“Avatar: The Last Airbender—Imbalance” ends up perfectly balanced in key ways and perfectly unsettled in other ways. Faith Erin Hicks and Peter Wartman have taken up the baton from Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru beautifully, building on the thematic work their predecessors developed and taken it into new territory. This isn’t just a continuation by a new team—there is clearly a lot of respect for what’s come before, both from the TV show and the comics.
Created by Bryan Konietzko Michael Dante DiMartino
Written by Faith Erin Hicks
Illustrated by Peter Wartman
Colored by Adele Matera
Lettered by Richard Starkings and Jimmy Betancourt
While Aang grapples with a life-changing decision that only the Avatar could make, Ru and Yaling concoct a fiery ploy to get their mother back. The bender vs. non-bender conflict finally reaches a violent boiling point, and for better or for worse, Cranefish Town will never be the same!
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!
Mark Tweedale: I enjoyed ‘Imbalance’ Part 1 and Part 2, but I love Part 3. In our past reviews we’ve spoken about the complexity of the situation faced by Aang and company, and I think what really makes this story work is that the final installment didn’t give us simple answers… or any answers really. If anything, it digs deeper into the questions posed by the situation, revealing even more complexity. The situation isn’t resolved by the end of this installment. Instead, it’s evolved.
I think this could well be my favorite installment of the “Avatar: The Last Airbender” comics to date. How’d you find it, Paul?
Paul Lai: I give the creators a ton of credit. Just like we said the Wartman art seemed to mature the characters a bit, the story feels like it has matured too, moving the goalposts closer toward the “Korra” storyworld. Moral and political ambiguities abound.
I don’t know that I would call “Imbalance” my favorite, though since the Yang and Gurihiru “Avatar” stories tended to emphasize certain themes that appeal to me most about the original TV show: multiple forces in tensions that are impossible to fully resolve, but the fortitude of humble heroism to confront that complexity with a kind of spiritual and moral simplicity. Don’t write me off as naïve: I like this kind of story a lot too. There’s a kind of maturity, actually, maturing that’s gone on with the Hicks & Wartman era that I very much embrace. But maybe it’s exactly because the end-state of Cranefish Town at the conclusion of “Imbalance” actually resembles so many realities of unresolved tensions in my perception of the world. Although I want this in my Avatar fiction, my brow is furrowed and it needed some unfurrowing.
But I’m thrilled at your enthusiasm for this story, Mark! Tell me about some ways you felt the ending successfully tied the threads (or left them untied, as the case may be) that we’ve been following through Parts 1 and 2.
Mark: Past stories have certainly had moments I love more, but speaking about the overall package, I can’t help but feel extra satisfied with this one. And it wasn’t because of any one thing, but many small things. As you rightly assumed, I liked how little anything was tied up, not because I like open endings (I usually prefer neat endings), but because of the issues at play. The parallels drawn between white supremacy and bender supremacy are hard to miss, and not something that can be adequately dealt with by defeating a “bad guy”—the villain is not the problem in this situation, they are a symptom. Bender supremacy stems from systemic issues and bigotry, and needs to be dealt with through cultural change. That’s not something that’s going to happen overnight. In fact, these issues are still going to exist in Korra’s time.Continued below
Another detail I very much appreciated was the exploration of more subtle kinds of violence. We often have very narrow definitions of what constitutes violence. Katara is right; taking away the Firelord’s bending was an act of violence. It was a desperate situation and Aang did what he had to, but I’m glad they finally acknowledged the reality of what happened there and why taking away someone’s bending is not a punishment to be dealt out because a situation is difficult. Aang absolutely made the right call here. Taking away Liling’s bending would’ve led to the worst kind of escalation and fed into the bender supremacists’ persecution complex.
As you say, this reflects a lot of what’s going on in the world at the moment, so I can totally understand why your brow would need unfurrowing. They ending doesn’t offer a release of tension, but rather stomach knots for the future.
Paul: Right! Especially since the world of Korra has us projecting forward to a future where bending changes meaning in Avatarverse society, much the way that religion and magic changes meaning in our post-industrial societies. So whatever these important characters determine about whether it’s right or fair to take away the powers of benders could have some serious implications in the ongoing political struggles of this world. To have the characters deliberate and dispute over chi-blocking and taking away bending powers—right from the opening scene, where Katara and Toph represent the two sides of the debate—puts these moral and political questions right at the forefront.
And you’re right that these have very contemporary parallels in the form of questions about policing and governing different forms of power people may have, how those may be attached to our identities, and what kinds of precedents we set for infringing on rights.
Mark: So much of what I think of as a good “Avatar” story is tied up in ideas of how we live together, both on a micro and macro level. Sometimes that leads to solutions, but other times it leads to questions. What I appreciate though is that the creators don’t hide from these questions or try to force answers. They acknowledge the complexity at play. Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru did this all the time, and it’s very satisfying to see Faith Erin Hicks and Peter Wartman step up and carry that torch with such skill and care.
The other part of ‘Imbalance’ that really clicked with me was how it was this was a very Toph-heavy arc, and Toph’s my favorite character and Faith Erin Hicks writes her so well. Also, Sokka ended up being really great in this last part. I was extremely satisfied with the balance between wise Sokka and goofy Sokka. ‘Imbalance’ was an arc that hit all the right notes for me specifically.
Paul: It’s true, the balance of chemistry with our principals was really on the mark in this story. The story’s a great fit with Toph’s attitude, too. It lets her be the tough and blunt force of nature that she is, while the other protagonists get to bounce off her and propel action forward in reaction to her.
OK, so granting me that I loooove this book and love what these creators have done (see our reviews of previous installments), let me air some of my feelings on the other side of the coin, where I wondered a little about the execution of the story and its ending. Just to play devil’s advocate (and to cue up your talent for helping me see the subtleties, Mark!)
Did you feel at all like the two sisters, Ru and Yaling, had too predictable a plotline? They’ve been recruited to do their mother’s bidding, and we knew the unequal relationships between Yaling (the bending sister) and Ru (the non-bending sister) with their mom would ultimately play a significant role. Was all that telegraphed too obviously for you?
Mark: I was OK with it. I think we sometimes put too much emphasis on twists as a storytelling device. That said, I feel like we could get more out of these characters. Even after three books, there feels like there’s more to explore, and the dynamic between Liling and Ru felt like it could’ve been more complex. It works, but I have to admit, I wanted more.Continued below
Paul: Me too. Maybe we will get more, though. If Cranefish Town has a future in the evolving lore, I could see the space that Ru stands in being an important one, and I could see a role for her in stories to come in Toph’s corner.
By the way, I thought the world-building and conflict-ratcheting in this story was really perfectly done. But an elements I’ve loved about the Dark Horse Avatar comics have been how true the character development of our heroes, Aang, Katara, Sokka, Zuko, Toph, and all of them, has felt to the original TV show characters. Did you feel like that character development was somewhat missing or stagnant in this story? I didn’t get the same sense of a breakthrough for one of them that I got from the previous arcs.
Mark: I hadn’t thought about it that way. I felt this arc had a greater emphasis on the group rather than any one character. The group had an arc rather than any individual, if that makes sense.
Paul: I guess I’m just afraid that we’re sort of done with Aang, Sokka, Katara, or Toph’s maturation, and I don’t think we should be. In some ways, they’re advancing to the problems of leadership rather than the character growth needed to become leaders. So it does feel more like a collective arc.
As for the art, I’m still really enamored with Wartman’s line, with doesn’t have the same polish as Gurihiru’s, but actually feels more organic and somehow more emotionally live. But thinking back on all of “Imbalance,” I felt maybe two degrees less of the comedic vibe that the previous runs sustained so well. Maybe some of that is Faith Erin Hicks’ more emotionally heavy sense of inner turmoil over Gene Luen Yang’s wry hijinks. But would you push back on me that Wartman’s style is a little less tuned to deliver comedic beats than Gurihiru’s?
Mark: I think this is something I find interesting about having different artists on these stories. It means an arc can be cast toward an artist’s sensibilities. I definitely agree that Gurihiru did some great stuff with comedic beats, especially upbeat, high-energy moments. But Wartman gets a lot out of silence and quiet beats. I think considering the antagonists in this arc, he was a very strong fit. And again, I have to praise Adele Matera’s colors. She brings so much atmosphere to this world that’s very easy to take for granted because as a reader I’m simply swept up in the story.
Paul: Agreed… and now I’ll stop it with the critical inquisition! Instead I want us to lavish some more praise. You always see some great craft in these creators’ work, Mark. Were there other ways this climactic segment of ‘Imbalance’ seemed especially effectively told, in your perceptive reading?
For instance, for me, something about Wartman’s style and how the story positioned the key figures made the climactic battle scene really effective for me… and I’m one who usually glosses over those. I think it was the thematic way our heroes seem to be hesitant and circumspect about the use (abuse?) of power, the rift between the sisters, and the tricky balance of the violence. It made the fight seem like less of a foregone conclusion than the past Avatar comics, and more of the high-stakes open conflict that I loved in the show.
Maybe that also goes to what you loved about the ending. When Aang exerts his Avatar-state power, that panel where he calms down after Katara has warned him about the stakes of excessive punishment, that beat of Liling’s conceding, it all felt really… ambiguous. It didn’t feel like the usual trite triumphalist violence. And I love that.
I also want to ask you: where do you see openings for the story to continue to go to new places, Mark? Where do you want to see these Avatar books go next?
Mark: Well, we just had “Avatar: The Last Airbender—Team Avatar Tales” come out, which was a breath of fresh air. I love these graphic novel trilogies, but unfortunately the format feels more rigid than the TV show ever was. Since the story has to unfold over a period of a year, they have to have a certain scope, both in terms of plot and the characters who appear. And yet, ‘Team Avatar Tales’ is ultimately inconsequential, distanced from the ongoing narrative, almost completely standalone.Continued below
I like to see the series move forward as a mix of short stories and long and with some in between, like one-shot or two-part OGNs. There was an interview with “The Legend of Korra: Ruins of the Empire” artist Michelle Wong recently and she mentioned how she’d like to do a story with Azula, and my mind immediately jumped to a one-shot “Azula Alone”-style one-shot. I think Azula’s mental state is worth exploring, but I don’t think it can be given the space it needs when she only appears as an accessory to someone else’s story.
There’s also a tradition of stories that tell stories in the Avatarverse. And I don’t mean short little flashbacks either. I mean stories that set aside what’s going on in the present and take a deep dive into the past. Stories like “The Avatar and the Fire Lord” and “Beginnings” consumed entire episodes or more to explore the past. They had an epic quality to them. It’s another kind of story I’d like to see the comics try, but I can understand why there would be hesitance there, as these stories involve none of the main cast. Still, I’m curious about Iroh’s past and his first journey into the Spirit World. That’d make a nice one-shot OGN.
I still like the OGN trilogies and I think they should remain the backbone of the comics, but it is a bit rigid and I think other kinds of stories would compliment what they’re doing. What do you want to see in the future?
Paul: I would follow these characters and the development of this world to those one-shot OGNs you’re proposing, and I could see different creators bringing new energy to their takes on different characters. That would drive us into the realm of a “universe,” though, like all the Star Wars or Hellboy spinoff stuff, and I wonder if there are some purists who would fear the characters and story splintering too much from the strong central vision of the shows. For my money, it’s a credit to the quality universe-building that really is quite unique to the Avatarverse to pursue that kind of expansion.
And it would be fascinating to see how the emerging, vibrant creators enrich the world with particular characters. Wouldn’t that be a bit of fun fan-casting, to draft creators we’d love to see do certain character or sub-world Avatarverse books? Some “Steven Universe” or manga artists or WEBTOON groundbreakers getting to uncork on the Spirit World or Prohibition-era-style Korra gangsters or Momo and Appa adventures.
Another daring direction I’d be interested in (though I have my doubts that they’ll go there soon) is to advance even further ahead into the fictional-historical space between Aang and Korra generations. Hicks and Wartman are clearly moving the ball forward several yards. But what would be really interesting to me is a more drastic leap forward into the ambiguous (and very politically fraught) periods when dynastic and imperial rule have faded and really contentious battles over various alternative modernities play out. You get a lot of that in Korra, but much of that is already settled by the actual historical parallels of that period. Maybe when Tenzin is a kid…?
I’d also just love some more goofy Sokka stories. Just Sokka doing goofiness. More of that please.
Mark: Yep. I think Sokka ended up being my favorite part of this last part. (This series always gets a good response from me whenever boomerang is involved.) I wasn’t expecting Sokka to jump out like this, but I thoroughly enjoyed it. Plus I liked seeing more Suki.
I’m going with a 9 for this, though fully acknowledging this is an arc that plays into my Avatar loves. It’s not gonna be a 9 for everyone, and I can even see how certain aspects could be frustrating for some readers.
Paul: But I want to applaud the maturity it credits us readers with and the maturity of the story’s scope. The world stays fascinating while being great fun. So how about…
Final verdict: 9.2 – This latest trilogy ends in a way that feels less like an ending and more like a beginning. Given the ‘Imbalance’ arc is the start of a new era for the comics, this is somewhat appropriate, but for readers that like a neatly tied up ending, this may not be a satisfying way to close off the trilogy. However, this pair of reviewers revelled in the ambiguity of it.