Well fellow Avatar: The Last Airbender fans in Fresno and all over the world, the wait is finally over. After years of speculation, two previous comics of build-up, the time has finally come to provide an answer to the most most glaring mystery of the Avatar universe: "What happened to Zuko's mom?"
Ever since the end of the original animated series in June 2008, fans have been left wondering when, or if, the lingering mystery of the fate of Fire Lord Zuko's mother, Ursa, was ever going to be answered. For four years we had to settle for our own theories and fan fiction, but then in 2012, a new animated series came around called The Legend of Korra, the hotly anticipated sequel to Avatar: The Last Airbender that focused upon the adventures of Korra, the new Avatar following the death of Aang, the hero of the original series. In the first episode of the new series, a young airbender girl named Jinora asked her grandmother, Katara, the very thing we were all wanting to know. Katara was about to reveal the tale...before she was abruptly cut off by Jinora's sister Ikki.
Fortunately, at the same time that The Legend of Korra was airing its first season, a talented comic book artist and writer named Gene Luen Yang, best known for his 2006 graphic novel American Born Chinese, were approached by Dark Horse Comics and the original series' creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, to team up with the artist duo named Gurihiru to produce a three part comic book series set after the end of the original animated series that would help serve as a bridge between it and the then upcoming Legend of Korra. The series was called The Promise and it was a massive success, as this examiner himself addressed his review of all three parts. However, while the character of Zuko himself, in addition to all the other characters, was given solid growth in the story, the lingering issue of the fate Zuko's mother was once again left unanswered...sort of.
At the end of the The Promise, Part 3, Zuko makes the decision to finally take the initiative to learn the truth about what happened to his mother by taking a huge risk and going to the one person in the world who might have the answer, his mentally unstable sister Azula. This ending was quite an unexpected surprise for fans because it told us that The Promise was envisioned not only as a stand-alone story but also as the first in a series of Avatar comics that would fully expand the world and story of these characters that people all over the world had fallen in love with.
The second trilogy of stories, The Search, saw the young Fire Lord Zuko setting out his mission of self discovery with his sister in tow, and with his friends Aang, Katara and Sokka to help keep her in line. In Parts 1 and 2, the group followed the clues that lead them into a dark forest called the Forgetful Valley, a place where people go to forget their own misery, which is infested with creatures from the spirit world and eventually arrive at Ursa's old home town. At the same time, the readers were treated to a series of flashbacks to Ursa's youth when she was a young actress engaged to her boyfriend Ikem before she found herself in an arranged marriage against her will to then Fire Prince Ozai, forcing her to abandon her old life forever. We learned more about the family dynamic Ozai and Ursa shared with their two children, Zuko and Azula, the lengths Ozai was willing to go to separate her and her true love Ikem forever, and some far clearer understanding about exactly what she had done that night to force her banishment from the Fire Nation and her leaving her children behind. But even with all of this back story in place, we knew that it would not be until the third part that the mystery would at last be solved.
In The Search, Part 3, the story picks up where Part 2 had left off with Zuko and Azula engaging in an electrifying duel as she grows increasingly paranoid by illusions of her mother "tormenting" her, seeing a pair of elderly siblings they encountered in the Forgetful Valley as distractions she had sent to keep her away. This turn on a pair of innocents finally makes Zuko realize that he can no longer take pity of his sister and he orders Katara and Sokka to help him take her down. Meanwhile, Aang has entered the spirit world and made contact with the Mother of Faces, a powerful and mysterious spirit that has given faces, hence individual identity, to every being in our world. The pair of elderly siblings, Misu and Rafa, have been lost in the forest for years trying to find her so she may repair a horrible disfigurement done to Rafa's face, as the Mother of Faces is willing to grant one favor to human visitors per season, and only one. But Azula interrupts their long-deserved chance at salvation by asking the spirit what she knows of their mother. The Mother of Faces has an answer as she has encountered Ursa before...and given her a new identity so that none may recognize her, but ironically enough, it turned out to be someone that the group has met once before.
With this information, Azula sets out to find to one that is really their mother and enact her ultimate plan: to kill their mother and destroy the source of her delusional torment. Zuko chases after her with Sokka as backup, while Aang and Katara desperately try to persuade the Mother of Spirits to also grant Misu and Rafa their request. But the Mother of Faces sees this as a greedy insult to her power and prestige, and so she orders all humans out of her forest by sicking a horde of animal spirits to attack them, so many that even the Avatar himself struggles to fend them all off.
During all of this, we are allowed to see the final flashbacks to Ursa's past so that we can finally understand what it was that brought her to the position that she is today and the her life that the Mother of Faces has brought her. But what terrible sacrifice did she have to make in order to obtain that happiness? And will the reveal of the truth end up destroying one family for the sake of reclaiming another?
I want to stress to all of my readers that this is a difficult book for this examiner to review. The problem is that in order to express my opinions most effectively would require massive spoilers of the massive plot twist that actually happens fairly early into the book itself. But to give away the secret of where exactly Ursa is right now would be a crime to Avatar fans who have not had the opportunity to read it for themselves yet (although, lets face it, the spoiler are probably all over the Internet by now anyway). I will do the best I can to make this review spoiler free, but I I should find myself giving away too much by accident or making references to events in the previous two parts that my readers do not know about, I apologize.
Despite the lengthy and detailed summary of the plot of both this third part and the previous two parts as well, The Search as a whole is really a very simple story with very little going on. While The Promise was about cultural assimilation and the political ramifications after a hundred years of war, this story was just about two sibling looking for a lost part of their past. There is not a whole lot of varying locales despite a title like, The Search, but despite all of those things this does feel like a more epic and engaging story even if the action is noticeably lacking compared to the ending of The Promise. The reason for this is because everything is so personal here and we are made to care about not only Zuko and Azula, but Ursa herself as well by way of the flashbacks...Oh, and the five and a half years of waiting since "Sozin's Comet" first aired helps hold our attention too.
Zuko's story arc has come almost full circle here as he has now dealt with the last, most glaring character issue he has left. Throughout this story he has remained committed and sincere in his desire to find his mother not only for himself but for Azula as well who, lets face it, has far, far greater issues with Ursa than Zuko ever will. I loved how in the first two parts he wants to constantly give Azula an opportunity to change because at the end of the day the full restoration of his family into one filled with love and kindness is his ultimate dream. But at the start of this story he is finally ready to fully punish his sister for her increasingly dangerous behavior, and fully sand up to her in the climax, but at the end he he makes a short but powerful speech about how the Fire Nation throne was always his destiny and that as messed up as their relationship is, and perhaps always will be, she is still his sister and he loves her. This is such a simple yet powerful moment for Zuko and shows us how much of a man he has become.
On that same note is the reaction Zuko has when he learns the true whereabouts of his mother. Without spoiling too much, it turns out that a lovely family that we met in Part 2 is key to solving this mystery. Realizing this, Zuko has the chance to reveal the truth he has learned and get his greatest desire, but that might mean destroying this family's happiness in the process. This is very mature and very easy to understand dynamic that I am pleased to see Yang address in this story. If you had the chance to get back someone you have been missing all your life, only to learn that that person has succeeded in having a new life of her own that they appear totally happy with, what would you do? To paraphrase Mr. Spock from Star Trek, when do the needs of the one outweigh the needs of the many?
Azula's story arc both comes to a head in this arc and yet is left wide open for further Avatar comics to address down the line. In Airspeed Prime's review on Avatar The Last Airbender Online, he said that it was a slight disappointment to end The Search with her character remaining something of an enigma. He felt that it should work out well for her down the line since to give her a happy ending right now would have been a too quick, so her her arc remaining open to be resolved later on will work out better for her character in the end. As usual, I find myself agreeing with his sentiments. Azula's complexity in this story has been profound, showcasing just how insane and insecure she truly is and how the issues Zuko has with his father on the surface pale in comparison to the one's Azula has with her mother within her own soul. She wants to be rid of the spectral image of her mother that continually plagues her mind, and is willing to commit murder of her own mother just to get that, but we all realize that all she really, truly wants is to know once and for all that her mother really did love her. And yet, despite all the absolutely sincere comfort and love Ursa gives her, both in her mind and in their eventual reunion in this story, it is all still too unbelievable to her no matter what. It takes Azula, once such an awesome and intimidating villain from the animated series, and recasts her as a hideously flawed and deeply tragic young lady we are meant to pity. Her character is so flawed that her fate is ultimately not resolved and while leaving her on this note is unexpected and unpredictable form here onward, it still feels more-or-less like the right decision; besides, seeing Azula actually shedding tears at the end indicates some amount of hope for her.
As for Ursa herself, this examiner found himself simultaneously happy and shocked at what was finally revealed about her. As was made clear in Part 1, her one true love was never Ozai at all but a poor theater actor from her home village named Ikem. As a reader I found myself really sad about the fate of their love and, for that reason, very conflicted about a twist reveal made at the end of Part 1. Throughout the first two parts, we got to see the kind of tortured life Ursa has had to live, how far she will go for those she loves, and, once and for all, how absolutely, unquestionably evil Ozai is. I really can't say much more without giving away the most surprising parts of the story, but overall I am pleased where Ursa's story ended up and the path of reconnecting with her old family while still enjoying her new one; in other words, she has found a chance of happiness where there seems no hope of it before.
Having said that, this story does not cast Ursa a a totally flawless mother figure either. there is a pivotal scene in the flashback that sees her making a major decision in order to start her new life, one that left me stunned reading it for the first time. This decision could have rendered her character unlikable, but Yang was careful to set everything up well, especially in the wake of everything we've seen so far, and then show her in tears knowing that she is making an awful sacrifice as she agrees to it, and then still feeling remorse at the ending even after everything is resolved. It all makes Ursa a tragic character that has gone through so much, far more than we ever could have guessed, and still make us care about her at the end of the story.
As is the first two parts, Aang, Katara and Sokka play only supporting roles here. Aang's role is mainly to carry out his Avatar duty as the bridge between our world and the spirit world. He is the one who pleas with the Mother of Faces to grant not only Zuko's request but the elderly siblings Misu and Rafa's as well. Aang doesn't really get much development himself therefore, but again, this really wasn't his story, it was Zuko's and Azula's, and if anything, the support he has shown Zuko throughout all three parts highlights how strong their friendship has become. Sadly, I cannot say the same praise for Katara and Sokka. I love both of these characters and always will, but while Aang ultimately had a clear role to play in this story, especially this final part, Katara and Sokka are there mainly for extra backup in moments of danger and for comic relief. Of course, seeing Aang and Katara together always offers an excuse for sweet Kataang moments, which is always nice.
In speaking of the Mother of Faces, she turns out to be a major player in this third part and the hub around which all of the answers come. Again, I cannot reveal much, but I liked how ancient and powerful this spirit being comes across and how resentful she is of humans, calling them ungrateful and insolent for not appreciating the faces she has given them, that she put a piece of herself into every one of, and then people having the audacity to come to her requesting a different face instead. Like Airspeed Prime, I also could not help but be intrigued by the Mother of Faces's resentment of humans in relation to the events depicted in Book Two of The Legend of Korra, particularly the most recent episode, the spectacular two-part "Beginnings," that aired only twelve day prior to the release of Part 3. She makes a understanding case about how we humans can be annoying creatures that do not appreciate the gifts that we are given and, to paraphrase her own wording, making requests of a great spirit being as if she were their servant; hence why she cannot stand to grant more than one favor to human per season and finds the Avatar's pleading to help both Zuko and Rafa a selfish desire. And yet, she ultimately turns around with the reveal of what really happened to Rafa's face, in so doing revealing herself to be in a related plight as Ursa, in her own unique way.
And while I'm on the subject, this examiner did call the potential connection to Koh the Face Stealer in my review of Part 2, but not quite to this degree. Furthermore, I feel a bit embarrassed that I did not guess the true whereabouts of Ikem and Ursa from Part 2, but I was both blown away and very pleased to witness that reveal as it tied everything together very nicely. Finally, the final flashback scene that clarifies who Zuko's father truly is...On the one hand I feel dumb for falling for the twist at the end of Part 1, but on the other hand I am proud of Gene Luen Yang for throwing in such a red herring and partially making me believe it, especially in the wake of how horrible Ozai is portrayed in this story. Even so, the justification of why Ursa wrote that letter in the first place and Ozai taking those drastic actions despite already knowing the truth feels a little suspect...But that's okay because the grim note it ends on makes it all worth it and puts the absolute final nail into what I have said time and time again...Ozai is an pure evil bastard!
The artwork, as usual, is brilliant. At this point I have run out of original praise that I can say for Gurihiru because there artwork fits absolutely perfect to adapt this material to the comic book page. As I said in the review of Part 2, Gurihiru's style captures the Avatar world beautifully that without their artwork, plus Yang's writing, these comics would not have been nearly as success as they had.
Overall, Avatar: The Last Airbender--The Search, Part 3 is an excellent ending to this three-part series that, I feel, provides a satisfying answer to the greatest mystery of the franchise. It is full of shocking reveals, happy reunions, moments of tragedy, and beautiful artwork. Sure there were a few unexpected plot threads left open and after five and a half years of speculation not every fan may be satisfied with the story they were finally given, and the action is far less prominent here than in The Promise. But to each their own; for what it sets out to do, it does a great job, and hopefully will still keep the fans coming back next year for the next Avatar comics trilogy, The Rift.