08 August 2014

Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise by Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru

Comic hardcover, 238 pages
Published 2013 (contents: 2012)
Borrowed from my wife
Read July 2014
Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise

Script: Gene Luen Yang
Art: Gurihiru
Lettering: Michael Heisler

My wife has spent the past seven months or so forcing me to watch Avatar: The Last Airbender with her (she had just watched the series through with a friend). Well, I say "forcing," but what began as skepticism soon transformed into enthusiasm. Avatar is a great television series, of exactly the kind I like: a scrappy group of outcasts having adventures. I loved the story, I loved the worldbuilding, I loved the characters, especially Sokka and Iroh. So I was excited to read the sequel comics as preparation for proceeding on to The Legend of Korra.

What struck me pretty quickly is the more complicated political backdrop of this series: though the show has some nuanced Fire Nation characters, most of them are out-and-out villains. Here, though, we see that decolonization is not a simple thing, no matter how laudable its goals are, and even though the Fire Nation may have invaded the Earth Kingdom, that was a century ago, and time has changed things more than most people realize. I appreciate these additional complexities to the world of Avatar.

The story, though, is a little haphazard. I like the central idea of Aang's promise to Zuko, but it doesn't quite come off in the execution, and it feels like things fizzle out. For Aang to thing of actually fulfilling his promise would require a desperate situation, but I don't think the comic quite succeeds in making the situation seem that desperate. The characters feel too reactive, as well, especially Katara, who mostly is there as Aang's girlfriend, not the outspoken idealist she was from the beginning of the show, and Sokka is not quite the leader he became by the end.

That said, Yang and Gurihiru capture the characters' voices perfectly: it's easy to imagine the voice cast delivering the lines given here to Aang, Sokka, Zuko, Toph, et al., and Gurihuri's art is a dead match for the art used on the show. Perhaps the funnest part (and the book at its most Avatarish) is Sokka's attempts to upskill Toph's metalbenders in their showdown with the firebenders. It's fun stuff, and it bodes well for the next Avatar comic if it can get itself more focused.

(The "library edition" we own contains marginal commentary from writer Yang and artist Gurihiru. It's often interesting, moreso Yang's than Gurihiru's. I like knowing Yang's thoughts on colonialism; it's less interesting to hear Gurihiru observe that it's easier to draw scenes without backgrounds.)

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