The Last Airbender Round-up (Del Rey)

A look at a trio of releases tied into the controversial M. Night Shyamalan-directed blockbuster: a prequel, a movie adaptation, and a "cine-manga"-styled adaptation of the original Nickelodeon TV series.


The Last Airbender Prequel: Zuko’s Story (Del Rey)
144 pgs., B&W ; $10.99
(W : Dave Roman, Alison Wilgus; A: Nina Matsumoto)
The Last Airbender (Del Rey)
128 pgs., B&W; $8.99
(W: Dave Roman, Alison Wilgus; A: Joon Choi)
Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 1: Water Vol. 1 (Del Rey)
96 pgs., color; $7.99
(Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko)
If you’ve been turned off by the poor reviews garnered by M. Night Shyamalan’s film The Last Airbender (8% positive on Rotten Tomatoes at last count)but want to find out what the story is all about, or if you’re a fan of the Nickelodeon animated series and would like to see how the material works in a different medium, you have several choices in the graphic novel department.  In the interests of full disclosure, let me say up front that I haven’t seen the movie nor watched the television series, so I’m approaching the books on their own merits and will refrain from commenting on how well they do or don’t reflect the other versions of this story.
First a little background. In the Airbender universe, humanity is divided into four nations, each based on an element: Water, Earth, Air or Fire. Within each society some people are “benders” who can manipulate the element of their nation, while the Avatar can bend or manipulate all four elements and is also charged with maintaining peace among the nations. Only one Avatar exists at a time and as the story begins 12-year-old Aang (already an Airbender) learns he is the new Avatar. He still has to learn the skills required to master the other elements, which entails lots of travel, adventures, and conflicts with members of the other nations.
One of Aang’s fiercest antagonists is Prince Zuko of the Fire Nation, so it’s only fitting that Dave Roman and Alison Wilgus explicate his back-story in the prequel Zuko’s Story. They plunge right into the action: Zuko already has the injury which will result in his characteristic facial scar, and on the very first pages we see him being stripped of his birthright and banished from the Kingdom. Zuko hopes to regain his honor by capturing the Avatar and enlists the aid of his sister Azula, the family favorite, who obtains a ship and crew for his quest. There’s just one catch: Zuko has to bring along his disgraced Uncle Iroh, which turns out to be a benefit as the two develop a strong relationship over the course of their journey and the older man helps the impetuous young prince grow up (to be fair, Zuko is only a teenager and has more reason than most to be angry at the world).
This volume  packs a lot of action into less than 100 pages and the art by Nina Matsumoto (she created the series Yokaiden and has also worked on some Simpsons comics) is a perfect blend of manga and Western influences.  A special bonus in this volume is the reproduction of 17 pages of script with Matsumoto’s preliminary drawings which demonstrate how the artists worked together and make an interesting comparison with the completed work. Of the three volumes reviewed here, this one was the most complex psychologically and therefore the most interesting to me as an adult (Del Rey rates it for ages 10+). You can seem a preview here, courtesy of MTV.
The Last Airbender, also written by Dave Roman and Alison Wilgus but illustrated by Joon Choi (an experienced animator and art director of Studio Joon Toon) is said to be “inspired by the summer Blockbuster directed by M. Night Shyamalan” so I’m guessing the story corresponds more to the film than to the TV series. It begins with Katara (a Waterbender) and her brother Sokka accidentally releasing Aang from the ice where he was imprisoned (sort of like the Monkey King being trapped in a mountain—if you like Asian mythology you’ll see lots of parallels throughout the story). Soon Prince Zuko shows up, gives Aang a Tibetan-lama-like test which demonstrates that he is indeed the Avatar, and plans to take him, as a prisoner, back to the Fire Nation. If I hadn’t read the prequel at this point I’d be thinking Zuko was a total jerk, but from his point of view he’s just trying to get his own life back together. Anyway, Aang escapes and with his new friends returns home only to find that his tribe was basically exterminated by the Fire Nation while he was trapped in the ice. The rest of the book, which can feel a bit rushed, involves Aang seeking out training to master the other elements (Katara also gets more training in bending water) and there’s plenty of room for sequels because at the end of this volume he has mastered only Air and Water. All in all, this volume tells a good adventure story with lots of mythical overtones and the art is appropriate and functional if not quite as distinctive (and more in traditional manga style) as that of Zuko’s Story. Like Zuko’s Story, it’s rated for ages 10+.
Avatar: The Last Airbender Book 1: Water is based most directly on the Nickelodeon series (Shyamalan’s film dropped the “Avatar” part of the title to avoid confusion with a certain other movie) and is also more obviously aimed at kids rather than adults. The art is taken directly from screen captures of the animated series, although it’s more nicely set up than similar series I have seen: whoever laid out the pages invested considerable time in choosing the shots and making a layout which is both imaginative and tells the story clearly. The storytelling is simpler than the other two volumes reviewed here, with narration that often repeats what is portrayed in the art and much simpler emotions attributed to the characters (it has an all-ages rating).  This volume also has helpful introductions to the characters and the tribes (much of my understanding of the Avatar universe comes from this volume) but less story, and this series seems designed to stretch the story over as many volumes as possible. To give you an idea: this is only Book 1 of the Water series (which is up to 5 volumes already on Amazon) and there are also Earth and Fire series already in progress.  So if your kid gets hooked on the books you may find yourself being nagged to make quite a few purchases in support of their habit. | Sarah Boslaugh

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