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‘The Legend of Korra’ Creators on Bringing Back Bending [Interview]

It’s been nearly four years since Avatar: The Last Airbender concluded its original run on Nickelodeon, and in that time the Eastern-influenced fantasy epic has spawned a live action motion picture, a comic series and more. What fans were really waiting for, however, was a true animated series sequel. This Saturday, fankind gets its wish as The Legend of Korra makes its on-air debut. Set 70 years after the events of The Last Airbender, The Legend of Korra introduces a powerful young Avatar to her world’s most populous and complicated city, where she’ll have to overcome crime, corruption and a masked menace working to turn non-benders against those who can manipulate water, earth, fire and air. ComicsAlliance reached out to The Last Airbender and Legend of Korra co-creators Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko to learn more about their own four-year journeys bringing the new animated series to life. You can read the full interview — and stream the show’s first two episodes — after the jump.

ComicsAlliance: Like all major animated productions, The Legend of Korra required some serious lead time, which in turn required you to keep a lot of secrets for a long, long time. How does it feel to be able to finally discuss the series openly?

Konietzko: It was a little different this time around, compared to making Avatar: The Last Airbender. [Avatar] was a new idea and we were new show creators, so for the three years between its creation and the series premiere we were pretty much left alone to work on the show. Once it came out and thankfully garnered a rabid following, we were already pretty deep into production and we had finished episodes to air to give the audience something to chew on fairly regularly. With The Legend of Korra, it is an entirely different situation. People have been digging for answers, using automated search engines to find out what show titles were registered, speculating about production delays, coming up with conspiracies, stealing an episode from a licensee and leaking it on the internet, and on and on. It is all pretty overwhelming, but we are thankful to have a show that so many people want to see that badly. Fans are only seeing the tip of the iceberg of Book 1 now, and we are deep into production on Book 2, so there are still plenty of secrets we have to guard in the night!

CA: Though it exists in the same universe, The Legend of Korra brings readers into a world set 70 years later. How did you pin down just how different you wanted the series’ setting to be in terms of political/social/technological advancements?

Konietzko: We wanted it to be different enough that it felt fresh and inspiring for us, but not so different that it felt entirely unconnected to the world we created in the first series. The social and political climate came from discussions about how we could find conflict in the wake of a 100-year-long war ending. But as we know in the real world, just because a war ends it doesn’t mean that everything turns happy and peaceful. That provided us with some new kinds of conflict for us to explore in Korra.

DiMartino: We thought about how quickly technology progressed in the real world around the turn of the 20th century. The original series we always thought took place in a time equivalent to the 1850s. And a lot changed between then and the 1920s, which is roughly the time period-equivalent in Korra. The more modern setting opened up a lot of creative opportunities. We used to have to figure out how the Fire Nation was communicating with each other via messenger hawks and now, people can pick up a phone or send a wireless message half-way around the world.

CA: It’s been established that Korra is naturally more physical and less spiritual than Aang, which makes her fit in with the more technology dependent Republic City. Just as the new Avatar and her world have changed since Aang’s time, should fans expect possible future manifestations of The Spirit World to be similarly altered?

DiMartino: The Spirit World hasn’t changed, exactly, but what will be interesting is to see how the spirit world reacts to Korra’s technologically dependent world.

CA: Avatar: The Last Airbender has been celebrated for being an inclusive series with a cast of characters representing a diverse world population. Taking place in a city that serves as a melting pot for all four nations, The Legend of Korra does so as well. How do you think this kind of balance benefits the story you’re trying to tell and perhaps the viewers who will see it?

DiMartino: Moving the main action to Republic City seemed like a natural progression of the Avatar story. Rather than have these very separate nations, now different cultures are mixing together, which is exemplified by characters like Mako and Bolin. They are brothers and one is a Firebender and the other is an Earthbender. It shows that the world is an ever changing, evolving place. And this diversity has helped the show connect with viewers from different cultures around the world.

CA: A lot of fans really appreciated The Last Airbender’s demonstrable, but not heavy-handed stories dealing with sexism, classism and other social issues. Judging from the first two episodes of The Legend of Korra, the series will continue this tradition as well. Was there any specific historical/real-world inspiration for unbalanced social climate in The Legend of Korra?

Konietzko: Any story lines like these are bound to be influenced by real world events, from history and more recent times. That said, we might reference these things in an attempt to ground our story, but we stay away from recreating specific events or telling an allegorical tale about a real nation or culture. After all, this is a fantasy series and not political commentary.

CA: You wear a lot of different hats on The Legend of Korra, much the same way you did on The Last Airbender. What are some duties you particularly enjoy digging into while working on the show?

Konietzko: I think it is safe to say we love every part of the process, except for calling retakes, which seems to take up the most time. The big difference on Korra is that Mike and I wrote all of the scripts for Book 1 together, which is something we never had time to do on the old series. In the end, it turned out I didn’t really have time for it now either, but it was incredibly fun and creatively satisfying.

DiMartino: The writing is definitely my favorite part. I also did some storyboarding, which was a lot of fun. I learned how to use Toon Boom, the digital storyboarding program. I feel like an old man, trying to keep up with the latest technology!

CA: Dark Horse’s new Avatar: The Last Airbender comic will bridge some of the 70-year gap between the original series and The Legend of Korra. What do you think of the job Gene Luen Yang and Gurihiru have done on the series so far?

DiMartino: Collaborating with Gene has been fantastic! He really loves and respects the Avatar universe, while bringing his own unique sensibilities to the project. And the artwork by Gurihiru is terrific. They have a really charming style that makes the comics feel like a natural extension of the original series. It’s great to be able to tell more adventures with the old characters without having to fully animate the stories!

CA: Leading up its debut online, the show’s title was shortened from “The Last Airbender: Legend of Korra” to simply “The Legend of Korra.” How do you think the more Korra-centric title reflects your storytelling goals for the series?

Konietzko: It is a long story how we finally ended up with the title simply being The Legend of Korra, but in a poetic way, I think Korra’s big Type A personality willed it to happen!

DiMartino: Yes, we are very happy with the final title.

CA: You’ve cited Hayao Miyazaki and a few others as major inspirations for The Last Airbender. Were there any new or unexpected creators who inspired you while working on The Legend of Korra?

Konietzko: We draw inspiration directly and indirectly from all sorts of things, like movies, documentaries, TV dramas, novels, non-fiction books, animation, science and nature shows, and our own life experiences. After Avatarended, I spent a lot of time watching MMA and kickboxing fights on UFC, WEC, DREAM, and K-1. All of those hours [of watching] fed into the Pro Bending concept, which became a big part of Book 1.

CA: I tried to play it cool as I watched the first two episodes, but every time the statue of Aang shows up in a shot of Republic City, I must confess I get a little emotional — like lean over and hug my pug emotional. As one of the closest people to these characters and their world, do you ever personally get tripped up by any of the emotional triggers you’ve intentionally or unintentionally built into the new show?

Konietzko: No, we’re cold-hearted! Just kidding… Sure, I think the scene when Katara catches Korra sneaking off and gives her blessing hits an emotional chord with me. It is so reminiscent of when Gran Gran said goodbye to Katara and Sokka as they embarked on their adventure. In a way, Gran Gran knew more about what they would encounter than they did, and since we know so much about Katara’s own story, we can feel her perspective on seeing Korra at this pivotal stage in her young life. I think it also makes me think about my own Grandmother, who has seen so much at 92 years-old.

DiMartino: Yes, that scene with Korra and Katara is a great one. I really love when Korra arrives in Republic City and sees Aang’s statue for the first time. There’s a moment where she’s almost in a trance. She’s in awe of Aang and also wants to become as great an Avatar as he was. The Legend of Korra is a little like that for us. We know we have a big legacy to live up to, but hopefully this series will be even better than the original.

Episode 1: Welcome to Republic City

Legend of Korra: “Welcome to Republic City” S1

Episode 2: A Leaf in the Wind

Legend of Korra: “A leaf in the Wind” S1

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