The Search Part 1 is the first installment in The Search trilogy, a graphic novel continuation of The Promise storyline, which was itself a follow-up to the plot of Avatar: The Last Airbender. It was originally released by Dark Horse Comics in collaboration with Nickelodeon on March 20, 2013. It was released with its counterparts in Avatar: The Last Airbender—The Search Library Edition HC on February 5, 2014.
Zuko's mother Ursa has been missing for years and Ozai is the only person who may know her whereabouts. Unable to extract the information from their father himself, Zuko releases Azula from the mental institution in the hopes that Ozai will entrust her with their mother's location. When Azula retrieves a letter hidden within one of Ozai's bunkers, Team Avatar agrees to travel with the royal siblings in order to help them find their mother. The content of the letter could be the key to Ursa's whereabouts, but it also holds a well kept secret that will give Zuko a whole new reason to find his long-lost mother.
Two individuals talk, their identity unknown; one implores the other to tell them "everything". The second person complies, announcing that, for the sake of the other, they will start the tale from the beginning.
In a flashback, a man stands atop a stage in the Fire Nation town of Hira'a, rehearsing his lines for a play. A woman startles him from behind, causing him to drop his mask. After some flirting between the couple, the woman, Ursa, announces with pride that she has been given the role of the Dragon Empress in the play; the man, Ikem, jumps to his feet, ecstatic that he will finally get to kiss her before all of Hira'a. In his excitement, he puts on his mask and pleads with Ursa to practice with him. After an awkward and masked stage kiss, Ikem proposes marriage to his girlfriend, revealing that he has been in love with her since he was six. He asks once more to show her he truly loves her, not just in the script, and she accepts.
In the Yu Dao of the present, Team Avatar sits among an assembly of other important people concerned about the stability of the city's government. Although Aang and Sokka chat quietly among themselves to divert from the "boring" lecture of an Earth Kingdom scholar, Katara scolds them both and the three begin to bicker. Zuko watches them from the sidelines, ignoring the professor.
Zuko snaps to attention upon hearing the scholar say the word "family" and asks him to repeat the sentence. Following a side comment about the Fire Lord's obstructive adolescence, he reiterates the thought to Zuko: "Family is in essence a small nation, and the nation a large family." Therefore, if a ruler has a proper handling on family, he may be more prepared to govern a nation. Zuko realizes the dysfunction of his own family – his father imprisoned, his sister kept in an institution, and his mother banished, missing for years – and tells Aang of his doubts over what this means for his own country.
Back in Hira'a of years past, Ursa bursts through the door of her house ecstatic over the proposal and anticipatory of telling her parents the news; however, her mother, Rina, is kneeling with a family heirloom headpiece on her lap and a tear in her eye. Ursa asks what is wrong and, after reminding her that she loves her, Rina tells her that her father Jinzuk is in the greenhouse with a visitor. She runs to the greenhouse to find her father with Fire Lord Azulon, who explains that combining the bloodlines of Avatar Roku and the Fire Lord's will strengthen his descendants, allowing them to rule the Fire Nation and the world, long after his death. Cutting to the chase, Azulon introduces his son Ozai, who has a proposal for her.
At Capital City Prison, Zuko stands outside of his father's cell with Suki and Ty Lee while chatting about the state of Yu Dao and Aang's plan to unite the four nations. Peeking through bars of the cell, Zuko watches Azula in her straitjacket staring at Ozai; their eyes are locked on each other, but the warriors assure Zuko that neither has said a word since they sat Azula in the cell with him. Despite Suki's disagreement, the Fire Lord enters the cell with tea for his family. Azula, unable to grab anything, bites on the tray and throws it into Zuko's chest, infuriated by how he, in her mind, expects her to lap it like an animal. Ty Lee chi blocks her against Zuko's advisement, causing Azula to rant wild-eyed at her former friend, accusing Ursa of having "gotten" to Ty Lee and made her lose her fear. Disregarding Azula's paranoia, Zuko explains that he thought the tea would add dignity; Azula persuades him to let her and their father to speak alone, with Zuko deciding that neither was any threat right now anyway. He confides to Suki that no matter how much he regrets it, they are the best chance of him finding his mother.
Ursa sits frowning in a carriage with the Fire Lord and his son, tuning out Azulon's small talk as they leave her hometown. Suddenly her fiancé, Ikem, yells from outside the carriage that he will not let Ursa, his love, be taken from him, holding theater prop swords as the only weapons he could find. Azulon orders his guards to "take care" of Ikem, but before the battle turns fatal, Ursa pleads with Ozai to make his father stop, calling Ozai her love with the idea that it might persuade him.
After Ozai stops the soldiers, Ursa runs out of the carriage and tells Ikem to go home. After Ikem says that if Ursa can tell him marrying the prince will make her happy, he will leave her. Glancing backward to see that the royalty are watching the conversation, she lies and says she is honored by her new engagement, ordering once more that he go home. As she rides away in the carriage, Ikem stays behind and wipes tears from his eyes.
Suki and Ty Lee accompany Zuko as he walks Azula in her wheelchair back to the institution, night having fallen over the city. After dismissing the warriors, Zuko questions Azula about the conversation she had with their father, to which she responds with sarcasm. Although Zuko begins to speak about moving her to the palace, Azula suddenly brings up how after being chi blocked, one feels limp – she tells him that after muscle control returns, for a few moments, one becomes more flexible than one ever could be before and pulls her arm from the straitjacket, generating lightning and blinding Zuko. Her brother shoots a burst of fire at her, but she uses it to her advantage and has it break the chains that bound her feet together; just as quickly, she jumps to the top of a building and escapes along the roof.
Outside of Hira'a, Ikem saunters sullenly through a jungle and begins to build a shelter for himself, becoming a hermit in his despair. In his days of forest-dwelling, he grows a beard and finishes a dilapidated house. As he sits next to a bonfire, Ikem turns around one night to spot a mysterious, glowing wolf drinking water from a pond.
Back in the Fire Nation Capital, Zuko pinpoints his sister's location and accesses a secret bunker that Azula entered moments earlier. He finds her rummaging through a chest of Ozai's possessions and mumbling to herself about how he had managed to break off Ursa's control and tell her the truth. She explains to Zuko that within the chest is a wealth of letters that their mother had written a few years prior. As Zuko approaches her in the hope of reading the one in her hand, she burns it to ashes, covertly sneaking the actual note behind her back and slipping it between her sash and her robe; Zuko, having been distracted by the letter going up in flames, does not see this and asks what is wrong with her, prompting her to suggest he take that question to "her", who would be happy to answer it. Gaining a clear mind once more, Azula admits through gritted teeth while squeezing the sides of her head that she wants to find Ursa too, and that she will tell him what was written in the note on one condition.
At her wedding reception, Ursa and Ozai look at her parents from afar. He tells her how lovely they are and promptly advises her to choose her last words to them well – as Fire Princess, she will have to abandon her former life and never mention Hira'a again. She must attend her duties as royalty now, since she now belongs to the Royal Family and to him.
In the present, Aang, Katara, and Sokka fly to the Fire Nation Royal Palace to meet Zuko, who has summoned them all together. Iroh greets them and alerts Zuko of their arrival. After learning some news about Toph, who was unable to attend in order to teach at her metalbending school, Zuko proceeds to explain that he has discovered the location of his mother's hometown and hopes that going there will heed answers for his search. However, since Azula was the one who coaxed the information out of Ozai, he agreed to let her travel with him unbound; before he could relay this information to the gang, however, they saw Azula lurking in the shadows and attacked. Aang admitted that he thought the plan was ludicrous, but he agreed for the group to go with him to Hira'a and help him find his mother.
The next day, as everyone is loading his or her luggage onto Appa, Azula insults the bison and the others by telling them to bring her things onto the "shaggy beast". Zuko assures everyone that such treatment will only be temporary, but until they find Ursa, someone will have to be watching his sister at all times. Sokka volunteers for first watch and, though Zuko would prefer the job were given to the benders, he wants to show her what he is made of and tells her to get onto Appa, waving his boomerang in her face. She zaps it out of his hand with lightning, putting Team Avatar on the offensive as Aang binds her feet with earthbending and Katara encases her hand in ice. Sokka backs out of the job, suggesting someone else take it instead. As they fly away, Iroh theorizes that for the past hundred years, the Fire Nation has had too many weapons and too little tea, declaring to Suki and Ty Lee that he will instate National Tea Appreciation Day.
On Appa, Sokka watches in disgust as his sister and Aang kiss in front of him. After Aang notes that instead of Toph, they have Azula for company, she questions them as to which one of them was first approached by her mother, believing that they had conspired against her with Ursa. Zuko manages to snap her from her lunatic rant before it gets out of hand, with Sokka sighing that he misses Toph.
Zuko mentions that he believes Hira'a is just up ahead, but proposes that after they land, they set up camp if they cannot enter the village before sunset. Meanwhile, Aang's face contorts to an angry-looking glare; he tells the group that he is not trying to make it, but that he feels the presence of a spirit with his face. Looking below, Aang spots a wolf spirit running along the path Appa is flying. While Sokka and Katara bicker, Zuko tells Aang that there is nothing down there despite his witness to the spirit and orders Azula, who has stood herself on the ledge of the saddle, to get down. She instead jumps down so she can get to Hira'a first, but Aang catches her with the aid of his glider. She swiftly burns a hole in glider and causes the two of them to crash. Zuko tells the others to check on Aang while he chases after his sister.
Azula jumps over a stream in her escape route, but before she can get any further, she hears her mother's voice speaking from the water and sees Ursa's reflection in the current, telling Azula that she is the one hurting herself. She once again ignores this part of her hallucination and asks Ursa how she managed to make everyone close to her turn on her and take her down. She tells her mother in triumph how Ozai broke free of her hold and led her to the letter that will allow her to take the throne, but she knows she cannot do this while Ursa is always working against her, vowing to end her mother's meddling for good.
Zuko interrupts Azula's confrontation with the Ursa hallucination, questioning from across the stream who she is speaking to. His sister responds that it does not concern him and that she no longer needs his help to find their mother. Katara forms ice that encases Azula's arms and torso, stopping the siblings from the impending battle. Zuko thinks there is something wrong with Aang upon noticing his countenance, but he tells Zuko that it is the wolf spirit's presence that incurs his expression. The spirit makes itself visible right after Aang says this, frightening the team and making Sokka believe they are finally respecting the power of his boomerang.
Back in the flashback, Ursa sits down at a desk and composes a letter that she hides in her robe. Afterward, she removes a family portrait from the wall of the room, looking at the masks she hid there and giving special attention to her past love's dragon mask. She covers the collection back up with the painting and answers the knock at her door to find a young Zuko afraid to go to sleep. After he explains his nightmare that featured Azula, Ursa tells him to hold onto the good dreams, not the bad ones, and tucks him in.
After she leaves her son's room, Ursa walks to another room of the palace and delivers the letter she wrote to Elua, who has delivered secret letters on Ursa's behalf in the past. Unbeknownst to the princess, however, Elua has not gotten them to Hira'a as requested, but instead has filed them for Ozai. After reading through this particular letter, Elua takes it directly to the prince, who is practicing his firebending. Upon skimming its contents, Ozai crumples the note in his hand, bewildered.
In the present again, Aang orders that his friends be respectful to the wolf spirit, who he believes has to have left the Spirit World for something important. Zuko and Katara slowly realize that the markings on the spirit's fur resemble the face Aang could not help expressing. At this he tries to reason with the spirit, recognizing what the spirit may have taken offensively and apologizing for the team, but this tactic does not work and he attacks again. Katara, Sokka, and Zuko attempt to defend themselves with their weapons, but Katara and Sokka's ice and boomerang are deflected and the spirit consumes Zuko's fire. Next comes Appa who, with Momo resting on his head, lunges at the spirit and gets the upper hand when he knocks the spirit off his legs, despite Aang telling Appa to go easy.
After regaining his footing, the wolf spirit turns the tables on Team Avatar by emitting a profuse number of moth wasps from his mouth, all of which fly immediately to the members of the group and begin to cover them from head to foot, making it hard for Katara to breathe and causing Sokka to lose sight of his arm. Due to Aang's badgering, they do not hurt the spirit animals, but Azula tells Zuko that if she is set free, she will take care of the moths, mentioning her regret for having run off and breaking their deal. Zuko unbinds her from the ice and she shoots a ray of lightning in the direction opposite the one they are traveling, causing the moth wasps to fly toward the light and the wolf spirit to run and catch up with his insects.
Night has fallen and everyone has gone to sleep but Azula, who is mumbling to herself about Ursa, Zuko, and Sokka, who worries about leaving Azula's hands unbound despite the trouble she caused throughout the day. Zuko calls attention to the way Azula saved them from the moth wasps, telling Sokka that he wants to give her a chance. The two begin to talk about Sokka's relationship with Katara, how he does not become angered by the snowballs Katara throws at him all the time. Although Sokka tells him that annoying her often enough makes things even, Zuko does not understand why he takes the worse side of the bargain. When it comes to his sister, Sokka confides, he does not mind the arrangement one bit.
Looking back at his own sister, Zuko asks Sokka for a blanket and takes it to Azula. As he lays it across her body, Zuko's eyes widen upon spotting the letter Azula has hidden from him all day. He reaches for it and reads the communication between his mother and a man named Ikem. In the letter, Ursa attests to her undying love for this man and for their son Zuko, into whose eyes she looks and thinks of him. Zuko singles out one particular phrase in the letter that his mother wrote: "our son".
- Main article: Transcript:The Search Part 1
- Main article: Writing in the World of Avatar
- It is revealed through Azulon that the marriage of Ursa and Ozai, descendant of the Avatar and son of the Fire Lord, was not a coincidence; the origins of Zuko and Azula's maternal bloodline was first made known by Iroh in "The Avatar and the Fire Lord".
- Before Rina directs her daughter to the greenhouse, she can be seen cradling Roku's Crown Prince headpiece, which once belonged to Roku and was before that in the possession of Sozin as revealed, once again, in "The Avatar and the Fire Lord".
- Aang mentions that his glider was a gift, an allusion to the day the mechanist gave it to him in "The Day of Black Sun, Part 1: The Invasion".
- The Blue Spirit mask that Zuko would later wear in "The Blue Spirit" can be seen in Ursa's palace chambers, together with the other theater masks from Love amongst the Dragons.
- Ursa was cast to play the Dragon Empress in Love amongst the Dragons, a play she would often go watch with her family as mentioned by Zuko in "The Ember Island Players".
- Ursa was previously engaged to a man named Ikem before her marriage to Ozai.
- On the first panel of page 40, the airbending emblem appears on Katara's necklace instead of waterbending's.
- In Ozai's secret chamber, there are artifacts from each of the four nations.
- The white mask in Ursa's secret compartment closely resembles an early development art of the Blue Spirit mask.
- Azulon took an interest in the flowers of magistrate Jinzuk's greenhouse. Notably, his great-grandfather let himself be portrayed standing amidst flowers and several leaves in his official portrait.
- His son Iroh also took interest in gardening, as seen in Ba Sing Se, where he was tending penjing, small trees, in his apartment.
- The targets in Ozai's training chamber are clothed in the armor of the Royal Earthbender Guards.
- This is the first comic set after the end of the Hundred Year War in which Toph does not appear, though she is mentioned several times.
- The wolf spirit somewhat resembles Moro, the wolf spirit in Princess Mononoke. The creators themselves have stated that they have drawn inspiration from that particular Miyazaki film several times.
- The lightning Azula produces to chase off the moth wasps and the wolf spirit resembles a ball lightning, an unexplained atmospheric electrical phenomenon.
Library Edition reveals
The Search Library Edition compiles all three parts of The Search trilogy as well as interjects trivia- and production-based notes in the sidebar of many pages. These notes were written by Gene Yang and the Gurihiru team, with further contributions by Michael Dante DiMartino; the series co-creator's additions are a notable distinction for this Library Edition, having not been included in The Promise Library Edition. The following are notable points from the Library Edition that pertain to The Search Part 1's early production phase and trivialities as attested by the aforementioned crew members.
- Michael DiMartino (author-perspective, storytelling trivia):
- With the knowledge that many fans of the franchise had been held in suspense over the fate of Zuko's mother and with Yang having agreed to write the graphic novels, DiMartino knew that the story following The Promise should detail Zuko's search (p. 7).
- Not everything had been decided about Ursa's backstory until DiMartino began his conversations with Yang, who, for example, came up with her romance with Ikem (p. 11).
- The story of Yu Dao featured in The Promise Part 1 "plants the seeds" of Republic City in the minds of Zuko and Aang (p. 12).
- The sequence of panels on pages 27 through 29 (29 through 31 in The Search Library Edition), in which Ikem begins to build a new life for himself in Forgetful Valley in heartbroken anguish, are entirely without dialogue in order to convey Ikem's powerful emotions (p. 29).
- The reason that Ozai forbids Ursa from contacting her parents or revealing her past to others is, writing-wise, because there had to be some explanation as to why her hometown and her heritage (her relation to Roku) were not widely known (p. 36).
- "By the time Gene was writing The Search, we were already deep into writing book 2 [sic] of Korra, during which time we had developed more rules and ideas for how the spirit world [sic] worked. Those ideas directly influenced the human-spirit interactions in the story." (p. 48)
- DiMartino notes that the story of The Search is not solely about Zuko's "external search for his mother, but also his internal search for who he really is." This fact is exemplified in the cliffhanger of Part 1, when Zuko's life and identity are suddenly not as clear as he once thought. He also enjoys how the final page of the story is drawn with the words in the backdrop, appreciating how it "might look odd in an animated version, but has such impact in a comic panel." (p. 78)
- Gene Yang (author-perspective, storytelling trivia):
- The writers designated Ursa's hometown as a remote town, the inspiration having been the typical early twentieth-century Hawaiian village. The Japanese had begun to settle in Hawaii around this time, and with the Fire Nation being heavily based on Japan, this cultural connection was worked into Hira'a's design. (p. 7)
- Azula's split personality in The Search was meant as a way to "preserve both the manipulative and lunatic halves of her personality." (p. 53)
- The Blue Spirit mask that Zuko wore in Book One: Water was taken from Ursa's collection of theater masks, implying that Zuko went looking for clues as to his mother's whereabouts by looking around the palace (p. 58).
- Yang mentions his meeting with Dee Bradley Baker at WonderCon 2013, when Baker allowed himself to be recorded making Appa sounds on pages 65–67 (67-69 in The Search Library Edition). He also mentions the video as having been posted on YouTube. (p. 67)
- Gurihiru (stylistic and artistic trivia):
- "The model for Hira'a was a small, old-fashioned village of Japanese immigrants; Gurihiru elaborates on Yang's commentary: "Contemporary photos are rare, so finding visual references was a challenge. We combined Japanese imagery with that of an old, tropical Hawaiian settlement." (p. 7).
- The masks worn in Love amongst the Dragons are inspired by those worn in Southeast Asia (p. 10).
- The professor's design was based on the traditional appearance of Confucius, as requested by Yang.
- Gurihiru illustrated Azula with two characteristic mindsets: calm and crazy. When she thinks about her mother, Azula takes on the crazy side in both action and appearance. "Her pupils constrict, shadows appear under her eyes, and, when she is at her worst, even her hairstyle becomes chaotic." (p. 27)
- Ursa's wedding dress takes cues from ancient Korean fashion adorned by the country's nobility (p. 35).
- The team found difficulty with drawing Aang's wolf spirit-influenced facial expression, wondering how differently it was allowed to look from the face on the wolf spirit's chest (p. 47).
- Their fear of moths literally caused fright in the members of Gurihiru when they had to draw the moth wasps. They admit that this reigned true even though the moth wasps are not exactly moths. (p. 70)
- The team's favorite scene of Part 1 is the one on pages 72–74 (74-76 in The Search Library Edition). "Through our art," they elucidate, "we were able to express how Sokka and Zuko feel about their little sisters." (p. 75)