While it’s widely agreed that Avatar: The Last Airbender had probably one of the best finales in animation history, the show only having had three seasons necessitated some plotlines going unresolved or dropped. Most notably, the biggest question fans were left wondering for years was: what happened to Fire Prince Zuko’s mom, Ursa?
Well, in 2013, Dark Horse Comics, legendary writer Gene Luen Yang (New Super-Man, American Born Chinese, Superman Smashes the Klan), co-plotters and ATLA co-creators, Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino, and the brilliant art duo Gurihiru (The Unbelievable Gwenpool) answered that question with the graphic novel The Search. And the answer was definitely not what fans expected.
The Search opens with the reveal that Azula, who had been placed in a Fire Nation mental institution, had been moved to a prison cell next to Ozai. Zuko hoped that, by placing his father and sister next to each other, they could repair their relationship.
That backfired (no pun intended) when Azula breaks out and escapes to one of Ozai’s secret palace chambers containing a chest of letters from Ursa. Burning them, she offers to tell Zuko what they said if he let her accompany him on his journey to find their mother. Zuko agrees, enlisting the Aang Gang’s help to keep her in line.
Azula reveals the letters came from the Fire Nation village of Hira’a, Ursa’s home, and the group sets off. However, on the way, Azula hallucinates an image of Ursa and, claiming she had evidence from Ozai that’d let her overthrow Zuko, is restrained by Katara. Later, Zuko discovers her evidence was a letter from Ursa claiming that Ozai was not, in fact, Zuko’s father.
The letter was addressed to an Ikem (who Ursa claimed was Zuko’s real dad). A series of flashbacks — interspersed throughout the graphic novel — reveal that Ikem was Ursa’s true love. He proposed to her when they were younger but she was forced to wed Ozai instead. Ikem attempted to stop it but Ursa lied about willingly marrying Ozai to prevent Ikem’s death; Ozai later prevented Ursa from contacting Ikem or anyone from her old life.
Years later, Ursa learned that — incensed at Ozai asking to inherit the throne following the death of his nephew Lu Ten — Fire Lord Azulon had ordered Zuko’s death in retaliation. Seeing Ozai agree to this and wanting to save Zuko, Ursa offered Ozai an untraceable poison that’d let him kill Azulon. Ozai agreed but on the conditions that she leaves and never returns, while leaving their children behind as collateral.
Back in the present in Hira’a, the party encounters Noren and Noriko, who tell them that a heartbroken Ikem had gone into the Forgetful Valley — a place where one went to completely forget their past — and that Ursa had done the same years later; no one, the group learn, had ever returned from the valley.
Encountering a pair of Water Tribe siblings, Misu and the disfigured Rafa, along the way, the group also encounters a spirit known as the Mother of Faces, who agrees to grant one request. Intending to ask that Rafa be healed, the group is instead thwarted by Azula demanding to know where Ursa is.
The Mother of Faces reveals that Ursa had — persuaded to do so by Noren who was really Ikem (who’d asked for a new face as he couldn’t hear both his grief and the notoriety he’d received) — received a new identity from the spirit: Noriko.
Intending to kill her mother once and for all, Azula storms off. But Zuko and Sokka get there before her. However, Noriko/Ursa doesn’t remember Zuko at all, with Ikem/Noren revealing that she’d consented to have the Mother of Faces remove her memories as they were simply too painful to live with when she had no way of freeing her children.
Azula then arrives, battling Sokka and claiming in her delirium that her mother had always tried to sabotage her. Noriko/Ursa apologize, saying that she must not have loved Azula enough if she’d turned out as she did. Zuko reveals that he’d accepted his destiny as Fire Lord and that he still loved Azula even after all she’d put him through. Aghast that someone actually cares for her, Azula flees (her whereabouts revealed in a later book).
Aang and Katara then show up with the Mother of Faces — who’d agreed to help — who restores Ursa’s memories as well as her original face. She apologizes for abandoning him, reveals that he is Ozai’s son, and tells Zuko everything.
Originally pitched as a 90-minute movie to Nickelodeon (who passed in favor of The Legend of Korra, Book 2), The Search is yet another example of how the ATLA OGNs provide a thoughtful bridge that fleshes out the beloved Aang Gang beyond what TV could do.
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One of The Last Airbender's biggest mysteries — the whereabouts of Zuko's mom — was resolved in a spinoff comic, The Search.