A Frenaissance - Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise Part 1 / by Erik Sugay

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“…And they all lived happily ever after.” Most narratives, in any medium, end in that manner. The hero gets the girl, evil is thwarted, the world is saved, roll credits. Once the most significant plot conflicts are dealt with, the story usually concludes. It’s natural to want to leave the audience on a high note, so any time given to the denouement is left short.

You never really get to know how characters’ lives continue, only having your own lofty assumptions to rely on. That tradition held true for Avatar: The Last Airbender. Everything tied up rather nicely as the screen faded to black, save for one noteworthy exception. The fan base was abuzz with speculation of a spin off or sequel to deal with that lingering question. Four long years after the original series finale, the universe of The Last Airbender is set to be revisited this summer with an all-new animated series sequel, The Legend of Korra.

In the interim, a mini-series of graphic novels, subtitled The Promise, is being released to sate fans until the show’s premiere, with the first issue beginning immediately after the first series’ finale. The Promise is intended to bridge the storyline gap, around 70 years of in-universe time, between the two animated series.

Now, say what you will about the suspect quality of M. Night Shyamalan’s big-screen adaptation, but its source material – with its slick combination of fluid animation and storyboarding, sincere voice acting, genuine action, solid script, heartfelt soundtrack, and gorgeous art (yes, all of these things!) – makes for the best animated show to debut in the past decade or so.  It is so wonderfully realized that few modern properties can compare.

Of course, much of that stellar experience lies in the execution of several supplementing parts. Atmosphere is a huge part of why the series was enormously successful. The realm of graphic novels is relatively limited compared to animation, so the many aspects of sound, immensely critical in the series’ overall ambience, would need to be omitted. It is then natural to approach this project with trepidation about whether or not the series could be represented faithfully in another medium while missing so many core components.

Author Gene Luen Yang has the unenviable task of answering the many open questions that naturally extend from that 70-year time-skip. Luckily, the script was co-written with Mike DiMartino and Brian Konietzko, the series’ creators. So, you can throw any reservations you may have about messing with original’s quality right out the window. The transition from television to page is flawless.

As much wonderfully illustrated action as there is (with stunning art supplied by Gurihiru), it’s the many meaningful character relationships, and how their new situations test those relationships, that drive the story forward. Since this is the first issue, the focal points of the mini-series are set up here. Two of the main characters have assumed their rightful positions of power, but, as positive as their outlooks and motivations were when the first series ended, the characters are still very young. After the end of the 100-year war, they are tasked with rebuilding the recently-liberated civilizations, while mending the shattered relationships between the disparate cultures. Hoping to bring balance to the world quickly, they implement a hatchet solution, where a more refined approach would have been preferable. Understandably, new and complex conflicts arise due to that oversight. The issue ends on a subdued, but exceptionally thoughtful cliffhanger. The writers have a distinct vision and it’s playing out deliberately and exquisitely.

The biggest compliment I can give is that reading this – revisiting these memorable characters in new situations and recognizable locations – is like embracing an old friend. Catching up, you cannot comprehend how you grew apart in the first place, but are just elated that you have the chance to rekindle that friendship. As such, much like The Lost Adventures, going into this book without experiencing the original series in full will leave you confused, if not indifferent. Relationships are glossed over and key characters pop up at prudent storyline points, but you won’t be given any sort of introduction or background to them. Indeed, this tale is not for the newcomer.

The Promise is also a risky investment for those who are familiar with the source material. It hasn't been the case yet, but this mini-series could end up tampering with the essence of the original story and its enduring character personalities. Thankfully, what’s on offer so far is exemplary. As long as The Promise can consistently live up to the high standards that the original series set for it, you can consider “To Be Continued” a much sweeter end than “Happily Ever After.”

TL;DR: The first issue addresses the show’s aftermath with great respect and, even without the aural components to complement it, The Last Airbender’s essence is kept faithfully intact. You won’t be able to fully appreciate this without first watching the show, but if you have seen it, READ THIS NOW!

Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Promise is written by Gene Luen Yan, Bryan Konietzko, and Michael DiMartino, and illustrated by Gurihiru. Published by Dark Horse, you can ask for it at your local comic book shop or, support Spandexless by purchasing through our [Amazon web store] (http://astore.amazon.com/spandexless0e-20/detail/1595828117).