What Suki, Alone Actually Says About Being Alone, by Ethan K. Poole
Spoiler Warning for Avatar: The Last Airbender and its spin-off Suki, Alone.
Most people who finish the beloved animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender (ALTA) are left wanting more, and who could blame them? From exciting fights between people who can control, or bend, the classical elements to profound themes like colonialism and genocide, ATLA captured the imaginations of a lot of people.
Luckily, from the sequel series The Legend of Korra to the Kyoshi duology of novels, any fan of the series has a lot to explore. Those are undoubtedly great, but if you’re looking for more stories from the original cast of ATLA there is only one place to look: comics. There are a variety of comics telling the continuing stories of Avatar Aang and his friends, the most recent of which being the 2021 book Suki, Alone.
There are two simultaneous storylines in this graphic novel: the present day, which focuses on what it means to be isolated as an individual, and the flashbacks of Suki, which focus on what it means to be isolated as a community. The two stories work in tandem, each leaning into and deepening the other.
The present story of Suki, Alone is set between the episodes “Appa’s Lost Days” and “The Boiling Rock.” Suki is the leader of the Kyoshi Warriors, a group of women dedicated to honoring the legacy of Avatar Kyoshi, a beloved Earth Kingdom leader. The novel begins shortly after the Kyoshi Warriors were defeated by Azula, the princess of the militaristic Fire Nation. Separated from her fellow warriors, Suki is banished to the worst, most inescapable prison in the Fire Nation: The Boiling Rock.
There, she makes friends with a self-obsessed prisoner named Biyu. They plant a secret garden together, and Suki convinces Biyu to share the food with the other prisoners to create a sense of community.Her plan works a bit too well though, as the prisoners’ new-found energy and willpower lead to a riot. Suki fights alongside them, but eventually the riot is broken up and the perpetrators, including Suki, are placed in solitary confinement.
While in solitary, Suki learns that Biyu betrayed her by revealing the whereabouts of their garden to the guards. At first she doesn’t believe it, but after confronting Biyu she screams at her and calls her a traitor to her fellow prisoners. Biyu responds that she owes them no loyalty and Suki lashes out and threatens the traitor, but Biyu begs for forgiveness and mercy and Suki can’t bring herself to seriously hurt her one time friend, and flees the scene.
Biyu represents a threat any potential community has to face: that people are only going to look out for themselves and refuse to come together. Many good ideas can and have been torn apart by people like that.
Back in her cell, Suki weeps, believing that she is all alone. The spirit of Avatar Kyoshi comes to visit her, and reassures her that her friends still love her and have not abandoned her. The scene then cuts to two characters from the show, Sokka and Zuko, who will eventually rescue her.
The story on the Boiling Rock is about what it means for a single person to be forcibly isolated from those around them. Suki, despite her effort to make friends and build a community, ends up feeling wholly alone in her cell, like the rest of the world has forgotten about her. She comes to realize that some people simply don’t have other people's best interests at heart, even if you try to help them. However, the connections she’d made in her life hadn’t severed, the love Sokka and her sisters had for her still fought to reach her. You’re never as alone as you feel, and if you’re lucky, your friends (or the spirit of a savior of the world) will remind you of that.
The flashback story is a little bit different. Suki had always dreamed of becoming a Kyoshi Warrior, all her friends did, and they had taken to calling each other “sisters”. One of Suki’s friends was a little girl named Mingxia, and those two especially were thick as thieves, always managing to get into trouble together and forming a deep bond.
Kyoshi Island was faced with a famine that threatened to cost many people their lives. Mingxia argued that they should open their borders and trade with their neighboring villages, but Suki argues in favor of remaining isolated. Suki comes up with a clever plan to stave off hunger for her community, she collects the same type of plant that she would later grow in prison, and with this new food source her village manages to scrape by.
Mingxia still believes in opening their borders, and goes to petition her village leaders about it. Mingxia’s proposal is rejected by the village elders, and she decides to leave the Kyoshi Warriors and travel the world on her own. She and Suki are still sisters, though, and they affirm that no matter how far Mingxia’s journey takes her, nothing could ever change that.
The tension between open and closed borders is obviously an important topic to touch on, and has been very prevalent throughout political history, obviously here in America but also in many other countries including Japan, which might have more directly inspired this story due to ATLA’s general use of Asian culture and history to inform its world.
Years later, after an attack on their island by the Fire Nation (“The Kyoshi Warriors”) Suki has a new appreciation for what the war really means for the people of the Earth Kingdom, and she feels an obligation to help others. Like Mingxia before her, she leaves to help the world around her. Unlike her sister though, Suki left with a team of other warriors.
As they are helping the people of the Earth Kingdom, Suki and her other sisters begin working at Full Moon Bay to offer their protection to refugees from the war fleeing to the largest city in the Earth Kingdom: Ba Sing Se. Among those refugees, Suki spots the familiar face of Mingxia.
The sisters hug each other and Suki meets all of Mingxia’s friends. This sweet reunion with her sister makes her more sure than ever that she made the right choice in leaving her village. Not long after, she fights with and is captured by Azula, and the prison story begins.
The story told through Suki’s flashbacks is largely about the shortsightedness of a community isolating itself from the world around it. Suki’s village could have died without the support of others, surviving largely on luck. Additionally, isolating also means denying help to others who might need it, which Suki eventually decides that she can’t abide by. Suki (and Mingxia before her) were right to try to reach out to the world around them. Avatar Kyoshi didn’t want them to stay separate from the rest of the world forever.
Avatar is a franchise with a lot of hype built up around it, and I’d say Suki, Alone managed to live up to that, far more than you might expect from a comic book released over a decade after the end of the original series.
Isolation, in both the personal and political sense, is impactful in a lot of people’s lives. This book does a lot to speak to that and unpack it in a way children might be able to understand, something ATLA has always excelled in.
Suki, Alone serves as a parable of the type of collaboration and community that I hope we can all get behind; how the world would be a better place if people were willing to look beyond borders and how, even trapped in a cage surrounded by a boiling sea, none of us will ever truly be alone.