Hot on the heels of “Avatar: The Last Airbender―Imbalance, Part 2,” we already have another Avatarverse book on shelves. “The Legend of Korra: Ruins of the Empire” picks up on threads left hanging at the end of the TV series, serving as an excellent jumping on point for new readers.
Created by Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino
Written by Michael Dante DiMartino
Illustrated by Michelle Wong
Colored by Vivian Ng
Lettered by Rachel Deering
Korra must decide who to trust as the fate of the Earth Kingdom hangs in the balance!
Written by series co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino and drawn by Michelle Wong (Goosebumps: Download and Die), with consultation by Bryan Konietzko, this is the official continuation of the beloved television series!
New story arc!
Mark Tweedale: So Paul, in our recent review of “Avatar: The Last Airbender―Imbalance, Part 2” you brought up the politics that have been a focus of the comics, more so than they had been in the TV series. I’m curious how you feel about the politics in “The Legend of Korra” comics, since even as a TV show, this was a much more prevalent element of its storytelling than it ever was in ATLA. It seems this arc, ‘Ruins of the Empire,’ hinges more on politics than anything we’ve seen in the comics to date.
Paul Lai: The fact that Michael Dante DiMartino, one of the show’s creators, steers the comic in this direction is a validation to me: It’s profoundly political pop culture. We love the Avatarverse for lots of reasons. I’ll bring up again the social media buzz at the recent end of Game of Thrones, when people were asking, “What show sticks the landing on complex, epic, world-scale storytelling?” And the internet was like, “Um, have you seen Avatar and Korra?” There’s much to love in the characterizations, action, themes. But what has aged really well for me is the political relevance.
‘Ruins of Empire’ has those ambitions right in its title. After the defeat of empire, with the saplings of democracy in fragile formation, what hard questions do our heroes face? And will they be able to punch/kick action-hero their way through these dilemmas, as early, fiery Korra was prone to do? Or will they have to maneuver the more complicated requirements of true leadership?
The last “The Legend of Korra” series we reviewed, ‘Turf Wars,’ melded the metaphysical with these very social concerns, bound together with those core relationships between Korra and Asami, Bolin and Mako, and the rest of the cast. ‘Ruins of Empire’ looks to drive harder at whether former political foes can become allies, who gets to represent the people’s will, and how can those with power and position use them responsibly?
I have to be honest. When I flipped through the ‘Ruin of Empire’ initially, mostly to check out the art by Michelle Wong and how different it looked from that of Irene Koh (of ‘Turf Wars’), I noticed a lot of talking heads. But once I was pulled into the story (and figured out that I didn’t need a ton of refreshers on the ending of the TV series to catch on), I was pretty gripped. It was the politics, actually.
How did you find this first chapter of a new story, Mark?
Mark: Honestly, I was surprised how easy it was to get into. If a reader missed reading ‘Turf Wars,’ and this was their first “Legend of Korra” book, as long as they’d seen the TV series, I don’t think they’d have any trouble following this at all. Probably the biggest change is Zhu Li being the President of the United Republic of Nations, and even that’s presented in a way that I can’t see a reader stumbling over it.
This is a very different story from ‘Turf Wars,’ and that shift in focus works to its advantage.
The new artist, Michelle Wong, has a style much closer to the art style of the TV series too—not just in the way she draws the characters, but in the way she composes her panels. There’s a visual language used in The Legend of Korra show and Wong taps into that to her advantage. This jumped out at me the most in the special tribunal scene near the beginning of this book, which used the used the extreme fish-eye effect we’d see in the show when a character was separated from their surroundings and stuck inside their head. Without any dialogue whatsoever, the visuals immediately tell us where Kuvira is emotionally in this moment.Continued below
Which is a long way of saying that ‘Ruins of the Empire’ feels confident right from page one. The creators know what story they’re telling and tap into it in a way that reads effortlessly. You mentioned flipping through the book and seeing a lot of talking heads, but it’s not just talking heads—it’s power dynamics. Wong composes her panels to display who has power in the scene and who does not, when characters are on equal footing and when they’re not, and most importantly, how power shifts in any given scene. Yes, they’re are a lot of talking heads, but the story isn’t confined to the dialogue—it’s still happening visually.
Paul: The creative team do have a sure-footed confidence in what they’re doing: building intrigue, scene by scene, surrounding these vital questions about what democracy would look like in this realm of heroes, magic, and empires. It’s a confidence that I imagine has much to do with DiMartino’s sense of ownership over these characters’ and their futures. While DiMartino and Konietzko have always seemed trusting and engaged with further developments of the Avatarverse (e.g., Yang and Gurihiru’s “Avatar: The Last Airbender” comics), there’s maybe a greater assumed belief on my part in the canonicity and consistency of this story with DiMartino at the writing helm.
Without spoiling yet, I can see that confidence from the jump, in the opening scene that begins in an Earth Empire Re-Education Camp on the eve of Kuvira’s surrender at the end of the show. I imagine that when the show writers wrote the ending of the TV show’s dramatic arc in ‘Book Four: Balance,’ they pondered what all those Earth Empire soldiers would think to themselves of this new world order, whether they could all pivot their allegiances so easily without the crisis experience in the Spirit World that altered their leader Kuvira’s course. So many shows—like so many historical accounts—narrate the rise and fall of leaders with the assumption that no political fallout would come from their legions of followers.
‘Ruins of Empire’ begins by establishing an Earth Empire military leader, Commander Guan, who is unwilling to accede to Kuvira’s surrender. Initially, he’s set up as a stereotypical sequel villain, a stubborn hold-out from the happy ending that our protagonists’ victory supposedly brings about. But you should always give DiMartino and company more credit than that; the story goes in unexpected and fascinating places.
That’s the part that seems ripped from the headlines, but also true to this next moment in the progression of Korraverse history: Democracy’s complexity.
Actually, Mark, I agree with you about this story being much more than talking heads. We’ve been reviewing these Dark Horse Avatarverse books for a while, and I keep throwing pretend shade so I’m not fawning over every one of them. But I can’t lie. I fully agree that intricate power dynamics at play in meaningful relationships and apt settings (from tanks on city squares to the steam-bath/sauna rooms of the awkwardly powerful) make for intriguing storytelling through this whole chapter of the series.
But let me throw this back at you, to add a little spice to our dialogue: I agree with you that Michelle Wong’s art hews closely and effectively to the show’s art style, and therefore, is going to be embraced and loved. But with all these characters and all the subtle dynamics of these scenes, I wondered if Wong and the art team should have taken some more stylistic risks, exaggerated the body language a bit more, utilized more varied camera dynamics in the language of comics instead of those pages filled with medium shots of people in a room discussing things. What do you think?
Mark: I think this is where my bias shows a bit. I feel too often comics are slaves to “dynamic” layouts, trying to look visually interesting to the detriment of the story, especially at pivotal moments of change—I find this frequently in all kinds of scenes, whether they’re a simple dialogue scene or a big action scene.
That’s not to say Wong’s work isn’t dynamic, because it absolutely is, but rather that her work isn’t dynamic for dynamic’s sake. Kuvira’s special tribunal sequence has a bunch of people sitting while Kuvira stands motionless in the middle of the room, but that sequence does so much with the panel composition.Continued below
But not all scenes are like this. Others are very restrained in their panel composition. However, look at what the pivotal moments in those scenes are. In one scene two characters are talking, matching each other’s eyelines, but at the pivotal moment there’s a shift and suddenly the eyelines don’t match anymore—these two characters aren’t seeing eye to eye. In another, Korra’s body is forward-facing and open, projecting confidence, but at the pivotal moment she shifts, angling her shoulders away, becoming vulnerable and defensive. These are crucial storytelling beats, but only noticeable because of Wong’s restraint in her compositions.
This is also tied to which characters are focal points in any given scene. If you remember from the TV series, Kuvira is very economical in her movement. She’s very still and her body language often commands the cinematography of her scenes. With Kuvira, a big change in her character can be as small as her narrowing her eyes, and since the comic is very faithful to the established body language of its characters, Wong has to find a way to use these restrictions to her advantage. Restraint in the “camera work” becomes shorthand for Kuvira’s control of the moment. It becomes messy as she loses control.
There’s a great moment in the book with Kuvira simply talking and we push in from a mid-shot, head-shot, and finally just Kuvira’s eyes. She commands the scene so much that she completely fills the panel, utterly consuming our attention to the point of blocking out all else. But the character herself hasn’t moved—she’s just standing there talking.
As for the level of exaggerated body language, it changes character to character. Wu certainly gets to play things broader than the others, but overall this isn’t a story that hinges on physical action, so the restraint here seems to me more like an expression of focus. Broader characters are set more in the background so they don’t dominate and we can look where we’re supposed to be looking.
Also, while this book is very light on action, I suspect there’s a deliberate contrast being set up here. We see flashes of what Wong can do when she’s let loose to go big and bold, but for the most part this book feels deliberately reined in.
Paul: You’re right there. It’s actually an artistic contrast that’s true to the differences between Avatar: The Last Airbender animation styles and The Legend of Korra styles. ATLA bent a bit more towards the cartoonish and exaggerated, appropriate to its lead characters and maybe a sort of mythical innocence, for lack of a better term. I found the shift in style on the TV TLOK to be really smart, less reliant on goofball histrionics and more leaning on uniforms, machineries, cityscapes, and an increasingly pervasive built environment. To me, they rode the contrast between what for me as a little Asian kid were the world of Dragon Ball and the world of City Hunter, which were the only two things that existed in the whole universe at the time.
So yes, the visual dynamics of a Jack Kirby or a Masashi Kishimoto would be really wrong for “Korra,” and I think Michelle Wong triumphs with the visual resources of this world: architectures, technologies, and configurations of social interplay that cleanly keep this world vivid.
Mark: I was really impressed with the cleanness of Wong’s visual storytelling. Early in the story, there’s a scene with Prince Wu talking to the people of Republic City. He was nervous beforehand, but it all goes well. And this illustrates how she uses reading direction as a tool. Things flow left to right, and so the sequence is dominated by left-facing characters. And yet, Wu’s biggest moment of pause is expressed with him facing to the right.
And this is something Wong uses often as a way to dramatize the political discussions of this book. Obviously there are limitations to this, especially when you’ve got a group of characters sitting around a table and there’s back and forth dialogue—sometimes a character needs to look to the right to get the eyelines to read or to simply show who is listening to whom—but there’s still an overall scene direction. The primary talkers will have a direction, and when it flips mid scene, it’s because a reversal has occurred—either a blocker has been introduced to stop progression or the characters have started working together when they previously weren’t.Continued below
I think part of the reason Wong’s able to do this as adeptly as she is, is because she uses asymmetrical location design and staging when characters are chatting. In any given scene, there’s a line through which we pivot between shot and reverse shot panels in conversation, and Wong is careful to draw that line in a way that orients the reader in the space. For example, one side of a room may be open with a huge window, the other side will be closed with prominent bookshelves (which also gives colorist Vivian Ng plenty to play with, uniting the room with green walls, but contrasting direction with blue for the window and brown for the bookshelves).
It’s because of this careful scene staging that she’s able to flip the overall scene direction without confusing the directions of the physical space. She could’ve easily removed the background in many panels so that a character is simply against blank color and the scene would’ve still functioned, but instead she uses the backgrounds to shape and heighten the drama of the scene in subtle ways.
Paul: As always, sharp observations on the artistry, Mark.
Can we delve into spoiler territory to talk about some plot elements of this story? Let the reader be warned.
Reading ‘Ruins of Empire,’ much more so than reading ‘Turf Wars,’ made me realize how much I had forgotten about the original Korra series. I’m sure some fans will be horrified at my ignorance and question my Avatar-cred, but I had to refresh my memory about Kuvira’s entire role in the whole story to see if her choices and actions in this chapter made sense. (I’m in the midst of a TLOK re-watch now. Have mercy on me, megafans.)
Mark: I’m overdue for a rewatch too, actually…
Paul: What I love about the construction of this story is that Korra’s legend has always rested on the rights of characters to be unpredictable, to be complicated, even to make morally ambiguous choices. Korra herself, a lot of the protagonists, Kuvira, and here, the entire trajectory of their democratic experiment, are much more fraught and morally complicated than our ideological purity tests would prefer.
Which made the reveal on the last page of this story a little disappointing to me. Maybe it’s just a feeling that, even though we know this comes of an era of re-education camps and military coups, some of those political questions get flattened when we have brainwash devices involved. What did you think?
Mark: I immediately drew a parallel to the way media’s used in our own world. I just had an extremely embarrassing and disappointing election in my state. And it just so happens every single major newspaper in my state is owned by News Corp, and the bias is so extreme… and yet utterly invisible to my parents. If they’re told something by “the news,” they blindly believe it. So the perversion of democracy here in ‘Ruins of the Empire,’ despite invoking brainwashing devices, struck me as unsettlingly true to life.
And I guess this was something that dampened my enjoyment of the book too. A little too real, you know? The thing is, democracy isn’t simply a switch that can be flipped. It only works if it’s built on the foundation of an educated and informed voting public. And I must admit, when Korra suggested Toph as someone to run in the election, it didn’t sit well with me. Turning this into a personality election is not a good precedent. Clearly, things are going to get much worse before they get better.
But I’m interested in the questions this series asks, even if I don’t think it’ll have any answers. I also wonder how it’ll tackle the role of the Avatar in a democratic world. After all, the Avatar is a role someone is born into. They are required to act on behalf of the people and spirits, but they’re not elected by them.
Paul: Good questions! And you’re posing them, and I believe the story’s posing them, and honestly, this is exactly what I want from my media consumption. I want stories that are resonate with things in the world that matter, but without on-the-nose, over-extended analogies. So that all makes sense to me: your ambivalence about Toph—not as a character, since that’s clearly a character you love, but as a political figure—and your query about someone like the Avatar amidst this democratic prospect. Power inherited, and taken on with humility and selflessness, versus power negotiated and won through politicking… do those differences speak to what makes a hero in a non-democratic society versus a hero in a democracy?Continued below
Clearly, I’m happy to ponder these questions with Korra and the team, and I’d hope loyal readers are as well. How would you judge ‘Ruins of Empire, Part One’ overall, Mark?
Mark: I’m going with an eight for this one. Everything is working smoothly and it’s an excellent debut on this series from Michelle Wong, but there weren’t any jump-out defining scenes for me. There are still some good character beats in this one, but our core cast is very plot motivated here. The stand-out is easily Kuvira. She’s got a lot going on, especially as someone that’s sorry and yet not really owning her mistakes either.
Paul: Yeah, I’d agree. I think it’s daring to go in the directions this story is going, and worth the risk of sacrificing some easy character payoffs or cool fight scenes. But how well it reads overall, and what kinds of answers (or further questions) it provides to those political questions, will probably make or break the story for me. Meanwhile, Korra’s world continues to wonderfully complex, the stakes get higher, and the characters stay true to the aspects we love about them.
Final verdict: 8.0 – Ratcheting up the political aspect of the world of Korra more than its predecessor, ‘Ruins of Empire’ asks complex questions with plenty of intrigue, but offers only a little in terms of character building Team Avatar. However, we see a great deal of development in Kuvira.