Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
Warning: This review contains major spoilers for the Avatar: The Last Airbender series and massive spoilers for The Search. If you have yet to read all three issues of The Search by Gene Yang, keep reading at your own risk.
When the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender came to an end in 2007, fans were left with a tantalizing cliffhanger–what happened to Prince Zuko’s mother, Princess Ursa? Zuko was a popular character and his missing mother played a key role in both his back story as well as in the character back story of his younger sister and rival, Princess Azula. When Dark Horse Comics bought the license for the Avatar: The Last Airbender series, they tapped acclaimed comic book author Gene Luen Yang to write several sequel series, including The Search, which reveals the mysteries behind Ursa’s disappearance.
For Zuko and the rest of the Avatar leads, The Search picks up where The Promise left off: Fire Lord Zuko is brokering an uneasy truce in Yu Dao. An Earth Kingdom minister spouts an adage that puts a lump in Zuko’s throat: “Family is, in essence, a small nation, and the nation, a large family.” It’s a theme that might as well have come straight from the mouth of Confucius–and a deliberate literary allusion from Yang, who has never hesitated to draw connections between the world of Avatar and it’s Asian Pacific (and Asian Pacific American) cultural roots.
“To put the world in order, we must first put the nation in order; to put the nation in order, we must first put the family in order; to put the family in order; we must first cultivate our personal life; we must first set our hearts right.” ― Confucius
Fire Lord Ozai never got the Confucius memo, but Fire Lord Zuko has, and it hits him that he’s institutionalized his sister, incarcerated his father, and he has no idea the whereabouts of his banished mother. After handing over the reins to his Uncle Iroh, he gathers together a family of choice–Sokka, Katara, Aang, and Azula–and follows a lead from his deposed father that brings him to the small town of Hira’a.
The Search opens with flashbacks to weave Ursa’s backstory: her life in Hira’a with loving parents, her interest in theater arts, and her fellow actor and fiancé, Ikem. We learn that after Avatar Roku’s death, his daughter Rina settled with her family on the outskirts of the Fire Nation, trying to lay low. Inspired by a Fire Sage prophecy that portends that “the pairing of the Avatar’s granddaughter with my own son will yield a bloodline of great power,” Fire Lord Azulon hunts down the family and arranges a match between Ursa and his second son, Ozai.
From then on, Ursa’s life becomes a web of calculated lies and truths, woven to protect the lives of those she cares about. Her first lie is to Ikem, to save his life when he protests the new engagement. The next is to Ozai, when she promises never to speak to her parents or townspeople again, and again when she tests him to see if he is reading her letters. She lies that Zuko is not Ozai’s son–a letter that Ozai will use as a pretense to bully Zuko–and years down the line in The Search as a resource for his favorite child Azula to undermine Zuko’s legitimacy. Ursa’s final lie is to herself –one that completely subverts trope and fan expectations for the character and why she was missing all these years.
The Search provides new insights on Zuko and Azula’s family and their parents’ relationship. We learn that Ursa was basically kidnapped from her family and forced to marry Ozai against her will. Her role was be a brood mare for future generations of genocidal Fire Lords. To Ozai, Ursa is a possession rather than a partner or a person. He completely isolates her from her family–forbidding her ever from speaking of her hometown–and even arranges to have her former fiancé killed just to spite her. Their relationship is a frightening and realistic depiction of intimate partner violence (a stark contrast to the Legend of Korra playing intimate partner violence for laughs.) This may come as a disappointment to fans who wanted to believe that Ozai and Ursa had an initially loving relationship, one that dissipated as Ozai grew power hungry. But it’s no surprise that the same man who would maim his own son would also be abusive towards his wife. It would be harder to believe that the relationship started out loving and then disintegrated.
Separated from everyone she knows and loves and forced to live her life as a palace prisoner, Ursa tries to remain true to herself and resist the abuse in small ways. In flashbacks, we see that Ursa finds small ways to undermine Ozai and remain true to herself. She commissions secretly a set of theater masks as a reminder of her old life and tries to instill a love for theatre in her children (Zuko uses a mask to hide his identity later on, and Azula definitely has a flair for the theatrical.) Ursa tries to send secret messages to her family and Ikem in Hira’a. She decides to try and raise Zuko to be nothing like his father, sometimes fantasizing that his father was actually Ikem.
These small acts of resistance backfire spectacularly when Ursa writes a letter to Ikem with an damning sentence: “My one consolation is our son, Zuko” (the letter is depicted in the comic in traditional Chinese writing with a cheesy, Times New Roman-esque font–who knew Ursa had such nice handwriting!) To Ursa, the letter is a way of expressing her pain and also to test Ozai, in case he is intercepting her letters (he is.) The word “our” is an unclear antecedent–in both the English language comic and the Chinese letter–Ursa doesn’t specify who she means by “our son.” Still, that doesn’t stop Ozai from twisting her ambiguous wording to spite her. The letter is written when Zuko is a toddler and forgotten by Ursa until years later, when Ozai decides to hire an assassin to kill Ikem. Ozai also uses the letter to justify his abuse of Zuko, declaring that he will treat Zuko as if Ursa cuckholded him after all. Many years later, after Ozai is deposed and Zuko is crowned, Ozai brings out the letter again and we see that he has been saving it all this time so it can be used as a tool to remove Zuko from power.
Knowing this, it is tempting to blame Ursa’s letter and actions as the reason why Ozai is so abusive towards Zuko. It’s certainly the logic that Ozai uses to justify treating Zuko “as the son of a traitorous dog,” even though Ozai knows Zuko is certainly his son. Push aside an abuser’s warped logic and it’s evident that Ozai uses both of the children as hostages for Ursa’s good behavior, and she has no control over how Ozai chooses to treat them.
As a character in the original series, Ozai is a mysterious, imposing figure as seen from the perspective of Aang, Zuko, and Azula. In The Search we see Firelord Ozai from the perspective of his wife, and it’s striking how much of Ozai’s banal abusiveness was hidden from his children. Ursa isn’t frightened of Ozai the same way the A:TLA heroes are, so Yang’s script emphasizes his pettiness is and Gurihuru draws him with tiny pupils and bulging eyes. When Ursa stands up to Ozai one final time, conspiring to murder Fire Lord Azulon in order to save Zuko’s life, she never breaks eye contact. Gurihuru depicts this scene with a page of diagonally placed panels–the most striking page in the entire book.
At a dinner table flashback, Ozai tells the children that he thought about casting Zuko from the palace when he was an infant. A narcissistic and possessive man, Ozai probably harbored jealousy towards Zuko from his birth, onwards. Zuko was Ursa’s sole consolation in her abusive marriage. Ursa’s affection towards Zuko would starkly contrast with her cold guardedness around Ozai. Ozai probably saw baby Zuko as a rival, not only to Ursa’s attentions, but to his throne.
For Azula, Ozai decided that there will be no bonding over shared victimhood with her mother or brother. Because Azula was a prodigy, Ozai could proudly hold her up as an extension of himself. He favoritized her while abusing her mother and brother, ensuring her loyalty to him. He encouraged her to bully her older brother. He has convinced her that her mother doesn’t love her, and Ursa’s inability to discipline or relate to Azula is a persuasive reinforcer, and her abandonment of Azula is the clincher. Through his abuse, Ozai showed Azula how powerless her mother was, to the point where Azula still obsesses over her mother’s powerlessness years later in The Search.
While Zuko had the support of his uncle during his exile and Ursa was able to suppress her memories of her abuse and live a idyllic life with Ikem, Azula has never escaped Ozai’s control. Azula spent her entire life raised by Ozai and defined by Ozai. Ozai demands perfection from Azula and his regard for her is conditional on that perfection (which is why she quickly caves under pressure when he leaves her with the huge responsibility of running the Fire Nation in the series finale.) Depowered and in prison, Ozai still smiles when he sees Azula turn on Zuko. Azula is burdened with an immense responsibility to continue to please her father.
“Even when I was an infant you saw in me something you never had! Power! That’s why you think I’m a monster. My power makes you fear me!” – Azula, in The Search
So much of Azula’s mental struggle is reconciling her belief that her own mother hates her with an inkling of internalized belief that her mother actually does love her. If she believes that her mother does love her, then she also has to challenge everything else she knows about her relationship with her father and her own identity. It’s incredibly threatening for Azula to face this, and in The Search, we see that she isn’t entirely ready to do so. She wants proof that her mother does not love her and will look anywhere to find it.
Character arcs in Avatar: The Last Airbender are defined by journeys and searches. Our heroes traveled across the world looking for ways to master all four elements. For all those years, Zuko searched for the Avatar and for his father’s approval, rather than for his missing mother. This theme is of course echoed by the story in The Search, but the actual search to find Ursa is rather short. Our heroes come up with a singular destination and head to it, and Ursa and Ikem happen to be the first people they meet when they arrive in town. Assisted by a spirit, the Mother of Faces, Ursa has chosen to forget her past life, an start anew as a completely different person, a woman named Noriko who is married to Ikem and raising a young daughter, Kiyi.
The meaning of The Search title ends up encompassing several different plot threads in the book. Zuko searches for his mother and for the truth about his parentage. When Part I of The Search was first released this letter enraged the fandom because it threatened to undermine Zuko’s role in the A:TLA series. Although the letter is kind of trope-y, it is interesting to see Zuko explore the possibility that he might have a different, kinder father, and that he was not meant to have the responsibilities of the throne. He remembers who he is, though. He’s no longer the confused boy banished from his family and on an impossible task to find the Avatar.
“Banishing me was the best thing you could’ve done for my life.”– Zuko to his father in the finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender
Azula searches for her mother’s love, buried under all of her father’s mental conditioning. Before she fled the palace, Zuko’s mother implored him to “never forget who you are.” Azula never received this lesson, and she doesn’t know who she is, even as she meets different reflections of herself on the way. Along with the others, she encounters a brave sister who unconditionally supports her brother with a maimed face. She meets Kiyi, a well adjusted, ordinary, and happy child supported by loving parents–her mother’s daughter and her half sister. In the end her path parallels Koh the Face Stealer’s: she’s the child of a many-faced mother, she is estranged and wandering, lost and wicked. She runs away, after an amnesic Noriko apologizes for “not loving her enough,” while still believing that Zuko stole her birthright.
Azula is a very compelling character and most interesting when she exists in a moral grey. One thing that frustrated me about The Search is the characters’ (and perhaps also the creators’) tendency to not see Azula as a morally complex character. The Gaang struggles to find empathy for her–understandable since she did try to kill them several times–but just like Iroh’s approach to Azula in the animated series, the Gaang in The Search frequently writes her off as “crazy.” It’s an ableist blip in an otherwise progressive franchise. The only character willing to challenge this idea of Azula as crazy and hopeless is Zuko, but this story ends unresolved with Azula taking off into the forest. She is no longer armed with the incriminating letter that could disinherit Zuko–and perhaps on a mission for her father. Her overall story line in The Search feels unresolved. The book would have benefited from spending at least as much time exploring the impact of finding Ursa it did on explaining how she came to be in Hira’a, wearing another woman’s face.
While reading The Search I realized it would be far more interesting for me to review it against the backdrop of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the Legend of Korra, and cultural depiction of motherhood in both Asian and American culture. Let’s start by establishing Avatar: The Last Airbender as a franchise that is already lightyears ahead of other products that Hollywood puts out. A:TLA tackled the topic of sexism head on in the very first episode, where the catalyst to Katara waterbending Aang’s iceberg is an argument with Sokka about his sexist attitudes. The show has also presented a diverse array of women characters, from the story’s narrator Katara to Toph to Princess Yue to antagonists like Azula, Mai, and Ty Lee, to more recent characters like Korra and Asami Sato. The franchise has successfully depicted many different forms of feminine strength. Gender remained salient all through season one of the series and continues to be an important topic within or around the franchise. For example, Zuko was initially intended to have a brother, not a sister. The production of The Legend of Korra faced skepticism from what they’ve jokingly dubbed the “sexist” department at Nickelodeon for having a woman protagonist.
At the same time, depictions of women in the world of Avatar have also been critiqued by fans, particularly recent depictions in The Legend of Korra. And the setting itself is also patriarchal–the world of Avatar is at least as sexist as ours is, if not more sexist. When the group travels around the Four Nations in the original series, all of the localities they visited are led by men–from mayors of towns like Kyoshi Island to regional Kings like Bumi of Omashu. The Order of the White Lotus is led by powerful men (the only older woman shown as in their league is Hama, but she turns out to be a villain–where are all the “good” women bending masters?) The systemic imbalance of gender in powerful positions in society is present even in the more modern setting of The Legend of Korra, where women are still outnumbered on councils, police squads, and sports teams.
Then there is the depiction of motherhood in the Avatar: The Last Airbender, which is actually quite conventional. The stereotypical depiction of mothers in Avatar: The Last Airbender works against the franchise’s otherwise relatively progressive gender politics. Over and over again, characters who are mothers are given less storytelling importance and/or less agency than characters that are not (including fathers.) Mother characters are often not given names even as character’s fathers are named. These include the mothers of Yue, Eska and Desna, Noatak and Tarrlok, Haru, Lu Ten, Mai and Tom Tom, Teo, and Asami Sato. That’s a lot of characters, and in each of these cases, we know the name or position of the character’s father but not the name of the character’s mother. The only case where this trope is inverted is with Toph and father of her daughter Lin. Why wasn’t Katara, the only other known bloodbender, present at Yakone’s trial? Why wasn’t Senna, Korra’s mother, described as a participant in determining how Korra would be raised? Why is Korra’s mentorship in Book Two a squabble between the interests of three men (Tenzin, Tonraq, and Unulaq) that fails to include Senna?
So much of our perspective on mothers and motherhood is influenced by our storytelling culture. If you’re East Asian, there’s the cultural legacy of Mencius’s mother. If you’re Christian, there’s the Madonna. More recently, popular mothers in fandom included living mothers like Joyce Summers (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Catelyn Stark (Game of Thrones) as well as “missing” mothers like Lily Evans Potter (Harry Potter) and Kya of the Southern Water Tribe (Avatar: The Last Airbender). Mothers are important catalysts for characters’ stories, and have been for a long time.
This is where the depiction of motherhood in The Search actually turns out to be both transgressive and perhaps even progressive. Unlike Sokka and Katara’s missing mother, Kya, who embodies the saintly mother who valiantly sacrificed her life for her daughter, Ursa doesn’t fall into the trope of the perfect, missing mother. Ursa goes to great lengths to save her son’s life, but she is far from a perfect parent to either Zuko or Azula. She fails to internalize the wisdom imparted to Zuko (“Never forget who you are.” “Never give up without a fight.”)
Ursa chooses to sacrifice her memories of her trapped children in order to start a new life. It was a smart decision–Ozai could still have assassinated her, or she may have attempted to rescue her children, leading to Zuko’s death. But it also removed her from the game–she wasn’t able to come to Zuko’s aid after he was scarred or banished, or able to return to advise her two children after Ozai was removed from power.
Ursa’s decision to forget about her children is drawing a lot of vitriol from fandom. After all, the character even voices aloud in the comic both before losing and after regaining her memories: What kind of “horrible” mother chooses to forget her children?
A human mother. An imperfect one.
The Search had Prince Zuko searching for (literally) a missing princess. The Zuko from Season One of Avatar would have been pissed if he’d discovered that his mother had chosen to ditch her family, memory wipe and all, to start over in Hira’a. The older, wiser, (and free) Zuko in The Search is mature enough to accept that Ursa wasn’t perfect. Despite years of searching for her, he was even willing to leave her with her new family without ever revealing the truth to her. He is able to accept that she is not a maternal ideal, but a person and an abuse survivor herself.
Will the fans be able to accept this, though? To be honest, in my idealized fan speculation for Ursa’s fate, I imagined her leading an underground resistance scheming to remove Ozai from power and rescue her two children. Maybe she was mixing her poisonous elixirs and planning on poisoning his soup when Aang took Ozai out. Maybe she had disguised herself (hello Mother of Faces) and was watching Zuko and Azula from afar. Maybe she joined the Order of the White Lotus, or maybe she was trapped in the Spirit World. The actual truth in The Search is a more realistic response made by thousands of women who have fled from violent relationships and lost their children in the process. In a action adventure setting like Avatar, it almost feels a bit too mundane–it’s difficult to swallow that Ursa would simply give up, voluntarily wipe her memory, and start over. She forgot her children, but neither of her children forgot her, and her absence greatly impacted their health and happiness.
Still, how much of my reaction as a fan is driven by my internalization of societal attitudes around who deserves to be happy and who should be happy? Should Ursa have resigned herself to long-suffering grief? Was Ursa’s choice a sign of weakness or a realistic assessment of the situation?
Though it may not be entirely intentional, the choice to resolve Ursa’s plot line in this way, after so many years of build up, poses to fans a very interesting question: Did Ursa make the right choice? The best choice? What should she have done?
The Search (Parts 1-3) is available at DarkHorse.com in Digital format and also available in Trade Paperback online and in local bookstores and comic book shops. The collected hardcover edition of The Search will be released in February 2014.