Avatar: The High Ground- “The Pre-Sequel”

James Cameron’s unused script comes to life in this exciting prequel to Avatar: The Way of Water.

Avatar: The High Ground is unlike any other Avatar comic, or really any other comic written for a big franchise. Oftentimes, comics (alongside novels and video games) serve as tie-in material for big properties, and have to be smaller and less consequential so that they don’t contradict any of the worldbuilding that the architects of bigger, higher profile projects might have planned. Even then, there’s the possibility that these “lower-tier” stories are going to be ignored by the canon of “higher-tier” stories, like when Star Wars: The Bad Batch rewrote Caleb Dume/Kanan Jarrus’ experience of Order 66 first depicted in the Kanan comic. All of this is to say tie-in comics for big properties usually have to limit their scale, and even then, it’s dubious if future stories will even acknowledge them.

But Avatar: The High Ground is allowed to go absolutely apeshit, because it’s written by James motherfucking Cameron himself. The three issue series is Sherri L. Smith’s adaptation of a Cameron-penned screenplay that was presumably supposed to be the second Avatar film at some point. There’s no way to fully tell how different the original script was from this adaptation, but this collected Library Edition of The High Ground contains a few pages of Cameron’s draft, and the differences are fairly minimal, when compared to the comic. For example, the script has Lo’ak shout, “We’re Oscar Mike!” while in the comic he yells, “We’re Oscar Mike! On the move!” to clarify things for anyone who isn’t familiar with the NATO phonetic alphabet.

I imagine that basically all of the bits where the comic differs from the script are superficial things like that because The High Ground feels like a James Cameron film, from its dialogue to its pacing. The finale is a string of action setpieces where the characters have little to no time to recover between one death-defying incident and another. It’s like how Terminator 2: Judgment Day goes from the showdown at Cyberdyne Systems to the chase across Los Angeles to the final confrontation in the steel mill. Cameron is a master at bringing non-stop high-octane thrills, and after the first half of the story has completed establishing the characters and building the world, Cameron presses his foot to the gas pedal and doesn’t stop until the final page. You know that all of these characters are going to emerge okay, but the way that the danger never lets up keeps you anxiously invested.

This comic is sort of a prequel to Avatar: The Way of Water, and by “sort of”, I mean that the beginning of The Way of Water follows the Sully family across fifteen years, and The High Ground takes place at a specific point near the end of that time frame. The comic even includes a specific scene that appears early on in The Way of Water; Jake and Neyteri’s “date night”, where they first notice the RDA ships returning while stargazing.

The High Ground gives us a lot more about the kids, who are united in how they don’t really fit in. Neteyam is extremely capable but so willing to prove himself that he fails to follow his father’s orders. Lo’ak is behind on certain Na’vi rights of passage (like taming an ikran,) and he’s insecure about being in his brother’s shadow. Little Tuk is…mostly just there. Kiri has a bizarrely strong connection to nature due to somehow being immaculately conceived in Dr. Grace Augustine’s avatar. Finally, Miles “Spider” Soccoro is a human whose very existence reminds the adults of humanity’s oppression of the Na’vi. While the Sully kids (especially Kiri) seem to embrace Spider as if he were their brother, Jake only reluctantly accepts him (probably because he relates to once being a stranger among the Na’vi) while Neytiri basically hates him from the start. In short, all the character dynamics that are in The Way of Water are present in The High Ground, but it’s nice to see more of those dynamics as the kids get into shenanigans and life-threatening situations.

Avatar: The High Ground

Speaking of expanding on things, this comic gives a little more insight into aspects of Na’vi culture that the films don’t. I’ve always thought that Jake looked a little odd continuing to use his rifle after fully joining the Na’vi because, in this universe, guns are a distinctly human thing. Avatar: The High Ground actually addresses this by saying that Eywa forbids metal weapons and other forms of technology. Jake has to perform a cleansing ceremony every time he prepares to use his weapon of choice because otherwise, the “poison” of such an unnatural thing will seep into his heart. It’s a fascinating concept, but part of the process involves enduring pain, and that leads to an unintentionally funny panel where Jake hauls himself off the ground by pulling ropes slung over a tree branch and attached to his pierced nipples. It absolutely looks like a sex thing, and the way Jake’s eyes roll back while he’s doing it really doesn’t help.

The ritual and the Na’vi’s relationship to human technology also comes into play when the Navi must don vac suits to enter the “Black World” and fight the RDA. What is the Black World? It’s a place where Eywa is absent because there’s no life out there. It’s where the Sky People descended from. It’s the titular “high ground” in the war for Pandora: outer space.

Jake and the Na’vi try to end the humans’ return to Pandora before it can begin by putting on spacesuits and performing a stealth assault on the RDA ships using their bows and arrows. It’s a really badass concept that would’ve been nice to have seen on the big screen, but it’s understandable why Cameron made The Way of Water the sequel to the original Avatar over The High Ground: outside of the comic’s two space scenes, a lot of The High Ground looks like the first movie. Honestly, spending more time in the jungles of Pandora wouldn’t necessarily be a bad thing for the films to do (especially with the Hellhound robot dog chase scene The High Ground includes), but it also wouldn’t be as visually interesting as the exploration of Pandora’s seas that we got.

Avatar: The High Ground

On the topic of the way things look, I guess I should address Avatar: The High Ground’s art. This comic has six artists across its three issues: Guilherme Balbi, Diego Galindo, Gabriel Guzmán, George Quadros, Agustin Padilla, and Miguel Ángel Ruiz. On top of that, there are three colorists: Wes Dzioba, Michael Atiyeh, and DC Alonso. The colors are the only part of this comic besides the writing that feels consistently good. Pandora is just as vibrant as it is in the movies, though the art itself is all over the place. There are great images throughout the book, though there are also a lot of scenes where the action is very difficult to follow. Ruiz is easily the best artist in the book, as his work is reliably clean, and comprehensible, and just generally pretty to look at. He’s really great at capturing the fluid movements of the Na’vi in still images.

Unfortunately, Ruiz only gets to draw the tail end of the book. Balbi is able to do some pretty great art here and there (he previously drew the covers for the Avatar: The Next Shadow comic), but the quality of his work isn’t consistent. Occasionally, Balbi makes some very wonky facial expressions, especially when characters are upset. Also, sometimes his backgrounds are very nebulous, and their lack of definition clashes with the figures and makes it difficult to tell where things are happening.

However, the way that Balbi draws the Na’vi’s space training sequence is miles beyond how Quadros draws the actual space battle. The whole fight in and around the RDA spaceships at the story’s climax is… immensely frustrating because the action sequences are very difficult to follow. Quadros’ art is often stiff and cluttered in a way where you have to rely on dialogue and sound effects to tell what’s happening. Sometimes, you flat-out can’t understand what’s going on. There’s a part where Jake fights a soldier in zero gravity, and inexplicably, floating drops of fluid appear. You would think that there would be a panel showing a tank or pipe getting ruptured, maybe with a label to tell you what the liquid is, but there’s no explanation. It just appears. You can tell that this entire sequence in space was supposed to be the impressive-looking climax, but the whole thing is visually fumbled in the most astonishing ways.

Michael Heisler seems to be having a lot of fun with this comic’s lettering. As I said, the sound effects that he does sometimes have to do the heavy lifting in conveying what’s happening, but sometimes… they’re just fun. When the Hellhound drones use their chemosensors to track the scent of the kids, they do so with a “SNIFF SNIFF” that’s spelled out in metallic letters. The robot dogs make a distinct dog noise, but in a robotic way, and it’s so goddamn delightful.

Despite some big missteps with the art, Avatar: The High Ground is definitely still a fascinating look at “the Avatar sequel that could have been”, let alone a fun and exciting adventure on its own. I would recommend it a lot more easily than Avatar: Adapt or Die, simply because this feels much more fulfilling and consequential. It wasn’t written for the sake of promoting something else: it’s a story crafted by Cameron himself with a beginning, middle, and end, and I think it has a much broader appeal than something like Adapt or Die. Yes, the art really holds it back in some places, but I think the characters and moments in The High Ground make it worth seeking out.

By Quinn Hesters

Quinn is a vat-grown living advertisement created by the LEGO Company to promote their products. When he's not being the flesh-and-blood equivalent of a billboard, he's raving about the X-Men on Twitter.

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