Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Promise: Part 2
by Gene Luen Yang and Studio Gurihiru
2012 • 76 pages • Dark Horse Books
Of all the magnificently drawn characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender, I might like Toph Bei Fong and Sokka of the Southern Water Tribe the most. I have a soft spot for nearly all of them, but Toph and Sokka face particular challenges that make them stand out. Toph is a girl whose blindness and status has made people refuse to see her as a whole human being, keeping her from achieving her full potential as the greatest earthbender the world has ever seen. Sokka, besides being a glorious nerd with a penchant for shopping, is the only member of the Gaang who isn’t a bender and occasionally feels ignored, set aside, or just lesser because of it. The series doesn’t go too far down that path, but it’s present enough to form the foundation for the first series of Legend of Korra.
(Which I still haven’t finished. Yes, I know, bad fandom queer, bad!)
Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Promise: Part 2 (punctuation is taking quite a bruising today here on the blog), obviously, furthers the A plot of the comic—the psychological torment of Fire Lord Zuko as he tries to determine what’s best for the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom and Aang circling the question of keeping his promise to kill Zuko should the Fire Lord begin behaving like his tyrannical father. Unfortunately, the only way Zuko can get any information about his presumedly deceased mother is by visiting his imprisoned father daily, and his father’s theories about morality (namely, that those in power get to determine what is and isn’t moral) are seeping into his unconsciousness. Aang tries to run interference with the Earth King, but the Earth King’s previous blindness to the Fire Nation’s invasion of the Earth Kingdom has made him determined to fight fire with fire. (Pun entirely intended.)
But I’d like to focus on the B plot that gives this second installment its shape, as hard as that is, since everything gets resolved in the next installment. (Aang wondering if letting Ozai live was the right call by talking it over with the past Avatars! Oh, my heart!) In the first installment, we briefly see Toph’s school for metalbending and her three students. In this installment, a Fire Nation dojo tries to claim the space back, citing the incoming Fire Nation, and Toph—with Sokka’s help, as he’s decided that being the third wheel in the Aang and Katara show isn’t his idea of fun—has to best them.
An underdog sports movie riff would have been entirely welcome, but, instead, Yang decides to use the opportunity to further explore Toph and Sokka as characters. As the two brainstorm ways to get her students to metalbend before the big day, Toph tries to force her way through things (per usual) while Sokka tries a softer approach. (He declares himself a motivation bender at one point, which is so 100% Sokka that I could scream.) After they try to copy the conditions in which Toph learned metalbending, Toph realizes that she only learned metalbending when threatened with being shipped back to her uncaring family to be molded into someone she wasn’t. Unwilling to force her students to be people they’re not, she decides to forfeit the match. And it’s this that makes her students step up—knowing that they were chosen, that they are loved, and that, for all Toph’s thunder and physicality, she believes in them.
Oh, and I would horrifically remiss if I didn’t mention a poignant moment for Aang and Katara. At one point, Aang and Katara encounter Aang’s fan club, which is entirely composed of young women who think he’s the cutest and have attempted to cobble together an approximation of airbender culture. Katara is furious with Aang for enjoying their attention. But before she can bring it up, Aang tells her how nice it was to spend time in a place even remotely like the Air Temples of old, which he will never experience again in his lifetime. Katara is chastened; she never considered this. Aang is such a bright, bubbly, and compassionate character that’s often easy to forget how much pain he’s experienced. Small moments like this, then, hit home all the harder.
I rented this book from the public library.