After a very long wait, North and South Part 1 is finally out. This of course means it is review time. As ever I will split it into non-spoiler and spoiler sections.
North and South Part 1
Written By: Gene Luen Yang
Art and Colours by: Team Gurihiru
(Art and inks by Sasaki with Colours by Kawano)
Letters By: Michael Heisler
Published By: Dark Horse Comics
After 6 long months a new comic series has finally begun. While it is very good, the sheer anticipation and hype for so long are always going to lead to an element of overexpectation. Ultimately this is a part 1 and was never going to be utterly mindblowing as it needs to start off a new story and set things up to pay off later on in a big way. North and South Part 1 has excellent art, is overall very well written managing to set up some fascinating character dynamics while also playing off so many elements of nostalgia as we return to the Southern Water Tribe for the first time since Book 1 Episode 2. My only issue is that it ends JUST before it really starts to kick into gear, often these comics promote a lot of speculation, with this one I feel there will not be as much to speculate on in the gap between Part 1 and Part 2. Please don't get me wrong, this is a solid, solid book, just don't go in expecting it to completely blow you away.
I want to start with the art this time out, it really stands out throughout this book . Often the art is overlooked as it is always so consistently excellent, but the colouring especially here stands out. So many different shades blue and great blending of blue and white, the standing water, the ice, the snow, the water tribe clothing and nearly everything else is all basically the same colour, but everything stands out on its own and looks great. If I had any issue with the art it would be that there are a few smaller panels where we get some faces that are extremely lacking in detail, the faces are just big enough that it feels like there should be more detail, yet they have been treated like extreme background faces.
This book is packed with nostalgia since we have returned to the Southern Water Tribe for the first time in a very long time. It is amazing to see Katara and Sokka treated like huge celebrities as both southerners and northerners recognise them and their achievements as part of Team Avatar. We see them reunite with new and old family members all the while having to react to their home being so vastly different to the way it was when they left. This is where the key plot points of the series come out, this is about each character and how they feel about how the South has changed. The northerners who have come to live in the south are fully behind making the south as similar to the north as possible, even certain Southerners are happy with the progress. Sokka is delighted to see his home become a huge city, while Katara accepts, but begins to struggle with the changes already present and those planned to happen.
We are introduced to 3 key new characters: Malina, Maliq and Gilak. Malina and Maliq are from the Northern Tribe and are in charge of a group of builders they have working in the south to build new buildings. Malina specifically is working closely with Hakoda to plan the changes. Gilak was one of Hakoda's men during the war, he is a southern patriot, he is completely against what the northerners are doing to the South and is planning to change things. The book does a great job at presenting a variety of viewpoints on the situation, some are extreme one side or the other, some have perhaps not thought about every angle but think progress is good and then others like Katara gradually begins to dislike what has been done to her home.
Without going into specifics there is really not a lot to talk about. We do get a few action scenes, but none are overly intense, Katara primarily and Sokka to an extent get to shine, their experience from all their travels clearly showing, but as I said earlier the book ends before anything huge can happen. The focus here is mainly the excitement around Sokka and Katara's return, introducing us to the new characters and the various views on what is happening to the south creating the conflict which is sure to spark as we head into Part 2 and 3.
Final thoughts. Solid character interactions and focus combined with strong nostalgia and great art make for an enjoyable read. The various views on what is happening to the south is far and away the most interesting aspect of this book, I just hope they nail this going forward.
I will now move into the spoiler discussion so I can get into the details.
-First up, despite being on the cover, Aang is not in this book. He does not show up in the South during this book, he is mentioned a few times and a few flashback panels have him in them. I don't mind him not being in the book, but him being the focus character on the cover is just insulting. It highlights the idea that Aang HAS to be on the covers regardless of if he is involved in the story and more than that it to some extent shows a lack of confidence in a series with only Katara and Sokka on the cover. It either, as I said, shows a lack of confidence in some characters and an over-reliance on Aang or when the covers were done the story plan was for Aang to arrive in part 1 and it changed as the writing progressed.
-The big cliffhanger ending of Part 1 is that Katara and Sokka walk in in their father, Hakoda kissing Malina. Which I think is meant to retroactively highlight that the reason Hakoda is making some of his decisions is because of his relationship with Malina. The book presents Malina has a very nice and enthusiastic woman who is just really trying to help the south with all these building projects, nothing really hints at a potential ulterior motive, the only issues would be that she at times ends up insulting certain aspects of southern culture almost by accident. One example is that she calls southern water tribe food, northern food that tastes "off". Presenting this fascinating idea that the people of the North to some extent don't treat the south as its own culture, it is just the North off by a few degrees. Going back to Malina and Hakoda, you get a few subtle hints about their being more to their relationship earlier on, but nothing super overt. Katara and Sokka are of course shocked to just walk in on this, how this scene plays out in Part 2 is going to be fascinating, especially because Katara at the start of this book has a dream about her mother and now her father is starting a new relationship. Will she feel like this new relationship is symbolic of what is happening in the south, just moving on and forgetting what came before or will she learn to accept some change. It is definitely one of the big character arcs presented as they even reference Aang from The Rift and the question of if things should just remain the same or progress over time, when it is respecting the past and when is it living in the past. Aang dealt with this in The Rift and now Katara faces the same questions. Aang arriving later in the series will definitely present some interesting conversations between the two.
-We do get to reunite with Gran Gran and Pakku who have officially been married, last we heard in the finale they were engaged. The scene is a little weird as Sokka seems a bit too surprised about them being married despite Pakku having directly told him about the engagement in The Old Masters. I don't want to immediately say continuity error as the difference of engaged vs marriage is important, but his reaction is a bit odd given what he knows. We do also get to meet their Aunt Ashura and see what her legendary seal jerky is like, just a small moment, but nice continuity.
-Back to Malina and her brother Maliq for a moment. There is a weird statement made about them when they are introduced, they say that they have spend most of their lives in the Earth Kingdom, but that once you are "Of the" NWT you are always part of the NWT. Malina is revealed to be a waterbender later on so the idea seems to be that she and her brother left the NWT a while ago to live in the Earth Kingdom and start what seems to be a construction company/crew. Clearly some more backstory/details are needed for these 2 to explain how they came to be involved in rebuilding the south.
-The main plot of this comic is about the next big project for the south, to build a Southern Palace. Malina and Maliq have the blueprints and they are stolen by kids who support Gilak and are left in his possession by the end of Part 1. The design doesn't really look like the Palace we see in Korra, so it may be redesigned in the story.
-Gilak is the last major thing to talk about. He hates what is happening to his tribe, he doesn't seem to like the northerners and has turned on his former commander Hakoda because he dislikes that Hakoda as the new head chief is working with the north. He takes the position that the south is being made into The North 2.0 and that they are losing their southern identity. He has basically created a village of his own with people who agree with him about what the North are doing, they live in the ice caverns under the crashed Fire Nation ship and tell stories to keep the culture of the south alive. The problem is that he seems very extreme in his opposition, he is preparing for war and wants to eradicate the northerners in the south and turn the south into a powerful tribe with a strong leader like the way the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom both have leadership structures with one main leader. He feels so betrayed by Hakoda and the direction he is taking. He seems to think Malina and Maliq have yet unrevealed true intentions that are nefarious, though he says nothing about why he thinks that. I like this character, he feels like a Korra villain, there is something to his opposition of such big changes, but he is taking it to far with building an army and preparing for war. If our heroes fight him the perspective of those loyal to the south will be that they are fighting for the extinction of southern culture. How they handle him going forward will be fascinating. The only issue is that right now his group feel a little bit like the New Ozai Society, cool idea and concept, but they really don't feel like a threat given that Katara and Sokka managed to escape his attempt to kidnap them even though he had huge numbers advantage. They will have to emphasises the political and ideological position to give him and his group weight.
-Last thing on Gilak is that his second in command, an old man named Thod, Talks to Katara and Sokka as they are escaping and tells them an old SWT story about a snow rat and its interactions with a group of humans near a campfire, it became more and more human like and eventually wanted to be part of the tribal council, the humans had accepted it as entertaining up until this, but took offence to the request and chased the snow rat off, back to the cold where the snow rat shivered and was forever haunted by the memory of the campfire. It feels like it is important and symbolic of the overall North and South story, perhaps the way the south think the North think of them as savages, as animals while the North is refined. The South is the Snow Rat and the humans of the story are the North. I am still thinking about this for sure.
Check out my video review here
The big podcast review/readthrough will be this Sunday, so make sure to check the site Sunday for the podcast.