Colin Vanden Berg
Assoc. Arts & Culture Editor
Avatar: The Last Airbender (2005-2008) is an Emmy winning animated series which follows a group of likeable teens and preteens who can control the elements of water, earth, fire, and air, during their quest to save their world. The series finale beautifully concluded most plot threads, but the world and characters are so rich that more stories are always possible. Thus, on January 25, 2012, Darkhorse Comics published The Promise, the first of five graphic novel miniseries designed to fill in the gap between The Last Airbender and its sequel series, The Legend of Korra (2012-2014).
The hardcover of the most recent three-part series, North and South—the final miniseries written by Gene Yang and illustrated by artist duo Gurihiru—was released on October 25.
All five mini-series skillfully capture the spirit of the show, telling engaging stories with major implications for the Avatar world. The artwork throughout is beautiful and the representations of the characters are almost completely faithful to their portrayals on the show. However, some installments clearly surpass others, in both storytelling and faithfulness to the show. What follows is a ranking and description of all five series, in honor of the completion of Yang and Gurihiru’s work.
Note: The following contains spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbende and Avatar: The Legend of Korra. These comics are meant primarily for fans, but can also be enjoyed by comic book readers unfamiliar with the show.
- The Promise
The first several pages of The Promise: Part One admirably introduce the world and characters to unfamiliar readers, considering the near impossible task of condensing 61 episodes of high-concept storytelling into about 25 comic book panels. In The Promise, Aang, the Avatar (master of all four elements) and Fire Lord Zuko (emperor of the Fire Nation), attempt to rebuild their world following the 100 year war between the Fire Nation and the other three element-based nations. The titular promise between Aang and Zuko tests their relationship, as rebuilding proves more complicated than expected. This series opens strong, but fizzles by part three due to an overly tidy and unsatisfying conclusion to the high-stakes drama of the first two parts.
- The Search
The Search suffers from the narrative’s heavy dependence on prior knowledge of the show’s continuity. This comic ties up the only loose plot thread from the original show, and does so in a mostly satisfying manner for long-time fans. The character interactions are entertaining, the dialog is a vast improvement on The Promise, and the artwork is exceptional. However, the story itself is fairly one-dimensional and, despite being directly set up in The Promise, offers less of value for non-fans.
- North And South
The final series acts as a very good send-off for writer Gene Yang and artist team Gurihiru. Aang’s primary companions, water-bender Katara and her brother Sokka, return to the war-ravaged South Pole for the first time since ending the war. This story is the most self-contained of the five; it ties in the least with the events of the previous series, and requires the least amount of show knowledge to follow. This comic, featuring Gurihiru’s best work, tells an engrossing story of political intrigue and family drama. Like The Promise, however, Part Three doesn’t quite stick the landing; the result is a well-told, character-driven story which ultimately accomplishes very little.
- Smoke And Shadow
A direct follow-up to events in The Search, this comic gives much-needed development to some of the ancillary characters introduced in that series. The story follows Zuko, who struggles to reconcile his complicated heritage amidst a conspiracy that threatens his rule. This series is well-written, and features exciting, well drawn action, great character work, and the strongest Part Two of all five comics, followed by the second-strongest Part Three. This comic doesn’t top the list for two important reasons. First, it relies very heavily on prior familiarity with the show’s detailed lore, explaining very little about the rules of the world or the relationships between the central characters. The second reason is that much of the story revolves around a love triangle with a foregone conclusion that just adds unnecessary padding to the otherwise strong narrative.
- The Rift
The Rift expertly handles a major theme of the TV show: the conflict between the natural—and supernatural—worlds, and human progress driven by technology. As the Avatar, Aang is the bridge between the spirit and human worlds, and he must navigate a conflict between a vengeful spirit and the industrial enterprises of his good friend earth-bending master, Toph. This series is the best of the five because it tells its multi-layered story in the most concise and well-executed manner. All three parts are excellent, and the dialog is the best, most faithful, and least fan-fiction-like of all five series. This series simply feels the most like a true continuation of the show.
Darkhorse has yet to announce further comic continuations of The Last Airbender. In August, however, Darkhorse released Turf Wars, the first of a three-part comic sequel to The Legend of Korra, written by series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko. Part one was excellent, both setting up an exciting narrative and deftly addressing the title character’s bisexual nature, which was revealed in the shows final moments.