A lot of us people living in Fresno or anywhere else can probably relate to the awkwardness that comes from family coming home after being away for so long. But for someone like Fire Lord Zuko, that feeling changes from merely being awkward to a outright catastrophe.
Those or you who have read my reviews will know that I have been dishing out some mad praise for the Avatar: The Last Airbender comic book series written by Gene Luen Yang and illustrated by Gurihiru. Not only is this series of graphic novels easily among the best all-ages comics in publication today, but they do a spectacular job recapturing the spirit of the original Avatar animated series, both in the writing and in the spot-on artwork. Each story arc form this series consists of three digest sized graphic novels released over the course of a year that are later collected into a large, hardcover library edition filled with creator’s notes and some conceptual work. The first three stories, The Promise, The Search, and The Rift, have all been released to critical acclaim and high sales for Dark Horse Comics, ans with the recent announcement of further comics that will also continue the adventures after the ending of The Legend of Korra, it looks like this is one comics franchise that has no plans of slowing down anytime soon.
Smoke and Shadow is the fourth story arc in the series and one that fans have had to wait a surprisingly long time for. At the end of Part Three of The Rift there was now flier inserted to advertise the next trilogy like in the previous two stories, so we really weren’t sure whether any ore stories were going to be coming or not. That last comic review was posted in early November of 2014 and here its late September of 2015. So yes, loyal Avatar fans still hungry for more after the ending of The Rift and the conclusion of The Legend of Korra last December have had to wait nine months for more material. But was it worth the wait?
The story picks up where The Search left off, with Fire Lord Zuko escorting his now extended family–including his long lost mother Ursa, his new stepfather Ikem (nee Noren), and his new half-sister Kiyi. They are heading home to the Fire Nation, the first time Ursa has been back there since her banishment decades earlier. Because of this, she is feeling terribly nervous to return to the place that hold such dark memories for her, even in her former husband, Fire Lord Ozai, has been defeated and is currently serving time in prison.
But Ursa may have reason to feel nervous as an underground resistance movement called the New Ozai Society has risen up to assassinate Zuko and put his tyrannical father back on the throne. The group is lead by a man named Ukano, the former governor of Omashu while it was briefly under the control of the Fire Nation, and also the father of Zuko’s ex-girlfriend Mai. Ukano has been pressured into leading his society into making the final move to eliminate Zuko by a mysterious group of masked individuals claiming to be the Kemurikage, menacing spirits long thought to exist only in Fire Nation myth. They warn Ukano that unless he succeeds in getting rid of Zuko and restoring Ozai’s rule, it will mean dire consequences both to himself and to his family.
In speaking of Ukano’s family, they have left him upon learning of his actions against the crown. Mai, her mother and brother have moved in with her aunt and is working in her flower shop, following her rejection of her father’s rebellion and her breakup from Zuko. Upon meeting with her old friend Ty Lee, Mai also reveals that she has started dating a boy named Kei Lo, who she originally rejected because he turned out to be a patsy for her father and now is only dating him to get information to stop her father’s plans.
As the day of Zuko and his family’s arrival, all sides are poised to come into conflict with one another and the clash could lead to an unexpected reunion of old flames and to old friends coming together once again to confront not only the New Ozai Society, but the mysterious Kemurikage as well.
As you may have gathered from that summary, there is a lot of information crammed into this first part of this new trilogy. It is not surprising since that tends to be the way these story arcs flow: the first part sets ups where the characters are, what the conflict is, and why it is relevant to Team Avatar; the second part tends to be more drawn out and zeroes in on the characters more (and sometimes making room for comic relief), and the third is where we get the big climax, be it an emotional one or a big battle.
However, this first part of Smoke and Shadow is different in that it is also working as a direct sequel to another Avatar story that is not included in this graphic novel series. For those who don’t know, a few years ago Dark Horse Comics put out a one-shot issue about Mai for an event called Free Comic Book Day, which filled fan in on what had happened to her since her breakup with Zuko in Part Two of The Promise. In that comic she found out about her father’s plans to usurp Zuko and put Ozai back on the throne again and she chose to reject him and get her and her younger brother out of there. The beginning of Smoke and Shadow does not stop to give you that exposition and instead the book opens with Ukano getting a threatening visit from the Kemurikage and, obviously fearful for both his and his estranged family’s safety, he assembles his followers to announce that they are pressing more quickly to their endgame. Fortunately, the concept from the New Ozai Society is simple and straightforward that even if you have never read that one-shot comic about Mai, you can still figure out fairly quickly what’s going on from the flow of events.
One of the biggest appeals of this story arc is that it is also a direct sequel to The Search, which finally answered the most prevalent question left behind after the end of the animated series: “What happened to Zuko’s mom?” Here, Zuko is finally reunited with Ursa and her new family and they are all coming home together. But such big changes take time to get used to. Ursa’s new husband seems to be doing his best o remain supportive and remain optimistic, but as a fan who knows the history of the Fire Nation Royal Family, I cannot blame Ursa for feeling so worried about coming back home. After all, she was banished for treacherous actions she took to save Zuko’s life as a boy, and her former husband Ozai was, quite frankly, a monster. The last image we see of Ursa in this part is of here walking through the halls of the palace telling herself that she and her family (particularly her daughter Kiyi) are safe now that he’s not there…only for Ursa to freeze in terror upon merely seeing a portrait of Ozai.
In speaking of Kiyi, she seems to be a notable plot point this time around. Ursa is show to be growing rather paranoid when it comes to her safety within the Fire Nation. At one point she panics when she sees her daughter riding with Aang on a flying dolphin-fish (yeah, don’t forget that nearly all the animal in this universe is some sort of hybrid); she calls out for her daughter to come back even though the dolphin-fish are some of the most docile creatures in this universe and beyond that, she was in the company of the Avatar himself! Zuko also seems to be protective of Kiyi, determined to keep her safe when they return home.
But as for Kiyi herself, she is depicted as being rather distant from her mother after having her original face restored at the end of The Search (long story). I personally hadn’t ever thought about this until now, but for a child that really must be an extreme change to suddenly be expected to accept. Zuko tries to be peacemaker to patch the two of them together again, and she seems to only go along with it because of him. I am really curious to see where they decide to go with her character in the next two parts because they are clearly setting her up for something.
I mentioned Aang in that dolphin-fish scene, and that brings me to the biggest surprise of this entire first part: Aang is barely in it! Apart from that one scene, he, Katara and Sokka then say goodbye to Zuko so he and his family can settle in back home in private, and so after parting ways as friends they take off on Appa and leave. This was a real surprise to give the title character of this series, the Avatar himself, such a minor role in this first part, but after reading it, I kind of like it. This is similar to The Search in that it is clearly going to be a story of Zuko and his family and Aang and his friends are clearly going to be there as extra help and support. It also gives me memories of those rare occasions during the series where Zuko’s story was actually allowed to take precedence in favor of Aang’s instead of the other way around as it is in virtually ever other episode; the two examples that come to mind are the Book Three episode “The Beach,” where Zuko, Azula and her friends were the A-plot and Aang and his team were the B-plot, and “Zuko Alone,” the only episode in the series which, as the title suggests, focuses solely on Zuko and where Aang makes no appearance whatsoever.
Having said that, I do regret the once again Katara and Sokka are being used mainly as sidekicks to Aang instead of getting a major arc revolving around them for a change. We’ve been teased about some potential directions in previous arcs, lets go all the way with that, or at the very least do more with Aang and Katara’s relationship than we’ve seen since The Promise.
And then there’s Mai, who I was pleased to see back again after being gone for so long and clearly as someone who who be playing a key role in this story. Her “relationship” with Kei Lo is pretty twisted, but I can still, sort of, understand her logic. He really did approach her at first to get her to join the New Ozai Society, but then she started dating him to get him to turn into a spy against her father. Its hard not to agree with Ty Lee when she calls Mai out on this, and it kind of makes you feel sorry for this guy. By the end he does find out she’d been using him but they stay together because he really does like her, and then cut to a month later and they’re still apparently dating (and they even kiss). It will be amusing to see what kind of firework may or may not break out between Zuko and Kei Lo in the future.
The last set of characters I want to talk about are the Kemurikage. We know virtually nothing about these characters at this point other than they are linked to a Fire Nation myth about spirits who live in the mountains that snatch away misbehaving children in the middle of the night. By the end of this first part, they deem that Ukano has failed and do something in keeping with that reputation. I cannot say for certain whether these Kemurikage are real spirits or not; yes both of the previous two arcs, The Search and The Rift, have each had a heavy focus on the spirits, but for some reason I was sort of getting a Scooby-Doo vibe off of them, that they may just be humans dressed as spirits to terrorize Ukano into founding this rebellion to restore Ozai’s tyranny.
Come to think of it, it might be possible that these characters are somehow linked to a certain psychotic Fire Nation princess whose fate has been left up in the air ever since the end of The Search…
The artwork and the action are spectacular as always thanks to the talents of Gurihiru. Their style really is a perfect fit for the look of the original show, and when combined with Yang’s words and plot, make me feel as though I am reading a continuation of the series.
I have been critical in the past that the action sequences, while drawn well don’t always do a great job of capturing the energy and flow of seeing them in motion, but this time felt better than some of the past versions. There is an attack on Zuko’s convoy that lasts for a fairly long time and involved a number of characters that I enjoyed reading. In particular, Zuko get a moment near the end that harkens back to something he and Aang learned in the Book Three episode “The Firebending Masters.” Plus, its been a while since we’ve gotten to see Mai throw down with her knives or see the Kyoshi Warriors kick some butt.
Overall, Avatar: The Last Airbender–Smoke and Shadow, Part One is another exciting, engaging, and entertaining entry in the Avatar comics series and one that will sure keep us wall waiting until December to see what will happen next. It does not seem to go for heavy themes like some of the previous arcs have done, instead choosing to focus on the drama of the characters and some cool action to keep us interested, and I definitely think it succeeds in that. It may not be flawless, but this is another must-own book for any Avatar fan!