Avatar The Last Airbender: The Promise Part 1

Writer: Gene Luen Yang
Art: Gurihiru

Avatar: The Last Airbender created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko

This latest comic adaptation of the popular animated series Avatar The Last Airbender functions as a bridge between the original and its upcoming sequel Legend of Korra. Writer Gene Luen Yang is a huge fan of the series, and was a highly vocal critic of its controversial film adaptation. The Promise could be described as almost a mini fourth season, with the narrative picking up right were the TV series left off. While this best serves the interests of its already established fanbase, Yang does try his best to get new readers up to speed with a short recap, as well as employing dialogue that keeps them informed about character backstories without becoming too obnoxious.

But fans will be pleased to know that the comic hews fairly close to the tone of the cartoon, which is to say that it feels like a natural progression of what came before. The art supplied by Gurihiru studios ages the characters slightly, but otherwise it looks like it could have been lifted from the series itself (minus the sound and motion off course).  Yang also gets the comic banter between them just right.

The Earth King: master statesman

Where Yang has to inject some original content is in the maturation of the cast. At a certain point the story jumps forward a year as they try to deal with the fallout from the century-long war they've managed to end. The protagonists are well into puberty and now have established certain romantic pairings. But this is still a children's book. So a conversation between one couple implies that they are not having sex, while another couple's PDA gets the "icky" reaction from the rest of the cast. Yeesh!

Yang seems to read into ATLA parallels to real-world history. His approach here mirrors the Star Trek method of using the fantasy setting to deliver political commentary. In this case he tackles a favorite topic of his - race and postcolonial identity. Having won the war, the heroes set about dismantling the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom. They even come up with the euphemistic label "Harmony Restoration Movement" to describe the undertaking. It's ironic that the intentions behind this policy are truly sincere. And it goes about as well as any forced relocation of communities that have lived in one place for a long time. This starts to muddy the Avatar's original M.O. of maintaining peace between the nations by keeping them separate. Multi-cultural heterogeneity is suddenly inserted into the ATLA universe. Even one of the main characters is on the receiving end of a racial slur from an angry anti-foreigner mob. This jives with Yang's own concerns, but also works as a lead-up to Korra. Either way it's a "darkening" of the original concept.*

Sokka: minister of propaganda

Unsurprisingly, this ambiguity personally affects the cartoon's resident anti-hero Zuko the most. While now allied to the good guys, he's still prone to making extremely poor off-the-cuff decisions, which in turn, drives the narrative conflict. So his groupies will at least be delighted to hear that their favorite troubled teenager still hasn't shed certain bad habits. Some people just never learn.

Toph: chief of public safety

Update: Go to my review of Part 2
* Speaking of darkening, the book's title partially refers to a grim oath Zuko secures from Aang near the beginning. But given how Aang was able to successfully resolve the TV series' central conflict while avoiding extreme measures, this seems like an unnecessarily idiotic move. Emo bastard!