The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars – A pitch perfect, LGBT-positive continuation

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With certain events, you never forget where you were when they happened. The news breaking about Princess Diana’s death. The first plane flying into the World Trade Centre. South Africa winning the 1995 Rugby World Cup. Korrasami’s confirmation as canon.

With that last one, I was standing in the snow mid-December 2014, about to get on an 8-hour night bus to Tokyo. Even with the lights off, and the typically obedient silence of Japanese long-distance commuters, I hardly slept that trip. All I wanted was to arrive at my destination so I could watch the final ever episode of The Legend of Korra, the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender. The online euphoria was contagious – people were losing their damn minds.

Spoiler: In the last minute of the magic-and-martial-arts show, heroine Korra, the peace-keeping link between human and spirit realms, embarks on a vacation to the Spirit World with her friend, pioneering industrialist Asami Sato. As they step into the portal, the young women clutch hands, turn to face each other and looked deeply into each other’s eyes, before fading out. The scene paralleled the end of The Last Airbender, as protagonists Aang and Katara finally accept their feelings for one another, and kiss.

It may sound silly equating an episode of a cartoon with something as significant as a World Cup victory, but it was for its own reasons. Representation reasons.

For one thing, nobody really expected a show on kids’ channel Nickelodeon to depict a same-sex relationship. If mainstream network television continued to avoid LGBT+ leads for fear of controversy, then by the same logic an animated series for children certainly wouldn’t risk it.

Fans just liked to “ship” Korra and Asami – that is, imagine the besties were in a romantic (relation)ship, and point to moments in the show as evidence. Although Season 4 presented an evolved, increasingly intimate dynamic between the women, viewers could dismiss the blushes, hugs and protectiveness as teasing on the part of the show’s writers. These instances were fan service, or gay-baiting depending how cynical you wanted to be. Korrasami wasn’t endgame. After all, Korra had a boyfriend for a while. This same boyfriend, brooding Mako, made Korra a rival of Asami in Seasons 1-2, as a bog-standard Young Adult love triangle played out.

But Korra and Asami outgrew their jealousies, just as they outgrew Mako. And Korrasami was surprisingly endgame (if not planned from the outset). The final hand-clutching moments of The Legend of Korra may have implied romance more than explicitly shown it, but in the aftermath, creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino cleared up ambiguity with a statement on Tumblr. Korra and Asami were absolutely a couple.

It was Christmas come early for Korrasami supporters. More importantly, it was a ground-breaking moment for LGBT+ representation in Popular Culture. Queer-identifying adolescents could look to the screen and see that their existence was acknowledged. They were visible, and represented. By the title, supremely powerful character of a hit animated show.

Of course, the Korrasami revelation arrived in the closing moments of the TV series. The Legend of Korra was done. There would be no more episodes. The fan fiction and fan art machine went immediately into overdrive, but Korra and Asami’s official story couldn’t end there, could it?

That’s where Dark Horse Comics comes in. The publishers announced 3-part miniseries The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars in October last year. Since the original Avatar cartoon finished in 2008, five The Last Airbender graphic novel trilogies have continued the adventures of Aang and co. With a similar number of unanswered questions and loose ends as its predecessor, Korra’s series seems set for the same screen-to-comic treatment.

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Turf Wars Part 1 – written by showrunner Michael Dante DiMartino and drawn by Irene Koh – starts immediately after the end of the TV series. The reader joins Korra and Asami as they holiday in the Spirit World, talk about the development of their affections… and kiss. What couldn’t be shown or discussed on TV is treated with considerably more freedom in the pages of Turf Wars. The book doesn’t shy away from LGBT+ matters, while keeping things family-friendly.

Korra and Asami aren’t the only gays in the village. Or bisexuals in Republic City, if we’re being sticklers for detail. Turf Wars confirms fan theories about the sexual orientation of a few “suspect” supporting characters. It also provides comment on social attitudes to homosexuality in each of the four nations (Earth, Air, Water, Fire) that make up the Avatar universe. It’s a little jolting and anachronistic to hear characters dropping terms like “coming out,” but everything is done with its heart in the right place.

Larger social examination aside, the most potent part of Turf Wars’ LGBT+ exploration happens at the everyday, personal level. Korra and Asami emerge from the Spirit World and face the prospect of telling friends and family about their relationship. Feisty Korra has a take-me-or-leave-me attitude to others’ acceptance, while Asami adopts the more cautious perspective of “What we have, it’s kind of like the Spirit World – it’s special and rare, and not everyone is going to see it that way.”

These reactions ring true to their established characters. And it helps that Irene Koh – though departing from the TV series’ crisp line work – reinforces the authenticity of the writing with her nuanced grasp of facial expression and body language.

Actually, a lot rings true in Turf Wars, which is to the graphic novel’s benefit. It feels like an episode of the TV series, right down to puppy dog enthusiasm and quips from Bolin, Mako’s earth-bending, comic relief brother. And in case you think Turf Wars is just characters standing around talking about their feelings, fan fiction-style, you’re wrong. It may have been hit-and-miss at times, but the one thing the Legend of Korra cartoon always got right was the balance of action and emotion. Turf Wars Part 1 is no different. While personal drama is generated around sexuality and relationship concerns, element-flinging battles and chases still feature heavily.

Turf Wars’ overarching story, for the record, centres on Republic City in chaos. People displaced by war are stuck in camps, while the mayor is fixated on his re-election campaign. Most spirits are angered by Korra’s creation of a new spirit portal in the city, especially since a slimy developer wants to turn it into a tourist attraction. The biggest threat, though, is an ongoing struggle between the city’s criminal gangs, with an ambitious young man, Tokuga, taking control of the Triple Threats. Enter Korra’s new Big Bad.

Turf Wars Part 1 ends with a cliff-hanger, which is the single major criticism of the book. You want to keep reading, and it’s a brisk 79 pages, easy to consume in a single sitting. The Legend of Korra: Turf Wars: Part 1 is out now in print and digital form, but you have quite a wait for the continuation. Part 2 only releases in late January 2018.

That’s frustrating, but at least it gives people plenty of time to read Turf Wars Part 1, which is highly recommended for Legend of Korra fans – and essential for Korrasami supporters.

Last Updated: August 30, 2017

Noelle Adams

Sometime Tomb Raider. Full-time Pop Culture fanatic and Geekaissance Woman. Most often spotted outputting Pop Culture opinion pieces, writing fanfic and original genre fare, cosplaying and bringing the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu smackdown. Editor of the Comics and Toys section.

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