The third and concluding chapter of The Promise, Dark Horse’s official continuation of Nickelodeon’s Avatar, the Last Airbender animated series, has recently been released after a rather agonizing wait. Three volumes a year just isn’t enough, but there’s no denying the quality shows in the final product.
“The Promise, Part 3” brings all the conflicts to a head, as Aang finds himself trying to broker peace in the Earth Kingdom city turned Fire Nation colony of Yu Dao. Following the Harmony Restoration Movement, the Earth Kingdom wants to drive out all Fire Nation colonials. Fire Lord Zuko, having doubts about the Movement, wants to avoid forcibly removing the Fire Nation colonials who have lived there for generations and maintain the city as Fire Nation territory. And still a third faction, the integrated people living within Yu Dao, wants to simply be left alone by all territorial conflict. Aang has to weigh his options carefully, as the wrong move could not only reignite the global war, but could also force him to fulfill his promise to execute Zuko.
Over the course of this three volume series, writer Gene Luen Yang has tackled some pretty heavy concepts and conflicts, trudging waist-deep into the grey and murky bog of politics and race relations. Yang handles the topics with the utmost care, making sure to weigh all the angles thoughtfully before coming to his conclusion in this chapter. There are a lot of solid arguments made and even some surprising displays of bias and discrimination from characters you may not expect to hear such attitudes from (but make perfect since within the context of the situation).
It would be very easy for Yang to pen a story about the ills of “segregation” and “separate but equal”, casting the tale in a starkly contrasted black and white where those for the Harmony Restoration Movement are sinister bigots while those in favor of tearing down borders and developing melting pot societies are the flawless visionaries. Yang, though, makes pains to avoid such lazy metaphor and shows just why certain individuals would want to keep their cultures separate, illustrating the pros and the cons of both angles.
Even Aang ends up on what we would perceive as the wrong side of the argument, as he fights against the integration of Yu Dao. While at a glance that might seem out of character, the scenario Yang constructs to explain Aang’s position works perfectly with regards to the character’s history and cultural pride. Additionally, the formation of the Air Acolytes (the source of Aang’s doubts about mixing and diluting cultures) foreshadows their presence in the sequel animated series, The Legend of Korra. It’s all very well plotted and constructed, with no contrived, simple solutions. This is all very complex stuff for a kid’s book, but the topics and the presentation are never out of their grasp. Much like the animated series that came before it, these “Avatar” comics are some of the most sophisticated all ages media I’ve ever experienced; they have a lot to teach young readers without ever talking down to them.
While Part Two put the focus primarily on Toph and Sokka, this volume returns the spotlight to Zuko, Aang and Katara. I was critical in my previous reviews of “The Promise” in regards to Zuko’s backtracking in character growth; that he’s going through his “good or evil” dilemma all over again. With this volume, though, Yang shows that he had a much deeper master plan in store for Zuko that went beyond simple “backtracking”. Like everything else in this series, there are no “simple answers” and defeating Ozai wasn’t like flipping an evil-to-good switch. Zuko’s battle with his own duality will be forever ongoing and he’ll just have to learn to overcome it.
In addition to just the Air Acolytes and Toph’s metalbending academy, more bridges are built between The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra. The entire conflict of segregation vs. integration takes a heavy toll on Aang and his own personal philosophies and sets the stage for the creation of Republic City, which the Korra series explained was founded by Aang-himself. All the more reason any Avatar fan should be reading this series, as it really is an indispensable chapter between the two television shows.
I’m running out of ways to compliment the artists making up Gurihiru. While it takes four months to get 72 pages out of them, the wait is always worth the output, as it really is a beautiful-looking series. They capture the beauty and nuances of the fictional world flawlessly and their attractive, expressive character designs fuse Eastern and Western sensibilities to a degree that I think would satisfy most anyone.
If you haven’t been keeping up with “The Promise” in individual installments, then you may be interested to know that a complete one-volume edition will be coming out sometime soon (Amazon doesn’t have a date for it yet, but the collection’s been announced). It’ll no doubt be cheaper than buying the three volumes separately.
Starting in March of next year, though, will be the follow-up: “The Search.” For everyone whining about the lingering fate of Zuko’s mother, you’ll want to pick it up.