Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Rift Library Edition
11 February, 2015
Be warned that this is a spoiler-filled review.
The story picks up where The Search left off, only shifting to Yu Dao and having Zuko be off taking care of his newly rediscovered family. As the townspeople celebrate the formation of a new ruling council with both Earth Kingdom and Fire Nation representatives, Aang has a vision of Avatar Yangchen and remembers to celebrate her upcoming festival with the Acolytes. As Aang and Toph argue over the meaning and validity of the festival, the group discovers a refinery and a small town around it on the Air Nomads’ sacred ground. Inquiring about the fate of the site, the group encounters Satoru, nephew of one of the refinery’s owners, who insists that the facility is not responsible for the pollution around the grounds. The place is struck by an earthquake, with Satoru getting the blame from his uncle Loban for the expensive machines broken as the Gaang save lives. Loban reveals his business partner to be Toph’s father Lao, who refuses to recognise Toph as his daughter. The Air Acolytes go to celebrate Yangchen’s Festival in whatever way they can while Toph confronts her father and Sokka and Katara explore the mines they discover beneath the refinery during a fight with the refinery’s security detail, the Rough Rhinos. The two Water Tribe siblings find refinery workers extracting iron ore in perilous conditions and tell Lao and Toph. In the mine, Lao is shocked at what he sees and tries to order everyone to escape until Loban intervenes with the help of the Rhinos. A support beam is damaged during the ensuing scuffle and the mine caves in. Meanwhile, Aang contacts Yangchen and learns of her experience with the spirit General Old Iron and his grudge against humanity for the death of fellow spirit Lady Tienhai. He is interrupted by the tremor caused by the cave-in, and finds Sokka outside and his other friends trapped beneath the rubble held up only by Toph’s metalbending. Sokka gets Toph’s students, who help clear the rubble and the iron. Aang reconnects with Roku and learns that Yangchen had established the festival to honour Tenhai and appease Old Iron, who laid down his iron armour beneath the earth they are standing on. Old Iron emerges from the sea ready to kill everyone, forcing Aang to deliver a killing blow with the help of Toph and her students. As everyone reconciles, Tienhai appears and gives her side of the story. Aang decides to turn Yangchen’s festival into a Spirits’ Friendship Festival, content with giving the tradition a new form.
The Rift continues the upward trend in the quality of the Avatar graphic novels, as we Yang writes an overall intriguing, well-written and well-paced narrative. The story is also the first to be free of any remaining major threads from the original series, and Yang proves that original and worthwhile stories can still be told in this world. There are, of course, a number of welcome nods to continuity, such as the moment the infamous cabbage merchant is inspired to go into the automobile industry and the use of bending for industry the Avatar world moves towards Korra‘s future. The Rough Rhinos are an interesting addition, but they don’t bring anything worthwhile to the story with the exception of new recruit Utor pointing out that Aang’s victory over Ozai probably left a good number of soldiers without work. There’s also a nod to the New Ozai Society which was revealed in the Free Comic Book Day story The Rebound and which will come to the fore in the next graphic novel trilogy Smoke and Shadow. The major returning plot point remains, of course, Toph’s meeting with her father, seemingly for the first time since she ended her travels with the Gaang. Here I have to ask what happened with Toph’s family since they were last mentioned in The Runaway when Toph is ready to reconcile with them and sends them a letter. Did something happen to Hawky on the way?
The single complaint I have with the story is the use of physical threats to the protagonists to raise the stakes, such as the collapse of the mines and Aang’s inability to earthbend his friends out. Firstly, the future shown in The Legend of Korra robs these instances of any real dramatic tension and impact. We already know most of them survive and even get to meet Aang’s successor. Secondly, disrupting Aang’s connection to previous lives so far seems to be in convenience to the plot in general and to power him down in particular, which seems like lazy writing. If you take DC’s Superman, for instance, his best stories keep his powers intact, while providing antagonists who can test his core being and emotional tethers (as in What’s So Funny About Truth, Justice and the American Way?, All-Star Superman and Luthor). Thankfully, Aang’s connection is restored here, so future stories will hopefully do more with the character himself rather than his abilities.
I nonetheless have to hand it to the author for the thematic richness he continues to weave into these books. The book probably has the best exploration of spirits and their relationship to humans since The Legend of Korra Book 2 episode Beginnings. Indeed, spirits have always been shown to be in conflict with and looking down upon humanity. Heibai initially avenges the forest burnt down by humans, Koh and Avatar Kuruk share a tense history, Wan Shi Tong derides the Avatar and his friends for using his knowledge for war in The Library, Beginnings shows the Avatar separating humans and spirits in conflict, while Korra Books 3 and 4 show humanity living with spirits again and then using them for their own ends. In The Rift, Old Iron brings up a good point about the Avatar being biased towards humans because of his/her own humanity and questions are raised about the state of spirits as relics of the past with no place in the current and future human world (which are answered in the Korra). More importantly, we also get the novel addition of spirits’ fascination with humanity and its better nature through Lady Tienhai’s story. She herself also explains that, “It is not human nature to dominate, but to create,” challenging the idea of humanity being destructive by nature and adding more nuance to its relationship to spirits.
Another interesting point made about the spirits is that they do not die, but change forms instead. While it’s an intriguing addition to the Avatar canon, how does it relate to Zaho killing Tui, the moon spirit, in The Siege of the North and the subsequent darkening of the moon which required Yue sacrificing herself to put right? It’s only a minor quibble, though, and I, admittedly, could be overthinking things here.
There is also a bit of discussion on the environment and conservation, but they are not made as central a theme of the story as the way the Avatar series handled it in The Painted Lady. In The Rift the conservation of the environment is more of a by-product of the larger conflict between tradition and modernisation, and is never dwelt upon at length. This conflict, on the other hand, is dealt with head-on, as Toph extols the virtues of progress represented by the refinery and Aang bemoans the unquestioned tradition lost through its existence. To Yang’s credit, neither side is written to be completely right or wrong. Loban’s work practices do damage the environment and his workers are exploited and abused, while he’d rather shift his business elsewhere rather than improve conditions. Aang also finds himself unable to avert danger without understanding the true meaning of Yangchen’s Festival and what it means for the present. In the end, he manages to find the right balance through going back to the source of the tradition, understanding its meaning, and giving it new life in the present context.
Like its predecessors, The Rift once again focuses on the main gang, only this time excluding Zuko and bringing in Toph instead. Aang does not really progress as a character here – unless you count wisdom imparted from Yangchen – and Sokka and Katara do not move away from being supporting characters this time round. While I can understand the rationale for this -be it space provided by the page count or the need to keep the characters recognisable as those from the series – it remains a shame to see these characters reduced to this role and simplified. As you can guess from the cover of the collected edition, this isn’t the case for Toph, who gets the most focus attention.
While Yang continues to capture the voices of the returning characters, Toph’s characterisation here – as opposed to that in the original series – is a bit difficult to judge in relation to her appearances in the original series at times. On the one hand, she is never shown to be this callous towards her friends’ beliefs there. On the other, the deeper topics of the there of their personal beliefs never do come up either. Toph herself has always been spoiled and sheltered, but she is too arguably busy in Avatar being the best earthbender going up against the invading Fire Nation for her allies to question their opinions on the matter. Yang himself does still, in my opinion, offer a good explanation by way of the flashbacks to Toph’s childhood. They serve as a good reminder of her sheltered upbringing and do explain her brashness as a reaction to being constricted without explanation other than “that’s just how it’s done”. That being said, her conversations with her father do bring out her softer side as she understandably feels hurt by his refusal to recognise her true self, which leads to the end of a character arc which began in the series as soon as she left with the Avatar.
Lao himself is also fleshed out in his interactions with Toph. Building upon his initial appearances in the series, his refusal to recognise Toph is truly harsh, but in line with the proud nobleman who always thought his daughter to be too fragile to even explain why she needed to be protected. The revelation that his own wife kicked him out for failing to bring their daughter home further explains his actions as one of a broken man who clings unto a past which was never really there at the cost of the present.
Interestingly enough, Avatar Yangchen gets some welcome development in this story. Despite being Aang predecessor as an Airbender Avatar, she remains the most mysterious of the Avatars shown in the series. Roku, of course, remains the most well-developed, but Kyoshi and Kuruk get some interesting histories throughout the course of Avatar (including the canon Into the Spirit World game set between Books 2 and 3), while Yangchen is less well-defined. In Day of the Comet, her advice to Aang is surprisingly pragmatic for someone of their culture and standing, and I’m glad to see a glimpse at her formative years here.
I also cannot but commend Yang for finally finding a good excuse for bringing in the Cabbage Merchant, including his infamous exclamation. He is definitely a character I would like to see more of and would not like to see changed any time soon. While, as said above, the inclusion Rough Rhinos does little by way of character development or story, it is cool to finally have the ever-silent Yeh-Lu ‘speak’.
The reappearance of Toph’s students in The Rift does not give enough space for any development, but I will say the same brevity makes there stay more tolerable than their original appearance in The Promise. What little is glimpsed of them does, at least, indicate that they have somewhat matured as well. They could even be growing on me. The same can basically be said of the Air Acolytes, who remain quite static but likable, if not particularly memorable.
Satoru is serviceable as a character, but is rather flatly presented as Toph’s fan and potential love interest. He does get a minor arc in which he finds the courage to stand up to his uncle, but never really goes beyond that initial impression. Toph’s revelation in Korra that he won’t be her children’s father does, however, dampen any prospects in that regard as well.
Other minor characters are also serviceable for the sake of the story but ultimately static. Loban is the stereotypical exploitative employer and capitalist, even if he does seem to repent and join in the festivities in the end. Niyok and Nutha likewise don’t add much other than giving Katara and Sokka a personal stake in Loban’s actions, but still a rather limited one at that. Upon first reading The Rift, I admit hoped that they would have been a lead-in to a story focusing on Sokka and Katara and the Southern Water Tribe, but that was quickly dashed once Nutha basically admits that she was acting stupidly.
Gurihiru’s art continues to be a highlight of the books and a great fit for the story within. They continue to capture the characters well and show their increasing physical maturity. The action is captured well enough, be it bending or the Kaiju-scale brawl between Aang and Old Iron. The colours used throughout are vibrant and subdued to great effect when the story shifts to flashbacks. The change in style to one inspired by East Asian ink brush painting when Old Iron tells Tienhai’s story is also a neat touch.
Gurihiru have also had the chance to subtly shift the Avatar world towards Korra‘s industrialised one, and their designs here for appropriate equipment and clothing – including Sokka’s formal attire evoking that from his appearance in Korra – do not disappoint. There is no great departure from either the previous graphic novels of the series, but there doesn’t need to be at this point. The highlights of Gurihiru’s designs nonetheless remain, in my opinion, the more fantastic element, in this case – as in The Search – the spirits. General Old Iron and Lady Tienhai have great designs in both forms, although I have to admit I have a particular soft spot for Old Iron’s samurai-inspired look.
Library Edition Additions
As I have stated in my previous reviews of the Avatar graphic novel Library Editions, Dark Horse puts quite the effort in the presentation of these books, and this one is no different. The quality of the binding, that of the paper and increased image size make for a better book and a better reading experience. The concept art at the back is also a definite plus, not only providing some insight into Gurihiru’s sterling work, but revealing details such as the names of two new Rough Rhinos, Junho and Seijir.
However, this is the first of the Library Editions the annotations of which I have to say are actually a disappointment. They occupy less than a quarter of the entire book, with spans of tens of pages without any annotations whatsoever. The content of the annotations themselves is also rather weak, as nothing of real interest is highlighted. More often than not they describe a difficulty about art or feelings about the story, but almost nothing about the development of the authors’ ideas or certain extra details you could miss upon the first reading.
This is the first story that is moving away from the end of Avatar and its remaining plot threads, and it’s heartening to see the graphic novel series come into its own. The Rift is a well-executed story that manages to bring Toph back to fore and move her story forward after having been absent in The Search and given a side-story in The Promise. As the Avatar world inches its way closer to that seen in Korra, the book also tackles the increasingly pertinent issues of modernisation and tradition, with a bit of environmentalism as well as the exploitation of workers thrown in for good measure. While not the most memorable story in the Avatar saga, The Rift gets a definite recommendation.
- The Rift Library Edition Review (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3) (avatarthelastairbender.com)
- Avatar Comic – ‘The Rift: Parts 1-3′ Review (avatarthelegendofkorraonline.com)
- REVIEW: Avatar The Last Airbender – The Rift (nodorkfear.blogspot.com)
- Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Rift – Advance Trade Paperback Review (fanboycomics.net)
- Avatar Comic Review – The Rift Library Edition (youtube.com)