'The Legend of Korra' Is Introducing Younger Fans to Same-Sex Relationships
Michael Dante DiMartino and Irene Koh discuss adapting the series into a book, and why children of colour need queer representation.
When Nickelodeon's animated series The Legend Of Korra ended in 2014, it was with a bombshell that broke new ground. A vocal section of the Korra fan community wanted to see the titular heroine enter a romantic relationship with her best female friend, Asami, but there were no same-sex relationships in Korra (or its predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender)—so it was a shock when the final moments of Korra featured two women confessing their affection for each other.
And the story of Korra and Asami continues in The Legend Of Korra: Turf Wars, a new graphic novel series from Dark Horse Comics. Written by the show's co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino with art by Irene Koh and colourist Jane Bak, Turf Wars picks up immediately after the series finale to detail the early days of this romance. I recently spoke with DiMartino and Koh about the importance of Korra and Asami's courtship, how the graphic novel expands on the Avatar universe, and the challenges of jumping from television to comics.
VICE: Where are Korra and Asami in their relationship at the start of Turf Wars?
Michael Dante DiMartino: Moments after the end of the series, when they stepped hand-in-hand into the spirit portal. They're both experiencing the bliss and excitement we all feel in a new relationship with a special partner. Rather than jumping ahead in time like we did on the TV series, I thought it was important to spend some time with the two of them during their spirit world vacation to see the beginnings of their romantic relationship.
Irene Koh: We've established their romantic connection, and now they have to figure out how to maneuver the world from this new perspective and communicate with each other from a new place.
Why do you think it's important to spotlight a same-sex relationship in a property with a younger fanbase?
DiMartino: Bryan Konietzko and I have always seen the Avatar universe as very inclusive, so it made sense to finally have a same-sex relationship featured. I've been touched by the number of LGBTQ Korra fans who voiced their support for Korrasami. Through their eyes, I've come to understand how meaningful and important it can be to see a same-sex relationship depicted in popular media, especially for younger people.
Koh: It's such a strange time politically right now. I think it's easier in some ways and harder in others to be a queer person—especially a young one. There's so little mainstream content aimed at these marginalized audiences, and not only does having this book fulfill that need, but it feels like an act of pride—maybe even defiance—in the face of emboldened bigotry. I know I could've benefited from just knowing a book like this existed when I was younger—especially as a queer person of colour.
What does this new graphic novel add to the Avatar mythos?
DiMartino: It'll continue to expand on the universe and characters. We learn about the oldest triad in Republic City and how the different cultures treated LGBTQ men and women through history. We also see Korra face a new challenge as the Avatar, from a type of villain we haven't seen before. Plus, with the portal in the city now, everything's in flux—and there's a presidential election coming up, so President Raiko is trying to secure his seat of power.
Koh: The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars has a lot of neat little history and cultural information that wasn't touched on in previous Avatar narratives—how different regions treat queerness, the personal histories of supporting characters, and so on. That was exciting for the fan part of me to learn about, especially because many of them were in place before the comic. There's also the inevitability of my own sensibilities adding an extra flavour to the world—whether it's costuming, new characters, or a more overt diversification of Asian faces.
Michael, how does working in comics compare to TV when it comes to your approach to storytelling?
DiMartino: It's quite similar, just expressed differently. There were times when I definitely longed to see a character moving—or hear Bolin's voice, or how Jeremy Zuckerman might score a certain scene. Relying on still images and dialogue to convey the story was more challenging, but in some ways, it also felt very natural. My background is as a storyboard artist, and I'm used to visualizing a certain shot and drawing it. For the comic, I only needed to describe the image in my head on the page—although that can sometimes be harder to do than to sketch what I'm imagining!
Irene, how beholden are you to the style of the TV series in your artwork?
Koh: Thankfully, I was asked to draw the book in my own style. It would've been hard to live up to the show's visual standards, since it's just me doing all the drawings—though it's been immensely helpful to have co-creator Bryan Konietzko help red-line and art direct. Bryan and Mike have also given me a good amount of wiggle room to inject more than just my style—I've designed a few new characters, and I've shaped how the population appears. I've always considered my strength to be portraying intimacy, so getting to really let my character acting muscles flex when it comes to drawing interactions between Korra and Asami has been such a joy.
What excites you most about working in the Avatar universe?
I've been a fan of the franchise for so long! Working in this universe was my dream job, and working with Mike and Bryan made it even more amazing. I knew having their eyes on my work would level me up, and I can already see huge improvements between the first and second books. It's also a point of pride to be a queer woman of colour drawing queer women of colour. I feel like my voice is listened to by my wonderful team. It's—sadly—a somewhat rare occurrence, and I don't take it for granted.
Follow Oliver Sava on Twitter.