With the Avatar: The Last Airbender — The Complete Series finally coming out, some fans may find themselves turning to the graphic novel continuation. Released by Dark Horse and written by acclaimed graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang and consulted with show creators Mike and Bryan, the series takes place a year or so after the television series. Smoke and Shadow is the fourth arc (the others being The Promise, The Search, and The Rift). After the year of waiting since the ending of The Rift, let’s see if the wait was worth it.
Unfortunately for those just tuning in, The Search is required reading—well, you know, besides the fact it’s Avatar canon and a great adventure to boot. While there’s some brief recap towards the beginning, I can guarantee that you will be more than a little confused to see Ursa, Zuko’s mother, walking around and Iroh acting as temporary Fire Lord. I don’t want to spoil it, but as far as jumping-on points go, this volume isn’t the one to start with, and at this point in the game, I can hardly fault it for that.
What I can take issue with is that it did not include a reprint of Dark Horse’s 2013 Free Comic Book Day release. For those that didn’t read it, it was a short follow-up on Mai after she and Zuko broke up in The Promise and it wound up setting the stage for her and her father Ukano’s status quo for this story. To Yang’s credit, Mai and her friend Ty Lee do manage to sum up the basics, so even if you haven’t read the short story, you get the highlights fairly easily. Still, given the fact that the story wound up actually factoring into the story arc, unlike the fun but fillerish issues of the past two years, you’d think it would’ve been reprinted in some collection or another. Eh, maybe they’ll include it in the inevitable hardcover release.
However, it’s hard to peg when exactly this tale happens. It’s clearly after The Search, but given that Toph is nowhere to be seen, does it take place before The Rift? Or maybe it happens in the three-month gap between the climax of The Rift and the epilogue’s Spirits’ Friendship Festival? For Toph fans, odds are the continuity questions will be irritating, but while hopefully all will be made clear, once the main story gets going, it’s pretty easy to just go with it.
Anyway, the basic story is this, while Zuko is making his return to the Fire Nation after tracking down his mother and losing a crazed Azula, a rebellion led by Mai’s father is on the rise. Their goal: to force Zuko to resign and reinstate Ozai on the throne. Their motive: Zuko has endangered the Fire Nation by submitting to the other nations while dedicating his forces to keeping his own people in check. However, as open conflict breaks out between the factions, Ukano keeps feeling the pressure of the Kemurikage, a mysterious masked sect of spirits that had been dismissed as mere fantasy. Their true aims may be a mystery, but when spirits become involved, Zuko knows who to call: Avatar Aang.
While it’s only been a volume since the story last revolved around Zuko (don’t let the cover fool you—Aang shows up for 5 pages), this does feel like a natural continuation from The Search and, to his credit, Yang wisely divvies up his focus between Zuko and Mai. By giving the “gloomy girl who sighs a lot” (as Sokka remembers her) richly deserved time in the spotlight, the story maintains a nice variety, as we see the family drama of Zuko as Ursa struggles to reconnect with her homeland while getting some minor spy intrigue from Mai. Yang shifts between the stories with a balanced hand and neither monopolizes the focus. The tone shifts expertly, being able to switch from Iroh comically trying to channel Zuko’s angst to an intense ambush with ease. It’s paced well over its 76 pages, and the volume closes with both a cliffhanger and a sense of completion. There are plenty of unresolved plot threads, but as the first Act wraps up, you definitely feel that you got your money’s worth. Whether it’s worth waiting until New Year’s for volume 2 is a different story.
At this point, the main drawback would be that the Kemurikage come across as generic—granted, I could be jaded to evil organizations thanks to copious amounts of anime, but their insistence of military might as strength and “Minion, you have failed us for the last time” attitudes are all threats and morals we’ve heard before. Here’s hoping that as the story progresses, they will begin to distinguish themselves more from the villain pack.
So, while the Kemurikage lean a bit too close too generic so far, what about the rest of the cast?
Unfortunately, Mai’s new love interest, Kei Lo, is also pretty plain. Orphan, the only New Ozai soldier to express doubts about his mission, and with a genuine romantic interest in Mai (for some reason); it was obvious he was going to unblinkingly defect as soon as possible. Still, despite being a tad generic, he seems like a decent sort while also being a decent contrast to Mai’s relationship with the emotionally withholding Zuko. Besides, he fuels some tension between Mai and Ty Lee over the moral implications of spying and deception, which helps give Ty Lee some character focus. On the whole, there’s some potential to him, but some more genuine emotional struggles or confliction would be helpful to avoid him feeling like Gary Stu #2967. Ursa’s husband Noren was very much the same sort back in The Search, and he doesn’t do much to distinguish himself here, but it’s hardly his story this time around, so it makes sense that he’d be more background trimming than anything else.
Surprisingly, Zuko’s young half-sister, Kiyi, is a standout as she struggles with the revelation of her mother’s true identity. After Ursa’s true face and memories were revealed during The Search (it’s a long story—240 pages long, to be exact), I confess I was skeptical about Yang following through on the emotional implications for Kiyi. Sure, Zuko got his mother back, but the one that Kiyi had known for her whole life turned out to be an illusion of sorts—there was bound to be some distrust after that. Despite The Search’s happy ending, the fallout makes for some solid drama, and the sense of cost to The Search actually feels pretty satisfying. Here’s hoping that it winds up leading to some interesting character growth for all involved.
With Aang, Sokka, and Katara being essentially cameos here, there’s not much to talk about, but here’s hoping there’ll be more to come (especially with Sokka, since he hasn’t had a serious character moment yet). Suki falls into a similar state. With The Promise and even a bit in The Search, she and Zuko at least have some minor bonding, but there hasn’t been too much actual self-disclosure from her—something the actual show also had trouble with. While there are some seeds planted for a potential development that will solve both problems, Suki fans will appreciate her showing up, but there’s not much else yet and, to be fair, the plots have had the spotlight elsewhere.
On the plus side, Mai and Zuko prove to be interesting leads. Mai’s struggle with her loyalty to Zuko as Fire Lord and her love for her country are an interesting hook and will hopefully lead to some nice drama down the line. Zuko, meanwhile, has his frustrations with leadership, but his concern about how his half-sister is having a hard time connecting to her “true” mother proves engaging—plus, his and Mai’s battle against a rebel ambush being plenty badass doesn’t hurt. Additionally, Mai and Ty Lee, while they played off each other well in the show thanks to their conflicting personalities, grow well here as we get to the two of them alone for the first time. Their fear over the escaped Azula sets up a somber tone that you just know is as damning as saying “Beetlejuice” three times and the anticipation-building is more than a little effective.
On the whole, everyone’s characterization feels spot on. Successful groundwork for some promising developments will make most readers look forward to what is to come, even if most of the new characters feel generic thus far.
Gurihiru once again proves their skill. Their action scenes are kinetic and sufficiently lengthy: there is as much action as there needs to be, nothing more or less. They continue to flawlessly recreate the character models from the show while still being able to add their own style, even with the new characters. This greatly helps the series feel like a canon continuation of the show. Their background design and layout are top notch: cities and forests alike are expertly represented here and feel cohesive.
If I absolutely had to nitpick, I would say that their crowd scenes are probably their biggest weakness right now, as the crowd that greets “Zuko” seems bland and there aren’t too many distinctive characters in them to grab your attention with; they mostly seem like a clump with some vague character frames to show that they’re a bunch of people. Still, it’s barely worth mentioning, given that the crowd only shows up for a few minor panels and isn’t distracting enough to throw off the story rhythm.
Overall, it’s sufficient. The paper and binding are higher quality and merit the $10.99. The cover, despite misrepresenting Aang’s actual role thus far, is enticing. There aren’t any extras to speak of, but those usually show up in the hardcover, so it’s not too surprising. Basically, the only reason to pick this up is if you can’t wait for the hardcover, which will likely take a year to come out if Dark Horse’s trend continues.
Despite some generic characters and villains, plenty of promising character drama, expert artwork, and expert pacing and tone make this a promising start to the Smoke and Shadow trilogy, even if it may not convert Yang’s skeptics among the fan base.