For Avatar fans in Fresno, these two weeks have been pretty exciting and pretty surprising. After a surprisingly underplayed build up, the premiere to the third season of The Legend of Korra debuted to good ratings and stellar reviews. This examiner personally found the premiere to be very enjoyable and I eagerly look forward the seeing where the season goes.
But now, on top of all of that, we are also treated to the latest installment of Dark Horse's popular Avatar: The Last Airbender comic book series. Written by Eisner Award winner Gene Yuen Yang and illustrated by Gurihiri, these comics, which began with the 2012 story arc The Promise and continued with the 2013 series The Search, have done a spectacular job continuing the stories of Avatar Aang and his friends after the end of the original Avatar: The Last Airbender animated series and slowly but surely building up the universe to what we see in The Legend of Korra. But while the first story arc served as a wonderful reintroduction to the characters and planting the initial seeds for what would become Republic City, and the second story arc finally answered the original series's biggest lingering question, the fate of Zuko's mother, the third story arc, The Rift, which dealt with Aang teaching his new disciples the ancient traditions of his people through honoring an ancient holiday and coming into conflict with his friend Toph over it, was still, but still this examiner's least favorite story in the series so far.
But the thing about these three-part stories is that the first part is ultimately a lot of set up, and now that all of that is done with, maybe now we can get to the real meat of The Rift in the second part. Let's take a look and find out.
The story picks up where Part One left off, where Team Avatar are visiting a refinery that is part of a town build on what was once sacred Air Nomad land and we find that the leader of this facility is Lao Beifong, Toph's father. This marks the first time father and daughter have seen each other since she ran away from home to train the Avatar, and he responds by pretending that this young, improper blind girl isn't his daughter at all. Toph is naturally shocked by this, but Lao order the Rough Rhinos, a team of weapon specialist mercenaries from the Fire Nation now working security at the refinery, to escort Team Avatar off the property. But Aang refuses to leave until he speaks with someone about this refinery being build on sacred land, and Toph will not leave until she speaks with her father. This leads to a huge battle between our heroes and the Rough Rhinos, during which Aang and Toph come into conflict once again, both about their disagreements over whether you should hang on to the past, as well as how reckless they should treat their enemies.
After their enemies are defeated, our heroes split up to go their own ways. Aang leads his Air Acolytes to finish celebrating Yanchen's Festival, and in doing so reacquaint themselves with a a very familiar and unexpected face. Toph literally breaks her way into her way into the refinery and enters her father's office to try to make amends, but that may not be possible unless her father is willing to accept that the proper, helpless blind girl that he tried to raise in not the young woman standing in front of him. Katara and Sokka discovered a secret tunnel underneath the town where dozens of people are laboring in an iron mine, one that not only shouldn't exist, but which is going to collapse in on itself at any moment.
In the midst of all of this, Aang enters the Avatar State and makes contact with one of his past lives, Avatar Yanchen, and discovers why you should look to the past as something to guide your actions, not bind your actions, but also that traditions do have a purpose, whether we realize them or not. To ensure that Aang does not repeat any of her past mistakes, Yanchen tells him a story about when she was younger and was called upon to help protect a city from attack from a vengeful spirit. What she discovers is that this spirit is attacking this town for a purpose, and that the Yanchen Festival was originally founded to honor an agreement between her and this powerful spirit...but after the Fire Nation began the Hundred Year War, those traditions were forgotten, hence an emerging chaos we are seeing now. Can Aang find a way to calm the spirit and save the town? Can Katara and Sokka save the people in the mine before it's too late? Can Toph finally make amends with her father? And can Team avatar overcome their differences and become a family once again?
I have to admit that after reading this part, I do think that this arc is getting more interesting. First off, those who have read my reviews have noticed that my one recurring regret with these comics is that the action sequences, while well drawn and staged, just can't quite seem to live up the the fluidity and excitement seen in the series. Well, I have to admit that I was surprised to see a major, lengthy action sequence happen so early in the story, and one that has that classic Avatar flair, all the while furthering the story. We get to see the Rough Rhinos show off their skills, including one new member who says he was forced to join their group after Aang defeated the Fire Lord and ended the war. We also get to see how Toph's mistreatment of one of the Rough Rhinos leads to even further animosity between her and Aang, something that was a big focus of the first part and which continues here. It was also great to see Katara get some good moves in, with a little quick thinking from Sokka. Heck, even the youngest of the Air Acolytes tries to take on the bad guys, in his own comedic way.
This action sequence soon leads to the characters splitting up and from here the book balances out three separate story lines, and does so pretty well. The first story line is about Toph and her attempt the reconnect with her father. This has so far been the most engaging story thread for me as an Avatar fan, as we know both from the series and from Part One that this high society man has spent all of his money and time trying to raise his daughter to be a poised, demure, obedient young woman, all the while sheltering her from the outside world because he sees her blindness as a weakness. This over protectiveness, even after witnessing firsthand her incredible earthbending talent during the series, finally pushed his daughter so far that she ran away from home to travel the world with Aang as well as train him, and in so doing she became one of the heroes that saved the entire world. But does this man see any of that when they finally reunite? No, all he can see is, as he puts it, a rude, ungrateful...thing. Even when she outlines all she has done, what she really is and why he should be proud of her, all he can do is turn his back. I feel really bad for Toph, because say what you will about her manners and her attitude, no kid deserves to be put down by their parents like that.
In my review of Part One, I commented on the theme of industrialization as this universe takes another big leap towards what we see in The Legend of Korra. One of the major faces of that progression was a character named Satoru, the nephew of the of refinery's co-owner, but in this installment that side of him is downplayed in favor of highlighting the submissive relationship he has with his uncle. Given how he was showing idol worship of Toph in the first part, this serves as a good contrast to Toph's own relationship with her father, him demonstrating exactly the kind of parent-child dynamic he has been opposing her entire life. The two eventually come to an argument about this, where Satoru yells at her for it because when he really needed his uncle, he was always there, and besides, they are family.
The second story line deals with Aang and the Air Acolytes as they continue trying to celebrate Yangchen's Festival. They have difficulty doing so at first because all of the places they have traditionally used for celebration are all gone now, including a giant leafy tree that Aang and his mentor, Monk Gyatso, used to sit under for their feast. So instead, they decide to compromise by having their ceremonial meal inside a restaurant, and this is where we get a very unexpected, but very welcome return appearance from the Cabbage Merchant! For those who are not fans of the show, this character was the subject of a running gag seem throughout the original series where he would keep showing up at seemingly every Earth Kingdom town trying to make a living selling his cabbages, which he is very, very protective and prideful of, but every time he crossed paths with Team Avatar, his cart full of cabbages would somehow always get destroyed, causing him to shout out "My Cabbages!" This was one of the most beloved jokes of the series, and I literally laughed out loud when he popped up as the owner of his own restaurant (a restaurant where seemingly everything is made from cabbages, even the cookies)...and then promptly panicked as soon as he saw Aang.
Anyway, as the characters sit down to have this meal, Aang recites a prayer that ends up sending him into the Avatar State where he meets Avatar Yanchen. You'll recall from Part One that whenever Aang saw her he could never hear anything she was saying, but this time he can hear her fine. She explains that this is because at the end of The Promise: Part Three, Aang's decision to severe his ties with his immediate predecessor and one of his primary mentors, Avatar Roku, resulted in damaging his connections to all his past lives before him. As a fan, I appreciated this callback as it was a very powerful and bittersweet decision for Aang to make at the end of that story, and to now see the unfortunate consequences of that decision was great continuity. However, Yanchen also explains that the reason why Aang is suddenly able to hear her now is because the meal they are sharing to celebrate the festival had been shared by every generation of air nomad between their lifetimes, and thus serve as a temporary conduit. This is kind of a hazy explanation for me, personally, but I am willing to go with it. What is more important is the discussion they have about why chose to cut himself off from Roku: because he was trying to push his own, dated advice onto Aang when time had moved on and Roku's ways just did not work within the world anymore. Aang severed ties with Roku because he was forcing to hold too tightly to the past...just like Toph is accusing Aang of doing now. I loved this ironic hypocrisy that is revealed here, and I look forward to whatever sort of resolution the writer has in mind for Part Three.
During her and Aang's connection, we get treated to a scene of Yanchen as a young girl having just completed her Avatar training as she is called upon to safeguard a town under siege by an angry spirit. The spirit is named General Old Iron, and he reveals that long ago, when the spirits still roamed the lands, he lived with his friend, the lovely spirit Lady Tienhai, whom he protected. One day a group of humans came to their lands to build a town and Lady Tienhai welcomed them openly, watching over them and entertaining their requests. But the general was aware of the anguish that humans were causing the other spirits, so he sought to rid the land of them, but Lady Tienhai stood against him and for his actions, ended their friendship. she stood watch over the human's city for centuries, until recently her life force faded from existence, and so General Old Iron has returned to seek vengeance. As the spirit attacked, Yanchen made an arrangement that would keep General Old Iron at bay, and the Yanchen Festival was created as a ritual to help honor that arrangement...which has not been practiced since the start of the Hundred Year War. Having bought the blu-ray for season two of The Legend of Korra literally the day before this book came out, this part of the story had a lot of parallels to the human-spirit tension seen in that season, especially the two-part episode dealing with Wan, the first Avatar. We have already seen a glimpse of General Old Iron (in full samurai armor) in Part One, so I think it is safe to say that he is an obstacle that will have to be dealt with in the resolution of this story.
The third and final story line deals with Katara and Sokka as they investigate the hidden iron mine and find people working there while it is on the verge of collapse. This is the least deep of the three story lines and once again, like The Promise and The Search before it, Katara and Sokka are coming across as mainly just tag-alongs to keep the story going or to add extra support for the mission, not to be a primary emotional or ethical drive of the story. Don;t get me wrong, they do that job well, but I do hope that in future comics they get to be more a direct focus, especially in terms of Aang and Katara's relationship. The siblings do get some bit of an arc though through something that pays off from Part One; in that comic Katara meets an old friend of her's from the Southern Water Tribe named Niyok, who, along with her sister Nutha, have moved from home to work in the refinery, and while Katara and Niyok greet each other happily, Nutha, she merely stares at her coldly. In this part, we see that both of them are working in this off-the-books iron mine for apparently low wages, and we learn that Nutha has some resentment for Katara and Sokka because after they left, things have gotten very tough back home in the Southern Water Tribe, even after the war ended. In The Search, I remember a scene between Sokka and Zuko where Sokka commented that they had been away from home for a long time; I'm wondering if all of this is Gene Luen Yang's way of foreshadowing something we will be seeing in future stories; after all, Katara is an old woman in the Southern Water Tribe during Korra, so she must have chosen to go back home at some point.
This part of the story also calls back to the theme of industrialization I discussing in my review of Part One, only this time the focus is all on the negative aspects of it. Satoru's uncle is revealed to be running this mine off the books when his partner, Toph's father, said it would be too dangerous. His motivation is simple greed, and as the mine shows signs of collapsing, he cares nothing for the lives of his workers (who, as I've said, I doubt are getting paid much anyway), but instead just that they continue working so he can make a profit. On top of all of this, it is the mining of iron ore that is polluting the river and causing earthquakes within the town. This is an apparent commentary not only of the dangers of industrialization, but also of labor abuse, though done is a way that is appropriate for children.
The last thing I'll say regarding the plot is that the book end on yet another cliffhanger, and this time it has the fell of an old-fashioned serial cliffhanger, where our characters are caught in a life-or-death situation and the few among their team who aren't trapped in there cannot use their conventional means of rescue or it could kill them all. It does it's job of making you want to wait the several months for the final part to come out, especially when you realize which groups of characters are the ones in danger.
As usual, Gurihiru's artwork captures the look and feel of the show perfectly; they have not let me down yet and I am sure they will not in the future either.
Overall, Avatar: The Last Airbender--The Rift, Part Two is another welcome addition the continuing adventure of Aang and his friends, going into more personal conflicts and touching on such things as troubled parent-child relationships, clinging to the past, the purpose of tradition, industrialization, and even labor abuse, as well as offering a amusing sense of action to get the story started. It still isn't the best arc of the series, but this installment definitely helped raise it's appeal for this particular fan; I eagerly await the resolution in Part Three.