Originally released on February 7th, 2012, “The Promise, Part One” is the first of Dark Horse’s series of sequels to Bryan Konietzko’s and Michael Dante DiMartino’s hit animated series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. Rather than go with a series of monthly or bimonthly single issues (or “floppies”), Dark Horse has opted to release the books in the form of graphic novels with about 70 glossy, full-color story pages per volume. At $11 bucks a pop, that’s not so bad, but with releases staggered at what looks to be a quarterly schedule (“The Promise, Part Two” is scheduled for a June 12th release date), you may have a long wait to suffer through between installments. Of course, if you could survive the hiatus between the original series and Legend of Korra then four months should be child’s play.
Written by Gene Luen Yang with art by Gurihiru (pseudonym for Japanese artists Sasaki and Kawano), the prologue for “The Promise” takes place before and after the epilogue of the final episode of The Last Airbender, showing us what happened in-between those disparate scenes, setting up the plot of the arc that is to follow. For the prologue, Avatar Aang, Fire Lord Zuko and Earth King Kuwei join together to form the Harmony Restoration Movement; a coalition with the purpose of removing all Fire Nation colonies from the Earth Kingdom. Shortly after the final scenes of the animated series, though, Zuko forces Aang to make a chilling vow: that he will kill him should he begin to show any signs of acting like his father, the dethroned Fire Lord Ozai.
The story then fast forwards a year later and we get to the meat of the book. The Harmony Restoration Movement has been meeting a lot of resistance from colonials who have become so firmly entrenched in their Earth Kingdom colonies that they’ve developed their own culture and legacy; forcibly displacing the colonials begins to seem less and less ethical. Making matters worse, angry Fire Nation colonials have begun making assassination attempts on Zuko, chipping away at his patience through paranoia. When Zuko pulls out of the Harmony Restoration Movement, Earth Kingdom citizens revolt; accusing the Fire Lord of going back on his word. Aang, Katara, Sokka and Toph reunite to try and talk sense into Zuko, overcome their own prejudices and find a way to quell this murky political climate, lest a whole new war break-out. And if worse comes to worse, Aang fears he may have to fulfill the promise he made to Zuko.
So as you can tell from that plot summary, “The Promise” tackles some pretty heady topics for what’s generally thought to be a children’s franchise. Of course, heady topics are no unfamiliar territory for the “Avatar” series, which routinely delved into complex situations regarding politics and ethics. Writer Gene Luen Yang really delves into the fictional world of the series, taking everything to its next logical step and contemplating, realistically, what problems and roadblocks toward peace might arise following the show’s rose-colored finale. Dealing with the Fire Nation occupancy in the Earth Kingdom is definitely that next logical step, though the story pains to illustrate that there are no blacks and whites in political matters and broad, sweeping actions are never the answer.
While the dilemma regarding the Fire Nation colonies is at the core of this story’s conflict, other serious matters spring from it. The title of the story arc is, of course, taken from Aang’s promise to execute Zuko if he ever gets out of line and it reprises a major moral theme from the last few episodes of the series: is it ethical to kill in the name of the greater good? While it feels like a bit of a retread considering, if you’re going into this series straight from the cartoon, they just tackled that topic, it remains a topic too complex for 3 episodes of a TV show to appropriately handle and deserving of further contemplation. I suppose what got me more, though, was Zuko’s apparent descent right back into villainous territory immediately after he’d spent a season redeeming himself for the umpteenth time. The “out” seems to be telegraphed as the pressures of the job, plus the paranoia of multiple assassination attempts, plus a year of sleep-depravation, plus the psychological machinations of his imprisoned father, all adding up to his regressive behavior. Regardless, I really don’t think we need yet another “fall and rise of Zuko” story yet again.
With such a large cast of characters, some fare better in this first installment than others. Aang and Katara’s affections have blossomed into a full-blown romance, complete with saccharine pet names (that fuel a running gag). It’s cute. Sokka is still exactly how we left him, as is Suki. Toph, on the other hand, has opened up her own metal bending academy, complete with its own class of goofy students (a precocious little girl, a cowardly giant and an emo dude). Of all the characters, she definitely struck me as being the most fun in this story, though Sokka got a few moments of humor in. Other recurring characters include Smellerbee, Hawkeye and the freedom fighters, as well as very limited parts for Mai and Ty Lee (though I’m sure they’ll get larger roles in later installments). Oddly, Iroh is scarcely seen in the story and I found it strange that Zuko would go to Ozai for advice rather than him (he should really, really know better by this point in the narrative).
We got to see plenty of Gurihiru’s art before, as the ladies did several installments in the anthology collection, Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Lost Adventures. They do a terrific job, bringing their trademarked style that merges “cool” with “cute” to an expert degree. They capture the look and feel of the characters and their universe, from the setting to the body language and expressions, and just make a very attractive-looking comic. There’s nothing about the art I didn’t like and I really hope Gurihiru stays on the graphic novel series even after “The Promise” concludes.
For Avatar fans, you obviously don’t need me to tell you that you ought to be picking up “The Promise”. It looks to be covering the lingering plot threads from the end of the TV series and even seems to be foreshadowing elements that will be appearing in Legend of Korra (namely, Toph’s metal bending academy). For those still not acquainted with the series, then I can’t really recommend the comic, as it’s so entrenched in the mythology and ongoing storyline of the cartoon that newcomers wouldn’t stand much of a chance. On the other hand, if you’re a big fan of Gurihiru then you might want to consider this as a gateway into becoming an Avatar fan. They rerun that show, like, 10 times a day on Nicktoons. You could catch up on the whole series in two weeks.
Yang and Gurihiru succeed in continuing the story of the The Last Airbender era in a manner that feels natural and intuitive to the source; you’ll hear the characters’ voices in your head when you read the book and it all flows very naturally. There seems to be some retreading of themes and arcs from the cartoon, but I’d save the worst criticism of that subject until after we’ve seen how those threads play out. Overall, “Avatar” fans really ought to pick this up. It’s only $11 bucks every 4 months; $8 bucks if you use Amazon.