The Promise might just be my favourite story arc in the Avatar universe so far, and that is with some STIFF competition, believe me! It’s not perfect, but it does exactly what an adaptation of an existing franchise should; giving the reader a completely loyal depiction of the characters they already know and love (helped by the show’s creators, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, working closely with writer Gene Luen Yang) while also taking said characters to some new and unexpected places. It is in that last part that The Promise elevates itself above being a solid continuation of an already great story, and becomes something quietly brilliant, even transcendent. The art is also really nice, leaning a little more to the East of the source materials cross-cultural influences, but still unmistakably Avatar.
That’s about as much as I can say without going into spoiler territory. If you are reading this and are not yet acquainted with the TV show, then go watch it, like, right now…
I’m being serious guys, do it! I don’t care if you don’t care about spoilers. I don’t care if you’ve already decided not to read the rest of this. All of these things are beside the point. Go watch Avatar: The Last Airbender for no other reason than it remains the gold standard for children’s TV, or animated TV in general. Trust me; you need this show in your life right. The hell. Now!
Background and Overview
I don’t want to fill up too much time on these things with The Story So Far. Luckily, I don’t have to, because The Promise, like episodes of the TV show, begins with a handy, broad-strokes recap of the plot of The Last Airbender. The comic then picks up almost immediately where the show left off…
Out of the ashes of the Hundred Year War, a plan is hatched by Avatar Aang, Earth King Kuei , and newly-crowned Fire Lord Zuko to restore the world to balance by gradually disbanding all of the colonies that the Fire Nation have established on old Earth Kingdom territory (colonies which fans are left to assume become the precursor to the United Republic as seen in The Legend of Korra). They dub their plan the Harmony Restoration Movement.
However, all is not well with Zuko (shocking, I know…). His thoughts are with his father, former Fire-Lord Ozai, now disempowered and locked in prison. Knowing that he also has the potential to become a tyrant, he pressures Aang into making him a promise, that if he should ever see Zuko threatening to turn to his dark side, that Aang should kill him before it’s too late.
(NOTE: Fans of the show, currently looking puzzled and raising their hands? Don’t worry, we will DEFINITELY be coming back to this bit.)
Fast forward one year, and things aren’t going great for Zuko. His support for the Harmony Restoration Movement has made his leadership incredibly unpopular, and he is increasingly stressed. When an attempt on his life is made by a citizen of Yu Dao, the oldest Fire Nation colony, he is compelled to withhold his support for the movement, setting in motion an escalating crisis that could lead to him and his friends being on opposing sides of a new war.
Okay, so there are worse set-ups than pretty-much-just Avatar: Civil War. You’ve got high stakes, involving rich, already beloved characters, but I normally wouldn’t be inclined to call such a story as good as it gets for this universe, especially when in general I’m actually not fond of ‘heroes find contrived reason to fight one-another’ arcs. The same would be true here, especially considering Aang and Zuko fighting is hardly original, but for one thing…
Aang is wrong.
The Civil War comparison gets more pertinent when you consider that, in the show, Aang is easily Captain America levels of ‘righteous’. That doesn’t make him a Mary Sue or anything; he has flaws on a personal level. In the show, it’s easy to forgive him because A) He’s a kid, and B) His flaws are admittedly petty next to those of his adversaries, but more than once he demonstrates a side of himself that’s selfish and irrational. However, when it comes to the overriding conflict of The Last Airbender he is unquestionably the Goodest of the Good Guys.
Zuko, on the other hand, is already established as the moody, brooding anti-hero, and it would be all too easy to write a story about the pressures of the throne bringing his dark side back in force. For much of The Promise, that looks to be the way it’s going. He displays a short fuse, pushes his loved ones away, and is even driven to seek advice from his father. What’s more, out of the main cast, Katara is the only other character who even entertains for a moment that he may have a point about the Harmony Restoration Movement being wrong.
On my first reading of The Promise, I was sure it was just going to plough ahead with Aang’s world-view being unquestioned, with the conflict stemming from whether he could really go through with killing Zuko, or if he could find a way out (*cough*again*cough*). After all, there is no such thing as a politically complex conflict in The Last Airbender. I don’t want to sound like I’m being harsh on the show, there’s beauty in simplicity after all, but the depth comes from the personal investment of the characters, not the conflict itself. In TLA, Fire Lord Ozai is a big meanie, whose evil plan is ‘Set The World On Fire Because I Can’, basically. This is not a show known for being challenging, in that regard.
But The Promise is clever enough to know that story is over, and simply making Zuko a villain again would be a step backward. It presents a narrative that directly challenges the simplistic notions of change and conflict presented in the show. Aang believes he is acting in the name of restoring balance, but to him ‘balance’ means ‘returning everything to the way it was 100 years ago, when I was a carefree child’. His motivations are clearly influenced by the lingering sorrow he feels for the fate of his people, and he is willing to displace civilians from the only homes they have ever known in the name of restoring the status quo.
Zuko, by contrast, sees what Aang cannot. Personified brilliantly in the character of Kori, his would-be assassin; Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation culture have evolved together in Yu Dao, to a point where its citizens belong to neither nation outright, and that there is a future there for both cultures that is worth fighting for. Even accepting that the invasion of the Earth Kingdom was wrong, it’s clear that trying to turn the clock back isn’t the way to move forward.
This is the kind of dilemma that plenty of adults struggle to wrap their heads around in the real world, so presenting it in material still meant for kids is one hell of a creative risk. It takes some REALLY good writing to pull that off, but The Promise does so with confidence, while still not forgetting that the reader’s investment in the conflict should stem from their investment in the people involved. I’d go as far as to say both Aang and Zuko ‘grow up’ more in this one story than in the entirety of the original series, and the story does it without ever seeming like it’s trying too hard to be ‘mature’.
There’s a lot more going on around this main story that I wish I could dive into, such as how menacing and manipulative Ozai can be even after his defeat, and how an unexpected encounter with some Avatar fan-girls actually ends up adding some much needed depth to Aang and Katara’s romance. Unfortunately, we’re almost out of time, and it would be remiss of me not to mention the one part of this story, as much as I love it, that sticks out as a major flaw…
The titular ‘promise’ in The Promise, is really, really dumb. They just went through this, didn’t they?! The whole finale of TLA hovered around the question of whether Aang could bring himself to kill Ozai if he had to, and he didn’t have to! I mean, I get ‘kill me if you see me turning evil’ is the kind of brooding, no-half-measures thinking that fits Zuko’s character, but for Aang to agree to it, after they literally just answered this exact same question with Zuko’s father is so… stupid!
It’s a flaw so jarring that it threatens to hang over every plot-point that results from it like a big, nonsensical cloud, but if anything, it just goes to show how good the rest of the book is to make me not care, much.
The Promise is a must for all Avatar fans, and one of the finest adaptations I have ever got my hands on. I (almost) could not recommend it higher.
I’ll see you here next time, when our Avatar journey continues with The Search.
…That was this week’s Adaptive Panels!!! Check back on Monday for a new BearSleuth Opinion Piece!!!