Review: Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Lost Adventures

Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Lost Adventures from Dark Horse Comics

Last summer, with the controversy over the despicably racist casting of the film adaptation of the series, I finally caught up with the rest of the fannish world and watched Avatar: The Last Airbender, a remarkably tight animated fantasy series that takes its cues from Asian, Indian, and Inuit cultures rather than European cultures. I absolutely loved it, but, as you can imagine, the fandom was not the most active, the series having ended in 2008. I barely knew that Nickelodeon magazine published Avatar: The Last Airbender comics, but when I saw that a compilation was up for review on NetGalley, I had to read it.

Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Lost Adventures collects the various comics published in Nickelodeon Magazine, included with the DVD releases, and published on Free Comic Book Day. In a world where the four elements—fire, water, earth, and air—can be mastered by certain individuals known as “benders”, only the Avatar can master all four and keep the world in balance. But when the Fire Nation decided to conquer the rest of the world, the Avatar vanished. A hundred years later, a Waterbender girl named Katara and her brother Sokka discover that the Avatar, an Airbender named Aang, has been frozen in ice. Eager to put the world right, the three friends set forth to teach Aang the other elements and battle the Fire Lord, Ozai—but Ozai’s disgraced son, Zuko, is bent on finding the Avatar to restore his good name.

If you’ve never encountered Avatar: The Last Airbender, this is not the compilation for you. All the comics collected are side stories that aren’t necessary for someone watching the television show to know, but if you ever wondered why the Earth King decided to explore his kingdom as a humble peasant or how Zuko and Mai hooked up, you’ll find out here. (And no, fellow Avatar fans, there isn’t anything about Zuko’s mother in here. There’s no material created solely for this book.) This is for the fans, or, at least, people who have watched the entire show. The stories bounce from cute, simply comic pieces (the audience for the show, while never talked down to, was roughly middle-school aged) where, for instance, Katara bests some trouble-making boys throwing water balloons by waterbending, to thoughtful and interesting pieces—Aang’s frustration over his relationship with Katara is dealt with, as is the fallout of being the last survivor of a genocide. The book is divided up into three sections patterned after the three seasons of the show, and actually fit between certain episodes, save for the two bonus comics at the end, which are just… odd. They’re not bad, but one includes characters designed by little kids who won a contest, so it’s more a vanity piece than anything, and the other is a superdeformed comic that takes place in a high school.

Save for the bonus comics, all of the comics are pretty well-written—again, a majority of them are pretty straight-forward, but the various different writers on the project capture the characters’ voices well. Part of what makes Avatar: The Last Airbender such a great television show are the strong characters and their friendship; they’re all very distinct and well-developed. I would be remiss not to tell you that Sokka is my favorite character from the show (though I love them all); he’s funny and occasionally awkward, but he’s also a really clever guy, usually coming up with strategies and plans to help out the gang. So it was great to see them as I remembered them in these comics. It probably helps that a lot of the writers and artists who worked on these comics were also involved in the show, as well as the tight continuity of the television program itself—some of these comics could have been episodes in their own right.

Most of the artists more or less pattern themselves after the television show; Johane Matte is the most successful among those. But there are some who, while good artists, don’t particularly fit into the clean lines and bright colors of the original—Reagan Lodge andTom McSweeney’s work are both too sketchy and exaggerated, for instance. And yet they were teamed up for the story “Dragon Days”, where Matte handles the frame story and McSweeney the flashback. Not the best of ideas. But my favorite work is that of Gurihiru, a Japanese team composed of Sasaki, the illustrator, and Kawano, the colorist. Their work retains the signature style of the television series, but also has a rounded, playful quality to it that gets across the kinetic energy of the show that can be hard to render without animation, as well as the young ages of the main cast. It’s a joy to look at, to be totally honest, and I would love to see Gurihiru do more work in the Avatar: The Last Airbender universe. Perhaps they’ve been called in to work on the graphic novel dealing with the period between that show and its sequel show, The Legend of Korra?

Bottom line: Avatar: The Last Airbender fans only—you’ll be totally lost if you’ve never seen the show before. But it’s nice to have all the randomly published comics in one volume, and the writing is solid throughout, although the art can be variable. But the stories illustrated by Gurihiru are absolute joys to read, and well worth reading for.

I read this digital galley for free on NetGalley.

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