Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality
This year, Dark Horse Comics began publishing a new series of Avatar: The Last Airbender sequel comics, The Promise, written by Gene Yang (American Born Chinese) and illustrated by Gurihiru. Racebending.com was given the opportunity to preview the entire series. Here is our review and commentary.
(NOTE: Our review does not contain major spoilers from part 3, but does contain info that might be considered minor spoilers, including images from Dark Horse’s currently posted preview pages.)
The Promise tells the story of Yu Dao, a Fire Nation Colony due to be returned to the Earth Kingdom as part of peace accords for the end of the war. Over the three-part arc, Aang and Zuko grapple with how a hundred years of Fire Nation occupation have irrevocably changed the city and it’s Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom residents, and how the world of the Four Nations is evolving and changing as it enters an era of reconstruction. These complex topics elevate the graphic novel above kiddie-level and fan-fiction fare. The issues are presented as both systemic (who is in charge of figuring out what happens next to the Four Nations?) and personal (Aang and Katara reflecting on their cross-cultural relationship.) In the post-war choices made by the heroes in Avatar: The Last Airbender, we see the earliest formations of Korra’s Republic City.
At it's core, The Promise is about two young leaders trying to define themselves from their predecessors: Aang tries to set himself apart from Avatar Roku's regrets and mistakes, and Zuko struggles to lead as Fire Lord without turning into his father. Readers of the first two parts of The Promise were drawn into the ambivalence surrounding Zuko's confusing request to ask the Avatar to kill him if he gets irredeemably out of line. In Part Three, the haze clears. The characters reach the brink and emerge with some cathartic insights. As author Gene Yang noted in an earlier interview with Racebending, for these characters, "growing up happens in fits and starts." Although they both wield enormous powers and responsibilities, Aang and Zuko are still just two teenage boys. They are former child soldiers who grew up in a world that only knew war for three generations. Uncle Iroh also finally appears in Part Three's denouement; his hands-off mentorship style continues to be a stark contrast to both Ozai and Roku's interferences.
We see Aang and Zuko beginning to consider Roku and Ozai as not completely good or completely evil. And, at the end of The Promise, Aang makes a heartbreaking decision to "figure things out on his own." It's a great cliffhanger for the character going into future stories--one that signals a new stage in Aang's development as an Avatar while evoking some of Zuko's complicated choices from the animated series.
The character development for Aang and Zuko in The Promise is fantastic, but other characters from the original series are presented as more static, and some of the new characters, such as Toph’s metalbending students, are pretty one-dimensional. The girls from the original series play less complex roles in The Promise, though we do get to see Toph, Smellerbee, and the new “multiethnic” character, Kori, in leadership positions on different sides of the conflict. Katara serves as Aang’s confidant and counsel, but the story focuses on Aang and hinges on his decisions. Still, she has some defining moments in Book 3, and she is the first to figure out why both Aang and Zuko’s methods in approaching the Yu Dao conflict are fundamentally flawed.
Plotlines that seemed widly divergent in Part Two, like the metalbending school and the Avatar fan club, are woven more tightly into the narrative in Part Three. In the final installment of The Promise, Aang begins to heavily weigh some seemingly conflicting arguments about the people of the Four Nations. Are the differences between the Nations an illusion? How can he, as the Avatar, preserve the cultures’ individual aspects and identities while promoting peace at the same time? What happens when different cultures meet and come together?
Aang also wrestles with the idea that stronger, more privileged Nations have and can still harm and oppress weaker ones. For readers of Racebending.com in particular, the Avatar Aang “fan club” plot line escalates to explore the issue of cultural appropriation. Aang is initially pleased to learn he has a fan club (which is comprised entirely of girls, a bit of a stereotypical oversight…) He grows distrustful when they begin to emulate Air Nomad Culture without any understanding of it. The fans claim to respect Aang and Air Nomad Culture, but have also cluelessly appropriated Air Nomad customs. Yang shows how adoration, exotification, and good intentions can still inflict offense and harm. Is it possible for outsiders to partake in another culture, and if so, who dictates the terms of cultural practice? Racebending readers will appreciate how Gene Yang calls out and frames this issue, within the constraints of the Avatar world. I was glad to see the topic raised, since the outcome plays a role later on in The Legend of Korra, and there’s the additional meta-commentary of Avatar being inspired by so many Asian and Inuit influences. In The Promise, Aang begins to confront his position as the last of the Airbenders, and by extension, his role as the sole living gatekeeper of his lost culture and people.
Part of what makes The Promise so fun (beyond getting to continue the original series in book form!) is the subtle detail that rewards re-readers. For example, the iron winged-boar mecha that Toph and Sokka built in Part Two now adorns the front of Bei Fong Metalbending Academy in Part 3! In-joke references to Asian American culinary fare will get picked up by the Asian American foodie crowd. There’s even a shout out to one of the best jokes from Book Two of the animated series. Gurihuru’s artwork is consistently excellent throughout, the panels are dynamically framed and the characters are expressive. If you look at the artwork from Part One and compare it to Part Three (especially the cover) you can also see that the characters have subtly aged! (By the end of The Promise, Aang is now taller than Katara.) The Promise reads really quickly–almost too quickly, and aggressively segues into a cliffhanger that kickstarts the recently announced comic book series, Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search.
Centered around the hunt for Zuko and Azula’s mother, Fire Lady Ursa, through The Promise Yang has also set up additional unanswered questions that will be picked up in The Search. Can Azula be trusted to work with Zuko? How can Zuko possibly justify locking his own sister up in an asylum in inhumane conditions? Will the relationships–romantic and otherwise–that were ruptured in The Promise ever be repaired, and if so, how?
Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise, Part 3 will be released in comic book stores on Wednesday, September 26th, 2012. The collected Library Hardcover edition of The Promise will be released on February 20, 2013. The search for Lady Ursa begins later on in 2013…