As part of LGBT Fans Deserve Better’s ongoing project series highlighting positive LGBTQ+ representation, we are thrilled to have the opportunity to interview some of our favorite content creators who are part of our community, and to have them share some insights into their creative process and generally find out more about the people behind the media we all love.
In our first interview, we had the privilege of speaking with anime fan turned professional artist Irene Koh, the illustrator behind The Legend of Korra continuation comic book series, The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars.
Running for four years on Nickelodeon, the popular animated series The Legend of Korra shocked and delighted fans of series protagonist Avatar Korra when, in the series finale, Korra got together with her friend and teammate, the genius inventor Asami Sato. The bisexual power couple not only ended the series hand in hand on their way to a vacation in the Spirit World, but are back in the canon follow up comic book series, Turf Wars, which continues their journey as a couple as they come out to friends and family and of course, battle the forces of evil.
Queer fans of Korra were delighted when Koh was announced as the principal artist behind Turf Wars, and when the first volume was released this summer fans were treated to Koh’s take on the “Korrasami” dynamics in print. We asked Koh about her experiences as both a creator and consumer of comics and what has influenced her along the way.
LGBT FANS DESERVE BETTER: Thank you so much for letting us ask you a few questions! Korra and Asami have become important to many people in our community, especially young women of color who have so few characters to look up to. What would you have liked to have seen as a young queer woman growing up?
IRENE KOH: My earliest childhood memories are in Tokyo, so I grew up reading a lot of manga and watching a lot of anime, and ones that featured queer relationships (my favorite having been Sailor Uranus and Sailor Neptune, from Sailor Moon S; and many CLAMP stories otherwise). They were approached as totally normal romances, so I didn’t think twice about them until I moved to the States and was almost overtly denied these things, from openly homophobic jokes to the actual retconning of Uranus and Neptune’s relationship in the Sailor Moon dub (they were made cousins, which, as anyone who watched knows, made for some uncomfortable scenes and editing later on). It was probably a combination of realizing this change in attitude and also a Roman Catholic upbringing that kept me from understanding my sexuality until I was well into college. I wish young me could have had access to more normalized queer content! It sure would’ve helped with my internal struggles and vague, shapeless frustrations, haha.
LGBTFDB: What are your ultimate ideal wishes for the future of queer representation in comics and media in general?
IK: I would just like more. I would like there to be such an abundance of queer stories (both ones that focus on identity and ones that just happen to feature queer characters) that we don’t have to feel like, “I’ll just take whatever I can get!” If we can make other little Irenes see Uranus and Neptune being in love and that being totally normal, then we’ll have achieved something Good
LGBTFDB: What were the challenges in going from creating art for yourself and fans to creating art based on what people wrote?
IK: I’ve been working professionally in comics for a few years now, so there’s not much friction when it comes to drawing other people’s scripts. It just means I approach the work differently, and that I’m less precious about it. Pro comics work (for me) tends to be a hard focus on making deadlines more than anything else. My need to create for myself is satisfied through personal projects, when I have the time to do them.
LGBTFDB: You’ve talked about how you originally weren’t sure about including homophobia in the world of the new Korra comic book, Turf Wars, but eventually supported that direction. What value do you think that holds in the narrative?
IK: It was already written that way by Mike (Michael Dante DiMartino, co-creator, executive producer, and story editor of the animated TV series Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra), with consultation from our Nickelodeon editor Joan Hilty, by the time I joined the project. Mike, Joan, Bryan (Avatar series co-creator Bryan Konietzko) and I had a very good conversation about it, and I came out of it understanding its function. While I still think it’s a little trite to have the nonsensical baddie also be homophobic, I completely understand the value in setting up parallels for readers. It can be incredibly powerful to see our superheroes struggling with the same issues we have, and to inspire our inner Korras and Asamis. Again, it goes back to us needing more queer content so that we can have both escapist fantasies and real life depictions to glean meaning and strength from.
LGBTFDB: Why is exploring Korra and Asami’s relationship important to you personally and professionally? What was it about them that really inspired you as a fan artist?
IK: Mostly I was just a big fan of the show, and I’ve shipped them since Season 1! Two resilient, clever women who support each other… It was hard not to desire a romance there. From a professional lens, it was a very conscious decision to establish my identity and the work (at least thematically) that I wanted to do within the industry, and so far it’s served me well.
LGBTFDB: Are there any other comics or characters that you would love to draw someday?
IK: My own! But if I had to pick a licensed character… probably Big Barda (DC Comics), or characters totally out of the mainstream comics sphere.
LGBTFDB: I think a lot of your fans would love to see what you’d come up with! What kind of stories would you want to tell?
IK: So many! In terms of genre, I’m itching to do more action-filled adventure stuff, but I also have some fleshed out ideas for a slice-of-life story. I grew up reading a lot of shounen manga, which is typically adventures aimed at a young male audience, and remember constantly being disappointed that the cool women in those stories were getting sidelined. So I want to make work that evokes the same spirit, but featuring and for women.
LGBTFDB: And lastly, what comics, mainstream or otherwise, would you recommend for people who love Korra but aren’t familiar with comics in general?
IK: For the folks who want more LGBTQ content, I highly recommend My Lesbian Experience with Loneliness by Kabi Nagata (content warning for self-harm and eating disorders); and for the folks who just want more women of color in action adventure roles, I’d say something like Monstress (Marjorie Liu & Sana Takeda) might be up their ally, though it’s pretty dark and violent, so I’d take caution before recommending it to younger readers.