Dark Horse is currently licensed to publish comics associated with the Nickelodeon television series Avatar: The Last Airbender. Since the series went off the air in 2008, a trilogy of trilogies by writer Gene Luen Yang has been released, as well as several Free Comic Book Day stand alone stories, and a collected volume of additional adventures. A few weeks ago, Dark Horse made a hardcover, annotated, library volume of Yang’s The Rift available, so this seemed like a good opportunity to put together a comprehensive overview of all of the supplemental material.
Too Long? Don’t want to read all of this? All of these comics are good for fans of the show, but not appropriate starting points for someone new to the series. The Lost Adventures is a collection of stand-alone short pieces set during the original A:TLA series. The Promise, The Search, and The Rift storylines are set after A:TLA and should not be read before finishing the television series. These volumes introduce some elements that appear in the follow up series The Legend of Korra, but knowledge of that series is not needed.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is an animated television series, created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, which ran on Nickelodeon from 2005-2008. The cartoon series is not related in any way to the James Cameron film - or the M. Night Shyamalan one (If you disagree with that sentiment then there’s a special cell waiting for you at Lake Laogai). While the apparent target demographic of the show is children, the quality of animation and storytelling allows for a broader audience to appreciate the show. As a bonus, the all ages themes are presented with enough subtlety to engage adult viewers.
Personal identity is one of my favorite pervasive themes in the series and a good example of an idea that is treated on multiple levels. The protagonist, Aang, is a reincarnated hero, the current iteration in a long chain of Avatars going back thousands of years. Aang can gain wisdom and power through his special link to the past, but he also wrestles with the notion that his individuality is constrained and partially determined by the sum of his previous lives. Drawing a fun premise like the Avatar cycle through to logical conclusions is what keeps A:TLA grounded despite its obvious fantasy elements.
While plot elements, like genocide or war, and themes, like reincarnation and identity, are handled in a mature manner the series does not cross over into a prohibitively dark or scary place for children. Even while the follow up series, The Legend of Korra, increases the stakes by introducing political and psychological terror, Bryan and Michael's Avatar world always remains optimistic because the characters are active and depicted with the power to impact their world.
These pro-active characters are another great strength of the series. While slightly exaggerated (or *gasp* cartoony) at times, most of the series is written with awareness of cartoon and anime tropes. The writers seem to sometimes indulge in those stereotypes and sometimes subvert them. An obvious example would be the non-bender Sokka who begins the series as comic relief and ends the series using his creativity to mastermind elaborate battle plans.
The comics associated with A:TLA will necessarily be compared against the television series. Fans of the show have come to expect thorough world building, positive but mature themes, and well developed characters. In addition to hitting those marks, the creative teams of the comics need to strike a balance between directly emulating the available material and providing creative additions. So let’s take a look at the available books, keeping in mind the context for evaluation.
The Lost Adventures is a 200+ page volume of 28 different stand-alone stories set during the original A:TLA series. Each one-shot is a few pages long, and features a different combination of writers and artists, many of them staff from the television show. Comicraft is credited with lettering for the entire book.
With multiple artists for the single volume, there is some variation in the visuals. For the most part, the illustrations emulate the look of television show, but a particularly picky or annoying child might notice and ask why beloved characters look slightly different. Unfortunately, this book feels like a pile of discarded storyboards, and there were probably reasons that none of these scenes appeared on the television show.
The Lost Adventures doesn’t contribute any important information to the mythology of the series. I would only recommend this volume for younger fans with shorter attention spans, maybe as a gift for a new reader, or adult fans who really need a complete bookshelf. Personally, I was disappointed with this book. I found myself skeptical of Dark Horse and Nickelodeon, because this collection felt somewhat exploitative of fans who are hungry for more Avatar regardless of the quality.
I have been overwhelming pleased with the other A:TLA comics. The 'trilogy' lead by Gene Luen Yang is consistent with the spirit of the television series. Yang's storylines include the same thematic complexity, introducing big ideas and depicting their consequences without becoming prohibitively didactic and without slowing down the action. Yang clearly understands the show and respects the world that Bryan and Michael built together.
The Gurihiru team (Chifuyu Sasaki & Naoko Kawano) provided artwork for all of the Yang books. They manage to appropriately capture the looks, expressions, and body language of well known characters. They maintain consistency throughout all of the comics which can be crucial for younger readers.
Michael Heisler does the lettering for all of these books which also lends a sense of stability from one volume to the next. Overall, I believe that he does a great job with pacing the dialogue and helping to move the eye over the pages.
**Avatar: The Last Airbender Spoilers **Minor Legend of Korra Spoilers**
The Promise begins almost immediately after the conclusion of the television series. Avatar Aang and the new Firelord, Zuko, are discussing the future of the Fire Nation colonies remaining in the Earth Kingdom.
While the television series frequently reminded viewers that the war had been going on for a hundred years, that term was rarely measured in human lives. When the length of the war was emphasized, it was mostly with regards to what Aang had missed out on, like memories of friends who had grown old and passed away.On the other hand, The Promise depicts what has been added in those hundred years.
In the oldest colonies, Fire Nation invaders and occupied Earth Kingdom natives have mingled together for generations, establishing a new mixed culture where balance is achieved through integration rather than separation. When Zuko and Aang promise to remove the lingering Fire Nation citizens from Earth Kingdom territory, the young men have no idea that this will include breaking up families and destroying a new way of life.
Resolving the occupation of the Earth Kingdom is only one promise of many in this story. In addition to the main political issue, Aang and Zuko also clash on a more personal level. Overwhelmed by his new responsibilities and trembling in the shadow of his father's reputation, Zuko wants Aang to keep him straight and honest, and demands that this be enforced by death if necessary. Aang agrees, reluctantly. Of course, the thing about promises is that they always seem simple when you agree to them.
In addition to the conflicts between Aang and Zuko, there is a subplot featuring Toph as she establishes a school for metal benders.Toph's reputation and the metal bending she introduced played a significant role in The Legend of Korra, so it was exciting to see the seeds of those future developments, and to see them planted in a natural way. It might have been easier to add the links between the series as an afterthought, rather than integrating them thoughtfully. It was delightfully refreshing to see Toph depicted as an independent character, not always playing off the group dynamic where we are most familiar with her.
The Promise would be appropriate for fans of all ages who have finished watching the television series. Familiarity with The Legend of Korra might help readers appreciate where certain plot elements are headed, but knowledge of the follow up series is not required.
The conclusion of the television series wrapped up the series so well that most of the ideas for these new comics come from trying to link A:TLA to the follow up Korra series. The Search stands out from the rest of the trilogy in that regard. The story in this volume seeks to wrap up one of the only loose ends from the original series, the fate of Ursa, Zuko’s mother.
The Search begins quickly after The Promise. Toph is excused to her metal bending academy. Her vacancy on Team Avatar, leaves an opportunity for Azula, Zuko’s sister to participate in the quest. Despite pining for more Azula through most of the television show, I have to admit that there was more of her in this story than I could have ever wanted in my entire life.
It could be that in the television series Azula was an intense character used with some restraint, so that her appearances were exciting. It could also be that her fragile mental state at the conclusion of the series makes her a more confusing, less compelling character. There was also something about the combination of dialogue and perhaps lettering which made comic book Azula not sound like the character I remembered from the cartoon. It could also be that so much of the Azula is conveyed by voice actress Grey DeLisle, that even the best writing and artwork can’t compensate for her absence.
The Search also stands out from other Avatar properties for being a significantly non-linear story. Elements of Ursa’s history are shown in sepia toned flashbacks, which should help younger readers keep the story straight. There is a significant amount of back and forth though, so a second read through would be helpful to understand Ursa's story.
The Search includes more elements of ‘soap opera’ drama than usual for an Avatar story. Specifically, it raises issues about relationship fidelity, paternity, mental health, and literally amnesia. Many of these reveals are timed to coincide with the ends of the single issues, playing off the time honored comic book tradition of the full page splash with shocking disclosure to keep readers hungry for more. Including these plot points in this manner feels slightly manipulative when compared to the normal Avatar standard of just telling a really great story.
Watching A:TLA as an adult a few years ago, I assumed that the ambiguity around Ursa’s disappearance was a way for the creators to imply that she had been killed off without explicitly shocking younger viewers. Armed with my own personal interpretation, and saturated with anticipation from the build up in the original series, I was primed for disappointment. The explanation for Ursa’s disappearance is a good one, but not amazing, and doesn’t rely any pre-existing material or mythology seen in either A:TLA or LOK.
Understanding The Search does not rely on any of the other Avatar comics so it could be read on it’s own. In terms of style and drama it’s a little bit different from the other books, but still appropriate for all ages with the company of an adult for discussion. I found The Search the least satisfactory of the Yang trilogy, but still worth reading. Zuko and Azula fans might prefer this story to the others.
The Rift picks up almost immediately after The Search. Toph is back in action for this storyline, but Zuko is not present because he is escorting his mother on a visit to the Fire Nation capital. After a brief ceremony to honor the establishment of the first representative government in what will become Republic City, the gang is joined by some air disciples for a reenactment of an old Air Nomad ritual.
Plans are foiled as usual, this time by the discovery of a bustling mining town with a new kind of forge where Earth, Fire, and Water benders work together to refine metals. The lead engineer at the factory has been constructing machinery to replicate many of the benders abilities, allowing non-benders to work on the assembly line as well. While The Promise laid the political groundwork for the development of Republic City, The Rift begins to introduce the technological changes that we see throughout LOK.
As a metal bender, Toph is greatly admired by the engineer and she is quite impressed by the interlocking metal gears in his inventions. This volume is definitely required reading for anyone who likes to engage in the Toph baby daddy debate, making these scenes another element that will be appreciated by fans who have already watched LOK.
Similar to The Promise, where there were several "promises", there are many “rifts” in this book. There is a rift between technology and nature, a rift between humans and the spirit world, and my favorite rift, setting Aang against Toph. Aang is shown to tend towards conservatism; he remains devoted to tradition, he fears that technological development will damage the environment and the spiritual world. In contrast, Toph has been quite progressive for the entire series, she defies typical gender roles and challenges social conventions in addition to literally inventing a new style of elemental bending. Yang makes it seem quite natural for Toph, the first metal bender, to become quite enamored with the grinding gears of industry.
The Rift is the only volume where I reviewed the annotated copy with bonus materials. I found most of the additional commentary scattered throughout the story inane, but harmless. There were a few sample layouts which were interesting, but gave only limited insight into the creative process. The layouts were accompanied by a note that scenes with larger numbers of characters required more attention, but there was no elaboration on that point. It might have been more useful to see several different proposed pages for the same scene, so that we could see better evidence of how the team handled these problems. Finally, the supplemental character sketches and notes were a lovely bonus, especially the details on the spirits.
The Rift fits very well with The Promise as a prelude to the new world where LOK takes place. While The Rift does not depend on the other comics directly directly, I would recommend reading this one in published order.