Anime Reporter talks the talk, (but doesn’t walk the walk because it’s cold outside and I have the flu right now) about Parts 1 and 2 of Avatar: The Last Airbender- Smoke and Shadow, the official comic book follow-up to the Last Airbender animated series, but well before the events of Legend of Korra. Both Volumes are currently available from Dark Horse Comics.
Okay, so as I’ve said a few times before, I’m a huge fan of Avatar- the Last Airbender (or Legend of Aang, whichever you’d prefer to call it). It’s one of my all time favourite series, even going outside the specific categories of animation or “anime-like things”. It had a well developed, well-paced story, great, identifiable and endearing characters, complex and flawed heroes and villains, (particularly for a Nickelodeon family series.) and a conflict that, being one-hundred years in the making, had become a lot more complicated than Good vs. Evil. When it needed action, it had action that impressed and surprised, when it needed humour, it had the ability to surprise with its gags and its excellent comedic timing from cast members, as well as a phenomenal use of running jokes and visual humour. When this series needed heart… oh boy, let’s just say that it delivered before I start thinking about it too much and get all misty-eyed. This series is a triumph of animation and storytelling and that is why I want you to really pay attention when I say, if you aren’t familiar with the series, I really, truly need you to stop reading. Because I care. Because I don’t want to be responsible for ruining any detail of this series for anyone and what I’m about to review takes place after the third and final season of this series, although it also takes place many years before Legend of Korra, so don’t watch that either. Just… Just stop whatever you’re currently prioritising and watch Seasons 1-3 of Avatar the Last Airbender. I mean that, even if once you do, you don’t come back to read the rest of this review. It’s just my advice for part of living a worthwhile life. Go watch it. Then if you do happen to come back and read this, you’ll be doing so in a blissful, spoiler-free state.
Oh, and definitely don’t think that you can save time by watching the M. Knight Shyamalan film The Last Airbender! That movie is to the series what Dragonball Evolution was to Dragon Ball Z and so many of M. Knight Shyamalan’s film’s have been to films in general. Don’t watch it, don’t think about it, don’t acknowledge that it happened.
Okay, so we’re all safe and happy in post-spoiler existence here. I hope.
Just to be safe, I’ll go ahead and put the more reviewy-part of this review right after a nice big “Read More” link.
Okay, so the world has been saved, Fire Lord Mark Hamill has been vanquished and Aang has accepted his rightful place as Avatar Keanu Reeves. I’m making light of it, but that finale actually blew me away big time so much that all I want to do right now is rewatch the whole series just because I’m thinking about it now. In any case, I should probably start talking about the comic at some point here.
Zuko, who hasn’t been a total jerk for a while now, is making his return to the Fire Nation as the new Fire Lord, but, as was always going to be the case, not everyone is happy with their new ruler. In fact, a prominent figure in the Fire Nation, and the father of Zuko’s ex-girlfriend, is visited by some rather sinister looking cloaked, spirits who claim that Zuko’s return must also be his destruction for the good of the nation and a band of those loyal to his father attempt to take him out of the picture before he can even make it to his palace. I really don’t want to give away too many details here, I’d really rather let the plot speak for itself upon reading, so I’ll keep my criticism short here. The story is good, political, mixed with the mythology of the world and the mature balance which says that not every person in the Fire Nation has to be a good or a bad person, just letting them be people. There’s action, which keeps fairly true to the style of the series, doing its best to keep up in comic book format. The only thing which bugged me while reading was the way characters talked and acted. It was… Well, it felt a little bit unnatural. I know that’s an odd complaint given the high-fantasy nature of the series, but it’s something that the animated series had always excelled at, balancing high-stakes situations with the youthful nature of its protagonists and striking a balance between drama and light-hearted conversation. In this comic, Mai (Zuko’s ex) and her boyfriend are arguing while trying to defend Zuko’s family from being captured/killed. It’s just a little hard to balance “defending the ruler of our nation from an assassination attempt” with dialogue like “I really do like you” being shouted dramatically, completely ignoring the fight going on around them. It’s also hard to imagine Mai not just telling him to shut up and fight, given her no-nonsense attitude. There’s a great deal of drama surrounding Mai’s family, Zuko’s family and the plot to get rid of Zuko, but it’s the basic human interaction that feels utterly forced in most conversations and that’s a bit of a drag for me.
The second of these eighty page instalments follows up from the creepy spirits, known as kemurikage (ancient mountain spirits of revenge of course) having kidnapped Mai’s baby brother in the previous chapter with Zuko calling in Aang for some assistance. Aang… has gotten much taller by the way. That isn’t mentioned in the story anywhere, but he’s sprouted, just like really grown straight up. It’s kind of cool to see actually, since he was always kind of the little kid of the bunch. In any case, this chapter mainly focuses on Zuko, Aang, Mai and Mai’s forgettable boyfriend Kei Lo looking for info on the kemurikage and trying to find her brother. There are a couple of big revelations during this chapter which, honestly, were pretty much exactly what I expected, but it’s still a pretty good piece of story development. We get to see Zuko stepping up a little bit and exerting some authority as Fire Lord, (though there is one scene where a citizen, just some random citizen says something along the lines of “with all due respect, those guys you just punished saved the day, acted like heroes, unlike you” which is an incredibly stupid thing to say to your brand new ruler after all of his ancestors turned out to be dictatorial psychopaths… Like, I’d wait a couple of years and really see how this guy handles his throne before speaking my mind, especially if I’d been living in fear under his father for my entire life.
So far, it’s clear that this comic has a lot of love for the original series and wants to capture some of the same magic that made the world what it was. We get references to older episodes, we get attempts at some of the same types of humour, but they’re usually mistimed during fairly dramatic moments and it ultimately doesn’t quite measure up to the good old days. (I mean… unless I’m crazy, I don’t think I’ve seen a single cabbage or foaming mouth guy reference yet). I want to see the personalities of the original characters here and I… don’t quite see them yet. I will say this though, it’s clear that there are some very good intentions and good ideas behind this series and I’m more than willing to give them just a little bit more time to find their footing and find their storytelling rhythm. I will most definitely be reading Part 03 when it comes out and hopefully I’ll remember to let you know what I think when I do.
Thanks for reading,