Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Imbalance continues in Part Two

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Hello, readers of the Fandomentals. Some months ago, I wrote about the first part of the newest Avatar the Last Airbender comic, Imbalance. Today I bring you my impressions of the second part. What are they? Well… still surprisingly good.

The plot picks up where we left off last time. Satoru’s factory had been sabotaged and Aang managed to apprehend one of the culprits. While also saving him from falling to his death as his employers tried to get rid of him. Sokka puts his sleuthing hat on (literally) and goes to work.

As it turns out, more factories were victim of sabotage that night. The Gaang quickly discovers a common thread – all of them belong to non-benders. Moreover, the damage is clearly bender-inflicted. Sokka is quick to connect the dots. The attacks were benders destroying machines that allowed non-benders to do what only benders had been able to before.

He then drops his usual goofy behavior for long enough to explain to Aang what the issue is. Bending is a skill that only some people have and they often use it to punch down. Like a certain megalomaniac with a goatee. Conversely, the development of industry had left many benders feeling threatened.

Aang opts to meet with Councilor Liling, who is as eager to help as before. She keeps calling her home humble when it’s anything but and talks to Aang about how different things used to be. He once again says that he struggles with adapting to the inevitable progress.

Liling’s poker face is as perfect as ever and she reiterates her offer to help. However, her ruse is blown by Toph. She recognizes her daughters’ footsteps as the same she heard near the factory. When Yaling is impressed by Toph’s metalbending and expresses a wish to learn it, Toph cleverly baits her by a question about Lady Tienhai’s cliff. Yaling says she’s never been there…which is a lie, and Toph can recognize it from a mile away.

Toph promises to teach Yaling metalbending before departing. Ru, her sister who is a non-bender, doubts if it’s a good idea, but Yaling brushes her off. She feels that Toph will come around to their side eventually.

Once outside, Toph tells the rest that Liling is lying and that her daughters had hired the attackers. She continues to take her role as an executive partner fairly seriously. She intends to get close to Yaling under the cover of teaching her metalbending and learn of their plans.

Before that happens, Suki arrives. Her affectionate greeting with Sokka makes Aang and Katara feel warm and fuzzy while Toph is just grossed out. She helps Satoru clean up his factory and comforts him. He feels responsible for what happened, because his machines took the benders’ livelihood. Toph argues that the issue is bigger than he is and that the town can’t possibly provide everyone with work anyway.

Next, we see Toph train Yaling. The metalbending training isn’t going so well, though it’s hard to tell how much Toph is even trying. She proceeds pretty quickly to expressing a lack of care for the non-benders’ machines, saying she doesn’t mind if they’re not fixed quickly. She also dismisses Aang aas soft, which fools Yaling into believing she shares her and her mother’s values. Toph gets an invitation to a rally.

The legend reborn

The Gaang discusses the information Toph uncovered and decides they can’t really do anything with hearsay. Toph argues to simply charge in and bash some heads, but the rest decide to infiltrate the meeting in disguise. Turns out Sokka kept the fake beard of “Wang Fire” too. At least Katara doesn’t dust off her disguise as Aang’s mother.

Intentionally or not, the rally scene feels very similar to Korra and Mako sneaking into the Equalist meeting. Only in reverse. They give the password and enter… though it feels like having to prove you’re a bender would be in order. While it’s difficult to prove you’re not one, the reverse is easy enough. Just… bend. Such a complication would slow things down, though, and space on pages is at a premium.

Once inside, they witness Liling give her speech. The message is predictable enough. She opens up by railing against the machines putting benders out of work. Her listeners respond by crying out that they will not be replaced. Which is similar enough to the rallying cry of real-life white nationalists that I doubt it’s a coincidence.

Liling moves on to argue that the natural order of the world demands that benders be in charge. They’re stronger, they lead nations and they defend communities. And since they’re worth more they must take back what’s theirs. Instead of rising up, which would bring the Earth King’s wrath on them, they will sabotage the non-benders’ factories and businesses until they go out of business.

Just as the Gaang get ready to leave, Toph turns out to have other ideas. She goes up on the podium and, once she’s recognized, she proclaims that she doesn’t actually agree with any of it. A general melee ensues.

Liling rallies the other benders against Aang while Toph and Yaling duke it out. After they knock each other down on the ground, Suki and Sokka corner Yaling and Ru. Yaling tries to fight them off, but Suki quickly chi-blocks her. Sokka asks Ru how she can side with bender supremacists… and Ru doesn’t have a good answer. Or any answer, really.

Watching the Gaang incapacitate her followers, Liling opens a tunnel and tells the remaining ones, including her daughters, to flee. She herself stays behind to hold the Gaang off. She argues that the Avatar and his friends can’t hurt her and that their plans will survive her capture.

Outside, Yaling is very distraught by the feeling of being chi-blocked. Ru assures her that it will pass, but Yaling fears that it won’t, leaving her without bending forever. In a stunning display if sisterly affection, she outright says that it’d make her just like Ru.

Elsewhere, the Gaang has placed Liling in a cage. Much like she herself said, they acknowledge that this isn’t over yet. Even if they turn her over to authorities and catch her daughters, the benders’ resentment won’t go away. As it turns out, removing the figurehead leader doesn’t somehow neutralize the entire movement that rallied behind them. Who could have seen this coming?

Apropos of nothing

Toph ends this chapter on a stunning cliffhanger – she suggests that Aang take Liling’s bending away like he had Ozai’s. Make an example of her this way.

Well, that’s the plot synopsis. What do I think of it? It’s very simple and straightforward, naturally. But, perhaps, that’s all it has to be. The comic doesn’t really have the space to weave a complex and nuanced conflict.

In a way, this approaches the conflict between benders and non-benders from the opposite side. Instead of non-benders rising up against an unfair order, we have benders who feel like they have a right to their privilege and chafing at losing it. The cry of “we will not be replaced” is, as I said, very similar to that of real, hate groups who also react to the questioning of their privilege with blind aggression.

It’s also considerably easier to deal with than the Equalists. That plot touched on the very sticky question of how far the disenfranchised can and should go in pursuit of justice. At which point does it turn into revenge? Was Amon right to take people’s bending away? If he was right to do it to Lightning Bolt Zolt, where do we draw the line?

The show failed to even attempt to ask those questions, but they were nonetheless there. Here, it’s a lot simpler, but not without nuance. We’re not going to feel any sympathy for people who go on about a natural order of the world that oh-so-conveniently puts them on top. But the pressure of losing their jobs is a bit easier to empathize with than that. Though, again, non-benders deal with the same problems, only they never had the comfort of having an in-demand skill by dint of birth.

The non-bender perspective is somewhat missing from the comic. Sokka expresses it, but he also makes it clear that it doesn’t bother him. Which may or may not be true. It’s understandable to a degree, as there’s only so much space in this book, but I hope it changes in the final volume. As it is, there’s two non-benders on the heroes’ team and one on the villains’. And that’s about it.

Non-benders still struggle to have an actual voice in the story. At least one that’s not, as Sokka and Asami are, entirely fine with hanging around with benders and accepting their limitations. The two examples we have is Hiroshi’s anger over A. Firebender and the resentful common non-benders in the first part of Imbalance. Needless to say, the latter is far more valuable.

Still, perhaps it’s better for this comic to focus a bit more on the bender side of things than retread old ground, which already didn’t work once. The reaction of the powerful to their advantage not being the way it used to be is a valuable topic to handle.

Toph’s suggestion presents an interesting dilemma that I wonder how the comic will handle. We know that Aang would eventually take someone else’s bending. However, in Yakone’s case, there was simply no other earthly way to stop him. He could incapacitate a large room full of people (including the Avatar) with some twitches of his hands. Liling is simply a powerful and skilled bender. Toph’s suggestion is to make an example of her and intimidate other bender supremacists, which is far murkier. Will Aang take such drastic measures just to make a point? This doesn’t seem like him. Once again, this comic potentially asks a question that the first season of Legend of Korra teased but neither asked nor answered.

How do the characters carry themselves in this volume? Toph takes the front stage for quite a few pages. She shows surprising cunning when she fools Yaling into revealing the rally to her. Though to be fair, she didn’t really need that much convincing. Of course, at the end of the day her instinct to bash heads in won over.

Sokka plays the role of comic relief and a serious voice of reason in equal measure, as usual. While he goofs off and sleuths about with his hat on, he also explains the inherent power imbalance between benders and non-benders.

Aang and Katara mostly do what they always do. Aang is fretting about how to balance the needs and desires of everyone around him. Katara…hangs around him and is supportive. I don’t think we can expect more from her at this point, sadly. Suki appears again and while she says little, her chi-blocking strikes fear into the villainous family.

Speaking of which… Liling seems a fairly by-the-numbers villain. She’s clever and willing to play to the heroes’ vulnerabilities and limitations. Such as their need to deal with her lawfully. She does seem to sincerely believe that benders are superior and deserve their privilege. She also seems to be a reactionary, wishing things would go back to the old, proper way. Her plan is… to sabotage non-benders’ businesses until they go bankrupt. It doesn’t feel like it merits the highly dramatic way in which she delivers it. It’s not a bad plan and has the advantage of simplicity. It just feels rather odd to have her make haughty proclamations only for the whole thing to boil down to “let’s break stuff”.

Yaling, her earthbending daughter, seems loyal to her and puts a lot of worth in her abilities. She’s distraught when Suki chi-blocks her and fears being made equal to a non-bender. This doesn’t sit well with Ru, who is a non-bender herself. Despite that, she works with people who resent non-benders having too much power and influence.

Obviously, we’re talking about her mother and sister, so she’s loyal to them. And yet, we can see doubt in her. She’s the weak spot in the villains’ chain of command and I’m curious to see what she’ll end up doing.

If I were to describe this comic succinctly, I’d say it’s solid but not spectacular. Which, perhaps, is what it needs to be. Being overambitious has sunk an attempt to deal with this conflict before. Imbalance has so far given us a fairly straightforward villain who nonetheless relies on societal divisions in such a way that the heroes can’t simply throw her in jail and pat themselves on the back. And it looks like it will continue to challenge them from here on.

Images courtesy of Nickelodeon and Dark Horse Comics

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