The Promise: Part One
by Gene Luen Yang and Studio Gurihiru
2012 • 80 pages • Dark Horse Books
Was there ever a dreamier team better suited to writing and illustrating Avatar: The Last Airbender comics as Gene Luen Yang and Studio Gurihiru? Yang, the amazing Chinese-American comics writer, has written eloquently in support of boycotting the heinously whitewashed The Last Airbender movie and in glowing praise of the original show drawing on actual Asian history in a respectful way for its stories in the same comic. And Studio Gurihiru (composed of Japanese artists Chifuyu Sasaki and Naoko Kawano) is known for its endearing, lyrical, and slightly cartoonish art style, making it the perfect choice to translate the stunning gorgeous and dynamic animation of the original cartoon series. Fittingly, the two have remained joined at the hip throughout the run of Avatar: The Last Airbender comics, from “The Promise” to “The Search.”
The Promise: Part One picks up where Avatar: The Last Airbender leaves off—with the Fire Nation safely out of the hands of the tyrannical Lord Ozai and in the hands of his son, Lord Zuko. Terrified that he’ll repeat the mistakes his father did, Zuko makes Avatar Aang promise to kill him if he shows signs of repeating the past. Aang promises, of course. A year later, Aang, the Earth King, and Zuko are working towards the peaceful repatriation of the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom. But repairing the damage the Fire Nation’s century long war against the rest of the world has caused is more complex than any of them thought.
This is why Avatar: The Last Airbender is such a fantastic series: the amount of thought and care that goes into every iteration (save the previously mentioned and deeply atrocious film, which was wrenched from the hands of its creators) is not only astonishing, but generates organic and human stories. I mean, his is a series that landed on “steampunk Hong Kong” for its sequel series through organic worldbuilding, for the love of Bowie. I’m always tentative about reviewing serialized comics in their specific volumes, since I usually have a lot to talk about at the beginning and then peter out, so I was waffling whether or not to review The Promise in its installments or just hold out until all three came in at the library. (Those darn kids and wanting comics about their cartoons! Don’t they know a grown woman wants to wait a week for that book? And it’ll just take me an hour, you can wait.) But I shouldn’t have worried about that with Yang at the helm. He centers each installment around a very human issue.
Part One centers around Yu Dao, one of the oldest Fire Nation colonies that has developed its own unique culture in the Earth Kingdom. When Zuko’s paranoias (always a scary thing in a family with a history of instability) are proven right and he’s attacked by someone over the Harmony Restoration Movement (as it’s called), it turns out to be an Earthbender from Yu Dao who identifies as Fire Nation. As Zuko wrestles with the dilemma of what to do about Yu Dao, Yang takes the fairly simple worldbuilding of the original show—all benders of an element seem to live in their country of origin—and expands on it. He asks about heritage in a world where your heritage is assumed to be a cut and dried thing.
It’s elegant and it’s subtle. There are plenty of shenanigans—much is made over Aang and Katara being an actual couple, to the heebie jeebies of Sokka. I didn’t realize how much I missed all of these characters, especially Toph Bei Fong, who has begun her journey as the self-proclaimed and actual greatest earthbender in the entire world. But, just like the show itself, it achieves a fantastic balance between its darker and more complex questions and the sheer delight of its character beats. (I may never get over the blind Toph screaming in Sokka’s ear to try and approximate what fireworks sound like to her. Genius.)
By the by, If you haven’t treated yourself to Avatar: The Last Airbender, you are missing out, my friend. Please correct this as soon as you can. But don’t worry, I’ve been dragging my feet about its sequel series, Legend of Korra, for no real reason, even though there are queer ladies at the end of that rainbow.