By Gabriela Taveras
After a four year absence from New York Comic Con, the mega convention’s 2022 edition was ultimately the best one I could have hoped to attend. A newly renovated Javits Center, the busiest Thursday of any NYCC and a sprawling schedule that paid homage to animation kicked off a memorable weekend that beckoned a true return to form.
On the first day, The Beat began the highly anticipated event by interviewing Dante Basco (the voice of Avatar: The Last Airbender’s Prince Zuko) and Janet Varney (the voice of Korra from The Legend of Korra), who are the hosts of the beloved Avatar: Braving the Elements podcast, the official companion podcast for the two critically-acclaimed shows. We chatted about the podcast’s success, their personal connections to the shows’ poignant stories and parting thoughts for a departed friend.
Gabriela Taveras: Congratulations again on such a great episode! Podcasts create amazing opportunities to bring people together, and there’s something extra special about Braving the Elements since it’s hosted by the actors who interpret two of the [Avatar] universe’s most highly regarded characters. To get us started on this conversation, I’d like to know what is one of the most memorable fan interactions you’ve had thanks to the podcast?
Janet Varney: Just one?
Dante Basco: We go to a lot of cons to talk to and engage with fans in person. It’s really been wonderful – one person told me that they listen to this podcast on the way to work every week, and it’s affirming how they just love our [Janet and Dante’s] relationship on the show, and by extension they feel they have a relationship with us.
Varney: Yeah, it’s great. It’s a new level, sort of a different dimension of interaction, because we love doing cons together and meeting people and hearing about fan experiences. I genuinely struggle to think of one because there are so many that are so moving. We’re so lucky to be part of a show that touches and inspires people. There are so many women who come up to me and say “I started working out and doing martial arts because of Korra”, or Katara, or whoever in the Avatar verse, or that their self esteem has grown, or that they came out thanks to the show. Those moments are so valuable, and we really try to safeguard them. They know we’re talking to our two dads, Mike and Brian, they know we’re talking to all the people behind the scenes who are making it magical, which is just an amazing thing to be able to do.
Taveras: It’s a beautiful thing to be able to convey a story that reaches people on such personal levels. The growth that your characters undergo because of different tensions and challenges is something that people connect with. What is something that you would like to explore, either in comics or other mediums such as movies?
Basco: The great thing about the whole Avatar verse and the expansion that’s going on with the comics and novels really shows us more of what’s going on with this world and these characters that we’ve all come to love. Of course, I love the Zuko stuff and I love the search for Zuko’s mom. That of course was a big one for me and for a lot of the fans: to find out how that works and what happened.
Taveras: It was heartbreaking, but it also felt cathartic to know exactly what happened
Basco: One of the things I want to see, whether through another show, a movie or a comic, is an Uncle Iroh prequel. He’s one of my favorite characters in the show – he’s the Dragon of the West! In order to become as Zen and sage as he’s become, you know, as a former Fire Nation general during a very dark period – he must have done many things. The pendulum must swing somewhere in order to get there, and I would love to see the Dragon of the West story, that of a young Uncle Iroh. We’d get to see a different aspect of where the fire nation is.
Taveras: People get to see this evolution, and that’s a big reason why prequels have become so popular. We kind of know what’s going to happen and in a way that brings a sense of comfort, but we also know that even though the destination is the same, the path can be different.
Varney: And also he did fall in love, he had a kiddo. How do those stories get told?
Taveras: Love does have a transformative power. On a personal note, what was the most difficult scene each of you had to record?
Varney: It’s a two parter that goes deep! I’ll just say that, for me, the Korra Alone episode, which is kind of wonderful. We have very different things happening in those episodes, but the vulnerability of those characters, the vulnerability that Korra we find in, that frustration, the feeling that many of us have had, something that feels insurmountable.
The thing that gets in our way is us not believing in ourselves. It becomes even harder when we sort of go: “Well, why am I not doing better?” That was huge for me, and it was hard to see a character that had already grown so much go through that. To complete that, I would say that Turf Wars is fantastic, because it does the thing that we all wanted it to do, which is taking us a step further with Korra and Asami and into the Spirit World. It’s not so much of a vacation, but it’s healing because they have those conversations with their families, and we get to see how all of that plays out. It’s just great to see the reality of that: you have a fantasy of the world, and yet you also have the groundedness of what it feels like when you have these conversations with your parents who may or may not know what your love life is like.
Basco: There’s that and all the stuff with Iroh and Mako, who played him, passing in the midst of Book Two. It was a very emotional thing for the whole cast. Playing Zuko all those years, I was also involved in very transitional tribulations of life, and I think some of that stuff kind of seeped into the character and added a lot of emotionality. It was serendipitous that I was playing a character going through such a transition in the story.
Taveras: It’s perfect that you made that reference to Mako because that’s actually my final question for you – those that leave us are never truly gone. We sadly had to say goodbye to Mako, and I’d like to know: given the show’s resurgence in popularity, what is something you both wish you could tell him about the impact that his character’s had?
Varney: Just listening to you unfurl this question, and the tears are like, “here they come.”
Basco: I knew Mako before this role. He played my uncle in a previous movie. He is someone I was able to touch base with, and even though we didn’t know the impact the show was having, we understood the importance of our characters’ relationship. He was a prolific Asian American actor that came a generation before me and I grew up in the theater company he co-founded. I worked with him throughout the years, and he was someone who checked in on me and my career. I don’t know what I would tell him, but I guess I would tell him: “wow, we really impacted the world,” and I think as actors, filmmakers and artists, we want to be part of and celebrate these great stories. To know that we’re part of one of these great stories that really impacts people and helps them become who they are. I would just say: “Mako, we did it.”