Avatar: The Last Airbender: The Promise

Gene Luen Yang

Book cover

OK, before I write about “The Promise,” let me just take a second to talk about the Avatar TV show, since I don’t use any websites where I would write a TV review! In short, I watched the full series in summer 2020 on the strong recommendations of two friends whose tastes I respect (if not always agree with!). It really is a wonderful show and I would recommend almost anyone to check it out, and not be turned off by it being a “kids show” or “fantasy.” It has great characters, many of whom experience significant growth through the series (especially Aang and Zuko, but also Katara and Sokka)–Zuko probably has one of my favorite character arcs, ever. It has incredibly rich world-building, and even better, is a non-Eurocentric fantasy setting. The show deals with difficult moral issues, but is generally positive and optimistic, and as a kid-friendly show it doesn’t lean on graphic violence and never feels exploitative. It’s also a genuinely funny show.

OK, for the rest of the review, I’m going to assume the reader has watched the Avatar show, so fair warning that it may have spoilers.

Normally I would not feel very excited about a comic book series created as a spin-off of a Nickelodeon cartoon. But, as I mentioned above, Avatar is a special and wonderful universe that I did not want to leave (yes I also know about Legend of Korra and am starting to watch it). And, the writer of the first few comic volumes is Gene Luen Yang, who is an awesome writer.

So, how does “The Promise” do at carrying on the Avatar story? Overall, I think it’s fairly successful. The ending of the show sets a difficult challenge for the writers. As a fully realized avatar who can control the Avatar State, there’s not much that could challenge Aang in a straight-up fight (although we do see a fully realized Avatar Roku lose to a volcano in flashbacks in the show). So Yang sets up a good central conflict that is not just “an even badder bad guy”–after the deposition of the fascist Fire Nation government, how to deal with the Fire Nation colonies in the Earth Kingdom, some of which have existed for more than a century?

This plot gives Yang the chance to set up a further innovation: people of mixed heritage. In the show, the four nations are quite separate from each other. However, in the colony city of Yu Dao, we have people like Kori Morishita, the child of a mixed Earth/Fire marriage, who is an earthbender but identifies politically as a Fire Nation citizen. Although her character development is limited, she gives voice to an important perspective: people keep telling her to choose one side of her heritage, but she chooses both. (Side note: while reading the book, I thought Yang had also introduced the first same-sex relationship in the avatar world with Kori and Sneers, but it turns out Sneers is intended to be male.)

We also get interesting and realistic political developments, like several assassination attempts being made on Zuko (who is likely still regarded as a traitor by many Fire Nation citizens), and we get some great character development for Aang around the appearance of earnest people mimicking Air Nomads traditions, which deeply offends him at first. There’s also strong continued development of Zuko, in his ultimate realization that he is trying to outsource his morality to Aang. And Katara has a strong role to play as well, firmly telling Aang when she things he is in the wrong. Also, Iroh invents bubble tea, obviously. And did I detect a hint of romantic interest between Suki and Zuko??

OK, I think that’s most of the good–now the bad. The conflict between Zuko and Aang seems unrealistic given the development of their relationship by the end of the show. I can definitely imagine them strongly disagreeing, but it’s hard to accept it coming to the point where Aang is considering whether he needs to kill Zuko–particularly in light of his extensive agonizing over whether to kill Ozai at the end of the TV series. The titular “Promise” (Zuko extracts a promise from Aang to kill him if he ever becomes evil like his father) seems like an unnecessarily dramatic plot device. I think the book could have handled the same plot very effectively without turning up the drama to 11. Zuko going to Ozai for advice also feels a little contrived, although it is an interesting point that Zuko would need guidance in ruling a nation and there are just no good role models around (Iroh is morally good but has never had to be a political leader, Kuei is not a real political leader). I guess the Northern Water Tribe guy? (Chief Arnook, I had to look up his name–Yue’s dad.) Finally, the Aang-Katara romance is overdone (especially for those of us who didn’t like it to start with), and I wasn’t sure if that was intentional on the writer’s part. They do have a history of trolling viewers a bit (the line about Zuko’s mom in the Korra premiere), and it’s pretty heavily lampshaded by Sokka and Toph being grossed out by them calling each other “sweetie” all the time. Toph calling her students “lily livers” all the time was weird (what is she, from the 1940s?); she is generally more creative with her putdowns (twinkle toes, sugar queen).

Ultimately, I liked it enough to be excited to read Volume 2, The Search!

My Goodreads rating: 4 stars