Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Avatar: The Last Airbender - The Promise Part 3 review

I'll admit: I've kind of been putting this one off.

I've been waiting for a while to do the Avatar: The Last Airbender's The Promise Part 3 review, mostly because this one is going to require a LOT of my thoughts, time and ability to rant, so I've been waiting for ample time to reveal itself, and here it is!

Ok, so those who read my thoughts on Parts 1 and 2 know that I've been really enjoying this printed successor to the original series, and I actually was starting to hope that this series could gain enough traction for the creators to make this a made-for-TV movie.

And then I read the conclusion. Oh, boy do we need to have a talk about this one.

Before I begin, I'd like to note that the only review I've read/listened to prior to this is the From the Spirit World podcast on dongbufeng.net. If you haven't heard the podcast before, they do an excellent job providing intelligent discussion to Avatar-based stuff they love and, in this book's case, ripping that which they hate to shreds.

I'll say this about this story, though: I do not hate this book. It has MAJOR flaws and is an insanely botched book, but when the book hits, it hits out of the park.

Case in point: the beginning, where you get an "Oh crap!" opening to... Armageddon. Zuko and Aang survey the waste that has been lain to their world, and then their mentors appear as mental ghosts and tell them to take The Precious kill each other.

It's at this point that you realize (and it's confirmed three panels later) that it's a dream. Contain your shock.

I joke, but this is one of the few scenes where it's hard to complain. I really got a feel for the inner turmoil between both, and the shared dream hearkens back to the fact that the Avatar and the Firelord have a strong spiritual link in these incarnations.

Where I can complain, however, is the following scene where Aang and Katara are under attack while entering Yu Dao. There's some really nice action sequences, and it felt like an ATLA action scene, but it was marred by dialogue.

This is a problem with moving TV programs to the print medium. Dialogue has to become more expository in places, and it weakens the product. Smallville is seeing a similar problem in its comic form.

The bipolar nature of this comic can be reflected in one panel of the follow-up scene. On the left side there is a pretty good joke about a revolutionary who joined for his mochi vendor – one I could have seen in the series. On the right side, Aang is talking to Sneers about his significantly better looking girlfriend, and we see a lead-in to the second-dumbest panel in the entire book:

Avatar Aang
Defender of Pimping since 12 years
before the Great War

I think that the image on my left speaks for itself, but if it doesn't, let me illuminate you.

Avatar Aang, the last of a race of monks, a child who knew little if any about the traditional guy pride kind of things, a person who in a few panels will be complaining about defacing of his peaceful, bro-less culture... has apparently channeled his inner-wingman and is giving the thumbs-up to his friend stepping up a level?

This is truly this book's "I'm the Goddamn Batman!" moment – a moment so widely and offensively out of character that you actually have to step away from the book for a moment to laugh at the absurdity of what you've just witnessed.

This is not the last of this joke, either. It is done twice more with Longshot and Sokka. I will say, though that while this one was irritating, the other two I actually did find funny.

Longshot never really had much dialogue, so his giving of the thumbs up isn't out of character and provides some levity in what was becoming a tense situation.

Sokka has a history of breaking seriousness for borderline sexist humor, and I don't subscribe to the theory that it was etched away in "The Warriors of Kyoshi" because he clearly still showed it in "Jet," "The Fortuneteller" and continued being overprotective of his female counterparts up through "The Serpent's Pass." So yeah, no complaints on those two besides the fact that the joke was starting to wear out its welcome.

After Aang's CBS-sitcom moment, he meets his other chapter of fangirls, these ones complete with tattoos. OK, I think these fangirls are starting to get a little too obsessive.

Aang apparently has a line too as he turns his back on everyone, does a "hold rage between his teeth" kind of rant and walks out. This is one area that got debate on the FTSW podcast that I'd like to address.

When I first read it, it felt like an overreaction to what was clearly a well-intentioned homage. But when I thought about it, Aang is the last of a race and spirituality. The tattoos are a sacred bond with his people.

As a black belt in a martial art and a Confirmed Catholic, I know what kind of work goes into reaching high goals on both a religious and a secular level. Both mean a tremendous amount. For Aang to see a group of people adapt a major tenet of his spirituality for their fandom not only insults his identity, but throws the fact that he's the only one that understands the egregiousness of this action (because everyone else is dead) right back in his face.

I consider his actions in the moment to be completely reasonable. Where I take issue is where the talk goes next.

Katara checks on him and raises the point I've been calling for – that Aang knows from the Guru that nation separation is an illusion, but Aang responds by yelling that he doesn't want the nations to be one and the same.

And this is my problem with this book. Aang is so clearly motivated by the wrong cause. He wants the nations separate because it's HIS will, because HE finds Yu Dao to be an abomination, and he's willing to violate the moral code he so wants to cling to by killing Zuko, if it means that he can feel better about how unique his culture is.

Ozai should be sent over to Aang in this book. I think they'd be great friends this time around. They're saying the same deranged things!

Ok, I need a minute to rage on something else. Since Katara and Aang have impending war to go to, Sokka needs another ride. And here comes the death of your dreams:

HAHA! You Tokka 'shippers just got trolled.
Thanks for the couple months of hope there, Gene Yang. I can totally see the point in making Zuko single again...

Anyway, this side plot is pretty well-done. It's basically the basic "hide underground, hit pressure points to subdue military vehicles, pretend Sokka's still a 'plan guy' despite the fact that all his plans are the same freaking thing on various scales."

The scene where all the insanity comes upon the town is also pretty cool, and the double-page spread of both armies staring each other down is the best couple pages in the book (possibly due to the non-dialogue on the spread.)

There were some fun moments in-between this like Smellerbee being played competently by outmaneuvering Aang and a sneak attack inside a Fire Nation tank, but I still have rants to go.

So Aang goes into ANOTHER supernatural rage when he sees Zuko coupled with the battle, so Katara has to take him aside and say that seeing this town showed her the future of Kataang:

I guess Aang's facial hair was some kind of midlife crisis.
Aang goes into seclusion to talk to Roku when he realizes (Three issues too late) that he is, in fact, in a cross-nation relationship, adding yet another contradiction in his actions to consider.

Following a battle where the Earth King has a panic attack and Toph's students attempt to perform Shakespeare during battle, Aang finally realizes he's full of crap and that Zuko was right.

He appeals to the Earth King's emotional side, and we get one final highlight for this story: Kuei doesn't just agree right away. He acts like a competent leader and is willing to consider his actions.

Leadership! Realism! I love it!
A story like this shouldn't resolve so quickly, and I'm glad Gene Yang treated this situation and the reader base like adults on this one.

So things start to unwind, as Aang tells Zuko that he was right the whole time and that he's a flawed Avatar for being unable to let go of people he cares about... Wait, What?

Talk about a contradictory scene. What are you trying to say? Aang's flawed because he didn't kill the guy who was advocating for the morally correct position? Are you saying that Aang still believes he's right but bent to Zuko's will so he wouldn't alienate himself from his friends?

Unless Aang's ideal was what you think is correct (and even then you've played him off as not only flawed, but pathetically incompetent), he did what an avatar should: Take the proper moral action and bring peace with as little collateral damage as possible.

Oh and I should have brought this up before, but Aang is upset with Roku for pushing for murder and decides he can no longer get advice from him. So he burns the fire nation portion of his necklace...


Ok, first of all, I thought he could summon past lives to consult with at any time. How does burning one link of a necklace sever that?

Second, why did he need to burn it? Couldn't he just, you know, not summon him?

Third, this moment is a monumental development for Aang: the point where he forges his own path as an avatar and moves from constantly needing help from past lives. It should be played as a passing of the torch; a conversation where Roku accepts his decision, but cannot be of service anymore as it's uncharted waters. He would leave the out to receive advice at any time, but he tells Aang that if he wants to follow a new path, it's best he make his own calls.

This did not come off as a teacher passing the mantle on to his student. This came off as a high school girl breaking up with her boyfriend because he doesn't like that she joined a club outside of their social circle. WHAT. A. LOAD.

And so the book ends with Zuko (who apparently is just now getting over being suicidal for some reason) calling for his sister (fresh from Arkham Asylum, evidently) to help him search for his mother. My guess is the Zuko's break-up will be addressed in "The Search" because this is clearly going to be a Fire Nation/Royal Family story with the rest of the cast worked in as supporting characters.

Overall, I can't say that I hate this book. What it did well was done brilliantly, the goals in terms of plot were achieved and enough was left unresolved that anyone who read this trilogy will feel obligated to see the plot points resolve in "The Search."

However, this book soured me on the actual execution. Interesting ideas like Tokka and Aang actually having a philosophical debate with his past lives were killed, and I couldn't help but feel like Gene Yang was using the characters' motivations and ideals from Book Two instead of the end of the series. Zuko felt like he'd regressed back to needing to travel solo, Sokka didn't have the warrior's fortitude he had in Book Three battles, and the Earth King clearly learned nothing in his travels about wanting peace.

FTSW said Gene Yang 'shipped Zutara, so maybe he held their motivations at the last point that that relationship made sense, but something felt off about this part.

With some dialogue work, this could still work as a made-for-TV movie, but I wouldn't push that hard for it. As for whether you should buy it, I'd say so simply because it concludes what had been a good first two parts and teases what should be an excellent follow-up. The art makes it worth getting and there's a lot to like. Just know that while the good outweighs the bad, that doesn't mean there isn't an obese level of bad.

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