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Most western animation for children is, to put it simply, really wretched. At best, it's tolerable.

But a shining exception would be the tale of the Avatar of all four elements, and to restore the balance in the world. The first two volumes of "Avatar The Last Airbender " serve as a solid start to the series -- they smoothly introduce the characters and sets up some nice story arcs, without skimping on development of either.

South Pole Water Tribe siblings Katara and Sokka stumble across a glowing iceberg with a young Airbender boy named Aang (and his flying bison) inside. All Airbenders were killed long ago. You guessed it (and so does Katara): Aang is the Avatar who mysteriously vanished a century ago, even though he has yet to master Earth, Water and Fire. And, uh, he's a total goofball.

Unfortunately, a Fire Nation prince named Zuko has been wandering the world in search of Aang, and agrees to let the Water Tribe alone if Aang surrenders. Of course, Katara and Sokka set out to rescue their friend, and since Katara isn't experienced enough in waterbending to teach Aang, they set out for the North Pole to find a waterbending master.

But their journey has plenty of dangers, and not just because Zuko is still doggedly chasing them -- there's the crazy king of Omashu, the Kyoshi warriors,a visit to Aang's home temple (now in ruins), and a town whose Earthbenders have all been imprisoned by the Fire Nation. And when a spirit beast attacks a small village, Aang tries to help them... and learns that on the day of the winter solstice, he must be in a temple deep in Fire Nation territory...

The highest compliment I can pay "Avatar: The Last Airbender" is that it's like a thoroughly solid action/fantasy anime. While it starts on a slightly cartoonish note (lots of Aang goofing around), it soon becomes obvious that this is not a simple kid's show -- it's got good writing, excellent animation, and a general look drawn from Asian and Inuit cultures.

There's plenty of action and explosive fire-battles (particularly Zuko's brilliant battle with the sneering Admiral Zhao), but the writers never quite forget to include some comedy ("Take them to the refurbished chamber that was once bad!"). And despite being a kids' show, there's some surprisingly grim material in here -- consider the deserted Air Temple (populated only by skeletons and relics) or a barbaric prison for Earthbenders.

And they do a good job with the characters -- Aang soon proves himself a kind and selfless kid, but still a kid. And we get to see some of his inner turmoil when he revisits his old home to find it a snowed-in, abandoned ruin, and his old master Monk Gyatso gone.

Katara and Sokka round out the cast, and are the required bickering siblings -- Katara is short-fused but sensible, and Sokka is rather swelled-headed although it's soon clear that he's courageous and means well. And though he's the antagonist, scarred teenager Zuko is excellent -- his quest obviously has deeper motives behind it, and he clearly isn't a bad person. On the flipside, we have the callous, sneering Admiral Zhao, who is happy to use dirty tactics to win over Zuko.

"Avatar: The Last Airbender's" first two volumes are a fairly smooth introduction to a solid action/fantasy series. A bit wobbly at first, but it quickly picks up steam and becomes a charmer.
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