With a new creative team on the comic, “Avatar: The Last Airbender—Imbalance” marks a new era in the series.
Created by Bryan Konietzko Michael Dante DiMartino
Written by Faith Erin Hicks
Illustrated by Peter Wartman
Colored by Ryan Hill
Lettered by Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt
When Team Avatar return to Earthen Fire Industries, the factory owned by Toph’s father, they find that the once small town is now booming, yet a strange mood hangs over its residents. When Aang is asked to join a business council meeting, the reason becomes clear: a massive bender versus non-bender conflict is threatening to turn violent.
Written by Faith Erin Hicks (The Nameless City) and drawn by Peter Wartman (Stonebreaker), in collaboration with Avatar: The Last Airbender creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, this is the ultimate continuation of Avatar!
Paul Lai: Our past dialogue reviews of these Dark Horse Avatarverse sequels have often begun with our judgments of the fidelity or freshness of the creators’ voices with the “sacred texts” that are the original Avatar and Korra series—be it from Gene Yang on story and dialogue or Gurihiru’s and Irene Koh’s art style and staging. ‘Imbalance’ Part 1 brings us a new creative team on this new story of Aang, Toph, Katara, and Sokka. We’re treated to Faith Erin Hicks and Peter Wartman, whose past works we’ve both been fans of. We’ll inevitably get to rendering our judgments whether Hicks and Wartman accomplish their own balance of originality and faithfulness. (Sneak preview: High marks from this judge.)
But if you’re OK with it, Mark, I’d actually love to start with this question: 2018 marks a decade since the original Avatar series went off the air. I remember reading an endorsement of the first “Nameless City” book from Bryan Konietzko and pondering the extent of the series’ influence, whether a book like Hicks’ trilogy exists without the groundbreaking aspects of Avatar. And I don’t just bring up the question of Avatar’s legacy because of Faith Erin Hicks. As my pre-teen kid watches more shows that blend East and West cultural influences and tackles large-scale social questions through fun, engaging fantasy parallels, I wonder how much of this is thanks to the fingerprints of Avatar on pop culture. What are your thoughts?
Mark Tweedale: I can’t help but think of the series as game changing. I mean, when the first half of season one came out, Nickelodeon was airing the episodes out of order because they hadn’t done focused serialized storytelling like Avatar before. And then you have characters like Zuko, who is a victim of domestic abuse… The show didn’t shy away from characters dealing with serious trauma. I wasn’t used to animated children’s programs acknowledging this sort of material, and I feel like Avatar: The Last Airbender opened doors that had previously been off limits. (Plus it was awesome having an epic fantasy world that wasn’t based on Medieval Europe for a change.)
But I can’t pin all that on Avatar either. I feel like the shift we’ve seen is more of a relay race. So many other shows have taken the baton and pushed children’s media further since then (including Avatar’s own sequel, The Legend of Korra).
So, what are your thoughts then?
Paul: As a kid who grew up largely bereft of pop culture here in the US that took Asian cultural influence for granted as complex and multi-faceted (as opposed to exotic, foreign, mystical), I find a fairly different and really satisfying landscape today. Maybe Avatar is more bellwether than lynchpin of that change. Credit anime and manga’s popularity, credit Ang Lee and Miyazaki, credit cultural globalization… as you put it, many carried that baton. But Avatar does feel really significant in the niche of animated epic fantasy for children in normalizing a certain kind of story possibility. And it’s a hugely influential niche to fill the imaginations of TV-watching kids.
So I bring those cultural significance questions to ‘Imbalance’ because this story veers right into how industrialization, in the form of the Earth Kingdom’s factory-filled urban center Cranefish Town, expands at alarming rates that threaten ecological, spiritual, and social fabrics. To me, those are the big questions Hicks and Wartman bring to the interpersonal and plot level of Team Aang trying to play peacekeeper among feuding parties of the city’s benders and non-benders.Continued below
If earth/air/water/fire-bending is a stand-in for pre-modern, deeply traditional forms of knowledge and power (in both Avatar and Korra), what Hicks and Wartman are setting up here is a confrontation with the technological society that we already see saturating The Legend of Korra’s world. And given our modern reckoning with industrialization and modernity run amok in the form of climate disaster and resurgent nationalism…
Haha… let me pump the brakes on my own grad school talk and just say, it’s interesting. I love it that Avatar works on the level I’m talking about AND works on the level of “just a fun story about Aang and pals, kicking butt and bringing harmony.”
Mark: Yeah, these stories always impress me with how multi-faceted they are.
So let’s talk about ‘Imbalance.’ This arc brings a new writer and artist, so I was expecting this arc to stand alone a bit. Instead, it really plays up the continuity, leaning on stories set up Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru, not just in terms of plot, but in terms of themes too—revisiting ideas established in earlier stories and exploring them further.
The major shift for me was in Peter Wartman’s art. I found his natural differences from Gurihiru’s art made the characters seem a little older, especially Aang.
Paul: I was really surprised at how much Wartman’s art felt like a great fit to me. I’ll admit, I could gush about Gurihiru for paragraph after paragraph, so it was a high bar to live up to. And while I’ve loved Wartman’s “Over the Wall,” I was initially skeptical about how that style would translate. But I was very impressed with how Wartman’s looser, sketchier style, much like Irene Koh’s in the “Korra” series, lent a kind of maturity to the feeling created by the art, but without losing the ability to pull off humorous, light-hearted stuff.
Mark: I think he’s just really good at articulating small facial expressions, which really bring the interior lives of the characters to life. Even in big action sequences, he draws the characters in ways that shows the characters are thinking. Wartman’s acting through his drawings clicked with me immediately.
Strangely, I found the colors more than the line art was the thing that jumped out as noticeably different. Gurihiru’s world was warmer, whereas Ryan Hill favors more blue shadows, which makes the world seem colder, perhaps even a little austere at times. Hill’s colors in the last twenty pages or so were fantastic, but I can’t really talk about that without delving into spoilers.
Paul: I hadn’t teased out those differences but, looking back, I can see exactly what you’re talking about. Hill’s colder palettes seemed to suit Wartman’s line work in contrast to Gurihiru’s more animation-y sense of line and color. And I also agree that Wartman’s “acting” is really subtle and on point with the characters as we know them, which is hugely important to this cast we’ve gotten to know so well. It goes beyond the faces too. There’s the way Aang’s shoulders playfully arch when he’s showing off cheesy airbending tricks, or Toph’s martial arts style and confident, short-armed gesticulating… all of that just hit the mark and feel true to the show, even while exploiting Wartman’s adeptness with that brush-like line.
Like I hinted earlier, high marks from this judge for this creative team.
Mark: OK, minor spoiler warning, but I have to talk about one particular scene in the book that I felt showcased the taut storytelling in ‘Imbalance.’ It’s the scene with the rival benders fighting. It focuses on the damage benders can cause. Even Aang, in trying to diffuse a hostile situation, ends up destroying a street a bit. Obviously, this is an important part of Cranefish Town’s development, but it also highlights a problem with our leads; they’re over-reliant on force to solve their problems. It’s nice to see them grappling with this too, with Aang trying to negotiate and Toph trying to save what structures she can. This is an action scene that embodies the complicated politics of the situation through multiple points of view while advancing character development. It’s doing so much at once. It’s a great bit of storytelling.Continued below
Paul: I’ve been a fan of Hicks since she was serializing “The Adventures of Superhero Girl” in the early part of the decade, but what stuns me is how she’s able to leap genres and storyworlds between her projects so well. When I heard her talk at Alternative Press Expo years ago, just as she was starting “Nameless City,” one thing that impressed me was how much she expected of herself that she needed to diligently research her subject, even as influence on historical fantasy, as an artist and as a comics storyteller. I have to imagine a similar thoughtfulness went into ‘Imbalance.’
One advantage is that the story lets Hicks create or flesh out a whole host of new Earth Kingdom inhabitants, with Cranefish Town’s citizens and their partisan divides, their laboring bender and non-bender classes, and their “Business Council,” whose bland name makes for a nice running joke. They don’t really stand out to me as individuals yet, these new characters, but I think Hicks and Wartman are leveraging our known and familiar lead characters to enter empathetically into the conflicts of a whole town of folks, which is what allows those questions of significance I mentioned at the top.
That’s one thing Hicks has always done well, across genres, going back to “Friends with Boys” and her other early adaptation works: write casts, ensembles of personalities, with social implications behind their interactions, rather than just lone individuals and their interiorities.
Mark: I’m looking forward to seeing how Sokka develops this arc. This particular story with its on the plight of non-benders is a real opportunity to showcase him. Yeah, he works great as a comic relief, but I also like it when Sokka gets serious and fights for something he cares about. And in the past he’s been that overlooked non-bender that’s just told to stand aside and let the benders handle anything, and he’s since grown far beyond it.
Paul: Agree! Sokka is always good for comic relief (as in the opening scene where I think he’s suggesting upgrading Appa as a flight vehicle through flatulence turbos or something). But by virtue of his ordinariness as a non-bender, you’re right that he becomes sort of a moral balance, and maybe even a certain empathetic POV character, for the non-bending audience. (I’m assuming that’s all of us, though Mark may be a Water Bender.)
Mark: My favorite sequence in this installment was the island scene with Katara and Aang—it was the heart and soul of this book. It’s easy to forget that Aang’s just a kid when he’s as capable as he is, and despite friends all around him, he’s still an Air Nomad endling, the last of his people. We’ve seen him hurt from this loss many times in both the TV series and the comics, but here I think the focus has shifted. I feel him yearning for a place he can call home.
Paul: That’s true. But it feels to me like those feelings have ripened a bit from past mourning. This goes with your earlier comment that these characters have looked like they’ve aged: it seems to me Hicks and Wartman are indeed treating this as ongoing saga and not ageless episodic cartooning. Shifts in alliances and character growth tend to last, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the creators did write a few years of maturation into these four, inching towards the Korraverse futures.
That doesn’t diminish the poignancy of the Aang airbenders-lost lamentations. It actually makes it even more sad to me. As he ages, he gets more distant from that frozen past. So you’re right, Aang feels like his rootlessness has evolved into a longing for home and harmony.
Which makes the themes of environmental degradation and urbanization, that sense of paradise lost resulting from the relentless growth of our technological marvels, really stand out. It’s in perfect alignment to what happens by the time Korra rolls around, where the spirituality of bending is basically a commodified novelty or underground, esoteric oddity.
I’m very excited to see how this plays out, and I have a whole lot of faith (pardon the pun) in these creators to execute a fascinating arc.Continued below
Mark: We should probably get to grading. I’m going with an 8.5. ‘Imbalance’ Part 1 is a strong introduction to the new arc, continuing threads from Yang and Gurihiru’s run on the title, throwing in a few connections to The Legend of Korra, and giving us plenty of new material to chew on too (which we’ll have to talk about in our next review—we wanted to avoid big spoilers).
Paul: 8.5 sounds right to me. Sounds high, but that reflects the consistently good quality of these Avatarverse books from Dark Horse. And I’d wager we’ll see even better in the installments to come.
Final verdict: 8.5 – The new creative team maintains the consistent high quality of the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” comics continuation.