 ahead.
I loved this comic. Because I love Avatar: The Last Airbender, and not because I think it translates well to comic book form. There are a lot of challenges when interpreting a story with a new medium (you’ve seen us gripe about books-into-movies often enough on this blog). This situation is a little different since the new medium is a continuation rather than a re-interpretation. However, I think it faces similar challenges.
The most important challenge is to keep the work the same even though by necessity is very different. There can be no doubt in the reader’s mind that this is the same world we’ve been watching, and that these are the same characters we love. Since there are no actors lending their voices, the voices must be perfectly captured in the writing alone.
The writing almost accomplishes this. Almost. It was pretty easy for me to hear the characters speaking in my head, but at the same time I found myself thinking things like, “Man, I wish I could hear Mae Whitman read this line…”
With a cartoon for source material, the artwork is really spot on, and just as lovely as what we’ve seen from the show. Artist Gurihiru does a great job of zeroing in on the perfect moments to depict. But I do think we lose some things, particularly with the fight scenes. The fights on Avatar… they’re just so, so good. Silly, or beautiful, or just plain cool. And while I think the artwork does a fairly good job capturing them, there’s just no comparison to really seeing it happen. Especially with music. (Here I’m thinking of the final showdown between Zuko and Azula–totes gave me chills.)
SO, that’s what I have to say about the new medium stuff. I’m not really a comic book person, so I’m sure there are people far better equipped than I to judge this without making so many comparisons to the show. I’m going to move onto talking about something I am very well equipped to judge: THE STORY.
Okay, so what’s brilliant about “The Promise” so far is that it’s dark, but it doesn’t completely relinquish the fun that was so essential to the first series. It’s kind of emotionally difficult to leave the happy tinkle-tinkle-everyone-is-friends-now ending of the cartoon and come to this place, but the writing guides you along the way with, for example, many jokes about how grossed out Sokka is with Aang and Katara.
But seriously, shit is getting real.
1) Zuko is grayer than ever. In the show, his moral ambiguity stems from his inability to decide what’s right. But to the audience, what’s right and what’s wrong is completely obvious, and so we all go nuts when Zuko makes GLARINGLY BAD decisions.
However, in “The Promise,” right and wrong aren’t as well defined. At first the Harmony Restoration Movement seems like the right path, but then Zuko actually meets the people he’s relocating and finds that he’s uprooting them from places they’ve called homes from generations, and from cities they have worked together with the Earth Kingdom people to make better. Removing the colonies will please the Earth Kingdom, but his own people view him as a traitor. I honestly have no idea what the right choice is!
2) Aang has promised to kill Zuko. Right now they’re talking it out (Aang keeps emphasizing that TALKING is good!), but there’s no way that promise won’t be dealt with later on. AFTER THEY HUGGED AT THE END OF THE SERIES AND EVERYTHING. I don’t know what’s going to happen!
3) An Earth Kingdom protestor called Sokka a Water Tribe savage! HOLY RACISM. This has never really happened before, and definitely not outside the “evil” Fire Nation.
In some ways the kid gloves are still on, however, which makes me wonder what the target audience for this comic is. (Don’t they realize that everybody who likes Avatar is in their 20s??) For example, Mai and Zuko are very specifically not sleeping together. I mean, I don’t need them to be. But I also didn’t need the whole “You haven’t been sleeping well.” “How did you know?” “Have you looked in a mirror lately?” exchange. I mean, maybe they aren’t right now because people keep trying to kill Zuko in his sleep? I don’t know. It’s not something that needed to be addressed at all. I feel like they just brought it up to prove that it’s still a kids’ story. PSSSH.
Similarly, can we PLEASE just use the word “kill”?? Zuko does not ask Aang to kill him, he asks Aang to end him. This was an issue for me in the cartoon as well–nobody can die (unless it’s really, really ambiguously) or it happened already in the past. We all know what you’re talking about, so let’s just be frank!
As for the ending, after all the confusion, it’s refreshing to see Zuko making a definitively wrong choice. But seriously, WHY ARE YOU ASKING YOUR DAD FOR ADVICE WHEN YOU SHOULD BE TALKING TO IROH??? GAHHH!!
ANYWAY, the story is great, and the comic does capture the tone of the show very well (while introducing some new darkness that I’m totally love-hating), but I kind of wish it was a cartoon anyway. Maybe I just don’t like change. Regardless, I CAN’T WAIT to find out what happens in “The Promise” Part 2!!