Award-winning writer Gene Luen Yang (Boxers & Saints) and the Gurihiru art team (Power Pack) return to the world of Avatar: The Last Airbender with the first entry in the franchise’s latest graphic novel trilogy. [SPOILER WARNING: Reviews may contain significant spoilers]
- Paperback/full color/$10.99 (US)
- In stores 23 September 2015
- Script: Gene Luen Yang
- Art: Gurihiru
- Avatar the Last Airbender created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko
- “The Fire Nation is threatened by a prophecy told by the Kemurikage, mysterious figures thought only to exist in legend: Remove Zuko from the throne, or the country will perish! Avatar Aang and his friends escort Zuko and his family back to the capital, completely unaware of the looming threat growing in the city. Unrest is brewing as the New Ozai Society prepares to make its move against the crown, and children begin to go missing from their homes under mysterious circumstances!”
One of the strengths of the Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series is its ability to present complex ethical issues to younger viewers in an age-appropriate manner without trivializing them—no easy feat when talking about what is essentially a long-running story about a multi-faction world war. The show achieves this in part by giving both major players and pivotal one-off characters reasonably plausible, psychologically believable motives. Avatar: The Last Airbender still revolves around a binary conflict between good and evil, but much like the real world, many of the “bad guys” aren’t so much one-dimensional moustache-twirling villains as they they are regular people who just happen to be ignorant or lacking in empathy in certain contexts, and even the nominal “good guys” have their own moral blind spots.
A decade after the show’s debut and seven years after the final episode aired, award-winning writer Gene Luen Yang maintains the animated series’ ethos through its four official serial graphic novel follow-ups—2012’s The Promise, 2013’s The Search, last year’s The Rift, and the subject of this review, part one of a fourth sequel called Smoke and Shadow. Beyond the nuanced approach to framing moral quandaries, however, what unites these four books are the themes of reconciliation, compromise, and healing in the wake of the disruptions of war. These Avatar serial graphic novels are excellent contemporary examples of what can be described as the “post-war comics” subgenre (as opposed to the larger war comics category), comics that focus on the aftereffects of military conflict on individuals and communities.
Smoke and Shadow, Part One features two primary storylines with roots in the previous books in the series: (a) what seems to be the serial graphic novel’s main plot about hardline Fire Nation counter-revolutionaries and their plan to topple Fire Lord Zuko and restore his deposed father Ozai to the throne, and (b) a subplot regarding Zuko’s ongoing reunion with his mother Ursa.
The first narrative thread builds on the idea first introduced in The Promise that pockets of militant ultra-nationalists are opposed to Prince Zuko’s overthrow of his father as leader of the Fire Nation and his subsequent ascension to the Fire Lord throne (an event that happened at the end of the animated series). The ultra-nationalists feel that the Fire Nation under Zuko’s rule has made too many political and territorial concessions to its former vassal state, the Earth Kingdom. One of these groups, the New Ozai Society, stages an attack on Zuko’s cavalcade, but is thwarted by the timely intervention of Zuko’s former flame Mai, who uncovers the plot through a sham relationship with a junior member of the New Ozai Society. As it turns out, the Society is actually led by Mai’s estranged father, a formerly prosperous aristocrat during Ozai’s rule.
There’s a lot for young readers to unpack and deal with here, not the least of which is the concept that winning a war does not necessarily mean the end of conflict. Other issues raised in this first installment of the Smoke and Shadow trilogy is the difficulty of managing post-war reconstruction and restitution, the ethics of using deception in the service of intelligence-gathering, and the divisive effect of political differences within families and communities. Yang addresses these ideas through Avatar: The Last Airbender‘s fantasy idiom, streamlining the important ethical arguments and making them accessible for readers of all ages, while avoiding the reductionism that is implicit with caricature and just as importantly, sidestepping the thorny issue of subjectivity found in accounts of real-world history. It’s a terrific balancing act for which the writer deserves praise, and is just the latest demonstration showing that the Avatar: The Last Airbender books can be potentially useful as a tool for teaching the preteen and YA set how to think critically about current events and the history of human conflict.
Make no mistake, however: This latest book is also about giving readers more of the action-adventure thrills, dynamic martial arts fight scenes, soap opera-style relationship drama, and slapstick comedy that has earned the Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise the enduring loyalty of its fans. Readers uninterested in Smoke and Shadow’s big picture will still come away sufficiently entertained, especially with the returning Gurihiru art team providing their always-exemplary visuals, but those who reflect on the larger lessons of the narrative will get the most out of the reading experience.