Tuesday, July 25, 2017

"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 color 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 - affectionately known as Korrasami by fans - 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 colorist Vivian Ng, Turf Wars picks up immediately after the series finale to detail the early days of this romance. VICE 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.


Preview page from The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars. Courtesy of Dark Horse Comics

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 color.

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 flavor 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 color drawing queer women of color. 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.

The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part One will be released on Wednesday 26th July 2017. The follow-up, The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part Two, is scheduled to be released Wednesday 31st January 2018!

Also, from AiPT!:

‘Legend of Korra: Turf Wars’ (Part One) is a good character study on young women going through a turbulent time in their lives

At its best, the Legend of Korra shook off the stigma of its “Young Adult” label and proved to be a compelling anime adventure that provided young people from all walks of life with heroes they can relate to and root for. While the themes of family, friendship and self discovery can apply to literally anyone, the series (and to an extent, its predecessor Avatar: The Last Airbender) was particularly important to young people of color and those of differing sexualities. That latter point, which I personally felt was handled rather subtly, proved to be a big point of contention for opponents of the show and a rallying point for its defenders. That Korra’s evident bisexuality was only touched on in the last scene (the last shot even) of the series’ final episode naturally incensed both sides of the debate, but truly proved to be the most diplomatic way for the show’s creators to tackle the issue on a cable channel aimed at the 12-and-under crowd. Now that the series has wrapped and the Legend of Korra will live on in a series of comics for Dark Horse, series co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino is through being ambiguous.

Indeed the book’s first arc, dubbed “Turf Wars: Part One”, picks up right where the TV series left off – removing any doubt that the knowing look and briefly held hands of the show’s finale were signs of anything besides a romantic relationship between the titular Korra and her companion Asami. The first several pages follow our heroines as they enjoy each other’s company on a journey through the spirit realm. They swim, play, canoodle – and yes, even kiss – and honestly, if parents are willing to raise their kids with a respect for other people’s lifestyles (you know, like good human beings) there’s nothing too shocking or upsetting in this book. Yes two young women kiss, but it’s far from oversexualized and reads just as genuinely as any heterosexual teen romance you’ll read out there. It honestly feels like DiMartino, who wrote this book, felt he had to address the mild controversy that came out of the series’ finale head on, because he sends about ⅔ of the initial arc specifically on the Korra/Asami relationship.


We join our heroines on their vacation in the Spirit World.

The second, and probably most culturally important portion of the story deals with Korra returning to her family’s home at the Northern Water Tribe to tell her parents about her new relationship. Indeed, so much of this book is about coming out – something I’m sure will help younger kids deal with their own uncertainty, but as a cisgendered straight male I’m something on the outside of this. From a critical standpoint I could find issue with literally every person they share their news with (barring maybe Mako, who has dated both women) reacting to the news with overwhelming positivity, but this is a fantasy series that is at least partly built around providing positive depictions of social groups that are typically ill represented in modern fiction, so I’m okay with the re-incarnated elemental wizard and her girlfriend having a sound support structure of friends and family because of the positive message it sends. Yes there are some misunderstandings between Korra and her father, but it comes from a place of familial care and concern rather than anything negative. Korra realistically reacts to this perceived negativity like a teenager might – jumping to conclusions and a “parents just don’t understand” mentality. Again, I’m not the audience for this, but I recognize consistent scripting.

With the heavy lifting of the emotional side covered (though the two women do experience some relationship issues throughout this story, it’s nothing too dissimilar to issues she faced while dating Mako), the rest of the book falls into pretty familiar territory for the LoK series. A crooked politician in Republic City is employing local Triad gangs to create havoc for one goal or another. This time around that includes instigating hostilities between the human and spirit worlds, which is what catches the attention of Korra and the team.


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The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part One
The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars Part One
Michael Dante DiMartino
Price: $7.65 Was: $10.99
At its best, the Legend of Korra shook off the stigma of its “Young Adult” label and proved to be a compelling anime adventure that provided young people from all walks of life with heroes they can relate to and root for. While the themes of family, friendship and self discovery can apply to literally anyone, the series (and to an extent, its predecessor Avatar: The Last Airbender) was particularly important to young people of color and those of differing sexualities. That latter point, which I personally felt was handled rather subtly, proved to be a big point of contention for opponents of the show and a rallying point for its defenders. That Korra’s evident bisexuality was only touched on in the last scene (the last shot even) of the series’ final episode naturally incensed both sides of the debate, but truly proved to be the most diplomatic way for the show’s creators to tackle the issue on a cable channel aimed at the 12-and-under crowd. Now that the series has wrapped and the Legend of Korra will live on in a series of comics for Dark Horse, series co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino is through being ambiguous.

Indeed the book’s first arc, dubbed “Turf Wars: Part One”, picks up right where the TV series left off – removing any doubt that the knowing look and briefly held hands of the show’s finale were signs of anything besides a romantic relationship between the titular Korra and her companion Asami. The first several pages follow our heroines as they enjoy each other’s company on a journey through the spirit realm. They swim, play, canoodle – and yes, even kiss – and honestly, if parents are willing to raise their kids with a respect for other people’s lifestyles (you know, like good human beings) there’s nothing too shocking or upsetting in this book. Yes two young women kiss, but it’s far from oversexualized and reads just as genuinely as any heterosexual teen romance you’ll read out there. It honestly feels like DiMartino, who wrote this book, felt he had to address the mild controversy that came out of the series’ finale head on, because he sends about ⅔ of the initial arc specifically on the Korra/Asami relationship.

Korra
We join our heroines on their vacation in the Spirit World.
The second, and probably most culturally important portion of the story deals with Korra returning to her family’s home at the Northern Water Tribe to tell her parents about her new relationship. Indeed, so much of this book is about coming out – something I’m sure will help younger kids deal with their own uncertainty, but as a cisgendered straight male I’m something on the outside of this. From a critical standpoint I could find issue with literally every person they share their news with (barring maybe Mako, who has dated both women) reacting to the news with overwhelming positivity, but this is a fantasy series that is at least partly built around providing positive depictions of social groups that are typically ill represented in modern fiction, so I’m okay with the re-incarnated elemental wizard and her girlfriend having a sound support structure of friends and family because of the positive message it sends. Yes there are some misunderstandings between Korra and her father, but it comes from a place of familial care and concern rather than anything negative. Korra realistically reacts to this perceived negativity like a teenager might – jumping to conclusions and a “parents just don’t understand” mentality. Again, I’m not the audience for this, but I recognize consistent scripting.

With the heavy lifting of the emotional side covered (though the two women do experience some relationship issues throughout this story, it’s nothing too dissimilar to issues she faced while dating Mako), the rest of the book falls into pretty familiar territory for the LoK series. A crooked politician in Republic City is employing local Triad gangs to create havoc for one goal or another. This time around that includes instigating hostilities between the human and spirit worlds, which is what catches the attention of Korra and the team.

It all feels very reverential from the show, which is both a blessing and a curse. Unlike the original Avatar series, which was given room to breathe and develop its storylines across a full 4 seasons, Korra always felt rushed. For whatever reason, Nickelodeon was far more reticent to run with the (fairly popular) series than its other programs, and the writers were forced to move at a far more hectic pace. The end result is a less developed story and events that happen with little build. That shouldn’t suggest that Korra is a bad show, far from it actually. It’s just that the rigors of working AGAINST the producers at Nickelodeon rather than with them, led the creators to treat each season as if it could be their last. This is why each season was treated as its own unique arc, and why Aman was so underdeveloped as an antagonist in the first season (as they had to establish Team Avatar and a ton of lore, meaning the villain ended up a little flat).

This book continues these pacing issues. While it’s understandable why most of the trade is dedicated (in one way or the other) to the development of Korra and Asami’s relationship, as creating a positive image of a queer POC in a fantasy series popular with kids is obviously a momentous and important task, it does mean the arguable “plot” of the series becomes underdeveloped. There’s a new leader of the triads (using blades that are a curious throwback to Avatar’s ill-fated revolutionary Jet for some reason) and another corrupt politician seeking to use the Avatar’s powers/influence to suit his own purposes, but their collusion is only briefly touched on. Even then, they use the climactic battle between the triads and the combo off Team Avatar and the Air Nomads as a means of revealing the Korra-Asami relationship to the rest of the supporting cast. There is a bit of a cliffhanger as the Triad leader is somehow merged with spirits at the end, but it’s not anything that will rock your world too much one way or the other.

Overall, this is a good character study on young women going through a turbulent time in their lives, that has a little bit of an Avatar story tacked onto it. The art is consistent with the show, as are the character voices, it’s just that the story here is the character interactions surrounding Korra’s newfound relationship, not the action-oriented fantasy that the series is known for. Not to say that’s a bad thing, per se, but it’s something readers should know going into the book. I imagine volume 2 will be back to the familiar adventures lovers of the show will remember so fondly, Book 1, however, is a character piece on young love and the coming out process.

--Ends--

More Nick: Preview Pages From First "Legend Of Korra" Comic Show Korra & Asami's First Kiss As They Reveal Their Romance!
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