Avatar the Last Airbender has continued past the end of the incredible tv series into graphic novels. The latest edition is Smoke and Shadow, written by Gene Luen Yang.
This review does not contain any major spoilers.
The past comics have been very hit and miss, rarely reaching the heights of the original series. With Smoke and Shadow, however, I feel we may be inching back towards the good times again. The great advantage these graphic novels have is that they can hone in on characters in a little more detail and give us insights into issues that were not explored fully in the tv series. Here we get a much better sense of the political fallout from the epic finale that saw the downfall of a tyrant and the building of a new world.
Fire Lord Ozai still has followers within the Fire Nation, the New Ozai Society. Spurred on by the mysterious Kemurikage – some sort of Fire Nation spirit from fairy tales – this secret order plans to bring down Zuko and the Avatar and reinstate their beloved leader. This was one of the big questions many fans had had after the series finished; since the Fire Nation had spent so much of its history at war and was even educating its children to believe that they were just and that the Fire Lord was their beloved saviour, how could the removal of Ozai not result in an uprising? Surely there must have been people loyal to him? Well, now we finally get an answer.
We also get to see what Mai and Ty Lee are up to. Fan favourites, these two formed two-thirds of the deadliest villain trio in the series. Mai’s deadpan approach to life and difficulty in being impressed are often sources of humour, especially when contrasted with Ty Lee’s upbeat happy-go-lucky sunshine personality. Like most of Avatar, their relationship is all about balance. Where Mai is very focussed on getting to her goals by any means, Ty Lee will question methods and ask if the ends justify the means. While Mai may get things done, the way she does them is often massively questionable. This is a development I was very glad to see as it establishes that these characters haven’t suddenly flipped completely around to the “good” side and still maintain many of the flaws that kept them as antagonists for so long.
The relationship between Zuko and his family is also under some strain and I get the feeling we will see this expanded on. The fallout from previous comics and the full extent of some of the magical and spiritual happenings are having some profound ramifications.
There are some action scenes that really come across beautifully. This is something I feel the comics have been improving on – where in the early editions the action felt a little stale and static, now there is much more of a feeling of movement and consequences. There is weight behind actions, there is strain in the characters faces, and the way the elemental bending is formed around the panels results in some of the most beautiful art in the book.
Where the comics fall down is in the humour. While the show had a much better balance of humour in both the slapstick and character based jokes, the comics have consistently been a little more miss than hit. The quick wit and goofiness of Sokka was often accentuated by Jack De Senna’s voice acting and ad libbing, but with absent voice talents, the scripts feel a little bland.
What’s more, Uncle Iroh’s character feels completely wrong. He makes jokes about Zuko’s angst which really did not come across as a something that his character would do. I’m all for making jokes about Zuko’s often over the top outbursts and sulks, but Uncle Iroh was one of the few people who treated Zuko like a human being and to see him dismissing his beloved nephew’s feelings and history just felt completely wrong.
The story has a lot of intrigue and promises to build up to something incredible. Much like the previous Avatar comics, though, we will have to wait quite a while for the next installment.
Avatar: The Last Airbender – Smoke and Shadow is available in paperback now from Dark Horse.
(It’s also at Amazon and various other places, but do support the publishers themselves if you can!)