One of the interesting features of Avatar: The Last Airbender and its sequel series The Legend of Korra is how their stories have been allowed to continue in comic book form, long after the series finales aired. The Legend of Korra concluded on Nickelodeon in December 2014, with Dark Horse Comics publishing trade paperbacks of new sequel stories, released as trilogies. While not the first such trilogy (that honor goes to Turf Wars), Part One alone indicates that Ruins of the Empire is shaping up to be one of the biggest story arcs in the Avatar world.
Ruins of the Empire begins during the events of the TV show’s finale (sorry, SPOILERS): After consolidating her power in the self-declared “Earth Empire”, Empress Kuvira invaded the United Republic of Nations. Victory seemed inevitable…but after Avatar Korra used energybending to save Kuvira (unintentionally creating a new portal to the Spirit World, right in the heart of Republic City), Kuvira realized the Avatar’s power was far beyond anything she could hope to match.
At a reeducation camp in the Earth Empire city of Gaoling, Commander Guan receives a report from his second-in-command Doctor Sheng that Kuvira has unconditionally surrendered. Guan is furious…how could the “Great Uniter” betray her followers by surrendering on the cusp of victory? Guan indicates he has no intention to surrender. Fast-forward to three months later. In the aftermath of the events of Turf Wars, Zhu Li Moon was elected President of the United Republic, with Bolin as her personal assistant.
Earth King Wu gives a speech officially dissolving the monarchy. Instead, the states of the Earth Kingdom will democratically elect their own leaders. The first gubernatorial election is scheduled to take place in Gaoling in two weeks, with other elections to follow over the course of a year. As Wu’s speech goes on, Kuvira’s trial begins for “crimes against peace”.
After the charges are read out, Kuvira apologizes for her crimes, but insists that the judges are deliberately ignoring her accomplishments: stabilizing and modernizing the Earth Kingdom. Kuvira enters a plea of “not guilty”. Meanwhile in Gaoling, Commander Guan inspires his troops by claiming that Kuvira has abandoned them, but he never will. They are to mobilize and march on Gaoling’s city hall, to which his troops cheer, “All hail the Earth Empire! All hail Commander Guan!”
President Zhu Li and Team Avatar learn about Guan and worry that he and his followers intend to disrupt the upcoming election. Fearful of the Earth Empire seizing power once more but unwilling to start a war, Korra convinces Kuvira (who is surprised the commander of her southern forces never surrendered) to come with them to Gaoling to reason with Guan and resolve the situation peacefully.
When Kuvira and Team Avatar arrive in Gaoling, Guan mocks Kuvira for becoming the Avatar’s lackey. Kuvira tries to appeal to Guan’s soldiers, but they affirm their loyalty to their commander. When Guan calls Kuvira a coward, she lashes out and has to be shocked unconscious by Asami. Korra warns Guan that she will not let him stop the election. However, everyone is shocked when Guan reveals he hasn’t come to stop the election…he’s come to take part in it! He formally declares his candidacy and reveals that Earth Empire candidates are running for office in the other states too. Wu tries to have Guan disqualified, but Mayor Rhee reminds him that he insisted on open elections: as long as the paperwork is in order, anyone can run as a candidate.
After Kuvira awakens, Team Avatar tries to think of a way to stop Guan without interfering in the election process. Kuvira suggests putting up a candidate with enough popularity to beat Guan. Korra proposes Toph Beifong, and resolves to convince Toph to run. Meanwhile at the Gaoling reeducation camp, Doctor Sheng shows her progress to Commander Guan…a trio of Gaoling citizens hooked up to strange machinery and robotically repeating Guan’s campaign slogan: “Go with Guan!”
Ruins of the Empire is a great setup for a whole new conflict in the Avatar world. We get to delve deeper into the aftermath and consequences of Book Four of the TV show: Kuvira’s unexpected surrender, Earth King Wu’s proposal to abolish the monarchy in favor of democracy, and the Earth Empire shifting from total war to laying down their arms.
It’s understandable why Guan refuses to admit defeat. Kuvira strove to become not just a leader, but a savior for her people. Kuvira and Guan are both admittedly correct when they point out that the Earth Empire restored order when no one else would, and the Earth Kingdom will reap the benefits of its modernization for years to come.
In Guan’s reeducation camp, he turned prisoners into a formidable fighting force, when even Kuvira believed there was little hope of doing so. Of course he wouldn’t want to give up on the Earth Empire: inhumane as his methods may have been, he used it to achieve the impossible for his troops.
The fact that Guan is a political antagonist rather than a military opponent makes him all the more villainous: he knows he needs legitimacy to seize power, and he is using democracy as a tool to claim that legitimacy. It parallels current events, with many countries dealing with hacking attempts against voter ballots and outside interference from foreign powers. But what’s fascinating is that in this scenario, Team Avatar *is* the outside interference. All of them are residents of Republic City, not Gaoling…but that outsider status also gives them perspective that the voters do not.
Nevertheless, Team Avatar is divided on how to deal with the issue. Mako wants to call off the elections, but Wu insists that the democratic process must be allowed to continue. Korra is confident that Toph will run for office, but Bolin is concerned that Toph might refuse to get involved in national politics.
How do you stop people from electing an aggressive nationalist? Is it right to give people a choice if they choose to give power to a dictator who used to run a prison camp?!? In this way, the conflict also highlights a lot of issues that countries transitioning into democracy must deal with. So far in the Gaoling election, there are three candidates: one is Commander Guan, and the other two are elderly former magistrates from the old royally-appointed bureaucracy.
Team Avatar is rightfully worried about Guan’s chances: the Earth Kingdom did truly prosper under the modernization of the Earth Empire. What can the former magistrates offer other than the vestiges of an antiquated and corrupt monarchy? Voters look like they’re between a rock and a hard place. Guan has a strong likelihood of winning the election fair-and-square, even if he wasn’t using this new brainwashing technology (which, by the way, was a great way to modernize the brainwashing techniques utilized by the Dai Li in Avatar: The Last Airbender).
Beyond the political commentary, Ruins of the Empire offers some great animation, such as including female soldiers in the Earth Empire’s ranks. As a foil for Avatar Korra, Kuvira has been one of the most interesting villains in the Avatar world. It’s nice to her character develop by challenging her rationale and watch her silver tongue fail for the first time.
Also, the comic features a lot of truly sweet Korrasami moments, with the comics team not as limited in how they can depict the romantic relationship between the two women. For those shipping moments alone, I’d recommend this book! But what do you think of this epilogue to The Legend of Korra’s story? Do you think Team Avatar can stop Commander Guan’s plan…or will the Earth Kingdom slip back into the dark days of conquest and war? Part Two for Ruins of the Empire releases on October 8, 2019 at Dark Horse Comics, Comixology, and your friendly neighborhood comic book store.