Each week, Big Issues focuses on a newly released comic book of significance. This week, it’s The Legend Of Korra: Turf Wars, Part One. Written by Michael Dante DiMartino (Avatar: The Last Airbender, The Legend Of Korra) with art by Irene Koh (Afrina And The Glass Coffin, TMNT: Casey & April) and colorist Vivian Ng (Stargazer), this new graphic novel highlights the value of exploring queer themes in established properties. This review reveals major plot points.
The final moments of The Legend Of Korra TV series were unforgettable. At the end of a turbulent season that had Nickelodeon pulling the show off the air and airing new episodes online, the creators dropped a bombshell that many fans hoped for, but few believed would actually happen: Korra and her best female friend, Asami, entered a romantic relationship, venturing into the spirit world hand in hand to start the next phase of their life together. Korrasami fans were ecstatic, and ending a series about female empowerment with the two main women getting together was a bold statement, dramatically changing the context of their past scenes together and inviting viewers to go back and trace the development of their relationship over time.
It’s been nearly three years since the Korra finale, but Korra, Asami, and the rest of the gang are finally back in the new Dark Horse Comics graphic novel The Legend Of Korra: Turf Wars, Part One. Dark Horse has had a lot of success with its graphic novel continuation of Korra’s predecessor, Avatar: The Last Airbender, with writer Gene Luen Yang and the Gurihiru art team capturing the look and feel of the cartoon with remarkable accuracy. Turf Wars has an even stronger connection to the TV series with Avatar and Korra co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino in the writer’s seat, and DiMartino’s knowledge of this world and its characters makes Turf Wars an especially insightful addition to the franchise. DiMartino knows exactly what fans want to see after that finale, and he dives headfirst into Korra and Asami’s romance while also detailing the history of how queer people have been treated in the world of this series.
American animated series for younger viewers don’t have a very good track record when it comes to LGBTQ inclusion (Cartoon Network’s Steven Universe is the big exception), and while it would have been great to see Korra and Asami’s romance blossom on screen, it’s doubtful that Nickelodeon would have been fully on board with this direction had the series continued. There’s more flexibility in comic books, and DiMartino takes full advantage with his script for Turf Wars and brings considerable depth to this world in the process. Having a same-sex relationship at the center of the story introduces a lot of new narrative territory to explore in regards to how queer people fit into this fantasy world, and once they get back from the spirit world, Korra and Asami learn about the difficulties they will face as a couple.
Coming out to Korra’s parents is easy, but Korra takes offense at her father asking her to keep their relationship private, assuming that this means he’s uncomfortable and narrow-minded. Korra has always been an impulsive hothead, and like most everything she’s done in the past, she charges into her new lifestyle and pushes back hard when she comes across any kind of resistance. But she’s also ignorant about how different tribes have reacted to queer people in the past, which informs her father’s request. Korra and Asami learn about this history from Kya, the daughter of the former Avatar, Aang, who shares her own coming-out experience to help the couple understand what they’ll be facing from different communities.
Revealing the sexual orientations of familiar faces like Kya and Avatar Kyoshi, who was bisexual, makes both Avatar and Korra retroactively more inclusive, and it also emphasizes that Korra and Asami aren’t an anomaly in this world. Normalizing queer relationships makes it easier for people to come out, and learning that there’s a larger community ready to accept you is a big help in overcoming the alienation that arises for many queer people. Korra and Asami don’t consider themselves as other, but the older people in their lives know that the rest of the world isn’t going to share that view.
Korra’s family is part of the Water Tribe, which prefers its people to keep their private matters private. Korra will be accepted, but also expected to keep this part of her identity out of the public eye, which is problematic in its own way. Her situation isn’t as bad as how queer people are treated in the Fire Nation and Earth Kingdom, but it’s not as good as it was back in the air temples of old, where people were encouraged to embrace and celebrate their true selves. This history is the most fascinating thing about Turf Wars, and hopefully future installments will elaborate even further because there’s so much rich material there.
As a queer woman of color who is also a Korra superfan, artist Irene Koh is aware of what Korra and Asami’s relationship means for fans with similar circumstances who are hungry for representation. The first pages are brimming with joy as the new lovers journey through the spirit world, which is colored by Vivian Ng with a romantic pastel palette. The story picks up seconds after the series’ conclusion, and the first shot of Korra and Asami presents the show’s final image from the opposite side, with the couple facing forward as they move into the next phase of their story. And they make the most of their spirit world vacation: They ride a phoenix, hop across giant mushrooms, and swim hand in hand when they’re not sitting together under mystical waterfalls. These pages give a strong impression of the intimacy of their relationship, building to their first kiss against a pale pink and purple sky, with flower petals dancing on the wind behind them.
Gurihiru’s art on the Avatar graphic novels is so clean that it looks like screencaps from the show, but Koh has a looser, sketchier style that makes the visuals feel more spontaneous and personal. That’s not a dig on Gurihiru, who are exceptional storytellers (see their work on recent issues of The Unbelievable Gwenpool for some of the most clever, experimental art in current superhero comics), but they do such an excellent job replicating the Avatar style that the artwork comes across as an extension of the cartoon rather than a fresh interpretation. Koh’s art is still clearly evocative of the Korra aesthetic, but like DiMartino with the scripting, she has more freedom to bring something new to the table.
A standout moment highlights how tightly the art is tied to the emotional content of the script: When Korra addresses the crowd of citizens left homeless after the attack on Republic City, Koh places her in the middle of a pentagon panel, surrounded on all sides by people asking for something different from the Avatar. She’s overwhelmed, and the layout reinforces this feeling, especially when paired with Korra’s anxious expression and body language in the center panel. Yet there’s nothing violent about the crowd, and the muted coloring prevents them from appearing too aggressive. These people are suffering, but they remain calm because they believe that the Avatar has the power to help them.
While she tries her best, Korra has a lot of hurdles standing in her way, specifically inept politicians, greedy real-estate tycoons, and a dangerous new gang on the streets that is intensifying the chaos there. While the majority of Turf Wars focuses on Korra and Asami’s courtship, it also serves as the origin story for a new villain: Tokuga, a gang leader capitalizing on the turmoil in Republic City following the catastrophic events of the TV show’s final season. A formidable fighter armed with two hooked swords, Tokuga has been causing lots of trouble for the Republic City police force, which now includes both Mako and Bolin, the two brothers who are Korra’s closest male friends. The first big fight sequence of the graphic novel pits the police against Tokuga’s gang, and while there’s some of the franchise’s signature bending action, the coolest moments showcase what Tokuga can do with his weapons.
Nate Piekos is one of the best letterers in the industry—his work on DC’s Green Arrow right now is a master class in having lettering blend in with the artwork while enhancing the storytelling—and his sound effects in Turf Wars play an important part in the action. Comics are a silent medium, but Piekos understands the integral role of the sound design in the TV show, particularly with regards to bending. The whoosh of air and fwoosh of fire, the crunch of earth, the splash of water; these sounds all amplified the motion on the screen, and Piekos includes them on the page. They also help break down the sequence of the action when showing multiple movements in a panel, like the opening shot of the police fighting Tokuga’s gang that uses sound effects to give the wave of different bending skills a clear flow across the panel.
Dark Horse is home to many licenses, and the publisher has gone above and beyond with its Avatar and Korra graphic novels, bringing together creative teams that respect the source material while understanding how to invigorate it for a new medium. Given the game-changing nature of the Korra series finale, the creative team of Turf Wars is in a position to take this franchise to exciting new places, and DiMartino, Koh, and company seize the opportunity with confidence and passion.