"Avatar: The Last Airbender" is one of the best animated series that have ever been produced for television. While intended for, and accessible to, kids and preteens, the story and characters have a depth to them that has created a dedicated cult fanbase. People of all ages have become enamored of the series, from animation connoisseurs to followers of good action adventure. Although the live action movie adaptation failed to live up to its inspiration on many, many levels, the first official comic book continuation of the series looked to be in better hands. The series' original creators, Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko, were involved in creating the story, and the award-winning graphic novelist Gene Luen Yang was handling the scripting duties.
Sadly, "The Promise, Part 1" fails to live up to its pedigree in multiple ways. To detail why, I'll be spoiling much of the story below.
The animated series ended with the defeat of the conquest-happy Fire Nation, thanks to the combined efforts of Avatar Aang and his former enemy, the Firebender Zuko. Zuko was made Fire Lord in place of his evil father, and the pair were set to build a new, lasting peace in the wake of the war. "The Promise" looks at the first hurdle in this process, dealing the fate of the Fire Nation Colonies in the Earth Kingdom. At the very beginning of the story, we already see signs that "The Promise" is aiming far below the mark set by its predecessor. The animated series was careful to show that, while most of the plot and changes in the world were being driven by a handful of heroic individuals, the world they inhabited was both vast and complex. There were good and bad people on every side of the war, and much of the trouble was the result of people working at cross-purposes for one reason or another. While "The Promise" looks to focus on the political side of things, the complexity of the animated series' story is nowhere to be found. The original fate of the colonies is decided in a quick scene at the beginning of the comic, where everyone decides to give the colonies back to the Earth Kingdom after a five-minute conversation between the main cast. A full year passes before the effects of this decision are seen, when the colonists themselves strike back to declare that after a hundred years of war, they have created their own culture and don't wish to be split between the old Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom. Had the story focused on this aspect, I wouldn't have any complaints, but things are quickly side-tracked.
Much was made, in the animated series, of the characters of Aang and Zuko. The former was a gentle monk who resisted the call to kill the old Fire Lord, while the latter was an honorable atoner who wanted to do his best to repair the damage of his nation's war of conquest. Yet, the first conversation between these two in "The Promise" seem to depict vastly different characters. Zuko is obsessed with the idea that the stress of being Fire Lord will turn him as evil as his father, Ozai, was, even though the animated series clearly shows that Ozai was sick enough to be willing to kill his own firstborn in exchange for being named Crown Prince. Fire Lord Ozai poisoned his own people in order to feed his war machine, and was willing to burn the whole Earth Kingdom and commit genocide against its people, rather than deal with their rebellions. So Zuko asks Aang to kill him if he ever turns this evil, despite already demonstrating an ability tell right from wrong. In fact, this is the whole basis of Zuko's story arc in the animated series, as he discovers that his father and nation don't share his sense of honor, and ultimately sacrifices his station to fight against them. Aang, even though much was made in the animated series' epic finale of his reverence for life and belief that even the worst people should not be killed as an answer to their crimes, quickly agrees to this.
From there, the entire political plot of the colonies is turned into an excuse to create tension between Zuko and Aang, to the point that the plot tries to draw its suspense from the possibility that Aang will kill Zuko for his reluctance to forge ahead with their hastily-conceived plan to deport the colonists back to the Fire Nation. The characters take inexplicable action to make themselves look as bad as possible, rush into battle at perceived slights, and show a reluctance to talk things through. This aren't the characters from the animated series, who felt so real to fans that thousands of them waged passionate internet debates about their speculative love lives. These aren't the characters who impressed critics like Roger Ebert, and led them to decry the shallow recreations of them in M Night Shyamalan's live action adaptation.
Fans of the Avatar franchise, though, have probably already heard the details of the upcoming sequel series, "The Legend of Korra." Taking place a generation later, the basic premise of this new series has already spoiled the ending to "The Promise," letting readers know that without a doubt, the colony situation will be resolved and Aang will not kill Zuko. In fact, from all the details that have been released by such events as Nickelodeon's official San Diego Comic Con panel, once the two characters are no longer being twisted by this cash-in of a story, they quickly go back to being good friends who know how to work together.
Other problems with the book include tin-eared dialogue, short length that is made worse by fight-sequences that speed along across multiple pages without any tension, and art that seeks to copy the look of the original series without capturing the beauty and detail of the truly fantastic animation.
As a comic, "The Promise" is very much in the tradition of any number of licensed spin-offs, looking to make a quick buck off the popularity of the original property. Undiscerning fans will probably be pleased, but the wider audience created by "Avatar: The Last Airbender" will be greatly disappointed.