When we fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender living in Fresno and all over the world first learned that the series would find itself a second life in comic book form to tie-in with the then upcoming sequel series The Legend of Korra, none of us knew quite what to expect. Written by Gene Yuen Yang with art by Gurihiru, with creative input by series creator Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, the three-part series of graphic novels titled The Promise, released throughout 2012, proved to be a major hit with strong sales and positive reviews for it effective recapturing of the feel of the original show and for it's handling of heavy drama and political dispute for a all ages comic book series. The second three-part series titled The Search, released throughout 2013, was another hit for it's much more personal and spiritual subject matter, not to mention for finally unraveling fate of Zuko's mother Ursa, the biggest loose end of the series.
When this project first began none of us realized that this was going to expand into a full series, and none of us knew what kind of stories Yang, Gurihiru and the creators would come up with to not only expand the world of the old show, but also provide a successful transition into the new world seen in The Legend of Korra. In the first story we got re-introduced to the characters a year after the end of the show and slowly saw the formation of what will eventually become Republic City. In the second story we finally learned the fate of Zuko's mother and went further into the bizarre and fascinating nature of the Spirit World. So when a third story was announced to come out in 2014, titled The Rift, I wasn't sure what to expect this time. What I got from the first part is a story with quite a lot of potential as well as a lot of mystery over where its headed, which seems appropriate.
The story opens up in the colony of Yu Dao as the city has elected it new coalition government of both Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom leaders. Avatar Aang and his friends Katara, Sokka and Toph are all in attendance for the celebration, in addition to at least three members of the Air Acolytes, a former fan club of Aang's that have now become his loyal students in learning the secrets of Air Nomad culture. At the celebration Aang sees someone else dressed in Air Nomad robes and assumes it to be another Acolyte, but chasing after this person, he discovers it to be a vision of Avatar Yangchen, the last Air Nomad Avatar before Aang. Unfortunately, Aang is not able to hear anything she is trying to tell him, and when the spirit leaves Aang meditates to make contact with no success...until he remembers that to time is approaching for Yangchen's festival, one the highest holidays in Air Nomad culture that has not been celebrated since the beginning of the Hundred Year War.
Aang decides to organize a field trip with the Air Acolytes to teach them to celebrate the holiday just like it was a hundred years ago, bringing Katara, Sokka and Toph along with them. When they get to the festival site though, Aang admits that even he does not remember all of the specific details of exactly why the Air Nomads celebrated this holiday like they do, but insists of doing it the traditional way because "that's just how it's done." These words spark unpleasant memories of Toph's childhood growing up under her oppressive parents, so she protests the entire celebration as outdated and pointless.
Aang tries to ignore her attitude, but as they travel down the valley they discover a town and a refinery build on top of sacred Air Nomad land. The refinery is currently being run by Satoru, the young nephew of the owner, who is initially excited to see them, especially Toph. He takes them on a tour of the refinery to show them that this is a place where where people from both the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom come together to work to mine the crystals under ground. But Aang tells Satoru that not only should this place not be here because it is on sacred land, but also because it is supposedly defiling the river...Or is it? Mysteries surface and friendships are tested as the true nature of what is happening here starts coming to light, and one of Aang's friends in particular will be forced to come face to face with her own troubled past.
This is not my favorite of the stories so far, but that does not mean it is bad in the slightest; in fact, it read far better on my second read-through. I think the problem I had with it the first time was that, compared to the first two stories, this one just didn't seem to be covering anything terribly vital. Yes, it does deal with the demons in Toph's past and that is excellent, but I think a lot of Avatar fans can understand the argument that of the two characters, bringing some sort of closure to Zuko's backstory was much more necessary than it was for Toph; plus the first story did have to get the ball rolling on the transition to the world seen in The Legend of Korra. This story arc seems to be going back to the ideas set-up in the first arc, which created a sort-of "been there, done that" feeling in me the first time I read it. But having said all that, looking at it again with those thoughts put aside, I really do appreciate what is being set up here.
This being the first of a three-part story, the script is mostly set-up. What does Avatar Yangchen want to tell Aang and why can't Aang hear her? When the characters first arrive at their destination Aang says that it is tradition on the holiday to bow to a large statue of a woman who is clearly not Yanchen...So who is she? Even Aang doesn't know the answer to that? Is is really the refinery that is polluting the river, or is something else at work here? All logic suggests that the refinery is to blame, but Toph uses her lie detecting ability on Sotaru to determine that he is telling the truth about it not being their fault...On the other hand, we already saw in an episode of the series that Toph's lie detector can be tricked as long as someone thinks they are telling the truths, meaning that for all we known it might be the refinery's fault but Sotaru genuinely doesn't believe it. Near the end of the comic Aang has a vision of some sort of monster attacking the refinery, but is this a warning of something that will happen, or of something that already has happened.
In the spirit of mysteries, I should also briefly address something that Airspeed Prime acknowledged in his review for AvatarTheLastAirbenderOnline.Com. When the characters first arrive in the town, Katara is greeted by an old friend of her's from the Southern Water Tribe named Niyok, who, along with her sister Nutha, have move from home to work in the refinery. Katara and Niyok have a warm reunion, but when Katara tries to say hello to Nutha, she merely stares at her without emotion. This scene is very brief in the comic, but what Airspeed Prime and I both like about it is that it give Katara an investment in working to unravel the mystery of this place beside just supporting her boyfriend Aang (oh, and for the record, other than a cute moment near the beginning, their relationship doesn't seem to be a big focus this time). In my review of The Search, I did regret that Katara and Sokka didn't have much of a role to play in that story other than to fill out the cast and to provide an extra pair of hands in keeping Azula under control; here, it appears that Katara is being set up to get involved in what's going on for her own reasons, and I really like that. Sokka on the other hand...well, he just there to be comic relief again, this time being with his usual meat-related jokes and by crashing a forklift...Yes, you read that right.
But in speaking of the forklift, that brings me to another thing I like about where this story is going, the progression of the Avatar universe from a technological and industrial perspective. In The Promise, we got to see the beginnings of the United Republic of Nations and Republic City's political structure, as well as the genesis of a mixed society of all three types of benders as well as non-benders living together in peace and harmony, in other words, the decline of an old world and the dawn of a new one. In The Rift, we get a look at the technological, Steampunk aspect of The Legend of Korra in the form of the refinery. This place is somewhere where waterbenders, earthbenders and firebenders all gather just to work and make a living, while at the same time a new line of revolutionary machines have been invented to allow non-bender employees do the same job the benders are doing. This reminds me very much of the how in The Legend of Korra, Mako and other firebenders were shown using the rare ability of lightningbending to power the electrical pant, while the introduction of machine labor opens to door for later corporations like Future Industries to mass-produce revolutionary new inventions like the "Satomobile."
Of course, the book also addresses the downside of industrialization. Aang protests the refinery's existence for the personal reasons of it being on sacred Air Nomad land, yes, much like he protested the Mechanist taking refuge at the Northern Air Temple during the series. But besides that, we also get the question about whether the refinery is responsible for polluting the river; which calls back to the Fire Nation's own industrial revolution gradually affecting the natural world, not only in the lands they conquered but also within their own nation. The most blatant example of this was in the third season episode "The Painted Lady", which is not one of this examiner's favorite episodes because it gets a bit too preachy and unsubtle with the environmental message (not to Captain Planet levels, but still unsubtle), but I liked that this one at least has the "did they or didn't they" angle to keep it going.
But now lets talk about what going on with the main characters themselves. Right at the beginning the comic explains the absence of Zuko for this story having to do with spending time to support his mother and her family as they return to the Fire Nation capital for the first time since her exile. I respect this not only because it is a natural continuation of the previous story arc, but it give Zuko's character a much-deserved rest after sharing half the spotlight in the first story and virtually all of it in the second story. Besides, in The Search Toph was missing from the action to focus on him and Azula, so it makes sense that Zuko sit this one out because, at the end of the day, this is clearly going to be Toph's story.
When Toph was introduced into the series we understood that this was a young girl with an amazing gift that was constantly having her true self suppressed or outright ignored by her parents, two people who were very tradition-based, overly formal, and who either so worried or ashamed of their daughter because of her "blindness" that they kept her inside the home and hid her existence from their home town; seriously, no one can blame her for running away. However, other than her father hiring two goons to bring her back home during season two, and her writing a letter to her parents (well, actually Katara had the write the letter for her, but whatever), Toph's issues with her family were comparatively in the background to everything else that was going on. When Aang goes into his insistence on honoring ancient Air Nomad traditions despite not even knowing all the details of why it has to be done the way it is, it is exactly the kind of thing that Toph ran away from. This leads to a lot of tension between them that culminates in a full-blown argument, something we haven't seen since the middle of season two. Sure, they do apologize for it earlier, but I'm getting the feeling that there may be more to come before this series is over.
Oh yeah, I do have to add that the comic also introduces a possible love interest for Toph in the form of Sotaru, who has a huge idol worship of her that she clearly becomes flattered by. I do look forward to seeing where the creators go with this; after all, we know that by the time of The Legend of Korra, Toph has had a daughter named Lin, and no one had any idea who Lin's father was...Just saying.
However, playing against Toph's point-of-view is Aang. The book outright says that if Toph is the character who tries too hard to run away from the past, then Aang is the character who tries too hard to hold onto the past. This is something we have already several time not just in the series but in the previous comics. During The Promise, Aang's firm stance in favor of the Harmony Restoration Movement came from a point-of-view of both the avatar and of someone who suddenly woke up one day to learn that a hundred years have passed and his entire culture has been wiped out; thus, he is now solely responsible for maintaining the legacy of the Air Nomads. As the Avatar, how could maintain balance if any one nation had a hold in any of the others? What Aang came to learn in that story was that the world was changing and we needed to adapt, that things could no longer be separate and apart like they were for the past Avatars. But getting back to the current story, Aang sees it as his responsibility to preserve Air Nomad culture for future generations, so he is dead set on teaching his students, the Air Acolytes, exactly how things were done in the past without even understanding all of it himself; but again, if he is solely responsible for keeping the past alive, then do the details matter in the long run? I don't think Aang know the answer totally himself, so it makes perfect sense that Toph's defiance of the Yanchen Festival would make him very uncomfortable. I do have to admit that seeing Aang still be so dead set on honoring he past despite what he learned in The Promise did contribute to the "been there, done that" attitude I had the first time I read the comic, but at least is is consistent with what we've seen so far and with what we know he will raise his Tenzin to believe in The Legend of Korra (although, I have to admit that the second season of that show revealing Aang to have been so blatantly favorable to Tenzin at the expense of his other two kids was a very dark twist on this otherwise wonderful character).
The last major thing I have to say about the book is about the ending. It ends on a cliffhanger, yes, but it is kind of like the cliffhanger to The Search, Part One, not in terms of shock value, but in how it grabs a hold of the fans and make you unable to wait to see where things will progress from there; let's just say that this is shaping up to be an uncomfortable reunion.
I have praised the art of Gurihiru so often in my reviews of these comics that it needs no more elaboration. Once again it is up to their usual standards and beautifully captures the look and spirit of the original show excellently.
If there is a big fault to the comic, it is the same that has plagues most of these Avatar comics, that the action sequences are rather limited. The only major action sequences we get are brief skirmish with the refinery security guards and a scene of our heroes saving people when one of the machines malfunctions. Still, action is not the main focus of the comic, so it can be overlooked.
Overall, Avatar: The Last Airbender--The Rift, Part One is a promising first chapter of the latest addition to the Avatar saga. It is not this examiner's personal favorite of the series, but it does do a great job setting up mysteries to be resolved, subtly laying further groundwork for the world seen in The Legend of Korra, touches on technological progression and industrialization at the expense of the natural world, and raises questions about whether it is worse to cling too much to the past or to run from it altogether, setting the seeds for further development in Part Two. The examiner recommends that fans of the series pick it up at their local comic books stores where it is selling for $10.99 right now.