Review by Ian Keogh
After three well received seasons of animation, Avatar: The Last Airbender came to an end with most matters sorted. Aang had become the Avatar, mastered all forms of manipulating the four elements, and brought an end to the Fire Nation’s expansion. His mission was to restore harmony, and he was almost there.
Gene Luen Yang’s story picks up where the animation ended, with Zuko now the Fire Lord, his father having been deposed. It’s a heavy burden, and the title originates with Zuko’s insecurities. He’s afraid he’ll become like his father, and extracts a promise from Aang to kill him should Aang consider that’s becoming the case. The thrust of the story is Zuko originally signing up to a plan of world harmony, where all Fire Nation people would return to their homelands from the places they’ve colonised, and then going back on his decision. He’s not the only person who sees this as a bad idea. Because people from the Fire Nation have been in what are in effect occupied territories for so long they’ve formed relationships and friendships, and not everyone wants to see them go.
Yang does his job well, featuring lots of favourite characters from the animation while not relying entirely on what’s come before by creating his own new characters that slot well into the world. The most prominent of these are the three students now taken on by Toph for training as Earth benders, seen in the sample art, but there are others, including a character who prompts the plot for The Search, which follows.
Japanese artists Naoko Kawano and Chifuyu Sasaki work together as Gurihiru, and they’re fantastic throughout. Core to Avatar was almost all the cast being optimistic and cheerful most of the time, and they bring that out with appealing visuals and strong emotional connections. Also important is that they bring the more complex Aang to life, capturing all aspects of his character from the serene and meditative to the angry and powerful. Their action scenes are wonderful, and occasionally they have the opportunity for a gorgeous spread.
As Yang’s plot continues it hinges on the egos and neuroses of two rulers, and it seems that there’s no way war can be avoid when even Aang’s friends can’t agree among themselves which path is right. Everything is set for a thrilling finale in the colonized city of Yu Dao. There’s no reason younger readers need to be bothered with how the plot echoes real world tensions and their equivalent politicians, but the older reader can appreciate what Yang is doing, and the pressures he places on his characters.
Anyone who enjoyed the Avatar cartoons should have no trouble picking right up with The Promise, or indeed any of the subsequent books, although there is a continuity, so this is the best place to start on the graphic novels. Alternatively, this hardcover compilation was originally issued as three serialised graphic novels, beginning with The Promise Part One.