published by Del Rey Manga
Review by Ed Sizemore
When Aang found out he was the Avatar, he couldn’t handle the responsibility and ran away. While on the run, he got caught in a terrible sea storm and to save his life, his Avatar power put him in a state of suspended animation. That was a century ago.
Now Aang has awaken to find that the Fire Nation has killed all his fellow airbenders and is on the brink of world domination. Assisted by Katara and Sokka of the Water Nation, Aang must complete his Avatar training if he hopes to defeat the Fire Nation and restore balance to the world.
Avatar: The Last Airbender is a Nickelodeon cartoon that first aired in 2005. Even though the series finale aired in 2008, Nickelodeon continues to air repeats of the show today. This summer, the live-action film The Last Airbender was released. Three recent Del Rey manga have been released as tie-ins. The Last Airbender OEL is based primarily on the movie. The Last Airbender Prequel is an original story set in the same world as the live-action film. Avatar: The Last Airbender is a comic that takes stills from the TV show and adds word balloons to retell the TV episode in book format. This sometimes called a cine-manga or ani-manga.
The Last Airbender
story by Dave Roman & Alison Wilgus; art by Joon Choi; $8.99 US
The Last Airbender comic shares the same flaw as the movie; the story is mostly plot with little room for character-building. We aren’t given any time to know and connect with the characters before they’re rushing off at lightning speed to save the world. This makes it hard to sympathize with their pain and grief at various points in the book.
The comic is slightly faster-paced than the movie. At times, there are odd transitions from panel to panel on the same page. The dialogue will abruptly change subject at places. It feels like a panel or two is missing. It makes me think there was a page limit set to the book and some sloppy edits were made to make the story fit the predetermined page count.
Having seen the film, I can say the comic is a fairly faithful adaptation, although I think the writers were working from an early version of the script and not the final draft. There are a couple of elements in the comic that aren’t in the movie. These pieces are extraneous to the story and should have been cut from the comic, too. One example is Katara losing her necklace only to have Aang return it later. Another is the introduction of the Kyoshi Warriors, who appear for four pages and are gone.
Choi is using a shojo art style in The Last Airbender. The artwork is solid. Choi is best with facial expressions with one exception; her exaggerated faces are awkward-looking and distracting. They are meant to be funny but never are. Choi is a competent shonen/action artist, but I’d really like to see her do a romance series, since that seems more natural for her style.
The Last Airbender Prequel: Zuko’s Story
story by Dave Roman & Alison Wilgus; art by Nin Matsumoto; $10.99 US
Zuko’s Story is a slightly better reading experience. It’s not as plot-driven as The Last Airbender, but nonetheless, it fails at its primary task, making Zuko a sympathetic villian. The biggest problem is that Zuko’s obsession to gain favor in his father’s eyes isn’t believable. Zuko’s father, the lord of the Fire Nation, is a grade-A jerk. It’s obvious that he doesn’t have much affection for Zuko, or that he ever will. In fact, Zuko knows of his father’s disdain for him. So Zuko’s desperation for his approval doesn’t make sense. Zuko’s psychology needs to be fleshed out more.
Compounding the problem is that Zuko treats everyone around him poorly. He treats his uncle Iroh, whom he literally owes his life to, as a lackey. He repays his uncle’s kindness with insults. The ship’s company are essentially non-beings for Zuko. He treats them like part of the ship’s machinery. Everyone is just an obstacle or a bother to him. I don’t see how the crew or his uncle stay by his side.
Matsumoto’s art style is more Western-looking. There is no use of screen tones here. The pure black and white is dramatic-looking and adds emotional impact to the story. Matsumoto is very good and shows potential to be a great visual storyteller. I’ll be on the lookout for more work by this artist.
Avatar: The Last Airbender Volume 1
created by Michael Dante DiMartino & Bryan Komietzko; $7.99 US
The Avatar cine-manga was the most enjoyable book of the three. It brought to mind all the strengths and weakness of the animated series. The great appeal of the Avatar series was the character and world-building. The cartoon was slow-paced and let the viewer spend a lot of time getting to know the central cast and to bond deeply with them.
That said, the show at times forgot that there’s supposed to be a grand narrative going on in the background and that Aang had limited time to master his Avatar powers. The show got so caught up in the character and world-building that it tended to forgot about plot. Every once in a while, I would find myself wondering if Aang was ever going to study any other form of element bending, let alone master all of them.
To get a sense of the pacing difference between the live-action movie and the TV show, it takes the Avatar cine-manga 86 pages to tell the same narrative that the The Last Airbender comic covers in ten pages. Personally, I prefer a story that errs on the side of character development over plot.
There isn’t much to say about art in the Avatar cine-manga. The show is well-animated. The book’s uncredited art editor does a good job of making a book from a TV show.
I would recommend that people simply stick with the source material and watch the original TV show. There you can see the creators, DiMartino and Konietzko, directly shape the story and characters. Second best is the cine-manga. The charm of the cartoon was the wonderful cast of characters. By focusing on plot, the other versions of Avatar take the heart out of the series. So don’t waste your time on a lifeless copy when the real thing is so readily available to enjoy.