Legend of Korra Comics: Irene Koh Interview

The Legend of Korra is back! We spoke to Irene Koh, the artist behind Turf Wars, the upcoming graphic novel trilogy. The first graphic novel trilogy continuing the series, written by co-creator Michael Dante DiMartino, is coming out this month.

Irene Koh is an illustrator from Seoul, now living in Los angeles. She received her BFA in illustration from the Rhode Island School of Design and has worked for Dark Horse, DC, Marvel, IDW, Oni Press, and Stela.

If you read Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, or Batgirl, you might have seen her work before.

But we are here to talk about Korra! So let’s get started! Spirits, elements, martial arts, and maybe a bit of Korrasami?

– For those who might not have heard yet, can you tell us a little bit about how you got the job on the Korra comics?

I’d been joking for years that I’d be a perfect fit for the comic, as a bisexual Asian martial artist and avid Avatar fan. After Brittney Williams dropped out of the project, a friend of mine was offered the gig, to which she referred me instead.

I drew a few test pages, and now here I am, almost done drawing Part Two.

– There have been a lot of artists who have worked on both Avatar and Korra, do you have any favourites that informed your own style? 

The key art people on staff (or at least the ones whose work I can readily find on the Internet) have been great to look at. Not necessarily for style’s sake, since I was asked to draw the book in my own style, but for movement.

Animation folks have totally different way of approaching movement and character acting, and there’s a lot of great tricks I picked up just studying their work. Specifically, I looked at Steve Ahn’s work for action, and Ki Hyun Ryu’s amazing, expressive faces.

– Animation and still drawing are different disciplines, what kinds of changes do you make when taking something from screen to page?

I know very little about animation itself and have even less experience doing it, but I have formal training in both cinematic art and comic art respectively, and there definitely differences. It manifests sometimes in my layout designs versus what Mike and Bryan would like to see on the page (though, for the most part, they let me do my thing compositionally).

As a small example, comics can do vertical formats/panels, which is not something animation can necessarily pull off in the same way. It is far more about overall page flow than individual moments. Additionally, it’s can be harder in a way to show an element bending motion without the full movement shown, so I have to come up with ways to imply/depict the direction, effect, and impact of fighting action.

– How do you keep the spirit and flow of the original while also giving it your own unique style?

If I love something, it’s because I’m good at distilling why it’s good, what parts of it are done skillfully, things I admire and would like to emulate in my own work.

In the case of things like Avatar and Korra, it’s a mix of incredible character acting, humor and expressiveness, and the lively, realistic fighting (minus, y’know, the elements). None of these things require a specific kind of art style to pull off, just understanding and good old hard work.

I think it’s also been extremely helpful that I have 10+ years of doing martial arts under my belt, particularly kickboxing and judo, that consistently inform the action. When there’s something specific Bryan wants in a fight scene, I can understand his language.

– How involved did the creators – Mike DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko – get in the process? What was working with them like?

It’s a deeply collaborative process; I get pretty extensive notes from both creators, plus notes from Nickelodeon. Mike’s notes tend to be less art-focused and more to do with if I’m expressing his script correctly.

Bryan’s notes are all technical, fixing my art where it’s wonky and the like. They’re fantastic to work with — concise with their vision, but also open to feedback and suggestion. They give my art a lot of breathing room, which I’m grateful for, and let me design new characters.

Just on their critiques alone I’ve leveled up immensely since starting the job.

– Has Korra been different from other comics you’ve worked on?

It’s definitely the biggest book I’ve worked on since entering comics. I’ve only done shorts or monthlies up until now, so being tasked with 72 pages at a time was pretty daunting at first (and honestly still kind of is).

The amount of notes I got back for my pages was also a first, though it’s a blessing. As well, it’s the biggest IP I’ve dipped my toes into, and I’m definitely feeling the support (and pressure) of the fandom.

– When did you first realise that being a professional artist was something you wanted to be? 

I don’t think it was ever a realization or a conscious choice. I’ve been drawing nonstop for as long as I can remember! I used to get in trouble for drawing at the dinner table.

I’ve always been a very decisive, driven person, even as a kid, and in seventh grade an art teacher told me about the Rhode Island School of Design. At twelve years old I decided that’s where I was going to college. (I did.)

– Do you look back at your earlier works at all? How have you changed as an artist? (Attitude, technique, work ethic, etc?)

I don’t really linger on old work because I’m still at a point where I’m improving rapidly, so even a few days after I’ve drawn something, I look back at it scornfully because I’ve already learned something new in that time, haha.

Thematically, my work tends to stay the same: I focus a lot on intimacy, in all its forms and expressions. I’d like to think I am getting better at drawing those moments! At this point, I have the whole working-from-home freelance thing down solidly, in that I know what working hours are best for me and what not to force (I am decidedly not a morning person); when and how often to take breaks; and getting better at just grinding through assignments.

I tend not to wallow in “art blocks” anymore, since I don’t really have a choice.

– Any advice for people who want to go into illustration and comics? What’s the best way for people to get their talent out there?

I posted this on my blog recently, and I stand by it:

1/ Do them on your own. The Internet has made it so easy to get noticed/paid for the work you do on your own, so take advantage! Don’t quit your day job for comics unless you know you’ve got a good amount of stability or financial cushion.

2/ Comics are a really intense exercise in time management. There is no way you can put in 100% on every single page like a single illustration; you would never meet standard schedules. You’re going to only be able to put in 60-70% of your true potential — the trick is to get your 60-70% to be Really Good.

3/ Finishing something and putting it out there for people to see is just as much a skill to nurture and improve upon as draftsmanship, coloring, composition, etc. Give yourself deadlines and try to meet them, and try to share your work. Peer critique is how you improve, and also how you build confidence.

4/ Have a social media presence and post art consistently, and don’t expect or feel entitled to any kind of mutual, instant friendliness or attention. For me personally, Twitter is how I’ve met colleagues, employers, friends, and been inspired by other people’s work.

5/ Don’t apologize or speak disparagingly of your work, even if you notice flaws. Chance is, most people didn’t notice it, or they it didn’t detract from the piece itself to be worth a comment. It also comes off as unprofessional.

6/ Do not undersell yourself. Here’s the Fair Page Rates info: https://fairpagerates.com/

– Other than Korra, what are you working on? Any big projects in the works?

I’ll be part of the final Spera book by Josh Tierney along with an awesome roster of other artists, and then I’m off to work on my own original things. At my core I’m a storyteller, and I have my own stories I’d like to share.

– Where can people find you online? Social media, etc?

Twitter: @kohquette
Tumblr: http://prom-knight.tumblr.com
Website: http://koh.money

The first issue of Legend of Korra: Turf Wars is scheduled for release in comic book stores on July 26, 2017, and in mass market retailers on August 8, 2017.

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