Thursday, 21 March 2013

Avatar: the Search - Part 1 Review

And thus the next trilogy in the post-Airbender, pre-Korra Avatar comics continues, and attempts to answer one of the enduring questions left over from the original animated series: what happened to Prince Zuko's mother?

Does the oft hinted at story deliver? For the most part, yes. The interaction beween the various characters is very well done, the action is good and the story generally feels a lot more cohesive than the previous trilogy, the Promise. Maybe that's because this one focused mainly on just one overall plot as opposed to several different ones at once (which made the Promise somewhat disjointed in places), but generally speaking it just flowed better as a story this time.

The plot of this trade, and I WILL be going into spoilers here so beware, involves not just the titular search for Ursa, Zuko and Azula's mother, but also fleshes out her own backstory as well, providing more character to a woman who only appeared once in the Last Airbender, and that was in vague flashbacks. This is in addition to an increasingly insane Azula being brought along to help in the search, only for her to have a secret that could potentially get Zuko deposed as king and her put in his place.

That secret being that Ursa was engaged to a Water Tribe man prior to her arranged marriage to Ozai, a marriage orchestrated by Ozai's father Azulon because he knew Ursa was related to the previous Avatar and thought that having his bloodline intermixed with his would make their descendants more powerful. And after she was married, she had attempted to send letters to her former fiance saying that Zuko might be his son rather than Ozai's.

It's possible that she meant it in a figurative sense than a literal sense, but the letters were incepted by Ozai, who had banned Ursa from seeing anyone from her life prior to getting married to him so she could focus all of her attention on her new family instead, who then leaked their location to Azula, implictly to spite Zuko and get his preferred child on the throne instead.

Does this actually work as a story? Well, yes, although it seems like it would derail any mental conflict Zuko had in the Last Airbender and the Promise if it were true, if it was meant in a figurative sense it doesn't necessary contradict anything that's already been established. Things like the marriage between Ursa and Azula being an arranged one, the Fire Nation royal family putting a lot of faith in the divine right to rule, which means that the marriage of Ozai and Ursa could be interpreted here as Azulon attempting to literally put "divine" heritage into his bloodline. The implication that Ozai might not have liked Zuko that much due to him suspecting that he might be someone else's child certainly puts a new spin on their already troubesome relationship as well.

In addition, the introduction of a possible way for Zuko to be deposed from the throne and Azula put in his place puts a time limit on how they should find Ursa by. Although Iroh is acting as interim Fire Lord in Zuko's absence, Ozai could still, in theory, try to have Zuko forcibly abdictate on the basis that he has no right to the Fire Nation throne, so it's important that the characters find Ursa as quickly as possible in order to confirm or deny that it's literally true.

On another note, I did really like the character work in this episode, with the numerous interactions between the various siblings and friends. Ty Lee leaping to the defense of Zuko when it seems that Azula is trying to attack him was an oddly nice moment for example, as was Zuko's continued, guarded caring for Azula. As in, he knows that she's dangerous, but she's still his sister and he has a responsiblity to look after her, particularly since she isn't... well.

Azula herself was interesting in her departure from her previous cool, collected persona. She still has the calculating, manipulative edge to her, but she still hasn't entirely gotten over her mental breakdown at the end of season three of the show, which has escalated from merely seeing a hallucination of her mother providing loving support (which Azula isn't able to process due to her thinking that her mother never loved her) to Azula becoming outright delusional, seeing Ursa everywhere and coming to the conclusion that it was her that secretly manipulated her downfall from behind the scenes to make her loose her friends and drive her crazy. It could be argued that this derails the character somewhat, like the aforementioned "Who's the Dad?" plot it actually works within the context of the story.

Azula still is threatening, calculating and smart, but she now has a tragic edge to her where she's aware that is isn't mentally stable, but isn't able to process that the fault may lie with her perception of herself rather than someone messing with her for their own amusement, ie like she would do to someone else in the past. I know that Azula has garnered something of a huge fanbase, who want her to get well and become the token "evil" teammate of the heroes' troupe... but that doesn't really work with what was already established, this does.

In all, enjoyed it a lot more than the Promise, which although I enjoyed its worldbuilding, the Search's better arranged balance of character and plot makes it a more satisfying read while still providing enough incentive to keep reading beyond the first trade. The Promise's problem is that it was intended to fill the gap between Airbender and Korra, but Korra's early release meant that how the trilogy would end was already established even before the last volume was released. With the Search, however, providing there are no delays in the other volumes, we should be able to get the whole story before Legend of Korra season two comes along and takes the dramatic punch away. Which considering the Search is tied to the Avatarverse's spirit world, and Korra book two is title Spirit, it's just possible that they might be...

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