Jason Sacks for Comics Bulletin: I’m here with Irene Koh, the creator of Afrina published by Stela. I really enjoyed this project.
Irene Koh: Thank you.
Koh: The idea was to make a fairytale that subverts typical troupes of princesses and saviors. It is about Princess Afrina, the eponymous hero who makes a sort of terrible deal in order to save her country, which is in danger. In the process, she meets another princess who basically makes her question her sacrifices.
CB: How did you build this world that you created, because it clearly was well thought through?
Koh: It’s actually a pretty old idea I’ve had. There’s a Grimm’s Fairy Tale called The Glass Coffin. It’s a vague spin off of that. But it became sort of the savior who wants to be saved rather.
CB: One of the things that struck me is the book starts with the friendship of the two women. Was that the heart of the book to you?
Koh: Totally, that relationship and wanting to be selfish in love, but having the weight of duties, whether it is family or, for her, her country.
CB: How did you develop this?
Koh: I have maybe the most inefficient story planning process, which is I write a short story and that’s the script I go off of. I wrote the short story way before and sort of fixed it and edited it a whole bunch and then made the comic off of it.
CB: Did you design as you were going? Because the characters have very specific designs, too.
Koh: Yeah. Usually I will start with actual physical designs. But this time I wanted to start with the concepts of what they wanted to be versus what they are supposed to be in a fairytale. So Afrina is the prince essentially (the savior) who wants to be the damsel. And then her lover, Bahram, is the damsel who is actually the savior. And then we have the actual prince who just maybe has more questionable motives than everyone else.
CB: I keep coming back to the relationship between the princesses and how subtle it is how much they care for each other.
Koh: Oh. I’m glad that came through.
CB: How important was it to feel realistic versus having a fairytale feel to this story?
Koh: I think myth is a really powerful thing for everyone, whether or not we realize it, and fairytales and all that. And usually they’re morality stories. I think the thing about myth is there’s something about fairytales or myths or whatever that we can all relate to, whether it’s a morality story or whether it’s, “Oh, man, that crappy thing that happened to all of us that we don’t really know what to do with.”
Or whether it’s the struggle for this one specifically between wanting to be selfish in love or having other obligations. I like that myth as a vehicle for that kind of stuff while you can change other variables or elements to it.
CB: Having her being so strongly at the center. Is that especially meaningful to you?
Koh: Yeah. Oh, yeah, definitely. I specifically wanted her to be someone who is strong and powerful and literally has power, but also is so debilitated by a choice she has to make that’s not easily solved by beating something up or lighting something on fire.
CB: So how did you approach working in the Stela format?
Koh: So I have been a fan of things like Webtunes and all of that for like years. I grew up in mostly Asian comics, so I went to Webtunes very quickly. I started experimenting myself on my own stuff, just doing long vertical formats. Then people at Stela found me and they were like, “Hey, how would you like to do that for us?” I was like, “Oh, yeah!”
CB: So you had been developing this project before that?
Koh: Oh, no. Just other stuff. But it was great. I love what you can do with the vertical format specifically in terms of pacing or a surprise and how you unveil something.
CB: It has been interesting to read how different creators approach it, too. Some of it use it to reveal stuff, like other elements of a story. Others use it for landscapes.
Koh: I was pretty meticulous of how I planned the panels and stuff like that.
CB: What was your approach to the meticulous design?
Koh: It was fun because I didn’t have the restrictions of a page, so I could make it feel a little more cinematic. So lots of close up shots of reaction faces without worrying about wasting space. But also long environmental wide shots that can show something happening and give it gravity with how much room it takes up.
CB: People may know you best from the Batgirl work that you did.
Koh: I did Batgirl. I worked on the Casey & April miniseries for IBW. I’m working on a cool secret project for Dark Horse right now that will be announced at San Diego.
CB: All of with a kind of manga-influenced style, too?
Koh: Yeah, I think so. That’s an inescapable thing for me. I grew up in Tokyo, so a lot of my aesthetic approach is influenced by Japanese manga.
CB: Anything else you want to mention?
Koh: Specifically about Stela’s creator-owned model. It’s hard to find a publisher who treats their creators as well as Stela does.
I’m being brutally honest here. Like the industry is kind of garbage for the way it treats its creators. They don’t pay us well or we don’t own any of the property. And Stela specifically was like, “It is all creator-owned.” That was super important for them. I think that’s super important for a lot of big creators.
CB: Are you hoping to do more in this universe?
Koh: Umm, maybe? Maybe not. I like leaving things short and sort of open.
CB: It’s a nice, closed novel, but at the same time, I could see doing more with it.
Koh: Yeah, that was totally the feeling I wanted to have, where you are like, “Oh, what’s all the history of this” or “What was going on here? What were these ruins?”
CB: Do you just work in comics or do you do other stuff, too?
Koh: I actually started as a visual development artist for indie video games, then comics just kind of happened. For the time being, comics is it.
CB: How are comics different from indie video games?
Koh: Video game art has a lot more hands and eyes on the project than you think and a bigger team and sort of specific things you have to do. It is more silhouette-based in terms of design. But for comics it is more big picture; maybe it is closer to film in terms of imagining characters in a world and things like that.