Double Review: Two Avatar Graphic Novels

Flameo, hotman! As the Quill To Live’s resident Avatar: The Last Airbender superfan, I take my duty to keep up with the latest ATLA releases very seriously. Need proof? You can see my dedication to the universe in my reviews of The Rise of Kyoshi and The Shadow of Kyoshi. Today, I’m here to add a few more reviews to the growing Avatar stack.

Katara and the Pirate’s Silver and Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy are the two newest additions to Dark Horse Publishing’s Avatar graphic novel pantheon. Both are backed by the same team of artists:

  • Script: Faith Erin Hicks
  • Art: Peter Wartman
  • Colors: Adele Matera
  • Lettering: Richard Starkings & Comicraft’s Jimmy Betancourt

Because the exact same team produced both works, and because they’re quite short, I’m combining them into a single review. Yip yip!

Katara and the Pirate’s Silver

The episode “Bitter Work” occurs about halfway through the original Avatar TV series, and it’s a gem of an episode that sheds light on the differences between each bending style. Aang, a defensive and generally nonviolent person, is forced to confront the brute-force, in-your-face style that Earthbending requires.

Katara and the Pirate’s Silver takes place just hours after the events of that episode. After an unfortunate run-in with some Fire Nation soldiers, Katara is split from the group and stranded in an occupied Earth Kingdom village. Here she forms an unlikely alliance with a band of pirates to escape the clutches of the Fire Nation. Meanwhile, Aang, Sokka, and Toph trap a Fire Nation soldier and attempt to de-propagandize him. 

The narrative itself is telegraphed and in no particular way unique. For Captain Jiang and her pirate crew, this means the story compresses them into unmemorable archetypes. Just as the show already proved Katara’s toughness, it already handled pirates, too. 

Katara and the Pirate’s Silver serves as a fitting extension to “Bitter Work.” In the episode, Katara and Toph fight about the best teaching methods. Katara believes in positive reinforcement as the most viable teaching technique; Toph disagrees. The graphic novel is a clever attempt at extending the dynamic but ultimately feels overly contrived and redundant. Katara, separated…sticky situation. Katara, separated from her friends and feeling “soft,” puts on an air of toughness to get her out of a sticky situation. This plot, though, ends up feeling contrived and redundant, because Katara fans know she can be a terrifying opponent when pressed. In this way, Pirate’s Silver tries to prove a point that the show already hammered home on multiple occasions. The story is so paper-thin that any savvy reader will breeze through it in under an hour and gain little insight beyond a few fun scenes that would’ve ended up on the cutting room floor if this was a full episode script. 

All-in-all, Katara and the Pirate’s Silver ends before it can even unfurl its sails. It traverses ground that’s already well-covered by the TV series, so the result is a forgettable, but generally fun enough addition to the growing collection of Avatar graphic novels. This add-on to Avatar lore serves little purpose and shows that not every story is one worth telling. Avatar is known for hard-hitting narratives and heavy themes packaged in fun, lighthearted characters. Katara and the Pirate’s Silver has plenty of the latter, but none of the former. Fan-service can carry a book a long way, but when it sheds the qualities fans of the source material hold so dearly, it’s a struggle. 

Rating: Katara and the Pirate’s Silver – 5.0/10

Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy

When you’re a legendary war hero, an undefeated earthbending master, and the inventor of metalbending, what’s your biggest enemy?

Ennui, of course. 

Following the events of the TV show, Toph Beifong has established a luxurious metalbending school, where hopeful students can learn her newly invented craft. But Toph is so proficient, so forceful in her teachings, that the school practically runs itself, giving her little to actually do. Her former students teach classes, the current students are progressing well, and life is good. For Toph, though, “good” is boring. Sokka and Suki visit Toph’s school and notice her predicament right away and take Toph to a concert (featuring an exquisite cameo from the SECRET TUNNEL band). Toph despises the concert, so she splits and ventures to an underground bending tournament for a bit of action. She even sees a lava bender compete. But when an audience member recognizes her as a friend of the Avatar, everyone bolts as though the police just showed up uninvited to an alcohol party at Josh’s house (his parents are gone for the weekend). Meanwhile, Toph’s students believe they are the reason for her boredom, so they resolve to prove themselves by entering the next underground bending tournament. 

Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy is the fan-service I so desperately craved but did not receive from Katara and the Pirate’s Silver. Toph is undeniably her classic self, fed up with the day-to-day and abrasively supportive of her wards. Sokka and Suki are true to form, though they’re only briefly featured. Trustfully In Love (aka the Secret Tunnel band) is as much a ridiculous joy as they were in “The Cave of Two Lovers.”

Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy manages to tell a complete story. The characters learn and grow, and we see a side of Toph that she only rarely lets loose. Unlike its Pirate’s Silver counterpart, this installment adds a worthy story to the larger Avatar universe, and fans of the show will love it.

The graphic novel leverages fan-service in a way that expands the world of Avatar. In the show, we never saw Toph struggle with the daily grind. She was constantly traveling with team Avatar, dealing with crises, and annihilating enemies with her expert earthbending. Here, we get a toned-down Toph who struggles to find her place in a world without the imminent threat of global genocide. And for a character who abandoned a life of luxury in favor of fighting the good fight, “normal” just won’t cut it. To see this new side of Toph is a real treat for Avatar fans. Not only that–this new facet is also a good enough reason for this story to exist. When Avatar stories trod new ground and explore different sides of the characters we know and love, that’s a win. 

And if these two graphic novels are any indication, it’s still possible for this world to feature new, enriching stories. If that means dealing with the occasional dud, that’s fine by me. 

Rating: Toph Beifong’s Metalbending Academy – 9.0/10

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