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Required Reading: Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Promise, Part 1

By / Posted on 27 January 2012

Avatar: The Last Airbender — The PromiseNickelodeon’s Avatar: The Last Airbender was the rare sort of cult phenomenon embraced by fans and the parent company. While never being the biggest ratings smash for the children’s television network nor garnering much success in the ever-necessary merchandising department, Nickelodeon continued to support the three-season martial arts teen epic due to fervent fan substantiation and critical acclaim. To see just how beloved The Last Airbender is (despite the universally-panned M. Night Shyamalan feature film adaptation) just go to any comic/anime convention. Odds are pretty excellent that you’ll see more cosplayers dressed as their favorite Airbender characters than any other anime. The story of Aang and the gang wrapped up on television more than three years ago, but the story and characters have only gained in popularity thanks to continued reruns on the Nicktoons network, Netflix instant streaming, and a remarkably enthusiastic and vocal fan community. While the original series managed to tell a complete story and wrap itself up with a good bit of closure, the world of the Avatar and the characters that inhabited it were so compelling that fans have been thirsty for more ever since the show’s close. Creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko are continuing their story later this year with The Last Airbender: Legend of Korra, a new animated adventure that follows the next Avatar, over seventy years after the series finale of the original tale. But what happened in between these stories? What happened to Aang and his band of freedom-spreading friends?

That is exactly where Dark Horse’s new series of original Avatar: The Last Airbender comics comes in. The first volume, The Promise Part 1, picks up exactly where the animated series ended, without skipping even the slightest beat. Firelord Ozai has been defeated, Zuko has been crowned the new Firelord, and Aang and Katara are sharing a long-awaited kiss outside of Iroh’s tea shop in Ba Sing Se. Yup, that’s pretty much exactly where the animated series ended. The whole world’s at peace after a 100-year war, so where’s the conflict, right? Therein lies the titular promise—Zuko makes Aang promise to take him down if he starts to turn evil like his father. Morality has a lot of grey areas, though, and soon Zuko and Aang find themselves on opposite ends of a domestic debate.

Toph

Fans of the series will find a lot to love here, of course, as there are a ton of returning characters—Mai, Ty Lee, Suki and the other Kiyoshi Warriors, Earth King Kuai and his bear Boscow, Avatar Roku, and Freedom Fighters Longshot and Smellerbee—along with a slew of new original characters that fit into the world perfectly, if looking just a bit bubblier in their designs, as though they had emerged from a Disney cartoon. Everything just feels smooth and fluid, as though there were no disconnect at all from the conclusion of the animated series. Most of this speaks to the spot-on character work by writer Gene Luen Yang (the award-winning American Born Chinese), but there’s absolutely nothing to not adore about the work of art team Gurihiru, who have entirely captured the look and feel of the world of the Avatar perfectly. The creative team are clearly a perfect match for Avatar comics, and not just because of each’s passionate past with the franchise (Gurihiru illustrated Avatar comics for Nickelodeon Magazine, Yang famously protested Shyamalan’s The Last Airbender for not using Asian actors) but because all the involved parties clearly get it.

This comic just feels so right. The comedy is inherent in the character interactions as always, the action is clean and vibrant with intelligent panel layout and gutter spacing that accentuate the flow of motion, and the story moves along at a steady click that barely feels like any time at all has passed. The only complaint to be had is that the amount of story told in these 72 pages barely feels like what would be covered in a single episode of the animated series, though that has more to do with the incredibly dense storytelling of the show. Avatar: The Last Airbender captured the hearts and imaginations of families worldwide, families that have been patiently waiting for more from this rich and colorful world of adventure and friendship. With this new series of excellent comics and the beginning of Legend of Korra later this year, it seems that patience has paid off marvelously.

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Derrick Sanskrit has produced critically-acclaimed work as an artist and writer for Nerve, Babble, Pitchfork, The Onion and the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art, among others. He founded The Pop Aesthetic during the coldest months of his life in 2010.