With a multitude of new Avatar projects on the horizon, fans are excited to finally see their questions answered on every lingering plot thread from both of Nickelodeon’s oft-celebrated fantasy martial arts series. Yet there’s one Avatar question above all else that’s been staring fans in the face for far too long: Seriously, what happened to Prince Zuko’s mom? Well, with the help of writer Gene Luen Yang, artist Gurihiru, and letterer Michael Heisler, we actually have an answer in Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search. It’s a complicated tale, one that I certainly hope will be properly adapted and animated, but we’re gonna dive into it today.
Fate had a wicked sense of humor with Ursa, a beautiful yet humble daughter born to a magistrate in a small town. Mere hours after accepting the engagement of her actor boyfriend Ikem during theater rehearsal, she’s informed she’ll be wed to the heir to the throne, Ozai. What’s particularly remarkable about Ozai is how Gurihiru depicts the young man.
He’s in his 20s, yet his youth somehow enhances his villainous air. Even alongside his father Azulon, the difference in their expressions and body language is evident. Azulon, for all his own unsettling arrogance, is softer and kinder, if only by a small margin. Ozai legitimately can’t seem to figure out how to smile at someone without betraying his inherent sociopathy. I don’t use that term lightly — the comic spells out that Ozai just doesn’t understand how other people work, and his lack of empathy becomes a twisted asset.
Ursa is a descendant of the late Avatar Roku, and she’s used as another asset in Ozai’s favor. They expect her children to be great and powerful firebenders. This obviously pans out, as both of Ursa’s children, Azula and Zuko, become extremely powerful firebenders who can even wield lightning with precision.
After she’s being literally carted away, Ikem tries to save his beloved, only to be put in harm’s way. Ursa all but outright barters to love Ozai if he spares Ikem, establishing a precedent for their relationship going forward. This confuses Ozai at first, but he plays ball, while Ikem is left in the dust. Ursa goes off to become the bride of Ozai, learning she’ll have to cut ties with everything per Ozai’s prerogative of absolute control. She can’t even mention her hometown again. Meanwhile, Ikem goes off into a forbidden forest, desperate to be forgotten.
However, neither can let go of the past. Despite Ozai’s interference, Ursa keeps trying to reach home. Suspecting Ozai’s intercepting the letters, Ursa lies that Zuko isn’t Ozai’s son at all. As fans will recall, Ursa vanished on Zuko one night, by Ozai’s command. Yet as with all things relating to Zuko’s mom, it’s never that simple. Ozai first calls for the death of Ikem, unaware Ikem has since reforged his identity. Then Ozai brings the letter before Azulon, regardless of the fact he doubts it to be true, ensuring his father calls for Zuko’s demise. It offers a perfect moment for Ozai to manipulate Ursa into poisoning Azulon, granting him the throne.
Unfortunately for Ursa, Ozai twists the blade back on her and her children, promising to always hate Zuko as if he were her bastard son, and barring her from their lives from that night forth. Notably, where other Avatar comics serve as connective tissue between The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, The Search was originally planned as a made-for-TV movie continuation of the original show. It’s clearly written with the original series in mind, serving as a standalone epilogue. The moments here directly build off of what we knew from the main show, layering context and tragedy onto the lives of Zuko, Azula, and Ursa.
So what happens after all of that, to Zuko’s mom and the rest? No one but Ikem knows, for the longest time. Ursa’s parents die of old age, having never met their grandchildren. Yet under his new identity as Noren, Ikem finds Ursa and reveals his true self to her. Between the aid of some spirits and Ikem’s disguise, an assassin sent by Ozai fails to kill Ikem, though Ozai lies and says otherwise to Ursa. There’s a bit more to it though, which is really worth reading The Search for instead of spoiling here.
I seriously can’t over-emphasize how tightly constructed this mini-series is. The Avatar comics in general are brilliantly done, but this is more than a well-written bridge to satisfy the curious. Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search is, in my opinion, the true conclusion to the original Airbender storyline. In parallel to the journey of Zuko’s mom, we get a closer examination of Zuko and Azula’s relationship after the events of Sozin’s Comet and Azula’s defeat. The two aren’t the same people anymore, yet their antagonistic sibling chemistry is fascinating. Sibling rivalries and compassion come to the fore of the story, as well as distant parental figures. It’s the show’s storytelling firing on all cylinders in comic book form.
The only weak aspect of the comic is that Aang has nothing to do here. There’s a gimmick about him making ridiculous faces due to powerful spiritual energies in the forest. Other than the odd nod to his and Katara’s strengthening romance, he’s mostly a fifth wheel in a story in his own franchise. His presence isn’t bad in itself; it’s just clear he’s really only here for a few key scenes to serve as a sounding board for Zuko, who fully assumes the protagonist role for the series.
Overall though, as expanded fiction goes, Avatar: The Last Airbender – The Search is what others should aspire to. It adds without diluting, works within the greater narrative, and fully understands the series it’s a part of. The panel work and action scenes are depicted with marvelous fluidity. The comic’s biggest credit though is finally letting the complexity simmering beneath Azula for three seasons of television burst onto the page. She’s a madwoman, raised by Ozai to be a cruel monster, but there’s more of Ursa in her than she wants to admit. It has opened a fascinating new door to her character arc in the comics that continues to develop.
While you’re best off starting from the beginning of Dark Horse’s Avatar comics, The Search is an excellent jumping-on point for fans of the series who might’ve been hesitant to dig into the comics. It’ll either leave you content with the story’s resolution or eager for more. Either way, you win! And you’ll know what happened to Zuko’s mom.