For Artist Irene Koh, Legend of Korra OGN Is A Very Personal Project


When The Legend of Korra ended its run in 2014, it ended with a moment fans had been hoping to see for years, as Korra and Asami were finally confirmed as being a romantic couple. The story ended before we had the chance to see the characters act further on their relationship, with the series ending as the pair headed to The Spirit World, hand in hand. This June, however, original series creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko will be returning to the world of the show -- and, yes, to "Korrasami" -- as they join forces with artist Irene Koh for the first of three new graphic novels at Dark Horse called "Turf Wars." DiMartino will write the stories, with Konietzko overseeing the artistic process.

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For Koh, this was a dream assignment - as a self-described 'bisexual Asian martial artist', there's a lot about the show which represented her and the stories she most enjoyed following. And now she has a chance to inject some of her own style into The Legend of Korra, along with a wholly new threat to Republic City, CBR spoke with the artist about what she wanted to bring to these new stories, why the original series hit so hard for her, and how working on this canonical new series of stories helped her to develop as a storyteller herself.

CBR: You were already a fan of The Legend of Korra, and it’s easy to find fan art you drew of the characters from before this new graphic novel was announced. How did you go from being a fan to being brought on as artist for this new story?

Irene Koh: Draw the things you want to be hired for, right? I feel like tons of artists these days are scouted through Tumblr or Twitter and various social media, and what other way to best demonstrate you can draw the material than, well, drawing the material? I remember joking online quite often years back about how I'd be perfect for the job (bisexual Asian martial artist and Avatar fan), and I'm sure people noticed the sheer volume of my Korra fanart.

A friend of mine was actually offered the work first, but she recommended me to Dark Horse instead, having remembered my love of the show. My now-editor Dave Marshall contacted me, I did a few test pages, and Korra co-creators Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko made the final call.

As a fan, did you come onboard with specific ideas about how you wanted to draw certain characters, or locales - what did you want to bring to the world of the series?

I definitely wanted to broaden the Asian diversity. Up until now, the world of ATLA and Korra have been predominantly Chinese and Japanese in culture (and Inuit, for the Water Tribes). I was given the opportunity to design a few of the new main characters, one of whom is Bangladeshi, and another who is Korean. As well, there is definitely a stronger presence of South Asians -- Filipinos, Indonesians, Malaysians, Indians, etc. And since my drawings are stylistically more figurative than the show's style, I try to define more definitive Asian facial features.

What’s it been like to work off one of Michael Dante DiMartino’s scripts? Has it changed the way you view the characters at all, or the themes of the series?

Mike's scripts are some of the best I've worked with. Super clear direction, but he leaves enough room for me to inject my own flavor into it. There's a lot of backstory that comes through, particularly in regards to how the Avatar world views sexuality, which has been exciting to learn about - especially when it comes to finding out that some of the characters had been decidedly queer since they were first conceived!

You’re working in collaboration with Bryan Konietzko, who is overseeing the artistic style of the series. What’s that process been like for you?

I've leveled up immensely just from Bryan's feedback. While Mike's feedback tends to focus more on whether or not I'm expressing his script properly, Bryan's notes are far more technical. This has really been the job that pushes me past my comfort zone, and while it was a little overwhelming at first, I'm incredibly grateful for it. I really needed an ass-kicking.

Was it difficult to match your artistic style to the style of the show?

One of the first questions I asked my editor when I was approached for the job was, "Do I have to draw this in the style of the animation?" I would've turned it down if the answer had been yes, but thankfully I was told to draw it in my own style. I imagine it's both fun but also slightly unnerving for Mike and Bryan (and Nickelodeon, even) to see their baby in the visual hands of someone else, so I've been deeply appreciative of their flexibility in that regard.

The new storyline, "Turf Wars" is going to be told across three graphic novels. What can readers expect from the new story?

Three 72-page graphic novels in full color set against the backdrop of political turmoil, the revival of the Triple Threat Triad with a mysterious new head, and with a particular focus on developing Korra and Asami's romantic relationship. Mike mentioned in his Reddit AMA that things will stay on the lighter side plot-wise, but thematically, there will be a lot to chew on.

With Korra and Asami’s relationship confirmed by the finale of the show, how does that relationship change the world of Korra as a whole? Does it change the way you view them as characters?

As mentioned earlier, their coming out as a couple opens up the conversation of how LGBT folks are viewed in that world (it varies per culture, just like reality). The only change in perspective it inspires is joy, really. I know certain institutions make it difficult to explore queerness in kids' entertainment, so I'm honored to be able to spearhead it for an IP like Korra via the comics.

It also gives you a chance to explore them as people through their body language and the way they react off one another. Was that something you were keen to explore in the book, and help define them as queer women?

The defining characteristic of my personal work is intimacy in all its forms and expressions, so applying that to Korra was and continues to be a thrill. The way Korra and Asami look at each other; the way other queer characters look at them with gentle understanding; the little touches, the awkwardness and the relief... drawing that stuff is my bread and butter. Mike's writing allows me to play around with body language quite a bit, so I definitely go ham where I can.

Their relationship is central to "Turf Wars," but that’s not all that’s going on. What kind of a threat are they facing in this story? You’ve said that this is perhaps quite a political story, and one which fits well in the current political landscape seen round the world today?

Part One focuses on Korra and Asami trying to maneuver coming out to their friends and family in the midst of Republic City trying to adjust to the creation of a new spirit portal. There are new villains who would seek to take advantage of it, President Raiko's troublesome involvement in spirit world matters, the ire of citizens who've been displaced by its creation, and the vengefulness of one particular character aimed towards Korra herself. In terms of how it relates topically, I think there will always be corrupt capitalist villains to mirror, but more than ever, we need positive queer representation in media to combat the ignorance we see becoming more and more emboldened these days.

Ultimately, what do you feel it is which that made The Legend of Korra so enduring as a world, and as a story? What is it that you most like about the series, and what are you most excited about bringing to life on the page?

Gosh, there are a lot of things I could touch on, but one of the key things I discussed with Gene Yang (writer of the Avatar The Last Airbender comics) on a panel was the power of nuanced perspectives in the Avatar universe, and having those seen through a decidedly Asian lens. That empathy can be achieved through understanding we all have the same kinds of insecurities, doubts, troubles, anger, joys and comforts — that is a powerful thing to teach people, especially kids.

Even if it's not perfect, even though we all still have a long way to go in terms of representation and equal opportunities for creators of color, stories like Avatar and Korra teach us all that brown characters and diverse media can be and is successful.

The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Vol. 1 arrives from Dark Horse on July 26th.

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