If anyone had told me five years ago that an animated Nickelodeon show would become one of my favorite TV shows ever, I’d have had a hard time believing it. I don’t consider myself too grown-up for animation or anything like that. I just wouldn’t expect an animated show on a kid-oriented network to achieve the kind of sophistication and complexity I find in my favorite TV shows. And although I enjoyed Avatar: The Last Airbender from the start, it took a while for it to become a favorite. But once it did, sometime during the second season, I was well and truly hooked. It’s a show that, like so many of my favorites, put the characters first and stretches them so that they find their strength and their true selves. And when it was over, I wanted more.
It may, in fact, be telling that I was more interested in reading the comic-book follow-ups for Avatar that I was in the ones for Buffy, The Vampire Slayer. But I attribute that mostly to the fact that Buffy’s story seemed to be complete. The Avatar story, on the other hand, had gaps that I wanted to see filled.
The first volume of the Avatar comics was a curious and highly uneven collection called The Lost Adventures. These are mostly short stories that occur during the time of the original series. My understanding is that many of them were published with the DVD. They were … not great. Most of them were one-joke vignettes that focused on the show’s comedy elements, rather than the more serious character development.
The three graphic novel trilogies that I read, on the other hand, were excellent—exactly what I wanted. Written by Gene Luen Yang with series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko and with art by Gurihiru, these books take place in the period after the animated series and before the sequel series, The Legend of Korra, which picks up the story with a new generation.
The first, The Promise, takes place immediately after the defeat of the Fire Nation, with Zuko having to decide what kind of leader he’ll be as the new Fire Lord. He asks Avatar Aang to help ensure that he doesn’t become a despot like his father. But as the complications of independence for the former colonies becomes evident, that promise becomes more difficult to keep. This book is a great example of how the series balances big political questions about how to govern with personal questions of how to be a good person and a good leader. Zuko, Aang, and Toph all have to grapple with this as they each take on a new leadership role.
The book I was most eager to read, The Search, came next. This book was really the reason I got these comics. The big question left unanswered at the end of the series was about the fate of Zuko’s mother, Ursa, and this book promised to answer it. To find the answer, Zuko decides he must get help from his sister, Azula, who has been imprisoned since the end of the war. Much of this book dwells on family and how difficult it is to put family relationships aside, even when those relationships aren’t good for us. Setting them aside comes at a cost. Ursa’s story is extremely painful because she felt she had to break those relationships, and she took drastic measures to do so. That aspect of the story was extremely satisfying, although I found some of the parallel relationships to be a little trite in comparison.
And, finally, I read The Rift, which addresses the tension between tradition and progress as Aang and Toph find themselves on opposite sites of a dispute about a factory built on what was once ground sacred to the airbenders. Probably the best part of this book was seeing Toph’s reunion with her father. It was also fun to see that she had a fan in the young engineer Satoru. The principal conflict itself didn’t interest me as much as others in the series, but I think it’s because the stakes didn’t seem all that high. I could appreciate the characters’ dilemmas, but this wasn’t a conflict that had been building over years.
I enjoyed these books, but I’m not sure I’ll read the others. For now, at least, my desire for more of this story is satisfied. But I’m glad to know there’s more in the works if I want it. (And there are still a couple of seasons of Korra I can watch as well.)