As the overall storytelling for the Avatar the Last Airbender comics began to see some improvements with The Rift, Smoke and Shadow was the next volume to be released. Focusing once again on Fire Lord Zuko, Smoke and Shadow follows the events after The Search while simultaneously taking place during The Rift where Zuko decides to bring his mother and her family to visit the Fire Nation Capitol. However, things take a dark turn as children start to go missing, possibly due to spirits that haunt old Fire Nation tales.
For roughly the first half of the comic, Smoke and Shadow seems to follow the same strengths as its predecessor. We’re given several interesting conflicts as Zuko must learn to balance the interests of moving the Fire Nation forward while also dealing with The New Ozai Society, a group of citizens who want, as the name suggests, Ozai back on the throne. Meanwhile, Ursa is forced to face the harsh truths of her abusive relationship with Ozai as her daughter Kiyi remains hostile towards her. And of course, the story wouldn’t be complete without adding tension to Zuko and Mai’s previous relationship.
As mentioned above, the conflicts in this story work beautifully with one another. That is, until the big reveal on who these spirits, known as the Kemurikage, actually are. And it’s here that the story completely falls apart because the Kemurikage turn out to be Azula and a bunch of her fellow inmates at the asylum she once stayed in.
It’s bad enough that this plot point is mediocre at best but what makes it worse is the audience is once again given no resolution to Azula’s story. It feels as though she is meant only to be in this comic to exist as the “big bad” because Ukano is completely incapable of fulfilling this role. While we’re given the sense that Azula’s intentions may not be so nefarious by the end of the comic, it’s still a completely unsatisfying way to include such an interesting character. And, of course, there is no reunion between her and her mother.
Azula’s character once again has to suffer so that other characters who aren’t nearly as important in the original show can have a character arc. Ukano, Mai’s father, fulfills Azula’s demands in the hope that she will help him put Ozai back on the throne yet never questions the stupidity of his role in said plan. Allowing himself to be seen by the kidnapped children, he never once thinks that he will be immediately implicated for these crimes. But that’s okay because he gets a redemption arc he so desperately needed. The conclusion to Ursa’s arc is only slightly better with her finally confronting Ozai in all his mustache-twirling-villain glory.
The most disappointing aspect of all these comics thus far is that these could be great stories. But for one reason or another, characters become shells of their former selves for the sake of reaching a certain conclusion in a finite time. Or, characters are used for the sake of being a foil to another character rather than getting their much deserved time to progress and shine. Luckily, as of the writing of this article, there are only two more graphic novels to cover before we can put this series far behind us.
You can purchase your copy of Smoke and Shadow at your local bookstore or online retailer. What did you think of this graphic novel? Is it as mediocre as we’re painting them to be? Let us know in the comments section below or on Twitter!