The GeeksverseREVIEWS | Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Rift, Parts 1 and 2, RoboCop: The Human Element, and Where is Home?

REVIEWS | Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Rift, Parts 1 and 2, RoboCop: The Human Element, and Where is Home?
Published on Saturday, July 5, 2014 by
Looking for a trade paperback to read? Check out our reviews of Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Rift, Parts 1 and 2 (Dark Horse), RoboCop: The Human Element (BOOM! Studios), and recent Crowdfunding Spotlight subject Where is Home? for some ideas.

[Reviewer’s note: Unless otherwise specified, all reviewed titles were provided free-of-charge by their respective publishers or creative team personnel or sourced from public libraries. Click here to read more of our trade paperback and hardcover reviews.]

Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Rift, Parts 1 and 2 (Dark Horse) [EDITOR’S PICK]

  • atlbtrv1p0Story: Gene Luen Yang, Michael Dante DiMartino, Bryan Konietzko
  • Script: Gene Luen Yang
  • Art: Gurihiru
  • Covers: Gurihiru
  • Format: 80 pages, full color, trade paperback (Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Rift, Part 1); 80 pages, full color, trade paperback (Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Rift, Part 2)
  • List price: $10.99 (Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Rift, Part 1); $10.99 (Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Rift, Part 2)
  • Sale date: 05 March 2014 (Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Rift, Part 1); 02 July 2014 (Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Rift, Part 2)
  • Publisher’s description (Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Rift, Part 1): Avatar Aang asks his friends to help him honor Yangchen’s Festival—one of the highest Air Nomad holidays, which hasn’t been celebrated in over one hundred years. But cryptic visits from the spirit of Avatar Yangchen herself lead Aang to discover a jointly owned Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom refinery—operating on land sacred to the Airbenders! Is this the cause of the pollution Aang finds there, or is a more mysterious menace afoot?
  • avtlbtrv2p0Publisher’s description (Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Rift, Part 2): Team Avatar find themselves up to their necks in trouble as mysterious forces threaten to destroy land once sacred to the Airbenders! While Aang journeys to the spirit world in search of clues, Toph faces off against her own past!
  • Click here to read our Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Promise retrospective
  • Click here for our review of Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Search, part 1.
  • Click here for our review of Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Search, part 2.
  • Click here for our review of Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Search, part 3.

One of Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s best attributes—both as an animated show and a graphic novel series (let’s pretend the widely reviled M. Night Shyamalan live-action film adaptation never happened, shall we?)—is the nuance of its approach to questions of ethics and morality. This isn’t to suggest that Avatar: The Last Airbender creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino and Avatar: The Last Airbender serial graphic novel writer Gene Luen Yang call on lazy, normative moral relativism. In fact, Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s moral compass points to what its creators and writers deem to be universal concepts of right and wrong within the property’s moral space, with their most fundamental expression being the twin beliefs that every sentient being has the right to life and that the killing of a sentient being, even in self-defense, always comes with a heavy ethical—and karmic, if you like—cost.

In that sense, Avatar: The Last Airbender is hardly unique, but it is in the depth of its exploration of why people make the ethical and moral choices that they do that really makes it stand out from among its peers in Western animation and comics intended, at least nominally, for the younger set.

Gene Luen Yang brings that emphasis on establishing psychologically-plausible character motivations to The Rift, the latest three-part Avatar: The Last Airbender serial graphic novel from publisher Dark Horse Books. The major thematic through line this time around is the potential opposition between tradition and progress, as Aang and his friends finds themselves going up against a crystal refinery that is situated on territory that is considered sacred by Aang’s Air Nomad culture.

The moral battle lines in this conflict seem straightforward at the outset—folk tradition and preserving nature = good, large-scale industrialization and pollution = bad—but as in 2012’s excellent Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Promise, things are rarely so simple. The refinery has turned what was an idle parcel of land once reserved for the use of Air Nomads into a place of employment for Earth and Fire Nation citizens as well as migrant workers from the Southern Water Tribe. The refinery has also allowed for the creation of new technologies that have practical and potential utility. And just like in The Promise, the key to conflict resolution in The Rift looks like it will be found not in one side forcing its will and beliefs on the other, but in reasonable compromise taking into account all relevant perspectives. Aang and his friends will need to find a way to balance tradition, care for the environment, industrialization, and the practical needs and welfare of a developing society. This is no easy feat, although we do know that Aang will succeed to some degree based on what we’ve seen of the United Republic of Nations setting in The Legend of Korra (which is set some 70 years in Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s future).

The Rift also serves as a showcase for fan-favorite character Toph Beifong, who figures in a subplot involving her estrangement from her aristocrat industrialist father. Toph’s narrative mirrors the themes of the main plot—her brash demeanor and pioneering work as an earthbender and metalbender clashes with the classist, traditionalist leanings of her father. Unlike the main narrative thread, however, a setting aside of differences and a meeting halfway may not be in the offing on this front.

On the visual side of things, the Gurihiru art team’s work has never looked better in the Avatar: The Last Airbender series of graphic novels as it does here. The Rift, Part 2 features my favorite visuals in the books so far: dynamically-staged and lit flashback sequences featuring Avatar Yangchen battling an angry warrior spirit.

After the meandering story and somewhat disappointing end of last year’s The Search, it’s a welcome relief to see a return to the tense, high-stakes action and drama in these first two installments of The Rift. Whatever is to come in The Rift, Part 3 (tentatively scheduled for a November 2014 release), Yang and Gurihiru have laid down an excellent foundation for the conclusion and a fine springboard for any further Avatar: The Last Airbender serial graphic novels.

Preview pages from Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Rift, Part 1:

Preview pages from Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Rift, Part 2:

RoboCop: The Human Element (BOOM! Studios)

  • BOOM_Robocop_Human_Element_TPStoriesEd Brisson, Frank J. Barbiere, Joe Harris, Michael Moreci
  • Illustrations: Emilio Laiso, Piotr Kowalksi, João “Azeitona” Vieira, Jason Copland
  • Colors: Michael Garland, Ruth Redmond, Vladimir Popov, Juan Manuel Tumburus
  • Cover: Greg Smallwood
  • Format: 128 pages, full color, trade paperback
  • List price: $14.99
  • Sale date: 25 June 2014
  • Publisher’s description: With the re-imagining of an all-time classic, fans of the new and old will be immersed in the action, oppression and humanity in these untold RoboCop stories. Explore the world of the new film, brought to you by some of the freshest voices in the industry.

RoboCop: The Human Element collects the four one-shots published earlier this year by BOOM! Studios to coincide with the premiere of Jose Padilha’s remake of the 1987 film: Beta by Ed Brisson and Emilio Laiso, Memento Mori by Frank Barbiere and João Vieira, To Live and Die in Detroit by Joe Harris and Piotr Kowalski, and Hominem Ex Machina by Michael Moreci and Jason Copland.

Of the four stories, Brisson and Laiso’s Beta works best as both a stand-alone read and as a film tie-in, and it is no surprise that the book’s designers chose it to be the lead story despite it being the last of the four RoboCop one-shots to be released chronologically, having gone on sale two weeks after the wide-release debut of Padilha’s RoboCop in North American theaters. No prior familiarity with RoboCop is necessary to get into Brisson’s story of the military precursor to OCP’s cyborg police officer, engineered from a combination of robot technology and Joshua Duncan, a soldier who was shot and—for all intents and purposes—killed while taking part in a fictional, near-future US invasion of Iran. Beta is a mystery first and foremost, with Duncan conducting an investigation of his remaining memories to find out the exact circumstances of his “death” prior to being resurrected as a cyborg. In between plumbing his flashbacks for clues as to the identity of his assailant, Duncan also takes part in military missions alongside regular soldiers. Brisson does an excellent job of building up the tension as Duncan gets closer and closer to figuring out how he “died” while also parceling out little details about the setting and context (the US invasion of Iran is a key event in the legislation of autonomous drone technology in the film). Beta‘s ironic Shock Suspenstories-style ending reveal, while not wholly unexpected, is quite satisfying.

Laiso’s art on Beta also stands as the strongest in the collection, with his soft, almost painterly approach to the visuals in Duncan’s flashback sequences offering an excellent contrast to the more traditional rendering of the rest of the story. I do wonder if BOOM! Studios was unable to negotiate the rights to the likenesses of the RoboCop cast, however, as none of the characters from the film who also appear in the comic look especially like their real-world actor counterparts.

Memento Mori, To Live and Die in Detroit, and Hominem Ex Machina, while all competently executed works, aren’t particularly memorable and suffer from some issues in execution. The art in these three entries looks somewhat rushed relative to Beta, with the roughness and lack of detail in the rendering seeming to be less a stylistic choice on the part of the artists concerned than a concession to what I assume were quick deadlines resulting from the comics’ film tie-in nature. In addition, Hominem Ex Machina features a portrayal of robotics engineer and RoboCop ally Dr. Dennett Norton that strikes me as decidedly at odds with how the character was written in the film.

Fans of the RoboCop remake who must have all four BOOM! Studios RoboCop one-shots will find a better deal with RoboCop: The Human Element, which is almost a dollar cheaper ($14.99) than getting the one-shots individually at cover price (4 x $3.99 = $15.96) and is in a more durable trade paperback format, besides. Casual fans of the film, however, might be better served just picking up the RoboCop: Beta one-shot than spending for the entire one-shot collection in trade.

Preview pages from RoboCop: Beta:

Preview pages from RoboCop: Memento Mori:

Preview pages from RoboCop: To Live and Die in Detroit:

Preview pages from RoboCop: Hominem Ex Machina:

Where is Home? (publication contingent on successful Kickstarter funding)

  • WhereIsHomeCoverArt_CarlsonStory and art by: Diane Aarts, Kate Carleton, Nicole Gagnon, Nicholas Hendriks, Megan Hendriks-Kearney, Vanessa Stefaniuk
  • Poster-style illustrations by: Mike Amante, Arielle Jovellanos, Abigail Malate, Mike Matola, Alex Stepanov, Janet Sung, Pam Wishbow
  • Front Cover: Mallory Carlson
  • Back cover: Alex Stepanov with Paul Halasa
  • Format: 60 pages, full color, trade paperback
  • List price: $10 (DRM-free PDF), $32 (print trade paperback)
  • Sale date: Where is Home? is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter and will only be printed and delivered to backers if it meets its minimum funding goal of $4,000 (CAD) by 09 July 2014, 3:09 PM PDT.
  • Description (from the Crowdfunding Spotlight article): Where is Home? is a 60-page, full-color, perfect-bound, comics anthology trade paperback collectively produced by a team of artists creatively answering the question: Where is home? [… ] The Where is Home? project is spearheaded by Ontario, Canada-based animator and illustrator Vanessa Stefaniuk. The book’s art is produced by a collective of professional artists (including Stefaniuk), many of whom are graduates of Sheridan College‘s bachelor’s degree program in animation and the Illustration program at Parsons The New School for Design.
  • NOTE: The digital PDF copy of Where is Home? reviewed for this article was a pre-publication edition and may differ in minor details from the final print and PDF editions.

The greatest strengths of the comics anthology format—its variety of content and the stylistic diversity its multiple contributors bring to the table—can also give rise to the problem of inconsistency. Thankfully, the solidly executed contributions outweigh the shakier ones in Where is Home?, a collection of short comics and poster-style illustrations by a collective of artists based in Canada, the United States, and the Philippines created around the theme suggested by the title.

The bulk of the contributors to the anthology are animators by trade and training, and it is interesting to see how their background makes its presence felt (or not) in the storytelling. Especially notable are Vanessa Stefaniuk’s “Liberty,” a short comic which eschews text and effectively delivers a narrative set in two different timeframes through visuals alone, Nicholas Hendriks’ black & white story “Decennial,” which has a refined sense of visual drama and subtly uses implied intent and emotion to provide ample characterization within its limited page count, and Pam Wishbow’s beautifully done, relief print-like illustrations.

The inclusion of so many single-page illustrations and the somewhat fuzzy narrative focus of the collected stories—despite the unifying theme—means that Where is Home? works better when thought of as a themed art book that just happens to include short comics stories, rather than a comics anthology, but that’s really just a matter of semantics.


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