Katie O'Neill is an illustrator and graphic novelist from New Zealand, and the author of Princess Princess Ever After. The Tea Dragon Society (October 18, 2017) is her second graphic novel with Oni Press. She mostly makes gentle fantasy stories for younger readers and is very interested in tea, creatures, things that grow and the magic of everyday life.
The Tea Dragon Society began as a webcomic. How did you start in webcomics, and why did you choose that publication medium?
I started posting online about six years ago. When I posted my first webcomic on Tumblr, the response was amazing--I'd never had that kind of reach before. So I thought webcomics were great, especially because I'm from New Zealand and it doesn't have all that much in the way of graphic novel publishing. Because of that, you kind of expect to do things as a hobby. For me to share it online was really natural--it's a bigger audience and I wasn't out to make a buck.
The first webcomic I did was Princess Princess. My editor reached out after seeing the work online and asked if I would like to publish it, which started my relationship with Oni Press. From there I was able to pitch The Tea Dragon Society. And even though Tea Dragons was originally posted as a webcomic, it was always conceived of as a book. Oni Press has been really chill with the idea of publishing online as well as print--it's a good combination because you build a following. It's a really amazing marketing tool that publishers are overlooking. I'm totally about the power of webcomics, especially for new creators, because it gives you the chance to build an audience and get the attention of editors while actually producing work and monetizing it yourself.
Will you continue producing webcomics now that you're twice published?
I think it depends on the story. My next project with Oni feels more graphic novel-y. I want people to be able to read it in one sitting, instead of getting a page a week. You definitely have to think of the pacing. Tea Dragons is a really slow story with no cliffhanger moments, which means you can totally read a page a week with a cup of tea. With other projects, if you've got quite a lot of tension, you can do batch updates. But in this case, I feel like the pacing is better for a graphic novel. I think in the future if I did a more laid-back comic, I'd do it as a webcomic.
Tea Dragons are tiny, domesticated, mercurial creatures with leaves that grow out of their horns. These leaves can be brewed for tea that has exceptional properties. Where did this idea come from?
The idea just came as I was talking to Oni about Princess Princess. I love tea and dragons, and it came together. I did a one-off drawing of a tea dragon and posted it online, which got a great response. And I thought I should really do something with this. In terms of the properties, in the book itself you encounter the four main tea dragons: chamomile, jasmine, rooibos and ginseng. But there's also back matter with a lot more properties and details and different dragons that don't appear in the book. I really like that this is just one slice of the world and you can imagine a lot more existing.
All tea dragons show you the experiences they've lived with their owners. They require 24/7 supervision, so they're with their person all the time, watching and being poky, nosy creatures in the lives of their owners. They absorb quite a lot of memories. When you brew the tea that a particular Tea Dragon produces, it will give you a sensory experience similar to smelling something familiar and being taken to a specific moment.
The romantic couplings in the graphic novel are quietly diverse and non-heteronormative: Greta's parents are a male and a female who do not fit into standard gender roles and her mentor is in a gay, interspecies relationship. Did you set out to have couplings like this?
It's mainly just what I love. And the range of different relationships and how people match together is really fascinating. I also like contrast in the couplings I write, so there's quite a lot of contrast [here].
Was the response online from children? What was the impetus to marketing toward children?
Actually, to be honest, most of the people responding on Tumblr were a little bit older. They were people who loved tea and dragons and liked to collect things. But I prefer writing for children. I personally connect with it a lot more and really enjoy it.
The world feels almost feudal with the trades and possible hierarchies. What drove you to create this world?
I think it just feels hierarchical because of the trades. I definitely wanted trades and crafts to be a really important feature--it's really important for kids to think about crafts and trades. Especially now that college isn't necessarily the most viable option, there are lots of other things they can consider. I wanted to present a world in which trades were viable. And I'm not very good at constructing world politics--I just want it to come across as a place where things make sense even if they're not outlined in the story.
In your editorial letter, you said you would like nothing more than to see young readers create their own tea dragons. What is your tea dragon?
I think mine would be a green tea with mango, and it would be extremely active in the morning and would absolutely crash in the afternoon. I feel like a lot of people have coffee dragons....