Unless you’ve been trapped in the Spirit World (or even worse, the Fog of Lost Souls), you’ve probably heard that the TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender, which ended in 2008, has been continuing through a series of comic trilogies. Just like the Avatar serves as the bridge between the Spirit World and the Physical World, these comics have become the bridge between the respective eras of The Last Airbender and its sequel series, The Legend of Korra, which is set seventy years later.
In my last article, I looked back at the first installment in the comic series, entitled The Promise. Here’s a glimpse into what we’ve learned about Team Avatar‘s continuing adventures in the rest of the series’ installments.
In the premiere episode of The Legend of Korra, Jinora asks Katara, “What happened to Zuko‘s mom?” Katara replies, “Well, Jinora, it’s an incredible tale!” But before Katara can continue, the hyperactive Ikki interrupts her with a bombardment of random questions, and Katara never gets the chance to recount the story to Jinora. It was a hilarious moment, but it was still a punch in the gut for fans of the original series, who had been waiting for an answer ever since the series finale of The Last Airbender.
Fortunately for fans, the story of Zuko’s mother didn’t stay untold forever. Originally, Avatar co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko pitched a TV movie that would depict the search for Zuko’s mother, but Nickelodeon apparently wasn’t interested in producing animated TV movies. And thus, The Search was born.
Like The Promise and the rest of the comic trilogies, The Search was written by acclaimed author Gene Yang (in collaboration with DiMartino and Konietzko) and was illustrated by the Gurihiru team, who beautifully capture the aesthetic of the original series. Aang, Katara, and Sokka accompany Zuko to find out what really happened to his mother, Ursa. Along for the ride is Azula, who has been severely out of balance ever since Zuko (with Katara’s help) thwarted her dream of becoming Fire Lord.
I don’t want to spoil Ursula’s fate for those who haven’t made it to The Search yet. Still, it’s a heartbreaking tale, and it really hinges on the meaning of family. Zuko questions his parentage in more ways than one, all the while struggling to treat Azula like his sister, even as their relationship as siblings continues to implode. When The Search finally ends, there’s the sense that it’s not an actual end — it’s only the beginning.
For those who were disappointed by Toph’s absence from The Search, the third installment in the Avatar comic series is sure to rectify that shortcoming. The Rift certainly gives Toph a lot to do, from meeting a potential love interest to unexpectedly crossing paths with her estranged father, Lao Beifong. Toph hasn’t seen her parents ever since she ran away from home to join Team Avatar and teach Aang earthbending, and she and her parents definitely did not part on the best of terms.
Neither Avatar: The Last Airbender nor The Legend of Korra have been shy about depicting troubled families or subverting the nuclear family unit. Katara and Sokka lost their mother, Kya, to the Fire Nation, after which their father, Hakoda, left to lead the warriors of the Southern Water Tribe into the Hundred Year War. Zuko holds the lifetime prize for Most Messed-Up Family, from his abusive father to his (very) estranged sister, but at least he had Uncle Iroh‘s love and wisdom. Toph’s path to reconciliation with her father is far from straightforward, and it is one of the primary themes of The Rift.
The other main theme of The Rift is the bond between spirits and humans, as Aang confronts a spirit, General Old Iron, who threatens to uproot the Earthen Fire Refinery. This story line has intriguing parallels with Korra’s future trials in her own series’ second season, during which she struggles to define (and redefine) the Avatar’s role as the bridge between the Physical and Spirit Worlds. Even though Aang never had to deal with Harmonic Convergence like Korra did, it’s still interesting to see Aang face the same conflict of balancing the border between humans and spirits.
When Aang is forced to choose between saving General Old Iron or Toph, even Aang is shocked by the decision he makes, and he reiterates that it is his job to maintain balance between spirits and humans. Yet, General Old Iron leaves him with a haunting observation: “You repeat those words over and over like a mantra, but you are only fooling yourself. Whenever the border between our two worlds grows into a rift, the Avatar will always side with humans. The Avatar is, after all, a human.”
Is General Old Iron right? Even if his concern is valid, a solution will not arise until after Aang’s lifetime, when Korra opens the spirit portals and allows the Physical and Spirit Worlds to reach each other once more. Nevertheless, The Rift is a vital development of Aang’s friendship with Toph, and it also emphasizes the importance of not only honoring past traditions, but also understanding why they are practiced.
Smoke and Shadow
The third installment in the series, entitled Smoke and Shadow, shifts the focus back to the Fire Nation Royal Family. It concentrates on Zuko’s never-ending tribulations as the new Fire Lord, especially as a faction of Ozai loyalists demands that the tyrannical Ozai be reinstated as Fire Lord. This group, the New Ozai Society, is secretly led by Ukano, the former Fire Nation governor of Omashu, who just so happens to be the father of a certain knife-wielding female warrior… And you know what that means!
Is Mai back? Yes, finally! Is she back with Zuko after dumping him in The Promise? Well…it turns out that she’s found a new beau, Kei Lo, who is part of Ukano’s New Ozai Society. Though their relationship begins with Mai manipulating Kei Lo into spying on her father, their relationship nevertheless blossoms into something more.
Yes, “Maiko” shippers — I share your pain.
Why is Zuko’s love life (or lack thereof) so interesting? Well, ever since The Legend of Korra revealed that Zuko eventually has a daughter, Fire Lord Izumi — as well as a grandson, General Iroh of the United Forces — fans have been wondering who Izumi’s mother is. Could it be Mai? While Smoke and Shadow doesn’t provide a definitive answer as to whether Zuko and Mai get back together, there’s still a significant development in that area, so we’ll just have to wait and see how things pan out.
Of all of the members of Team Avatar, Zuko’s path has been the most complex. Ever since The Last Airbender revealed that Zuko is descended from both Avatar Roku and Fire Lord Sozin, Zuko has become an innately conflicted character. To quote Uncle Iroh, “Evil and good are always at war inside you, Zuko. It is your nature, your legacy.” It’s no wonder that Zuko is the most angsty character throughout the entire history of Avatar.
How does Zuko’s inner turmoil affect him as he bears the burden of the Fire Nation’s throne? Even more so than The Promise, Smoke and Shadow explores the lengths to which Zuko will go to protect not only his nation, but also his family. That’s all I can say without giving away massive spoilers for either Smoke and Shadow or the preceding comics. My only advice would be to catch up on the comics if you’re not up to date!
I was pleasantly surprised when I heard that Gene Yang, Gurihiru, and Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko will be continuing the Avatar comic series into the future. Next up is North and South, which will see Katara and Sokka returning home to the Southern Water Tribe as it rebuilds from the scars of the Hundred Year War. By the time of The Legend of Korra, the Southern Water Tribe will have become fully unified with the Northern Water Tribe, and North and South promises to show the beginning of that unification. I’m definitely interested in how Katara and Sokka will react to the changes that are in store for their home.
Though it’s not directly related to Avatar: The Last Airbender, there’s also another Avatar comic to look forward to. Currently untitled, the comic will pick up after the series finale of The Legend of Korra and explore Korra’s budding relationship with Asami Sato. It’s also important to note that like The Promise, the Korra/Asami comic will also have a postwar setting, as the world recovers from Kuvira‘s formation of her so-called Earth Empire. No word on a release date yet, but it’s on the horizon!