An Uncertain Start: The Legend of Korra: Ruins of the Empire, Part One

TLOK - Ruins of the Empire 1

I felt a certain amount of trepidation when I picked up this comic. After all, while I am a great fan of The Legend of Korra and of the character of Kuvira in particular, I have also been strongly critical of how showrunners Bryan Konietzko and Michael DiMartino handled various elements of their show, even to the point of coming up with my own pitch for a version of Book 4 that avoided the pitfalls of the actual show. Still, curiosity won out, and I picked up my own copy of the comic last week to see how it handled the various issues The Legend of Korra left dangling after its finale. The fact that Michael DiMartino himself was handling the writing duties was another small inducement, if only for a chance to see what the showrunners had in mind for the ultimate fates of both the former Earth Kingdom and Kuvira herself post-finale.

Having finished the comic, I confess that I’m not entirely sure how to feel about it. The comic is only the first part of a projected three-part story, and as such it is both difficult and foolhardy to render judgement on a work that has yet to be completed. That said, the comic is an odd duck. While it shares many of the problems that plagued The Legend of Korra as a whole, there are also parts that could be the seeds of far more interesting developments further down the line.

(Before I begin, I must mention that in this review I am treating Ruins of the Empire, Part One as the first act of a three-part story. As such, I will be spoiling everything. Additionally, I will assume everyone reading this is familiar with the basics of Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, either by having watched the original shows or by reading my earlier discussions on the subject.)

Ruins of the Empire, Part One, begins some three months after the series finale. (The previous comic story, Turf Wars, has no bearing on Ruins of the Empire other than the fact that Zhu Li Moon, former assistant, current wife, and long-suffering straight man to the inventor Varrick, has been elected president of the United Republic.) In Republic City, Kuvira’s trial for crimes against humanity has begun, with Kuvira being contrite about her abuses of power but still defending her goals. However, the trial is interrupted after King Wu arrives from the Earth Kingdom requesting the aid of Avatar Korra. As preparation for the Earth Kingdom’s transition into a “family” of democratic nation-states, a trial plebiscite for the office of regional governor has been arranged in the city of Gaoling, an important location remembered by fans of Avatar: The Last Airbender as the ancestral home of the Beifong family. However, Commander Guan, a former lieutenant of Kuvira’s who refused to accept her surrender, has based himself in the region along with those forces that are still loyal to him, and Wu is quite naturally concerned about his intentions. Korra agrees to help him, and after some dispute with the rest of Team Avatar, she also decides to take Kuvira along in the hopes that she may be able to compel Guan to disarm. While Kuvira’s first meeting with Guan ends in blows, Guan stuns Korra et al. by announcing that he too plans to participate in the upcoming election to gain both a legitimate power base and a stake in the future of the Earth Kingdom. As the only other candidates up for election are two elderly former imperial bureaucrats, Guan would appear to have a lock on the election, prompting Korra to make plans to seek out Toph Beifong and persuade her to run in the election and frustrate Guan’s plans. However, in the closing pages of the comic it is revealed that Guan has been experimenting with Manchurian Candidate-style mental conditioning, and has begun using it on civilians for unknown purposes.

Ruins of the Empire, Part One has been set up as a story about the Earth Kingdom’s transition from Kuvira’s military government towards democracy, an extrapolation of a single line given in the series finale. However, while the comic is earnestly trying to grapple with the difficulties of the issue, it is still marred by the same problem The Legend of Korra had: an inability to understand the mechanics and appeal of political autocracy. I don’t wholly blame DiMartino for this issue; it is something of cultural blind spot for many Americans. Indeed, one of the most fascinating Twitter discussions to come out of the final season of Game of Thrones was this piece by history professor Brent S. Sirota about the show’s skewed interpretation of its historical analogy. In essence, if the island of Westeros was a fantasticated version of late medieval Britain circa the War of the Roses, then the show’s closest analogue for the sort of centralizing monarchs of the Renaissance who laid the foundations of the modern European state was Danerys Targarean. However, the show was deeply uncomfortable in presenting an unabashed autocrat in a sympathetic light, and as such vacillated between depicting her as a figure of revolutionary emancipation (“more John Brown than Henry Tudor,” as Sirota put it) or a mad queen, ultimately deciding to kill her off while leaving the dysfunctional political situation in Westeros unresolved.

While Ruins of the Empire is set in a fantasticated version of post-imperial China (in an industrialized early-20th century world that seems to have adopted elements of Western culture without ever having an analogue for the West, just to make things more confusing), the same problems arise. Guan is little more than a stock villain, a would-be despot with none of Kuvira’s interiority, who wants to rule people with an iron fist because he’s a bad guy, while the reveal of his brainwashing experiments suggest that DiMartino could not imagine why someone would support Guan (or even Kuvira) outside of blind loyalty or coercion. While the comic does touch on some of the issues that are faced when establishing a democratic system, the fact that Korra decides to enlist Toph in the election on the strength of her personal reputation rather than her actual politics or familiarity with the workings of Gaoling raises the troubling possibility that these elections may be little more than glorified popularity contests, and that the Earth Kingdom’s experiment in democratic self-rule will die out as the world’s attention turns elsewhere and the new governments prove incapable of handling the challenges brought by the dissolution of the imperial regime. On top of all of that, the comic has yet to mention any lingering political fallout from President Raiko’s plans to turn the Earth Kingdom into a client state of the United Republic, or if this whole democratic experiment is simply UR imperialism in a subtler form. Still, this is only the first part of a three-part story, so it remains to be seen how the political situation will develop and if these concerns will be addressed.

As well as being a political story, Ruins of the Empire has also been billed as a character study for Kuvira herself. Now, being a big fan of her character, I have developed my own interpretation of her character in the years since the show ended, as have many of her fans. As a result there was a sort of subtle tension as I read Ruins of the Empire, Part One as I compared DiMartino’s Kuvira with the Kuvira I had developed in my own head, a feeling many other Kuvira fans will doubtlessly share. That said, DiMartino does hew closely to how the show depicted Kuvira and the contradictions of her character. While Kuvira has accepted that she caused great harm to many innocents as the Great Uniter and no longer believes that the Earth Empire has any future, she still defends the good work she and her army did in modernizing and stabilizing the Earth Kingdom. She still plays with her cards close to the vest, leaving readers unable to determine the sincerity of her words. DiMartino also expands on Kuvira’s statement in the finale that she was abandoned by her birth parents with a short flashback to her being disciplined as by her parents, a scene that is frustratingly too short to determine the context for the actions of either party. However, the scene helps establish that, as many fans have speculated, that Kuvira carries around a lot of baggage relating to her feelings of self-worth and personal freedom. When people push her down with rules and commands, she pushes back just as hard against them. When people considered her a burden, she rebuilt herself into someone who moves mountains to make the world a better place. Whenever she is caustic or snippy with someone, it seems to be motivated by the feeling that, if the world loathes and hates her, there is no need to be pleasant beyond that which the situation dictates.

On the subject of Kuvira’s relationship to the Beifong family, the comic only teases out details. During a confrontation with Suyin Beifong after her initial hearing, Kuvira describes having a much different relationship with Suyin than the one her biological children enjoyed, a statement Suyin pointedly ignores. However, it is the absence of another Beifong that is the comic’s greatest mystery. While Suyin, her husband, and their children are all in attendance at Kuvira’s initial hearing, her eldest son Bataar Jr. is notably absent from the proceedings. Indeed, no mention is made of Bataar’s state, whether he’s awaiting trial in Republic City as an accessory to Kuvira’s actions, has been placed under “house arrest” by Suyin in Zaofu, or is even still alive. While Bataar wasn’t given much characterization in The Legend of Korra and is far from a fan favorite, his importance to Kuvira makes his complete absence all the more troubling. Along with being her former right-hand-man and fiancé, Bataar was the only character in Korra that ever connected with Kuvira on a deep emotional level, the only person Kuvira felt comfortable enough around to confide in. He was her lover and maybe her only true friend, and yet when Korra took him hostage in a bid to force her army to withdraw from Republic City, she chose to sacrifice him rather than back down. The questions of why she did what she did, and what she and Bataar still mean to each other, are crucial for understanding Kuvira’s character and motivations, but the comic offers no clues on this matter. Hopefully more information will be forthcoming; to omit Bataar entirely from this story is unthinkable.

In the end, I don’t really have any ultimate conclusions regarding Ruins of the Empire, Part One. As I have said, I will have to wait for the other two parts to be released, so I will probably not have an ultimate verdict until sometime in spring of 2020. Still, while I don’t have high hopes for the political aspects of the story, I still hope DiMartino does right by Kuvira. After all, she’s the reason I’m here in the first place.

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1 Response to An Uncertain Start: The Legend of Korra: Ruins of the Empire, Part One

  1. Pingback: A Curdled Disappointment – The Legend of Korra: Ruins of the Empire, Parts Two and Three | The Futurist Dolmen

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