Reviews: Avatar The Last Airbender The Promise
Avatar: Reality Ensues
I'm fresh to the Avatar franchise, having just finished watching all three books of TLA, and now I'm reading the comics. I'm careful to read/watch something first and only then read opinions on the Internet, to ensure that my own first impression will be unmarred by those of others. Gosh, I'm so glad I'm doing it that way. Don't get me wrong, I love the cartoon. I consider it one of the best Western animated series, if not the best. And in particular, its ethical messages, while they're the same old stuff, transcend times and cultures, which I believe to be a mark of good fantasy. But once in a while, I like works that challenge my ethics, that force me to think and present no "obviously right" solution to the problem at hand. I didn't expect much from a spin-off comic, and maybe that's because I was pleasantly surprised. For a children's tie-in to a children's animated series, The Promise touches complicated political issues that even we modern adults struggle with: decolonization, immigration, and prejudice fueled by fallout from a century of war and broken lives. The appeal of this comic becomes clear when we compare Avatar to another franchise dealing with a "stopping the colonial empire" plot: Code Geass. It seems to me that, despite being supposedly Darker and Edgier and aimed at an older audience, Code Geass never treated itself as seriously as Avatar did. The Promise shows the realistic result of suddenly stopping a prolonged war by offing the Big Bad: the tensions are not going to disappear overnight just because The Hero preaches the "let's all get along" rhetoric. There are going to be mutual hatreds, diplomatic mishaps, and inevitable compromises. Things will get worse before they get better. And in particular, the plot will the colonies, far from supporting a White Man's Burden message, doesn't excuse the Fire Nation's actions. Was it wrong to invade and claim the Earth Kingdom coast for itself? Absolutely. But the colonies are already there, now, and the modern-day leaders — interested as they are in peace — have to deal with the fact that they exist and destroying them would ruin too many people's lives. And there is no universally right solution. That is the point. If there was, modern politics would be easy.
Nonsense Plot, Weirdly Pro-White Man's Burden Message
This review covers the whole trilogy, unlike my last one. My previous complaint about Aang struggling to kill Zuko still stands. It makes no sense given Aang's past actions, and feels contrived. That's a big problem because "the promise" is supposed to serve as the dramatic engine for the plot. The other major plot thread, decolonization, starts off strong but quickly becomes sidelined and scattershot in message. By the end, the story seems to say that Zuko was right to defend colonialism (!) as a tide that lifted all boats in the previously under-developed Earth Kingdom. Aang and Katara's points about the racial inequality of the colonies are forgotten after Volume 1. Instead, Katara's POV on Yu Dao becomes a glimpse of her and Aang's future, and Aang himself turns into something of a strawman for total segregation of the Four Nations. Rather than Yu Dao being the complicated political issue it's presented as in Volume 1, with defensible if flawed viewpoints argued by both Zuko and Aang, by Volume 3 everyone involved in the story seems to come to view Yu Dao as a stand-in for an argument over multiculturalism. It's a jarring shift, and one that comes off as weirdly advocating the White Mans Burden: the Fire Nation was right to conquer and colonize the Earth Kingdom, and everything that flowed from that was not only good but the wave of the future. Never mind the extended set-up in Volume 1 that framed the issue along "needs of the many" verses "needs of the one" lines. The shame is, Yu Dao is actually a neat setting with lots of interesting concepts. There's Fire-citizen earthbenders like Kori, the girls who became Air Acolytes being serious about living out the Air Nomad's philosophy, the colonists who joined the Freedom Fighters in protesting Yu Dao's continued existence, Toph's students, the racist firebender teacher whose school Toph takes over. There's also how some colonists, like Kori, are fiercely loyal Fire Nation citizens despite the colonists being referred to disdainfully by their countrymen in the cartoon. Or how Yu Dao is famous for its steel, and all we see them make are weapons — implying the city is rich because of arms dealing during the war. The potential for a good story was there, it just either wasn't developed or was lost due to lack of focus. Overall? A lackluster sequel.
Actually pretty good
Having witnessed major fan displeasure at this comic, I was prepared to hate it. Imagine my surprise to find it had an intriguing and complex plot, with some very funny moments. I don't think anyone was actually out of character. I could hear the characters' voices in my head as I was reading, and their problems in this arc generally fit with who they were. I know that a lot of people felt that Zuko regressed from his character arc in the series, but it does make sense that after such a long time of making mistakes he wouldn't trust his own judgement. Being Fire Lord also doesn't mean that Zuko would stop being so impulsive, or that he wouldn't face new challenges as Fire Lord. Despite the "sweetie" thing, Aang and Katara had some genuinely touching moments. And of course Toph and Sokka were as fun as ever. Their side story was entertaining and funny. I have two problems with this comic. First, although I could believe that Aang would give Zuko the promise, thinking he would never have to carry it out, I felt like he was a little too quick to consider it without having all the facts. The whole thing was overdramatized and the comic would have been better without it. Second, the constant use of Never Say "Die" was jarring when they handled such adult subjects. All in all, it was cool to see the start of Republic City. For me, the foregone conclusion of it only meant that I was curious to see how it came about instead of if. All in all, a solid, if not perfect, sequel.
I'm not immediately critical of comic adaptations, but I think that is the biggest weakness of this story. Its treated like a brief side story instead of giving the detail and complexity it deserves. The story takes place immediately after the final episode of Book 3. Aang, the Earth King, and his friends decide to initiate what is called the Restoration of Harmony Movement which involves removing the fire nation citizens from the Earth Kingdom. The situation becomes more complex as the fire nation citizens feel (since they have been there for 100 years) that they deserve to remain there. Including an Earth Bender girl who is a fire nation citizen. On the other hand, the natives who live in the colonies are treated as second class citizens by the colonists (this point is brushed aside in favor of the colonists). This situation is particularly stressful for Zuko who wants to remain faithful to his nation while distinguishing himself from his father. The story seems to deny the characters, particularly Zuko, the character development they acquired in the series proper. Zuko should've been a stronger leader, not being swayed by his opponents of his actions. Zuko should have already understood his father's advice from the story, as firelord any action he takes is by definition the right choice for his people. If they don't like moving from the fire nation than remain in the Earth Kingdom and renounce their citizenship. Zuko should have been prepared to understand that there will be people in his nation who oppose his actions. Ironically, the entire argument for the fire colonists are contradicted by Toph's side story. With the restoration of harmony movement, a fire bending school is closed down and Toph sets up her metal bending school in the same building. Even though the fire school was there first, Toph's students win back the school despite whats happening in the colony where the Firebenders are correct because they "were there first (for 100 years)". This story should've been a part of a larger Novelization, rather than a brief miniseries. More detail should've been given to the situation. I'm not sure if this story is finished, since they are moving on to "the search", but thus far I'm not impressed.
Decent enough, minus two big problems.
I got no complaints about the art. I'm heartened that the writer tried to make the book accessible for non-fans, as sometimes tie-ins are too inwardly focused to help grow their audience. But it's difficult to get over the first volume's major plot and characterization problems. First, we're supposed to believe that Aang would ever kill Zuko? He already went through this whole moral dilemma back in the finale! If Aang wasn't going to kill a genocidal child abuser like Ozai, him killing someone he personally knows like Zuko just isn't going to happen. So this whole conflict comes across as nothing more than filler to make up for the fact that we already know about the resolution to the trilogy's other conflict... Which is the Problem #2. This trilogy's story falls under Korra's shadow, meaning that the United Republic is a foregone conclusion. Perhaps that's why the main drama of the trilogy was intended to be Aang's promise, as Bryke and Gene might have felt they needed something to drive the plot forward besides political drama with a resolution we already knew. Yet the road to the United Republic is maddeningly intriguing, and, in my opinion, makes for a far more interesting character conflict between Aang and Zuko. The ideological clash between the Fire Lord and the Avatar over the colonies is meaty stuff. Both sides have good points, and each character can make valid counter-arguments. Zuko's right that families shouldn't be broken, but Aang is also right that an unjust peace between the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom will lead to long-term conflict and possibly war. Aang's right that Earth Kingdomers are second-class citizens in Yu Dao — just look at the color of the clothing of who's doing all the manual labor and street vending — but he doesn't seem to have a concept for truly multicultural people like Kori. Zuko makes a good point that the intermixing of cultures has created a prosperous society even if has some shortcoming, but it's a hell of a thing to say that a rising tide lifting all boats justifies that oppression when Zuko isn't the one condemned to sweeping floors all his life because he was born to the wrong parents... etc. Friends honestly disagreeing with one another makes for better conflict than the titular promise, yet it gets shafted for needless drama. Here's hoping Volume 2 is better.
Great, but I have an issue
It's nice to see an interquel that takes place right after The Last Airbender, but there's one thing bugging me. Shipping drama. We don't need that. I appreciate the effort gone into making the art and the characters accurate, and the set up of political tension, but we're done with relationship drama. I want to see Zuko and Aang clash. I want to see things worked out. After watching The Last Airbender, I'm done with wondering who ends up with who. There doesn't need to be tension on all levels of the story for it to be interesting. We had the relationships established at the end of The Last Airbender, so it feels unnecessary to have drama centering on that. Besides that, though, the comic is excellent. It's awesome to see Toph starting the Metalbender Academy and the beginnings of Republic City. It's interesting to see Zuko go to his father for advice. I like seeing Ozai give advice to Zuko. It gives us an insight to what being the Fire Lord was like, as well as the fact that Ozai is still insane despite his calm demeanor. It's also intriguing to see Earth King Kuei grow a spine and take such a rigid stance against Zuko when he refuses to support the Harmony Restoration Movement. I really enjoy the story following Sokka and Toph dealing with the Metalbending Academy. Despite the drama of whether it will stay or not nonexistent since we know it's still around in The Legend of Korra, it's fun to watch Toph's students try and learn Metalbending. They each have distinct personalities that all made me laugh at one point or another. Another interesting point is the Avatar Aang Fan Club, who could possibly be the precursors to the Air Acolytes we see in The Legend of Korra. Overall, an excellent comic that retains the feel and look of The Last Airbender. Though I'd rather not have any relationship drama, it doesn't impact the plot greatly. It has yet to disappoint me, and I can't wait to read the conclusion of The Promise in October.
Enough Ookie already, get with the Story!
The book opens with the opening narration of The Last Airbender we all know, but it's ineffective for the medium of a comic book, so instead of fulfilling the role of getting you excited about the upcoming story it comes across as pointless filler. Paying homage to the cartoon is fine, but it lacked impact. Then there's the Kataang mushiness that crowds the story. The whole love angle in The Last Airbender was only fun when it was a source of tension and drama. Aang and Katara are now boring. It's no longer a story because the conflict is resolved, so why are they putting so much emphasis on it? I know that Bryke understands how to write a good couple - just look at Sokka and Suki, they work just fine as an Official Couple and provide the audience with some witty banter, but Aang and Katara are dull, with such awful lines like "trying to see what we mean to each other" and Katara bitching at Sokka just because he keeps stumbling in on their very public makeout sessions. My only guess is that Mike and Bryan really want to spite the Zutara crowd or something by rubbing this in their faces. Sokka even Hangs A Lampshade on it, so we know that making Aang and Katara all "ookie" is being done intentionally. The story does have its good moments, though. I actually like that Zuko is becoming his father, is aware of it, yet cannot help it anyway because he is too invested in the welfare of his people. That's called tension, and it should be the focus of the story, and for the most part it is. Sokka's still providing the occasional comic relief, and Toph is still Toph, so that's good. But the Kataang thing has got to get out of the way of the real story, and Aang has to stop rehashing the same inner turmoil he already faced in Book 3. We get that Aang hates violence even if it appears necessary, why are we still going on about this? I guess my issue is that the story seems to be focusing so much on a promise Aang made to Zuko to end Zuko if he should ever go back to being evil, when it should be focusing on the fact that fire nation colonials don't like the plan to ship them back to the fire nation. Aang harps so much on how he might have to kill Zuko he can't seem to realize that the real problem is that the Return to Harmony movement is a disaster. Its a stupid way to drag out the conflict in my eyes.
Good, but disappointing
I'm going to start with a summary of things that I didn't like about The Promise. The first is the titular promise. While an interesting idea in that it shows that Zuko understands his potential for "relapse", it doesn't really do anything here except to try to shoehorn in some tension. The obligatory misunderstanding at the middle of the story is a good example of how. While I understand that it is part of Zuko's character to be rash and impulsive, his decision to simply hole up in the colony and not let anyone in makes no sense. How will walling himself up in the town and attacking anyone who tries to come in help with the situation? Did he really not understand that people outside would see this as an aggressive action? The answer is: It doesn't matter, as this part is only here to add an unnecessary segment where Aang thinks he's actually going to have to kill him and put in some action. My other big problem is with Kori, the ninja assassin girl. I know Mr. Yang was trying to set her up as some sort of anti-hero driven by desperation, but since we don't see her trying to take any other sort of steps to fix the problem, she comes across (at least to me) as a violent psychopath whose first reaction to someone doing something she doesn't like is to KILL THEM. Not only that, but apparently, after she explained her situation to Zuko in the town, he just completely let her off without any consequences. Dude, she tried to kill you! A smaller issue is the "sweetie" and "oogies" thing. I know that Mr. Yang sets these words up as jokes, with the other characters having an appropriate "WTF?" reaction to them, but then he just keeps using them. Aang and Katara are teenagers from another world, please stop making them talk like a middle aged married couple living in a suburb of Columbus, Ohio. The thing is, despite these faults, the underlying story here is really compelling. The question of the fate of the colonies is not only interesting but is resonant with problems we face in real life. Hell, Israel and the Palestinians have been fighting over similar questions for over 60 years now. I think that if this story is allowed to shine through and take center stage, without all the additional aforementioned fluff, it could be a truly worthy addition to the Avatar franchise.