The GeeksverseLeaving Proof 173 | A World Without Villains: on the nuanced morality and politics of Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Promise

Leaving Proof 173 | A World Without Villains: on the nuanced morality and politics of Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Promise
Published on Tuesday, February 19, 2013 by
The hardcover, “library edition” collection of Dark Horse Books’ Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Promise hits store shelves later this week. Join us as we briefly discuss the book’s moral and political themes. ALSO: A new Mixtape! 

Author’s notes:

  • SPOILER WARNING: This article contains plot spoilers for Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Promise.
  • Reviews/summaries of the previously released individual chapters of Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Promise can be read here.
  • An article detailing the influence of the classical Chinese novel Journey to the West on the story and character designs of Avatar: The Last Airbender can be read here.

atllibedvol1p9In Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Promise, writer Gene Luen Yang upends conventional juvenile action-fantasy notions of good, evil, and the utility of violence in conflict resolution. This shouldn’t be too surprising to readers familiar with the acclaimed animated series created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino. Throughout the show’s original three-season run on Nickelodeon, protagonist Aang and his compatriots frequently had to navigate a complex web of ethics and morality. They had to make a distinction between the “evil empire” of the conquering Fire Nation led by the power-mad tyrant Fire Lord Ozai and the individual citizens of the Fire Nation. Complicating things further is that many of those opposed to the Fire Nation, nominally on the same side as the Avatar, occasionally crossed ethical lines in their fight against the Fire Lord: Jet and his Freedom Fighters, Hama the Bloodbender, among others, had allowed their obsessive pursuit of victory against their Fire Nation enemies to cloud their notions of right and wrong, rationalizing that committing atrocities against Fire Nation civilians is justified by the need for retribution and revenge by those who have suffered under the Fire Nation’s military rule. Through it all, Aang stuck to certain immutable principles, chief of which is the preservation of human life: After defeating a cosmically-empowered Ozai In the Final Battle, Aang—going against the weight of pragmatism, history, emotion, and the advice of his Avatar predecessors—opted to spare his life, but permanently “disarmed” him, using his considerable powers to take away the Fire Lord’s ability to control the element of fire.

The Promise finds the Fire Nation and the Earth Nation a year after Ozai’s defeat, with their leaders and the Avatar trying to work out a way to partition the liberated Earth Nation territories formerly occupied by the Fire Nation during the Hundred Years’ War and puzzling out a way to deal with their mixed populations.


With my reviews of the individual chapters of The Promise, I was working off of the assumption that Yang partially modeled the post-Final Battle Fire Nation on the real-world Weimar Republic, a defeated, former aggressor nation pushed by punitive reforms into desperate straits that, ironically, motivated its return to belligerent status. That assumption was made in error—in the commentary that accompanies the library edition of The Promise, Yang makes specific mention that the story was inspired in part by China’s reaction to its humiliations at the hands of colonial powers during the late 19th century (see the page reproduced at the right)—but similar, broad, repeating historical parallels are in play just the same. Just as the concessions the Qing Dynasty made to foreign governments in the unequal treaties of Nanking and Tientsin led to the Taiping Rebellion and the Nien Rebellion and later, government-backed reactionary measures such as the Self-Strengthening Movement, so did the German people’s resentment of the overly-harsh terms of the Treaty of Versailles help the spread of far-right, racist, ultra-nationalist sentiment that put the Nazi Party in power in the 1930s. A distinct pattern of settling of old scores along ethnic/sectarian/cultural lines and extended post-conflict violence with the potential to spill over national borders has become almost typical of the more unstable nations of the post-colonial and post-Cold War world. Such concerns are as relevant and immediate today—in places such as the Middle East, Africa, the former Eastern Bloc, and elsewhere—as they were in the last two centuries. The central conflict of The Promise mirrors this reality and in many ways simplifies it for pop culture consumption, but to Yang’s credit (and the credit of DiMartino and Konietzko, who oversaw the production of the book), the book does not reduce it to caricature or unintentional parody.

As in the animated series, Aang faces the temptation of using precise, lethal violence to stem the spread of war and just like in the show, Aang declines that option and instead resorts to a novel, “middle way” solution that seeks to balance his moral and spiritual philosophy with practical goals whilst accounting for the needs and goals of all involved. It’s a refreshing development in a medium and genre that too easily resorts to the depiction of justified violence as a means for conflict resolution, the ultimate answer to seemingly intractable problems of hostility.

Now hear this…

It’s been a while since I last shared multiple musical selections in this space, so here’s a new Mixtape for your listening pleasure. No theme here, just a random assemblage of tracks that I’ve had in rotation in my Tabata training playlist of late:

  • Charles Bradley (with the Menahan Street Band) – Why is it so Hard? (Live on KEXP)

  • UpDharmaDown – Luna

  • Hopie Spitshard – Higher, Higher

  • Blue Scholars – Tommy Chong

  • Nujabes (feat. Cise Starr and Akin) – Feather

  • The 45 King – Raw Dope Rhyme

  • Chillitees – Andar

  • DJ Okawari – Luv Letter

  • Raul Midon – Peace on Earth (Live at the North Sea Jazz Festival)

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