Avatar The Last Airbender: The Search Part 1
Letterer: Michael Heisler
Avatar: The Last Airbender created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
Avatar The Last Airbender co-creators Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko have become masters of stringing along their highly devoted fanbase. After revealing that Zuko's mother Ursa, who had been presumed dead throughout much of the series, might still be alive, the series ended while leaving that storyline conspicuously dangling in front of the audience. This set off much rabid speculation about her true fate. But whatever hopes that its spinoff Legend of Korra would provide some answers were dashed when Ursa was briefly mentioned in the series premiere only to be quickly forgotten. Mike would later explain that he and Bryan had unsuccessfully pitched the story of Ursa's fate as a TV movie. After Nickelodeon passed on it, they eventually decided to tell the tale in graphic novel format. Which leads us to The Search featuring the returning creative team of Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru Studios.
While smaller in scale, this book marks a return to the earlier quest structure that characterized the animated series. This is kind of a relief after having gone through the epic scope of The Promise, which suffered from a plot that was being pulled in multiple directions while often weighed down by its own political allegory. In fact, the shift to a more comedic tone is almost surreal. This time the narrative focuses on a smaller cast of characters, mainly Zuko and his insane sister Azula. This is not an exaggeration, as she has grown fully paranoid since her mental breakdown in the ATLA series finale. Yet it's curious how she and her father Ozai are still fully capable of manipulating Zuko just as easily as they did in the series. It's a bit too convenient how she manages to get her way, encountering little meaningful resistance even from Aang and the rest of the cast. Gene sometimes interprets Aang's circle of friends a little too broadly as a troupe of comic reliefs, which can be pretty annoying. By contrast, he seems to be having a ball with bad guys Azula and Ozai. Azula outshines everyone, particularly the often dour Zuko who's now suffering from a form of survivor's guilt. And there's something appealingly off-kilter about Gurihiru's visuals of her.
The narrative frequently, and abruptly, jumps back and forth between the present day and Ursa's past as a young woman engaged to the then prince Ozai. What we see of Ursa's youth in this volume conforms to the favorite ATLA trope of the suffering woman sacrificing her own happiness to a loveless marriage. The main difference being that she's being forced to marry Ozai, who is the proverbial dastardly, mustache twirling villain. While Gene often stumbled in capturing the changing but often ambiguous political realities of The Promise, here he's on more sure footing portraying the black and white melodrama of dysfunctional families, horrible father figures, fratricidal siblings, and opposing female archetypes as embodied by Ursa and Azula. This is one messed-up and unhappy world.
New information is gleamed from these flashbacks, such as the possible inspiration for Zuko's Blue Spirit alter ego. But at the very end the volume drops a bomb that threatens not only Zuko's position as leader of the Fire Nation, it also upends several seasons of character development. Indeed, the revelation feels a bit like reading someone's ATLA fan-fiction. This may, in all likelihood, prove to be a red herring. Nonetheless, this had the effect of making me a bit more wary of what's being planned for the rest of The Search.