For anyone living in Fresno or anywhere else in the world, it much not be easy when you are forced to come to blows with someone from your own family, be it a parent, a sibling, a cousin etc. But while some wounds go really deep and may not necessarily be easy to fix, compared to certain fictional characters like Fire Lord Zuko, most of us have fairly easy.
Smoke and Shadow, Part Three is the third and final part of the fourth trilogy of graphic novels in Dark Horse Comics’ Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise, based on the hit animated series from Nickelodeon. Ever since this series began publication back in 2012, the numerous story lines–The Promise, The Search, The Rift, and Smoke and Shadow–have done terrific business for Dark Horse and have done much to captivate loyal fans of the series, including this examiner.
In the first part, a dark and mysterious mystery was set up involving the abduction of children form the Fire Nation capital, all the while the young Fire Lord Zuko struggles with helping his recently reunited mother and her new family adapt into their new life back home in the palace. It was yet another exciting, engaging, and entertaining entry in the series that did not seem to go for heavy themes like some of the previous arcs have done, and instead chose to focus on the drama of the characters and some cool action to keep us interested. The second part, in the tradition of these graphic trilogies, furthered the character drama and in this case the investigation into the mystery, ultimately revealing who, or rather what, the child abducting spirits known as the Kemurikage really are, ending in a huge plot twist involving the return of a familiar foe back into the drama. It was a well-crafted continuation from the first part that kept us interested and gripped for what is to come, even though it was clearly more interested in advancing the plot and growing the teen angsty elements, and the reveals that it made were fairly obvious, but still a great read.
But now, at last, the story comes to a head with the exciting conclusion of this fourth Avatar story line.
Desperate to rescue his new half-sister Kiyi from the “Dark Spirits” known as the Kemurikage, Fire Lord Zuko and his good friend Avatar Aang make a horrific discovery. The leader of these masked child kidnappers is none other than Zuko’s crazed sister Azula! Despite there attempts to stop her, Azula escapes with Kiyi, making her the latest is the series of child abductions that have terrified the city. Zuko, pushed to the edge and seeking to stop his sister once and for all, orders a lock down of the city, including a military investigation to search the homes of everyone in the Fire Nation capital to find both Azula and her apparent ally, Ukano, leader of the New Ozai Society and Mai’s father. Aang, however, seeks peaceful negotiation as a better solution, to which Zuko disagrees, since that plan has failed thus far. Bitterly, Zuko orders the Avatar removed from the Fire Nation if he will no longer be of any help.
Meanwhile, inside the hidden base of the Kemurikage, Azula and her associates have Kiyi, Mai’s little brother Tom-Tom, and several other children held hostage until her goals are met. In a private meeting, she congratulates a now remorseful Ukano for all he has done for their cause to get Zuko taken off the throne and to have Ozai restored to power. Azula needs one more favor from Ukano, to lead his front group, the Safe Nation Society, in a protest down the streets in opposition to Zuko’s handling of the situation, which they had done before, only this time Azula wants their protest to turn into a riot. Said riot occurs the next day, leading members of the society to get arrested, including, falsely, Mai’s current boyfriend Kei Lo. Zuko has him released, with some jealous trepidation, But it will take all of them working together to track down Azula.
Fortunately, Aang has not quite left the city yet and, with the help from his good friends Suki and Ty Lee, they discover a secret passage that Azula used back when she was a little girl that now them to a foreboding location where our hero’s and Azula’s forces will have their final showdown while deep underground, Ukano’s growing guilt might finally inspire him to do the only thing left he can do to possibly make amends for all his past sins. It all builds up to an unraveling of Azula’s true plans, which might prove to be far far more twisted than anyone ever imagined.
After four years and four story lines of Avatar comics, this examiner has become used to the pattern that these trilogies choose to take. The first part is the exposition that reintroduces us to the characters we all know and love and sets up the conflict that they will be facing on their latest adventure in this unique world that Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino have created. The second part often times puts the main plot in a back seat to spend more time on the characters themselves and their drama, and sometimes that can also be a good time to allow for comic relief to emerge; in short, the middle part is often the slowest part of the story. But when we arrive at the final part, that is when the big climax, be it an action climax or an emotional climax (or both) finally comes to a head and gives us the ending we all hope for, and sometimes also makes sure to plant the seeds for the future of the series. Smoke and Shadow is not a detractor from that and this ending may be one of the darkest and most bittersweet finales the series has seen yet.
Lets get the first big point of interest out of the way first, one that I was not able to talk about in my previous review due to it literally being the cliffhanger of the second part…Azula is back! In all honesty, for a story so clearly focused on the problems going on in Zuko’s life and the drama surrounding his family, it only made sense to me that she would make her reappearance in this story, but but it made for a coo cliffhanger last time regardless.
Now, the last time we saw Azula was in the third part of The Search, where at the end of that story she chose to run off into the forest to find her own path after her failed attempt to murder her own mother, which she sought to do out of her own psychotic instability and profoundly twisted and damaged reasons. When we last left her she was a very, very damaged young woman who’s arc was not fully resolved and whose future on a fittingly open-ended note to be explored at a later time. Seeing Azula appear again here, as the leader of this Kemurikage group and hatching a plot to impersonate dark spirits to abduct Fire Nation children to cause a crisis that would cause some to doubt Zuko’s ability to rule, was simultaneously a splendid turn for her character, and at the same a sort of cutting her own ties moment as well. What I mean is that with her brother on the throne and her mind so thoroughly cracked, it is a testament that she can still come up with plans this dark and brilliant just like the Azula we all remember loving from the show. As Zuko awkwardly admits himself, she is far better and more stable than last we saw her, even if she is still clearly and undeniably insane. On the other hand, part of what made that ambiguous ending so fitting last time was that, after reconnecting with her mother whom she had such a twisted perception of, it left her fate totally up in the air to maybe of maybe not pursue a path of mental redemption of some kind…this ending to Smoke and Shadow pretty much rules out that possibility…Or does it…?
The other big draw of this final part what the tension that emerges between Zuko and Aang. As the situation with Azula’s actions grows worse and worse, Zuko become more and more determined to catch her and rescue those children, particularly his new half-sister Kiyi, so we get to see him delve back into his darker side and take the kind of actions that his father might do: he orders a lock down on the entire city and authorizes the military to go into citizen’s homes to hunt for the enemy, effectively treating his own citizens like criminals and his nation more like a police state. Aang, as the Avatar, is naturally more in favor of a peaceful solution, but this is where Zuko feels he much reject Aang’s ways and even orders the Avatar to leave, even though he was the one who asked him to come in the first place!
Okay, so this tension may not be quite as heated as I am making it sound, but it is still a big part of this comic and one that brings echos of “The Avatar and the Fire Lord” from the third season or even The Promise. Let’s not forget that until the middle of the third season these two were pretty much sworn enemies that fought each other each time they appeared in the same scene. It was momentarily chilling seeing some of that come out again.
This last third of the story is overall pretty serious in tone with limited comic relief. A big part of that is that this is the first of any of these Avatar comics where Sokka (and Katara) make no appearance. That work fine because this might have been one place where Sokka’s comic relief might not have worked, but still. We do get a little bit of comic relief here and there with some of Aang’s mannerism and a humorous one-page scene with Iroh celebrating “National Tea Appreciation Day,” plus a few bits with the captive kids, but other than that this is a fairly serious ending.
In speaking of the kids, that brings me to the conclusion of Ukano’s plot line. All throughout this three-part story he has done some pretty corrupt and unlikable things for the sake of his country and at the expense of his family. It was hard not to side with Mai and some others that he deserved the fate he gets and to dislike him. Up until now he has been the primary villain of the story, with the understanding that these Kemurikage characters have some sort of hold on him. With the reveal of Azula and her scenes with him, we recognize that she is completely intimidating and controlling this man as she has done so many others her entire life. What it all leads to is Ukano’s opportunity to finally wake up and see what he has been doing to his own son and to do the only thing he can do to make amends for it,which is good for him and redeems him, somewhat, to his son and daughter. At the same time, I am very happy that he is not magically pardoned of all his crimes up to this point at the end and that he accepts his fate willingly. Mai’s last words to him pretty much sum it up: “You deserve to go to jail for what you’ve done. But in the end, you were brave. And that’s how I’ll choose to remember you.”
In speaking of Mai, this third part also brings a close to this teen love triangle between her, her ex-boyfriend Zuko, and her current boyfriend Kei Lo. In my previous reviews I have somewhat criticized this aspect of the story for Mai dating him for her own intentions initially even though it made sense from her perspective, but she did seem to be in a legit relationship with him by the time we got into the meat of everything. Much of the second part was devoted to this relationship drama and into putting tension between Mai and Zuko, all of it building to a huge argument where she pretty much tells him that she won’t allow herself to be made a fool by men like him again. In this last part, I guess her feeling really are confused because there are small touches that she may not have really meant that so strongly after all, by doing things like hugging him or holding his hand.
There is a scene where Kei Lo is falsely arrested for being part of the staged riot and at first Zuko does not trust his word as first. He turns around, but this is where a curious character twist happens that I could not help but raise an eyebrow at: when Kei Lo is released, he smugly says to Zuko’s face that he needs to accept that Mai is dating him now and that it will be easier for everybody is Zuko just learns to accept it. This was kind of an unexpected since up until ow, while there was obviously jealously between the two of them, neither of them was acting like a jerk to the other, and Kei Lo was more or less a naive innocent type. But I suppose Zuko’s moment of jealous anger might have stirred something up in the other guy too. By the end of the book, there is a silent argument that we are not allowed to hear, but we get that its an apparent breakup between them because we see that Mai has her head in her hands and that Kei Lo is returning back home, perhaps never to return.
On that note, I want to say that I appreciate that Mai’s relationship status isn’t 100 percent clear by the end because after two hook up and beak up periods I don’t think it would be wise to see these kids go through all of that a third time in a row.
The last big story arc to discuss is the resolution of Ursa’s readjusting to coming back home to the Fire Nation and her now estranged relationship with her Kiyi. We lay her fears and concerns bare as she seeks guidance, even as she is forced to put her faith in her son to bring Kiyi home. I really loved the scene between her and Iroh where he consoles her and she asks him how he learned to get over the loss of his own son. This is heavy material between two aged adults and writer Gene Luen Yang plays it well.
But for everything I’ve discussed, the stuff that really did it for me was the way this story ended. I can’t do into too much detail, but that last confrontation between Zuko and Azula where her true motivations were revealed were the biggest surprise of the book for me because they were so delightfully twisted! This was never about a goal for herself, but what it would do to Zuko, and the foreboding note she leaves him on, both at the end of their confrontation and as she observes him while he makes a speech of apology to his people, gives her a sense of victory by the end. I applaud the writers for taking this clever and ambiguous route that cuts to the core of Zuko’s character and I really look forward to seeing how he will confront in int future stories.
But a good at that ending was, the actual final sequence was even more rewarding. By the end we finally see Ursa work up the courage to face her ex-husband Ozai in his prison cell. Ozai yells at her, threatening to end her and her family, making her beg for mercy for returning from her exile. But instead of giving into fear, he is now able to see him for how small he really is, a small man trying as hard as he can to be big when there is now room in his heart for anyone, including himself, and she turns her back on him. After reading about her fate in The Search, this was hugely satisfying to see! It was what somebody should have told Ozai a long time ago and it came from from the one person who should have told it to him. Again, very satisfying ending.
The writing and the artwork are once again up to par wit the standard set by the series. Gen Luen Yang’s words continue to do great work in capturing the feel of these characters and making this dialogue seem like something I can see coming out of the mouths of the original voice actors. And the art by Gurihiru remains an excellent rendition of the look and feel of the animated series put onto the printed page.
Overall, Avatar: The Last Airbender–Smoke and Shadow, Part Three is a solid conclusion to this latest story line from the comics that brings the character’s dilemmas to a close while still leaving plenty of doors open for the future. It is not the most action packed finale these comics have seen, but what it may lack in action it makes up for in dramatic storytelling. This examiner gives it four stars out of five and cannot wait for the next story to come out this year!