I know it’s just a silly fan club, but for a moment there, it almost felt like…like I was at home again. With my people.
--Aang (The Promise: Part Two 35)
Toph Beifong is such a jerk. And that’s why she’s so loveable.
I finally picked up a copy of Part Two of The Promise, the continuation of Nickelodeon's animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and the bridge to its sequel series The Legend of Korra—thanks again to Bergen Street Comics for stocking the book. While a lot of the story focuses on Zuko’s continuing internal struggle from his father’s influence, and Aang’s newfound fan club, Part Two of The Promise belongs to Toph, because it looks like this issue concludes her story in founding the world’s first metalbending school. If writer Gene Luen Yang, author of American Born Chinese, does not bring back Toph and her students—unlikely, as it looks like we are approaching another war between firebenders and earthbenders just behind their school in Part Three, coming out in September—I would be satisfied.
With Part Two of The Promise, we see how she has grown since the television series’ finale and how she becomes the character that her daughter Ling remembers at the beginning of Korra. But before I address her in depth, part of the process of seeing Toph grow up is the one that ties together Part Two’s three stories—her and Sokka, Aang and Katara, and Zuko and Ozai: the loss of home. This topic is huge for me, as it has dominated my undergraduate and now doctoral research on nineteenth-century American domesticity and gender. Sure enough, I see some similar ideas playing out in The Promise. While the previous issue showed the problem as pertains to the Fire Nation colony Yu Dao, home to both Fire Nation colonizers and Earth Nation colonists--including new character Kori, daughter of an earthbender and a Fire Nation mayor--Part Two looks at how this colony impacts the sense of home that individual characters have cultivated through three seasons of the television series, and now question in confronting the problem of removing Fire Nation colonists and returning the cities to the Earth Kingdom.
Specifically, Yang uses this issue to see how that loss of home affects three male characters so differently. For example, Aang has lost of the Air Nomads but has found something as quaint as a girls’ Avatar Fan clubhouse (a forerunner to the Air Acolytes of Korra?). But Earth King Kuei feels inadequate in negotiations with Zuko in reclaiming parts of his home nation--and after his own exile at the hands of Zuko's sister. And now that very same new Fire Lord is confronting his predecessor, coming to learn what it means to feel at home after an adolescent spent homeless. While retreading some ground covered in Season 3 of Avatar with Zuko’s failed homecoming and inability to connect with his father, the parallels seem more like call backs rather than rip offs. In both Part One and Part Two, Yang has staged Zuko’s interaction with Ozai in person in ways similar to how the television series (and at least one story in the other graphic novel continuation, The Lost Adventures) presented the nephew’s interaction with Iroh. Yang understands that a theme to this issue is home when Zuko, sitting in his throne room, tries to give it the atmosphere his father would have—burn everything!—only to end his plan with a hilariously curt, “This isn’t me.”
And that idea of identity is what is wrapped up in determining how Toph is the key to this issue. Aang’s quotation about his lost home is great, but Toph brings the idea back to herself and I think revealing ideas that the guys in this issue just don’t. As she tells Sokka,
Metal is just a part of earth that’s been purified and refined. But how does it become like that? By getting heated, melted, and pounded. But how does it become like that? By getting heated, melted, and pounded. By going through pressure and pain. I discovered metalbending in a tiny metal cell, when Master Yu and Xin Fu were taking me back to my parents. That whole trip, all I could think about was how my parents expected me to be something I’m not. Sure, they wanted me to be helpless, but they also wanted me to be a cultured, well-mannered, soft-spoken little lady. All I felt was pressure and pain. (59)
I’m not happy that Yang hasn’t shown Toph’s parents since the series started—her continued removal from her parents strikes me as odd, after her desire to see at least her mother in “The Runaway.” As the title to that episode emphasized, Toph is someone who cannot stay in one place; reading that she was a mother by the time that Korra begins was surprising, as I didn’t see her as the kind of person to stay in Republic City and form a family. Of course, as the recent Korra episode “Out of the Past” shows, perhaps Toph just likes being in one place if she feels she is doing some good—a point she stresses in The Promise by staying at her metalbending school, and a feeling I got seeing her arrest criminals like Yakone. And I keep forgetting that Part One of The Promise starts one year after the series finale of Avatar: The Last Airbender, so perhaps in the mean time Toph did return home, or maybe her metalbending school (albeit in a Fire Nation colony) is not as far from her parents' home.
And despite my concerns, Toph's remark to Sokka speaks to her continued connection to her family, and her attempt to make a family out of these metalbending students. In the tradition of Avatar, these three characters start from archetypes that initially seem stereotypical, but build into more complicated personalities. While Toph realizes her teaching may be as detrimental as her parents’ upbringing was to her, by issue’s end she realizes the value that she has instilled in Ho Tun, Penga, and the Dark One—and as Yang shows in this issue, each one embodies aspects of Toph herself, and what she can offer to each one that she has learned in her journey with Team Avatar. Ho Tun is a big guy—but hardly as tough of Toph. Penga is a spoiled rich girl too stubborn to sacrifice what she wants—but lacks humility to get down and dirty. The Dark One is…well, a dark one, but he needs a task to motivate him.
While Yang’s dialogue sounds more like a grown adult than a growing child—perhaps because we don’t get to hear actor Jessie Flower’s voice performer this dialogue—Toph’s development is the focus to this issue. Given how her daughter Ling has turned out, I hope that The Promise or at least some more flashback in Korra lets us see how she has developed into Republic City’s first police chief of the metalbenders.
I hope we can see the return of Toph’s students in future issues, as one key to her development could be built out of just one student, Penga, the ultimate anti-Toph. Think about it: an earthbender girl raised by a wealthy family…and who just happens to be crushing hard on Sokka—only whereas Toph is would rather play in the dirt, Penga obsesses with fashion. But the two have something else in common: a desire for control. Penga uses her power to boss people around, and Toph strives to build up her students. As Toph struggles to educate someone so much like her, and Penga struggles against that instruction, something interesting could develop in future issues. Maybe that relationship between two female characters could open up opportunities to explore not just what the bros Huei and Zuko feel by the losses of their homes but, as the issue concludes with Kori—herself feeling the loss of home of her Fire Nation colony torn apart—sending a message to “our sisters in the Yu Dao chapter” (61), maybe something new will emerge on the issue of feeling like a “sister” at home.
- Yes, I did watch today’s episode of Korra. “That woman is my hero,” indeed. And please stop with the Dante Basco-bashing: complaints that Iroh sounds too young are ridiculous, especially when Basco himself is 36 years old. NOT EVERY MAN NEEDS TO HAVE A DEEP VOICE! AND BASCO IS AWESOME!
- Some of you may wonder why I insist on using Avatar rather than The Last Airbender to designate this fictional universe. While James Cameron had started writing what would become his film long before Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko pitched their idea to Nickelodeon, the Avatar name continues not only within the universe for designating the person who brings balance to the world, but also in markets outside the United States as the pre-title for Korra. Besides, do we really need any more reminders of this film adaptation?
- Zuko is the Vash the Stampede of the Avatar universe: he ends the series with “Love and Peace,” and now we learn that as a boy he had a spider/butterfly dilemma, too. Would love to hear Mark Hamill’s narration on that scene.
- Of course Sokka attracts all persons of the female demographic. And of course Aang gets the ladies. Let it not be said that Avatar doesn’t give young readers some attractive guys to ogle—who thankfully aren’t Edward and Jacob. [Heard enough of that later conversation a few days ago at a tea shop.]
- Heh—stealth joke: before Toph explains that the only persons who could bend out of emotional instability are “crazy people,” Sokka comments that his sister is one of those persons. Poor Katara—insistently mocked by Toph.
- “Hey, Sokka, am I doing this right? I’m trying to roll my eyes at you.”
- Too bad we didn’t get a Dodgeball reference when Sokka started his…um, training exercise. “If you can dodge a wrench…”
- And, dare I say…I’m kind of sympathizing with Ozai? This issue is finally showing some humanity to the guy, no longer just Luke Skywalker-as-Darth Vader but now someone who thought he was protecting his son, only to realize how little love he could get from him. Notice how bitter Ozai’s dialogue comes off when, right after he narrates how he rescued Zuko from drowning, he then focuses on how Zuko would only cling to his mother, vomiting seawater. I’m not saying that Ozai is now being redeemed; I’m saying we see that he does love his son, but how warped and unethical that love is: to turn Zuko into someone like him, someone who will love his family, but is willing to commit genocide to protect his family. The issue ends undermining a lot of that development, but there is something about the character that is sickeningly fascinating.
- …Is…Is this comic setting up Suki with Zuko? Something about Mai’s exit seems rather permanent, Suki’s fear for Zuko and hand-reaching seems like some UST, and her sense of betrayal all point to something interesting for a comic that is trying to find a way to unite the Fire Nation and the Earth Kingdom. And I’m not the only one: I saw one chat room talk make the same point. The television already showed Zuko’s link to the Air Nomads—his own great-grandfather was reincarnated as Aang—so why not hook up the Fire Lord with an Earth Kingdom warrior? [Now if anyone starts making it head-canon that Zuko and Suki are Bolin and Mako’s parents, I will turn this car around!]
- So, taking bets—if Phil LaMarr was giving Kuei’s speech now, how much Aquaman or Samurai Jack would creep into his voice?
Despite criticisms about how Zuko’s hair looked, I thought the style was fine. Then again, maybe I’m on the defensive since my hairstyle has gone through its own problems—freaking asymmetrical bangs. Anyway, given all the fan turmoil over his hair, here’s hoping the people at Korra can ADR some dialogue when Zuko does finally show up, just to mock however the designers have made his hair look for this older iteration…assuming the 87-year-old former Fire Lord still has hair.
Guirhuri’s art also draws out a wide numbers of emotions that shows how Avatar appeals to such a broad audience with numerous genres. For comedy and action, the staging on page 17 is impressive. As the Kunyo students make a totem pole maneuver, the flow of the action could have been lost, but Gurihuri guide readers’ eyes with a Dutch angle of the students, followed by a pan-down shot to show their maneuver. To add humor, Gurihuri then add some straightforward shots. Especially impressive is Sokka’s last frame in the image, his mouth for some reason reminding me of Goku from early Dragon Ball Z episodes.
For some drama, look at how Gurihuri place the panels to reveal (or not reveal) Katara’s eyes on page 35.
The placement of the panels then gives heightened tension when you have the narrow panels on pages 36 and 37, showing just how similar Zuko and his father look, how they risk becoming the same person, and how much hostility is building up again in the young Fire Lord. Here’s hoping Gurihuri can pull off some epic scenes for what looks to be all out war in Part 3.
The Promise: Part Two is now available in comic book shops, bookstores, and online. This and other books are available at Bergen Street Comics.