Many comic books are filled with violence, conflict and destruction. With all that, wouldn’t it be nice to have a book where all you need for a good time is a few friends and a cup of tea? And a few dragons, of course.
The Tea Dragon Society, out this week from Oni Press, is the simple story of Greta, a blacksmith’s apprentice in a world where humans have animal-like traits, and dragons are part of everyday life. When Greta discovers a tea dragon, a particularly unique creature, she becomes involved with others who care for these beings, and learns a great deal about them, herself, and the world around her in the process.
The Tea Dragon Society had its roots as a webcomic from Katie O’Neill, the creator behind the graphic novel Princess Princess Ever After. Newsarama talked to O’Neill about the world of tea dragons, the modes of classical storytelling she employed for the story, and even a tea dragon we came up with.
Newsarama: Katie, how did the idea for The Tea Dragon Society come about? Particularly curious about the idea behind tea dragons, as, well, it'd be good to have one of those.
Katie O'Neill: The teadragons were something I doodled up on a whim. I’ve always really enjoyed designing fantasy creatures, probably thanks in part to a childhood raised on Pokémon and Neopets.
When I posted them online, I received lots of questions from people curious about how the dragons worked and the kind of world they were in, which led me to think it’d be fun to flesh out the concept.
At the time, Oni Press had just picked up Princess Princess Ever After from me and was interested in another book, so the timing was perfect!
Nrama: How much backstory did you come up with for this world? Also, curious with regard to how you decided which animal ears/horns each character should get.
O'Neill: I’m fairly light on world-building. I want to create a strong sense of place on the page, without bogging down young readers too much with detail.
I love ambient world building that comes across as readers build up what’s provided by the story with what they imagine in their own heads; kids are especially good at that. That said, I have quite a lot of backstory about different types of dragons that exist in the world which I’d love to explore further in future.
In terms of animal traits, it’s mostly just what I think would work with their personality! Greta and her mother are so strong and warm, I thought little bull horns suited perfectly. Meanwhile, Minette is sweet and a bit fluttery, so a deer with soft feathery ears seemed to work. I really adore settings that effortlessly mingle human and animal elements, so I really want my designs to have a natural feeling.
Nrama: What was it like working with Oni on this?
O'Neill: Absolutely fantastic! I couldn’t ask to work with a more supportive and caring team, and my editor especially has guided me so much in creating a book I’m really proud of.
I had a real crisis just before I was set to start work on the first draft of the book where I had planned it to be much longer, more of a YA graphic novel, but realised it just wasn’t feeling right and I felt like I would have to sacrifice the painted “Golden Book” style I wanted to use.
My editor was so understanding and patient as I restructured the book for a younger audience, keeping the strongest parts, and I think it’s a far better book for it.
Nrama: What were some of your favorite stories growing up, fantasy or otherwise? This has a tone to it like a number of books I remember that were simply about, "A couple of girls meet and hang out in their own little club and learn things about people in their community." Only, you know, with dragons.
O'Neill: That totally sounds like the kind of book I would have been into! My favourite books as a kid were generally about very little except domestic and interpersonal affairs - my most well-worn copies were Little Women and What Katy Did.
Reading them again recently, I was surprised by the strength of the religious themes, because all I remembered from reading them as a kid were the simple slice of life scenes and interactions which have definitely informed what I write about now.
I also loved fantasy - more movies such as The Dark Crystal - but Tamora Pierce’s Circle of Magic series was very formative for me, and also contains a lot of domesticity, along with family relationships or friendships.
Nrama: What would an Iced Tea Dragon be like? I'm from the Southern United States. It's not uncommon to jack tea up with near-explicit amounts of sugar here.
O'Neill: For an Iced Tea Dragon, I think you’d pick your favorite black tea dragon of choice, and then sweeten them up with berries and fruits! Though not too much, as too much sugar makes them grouchy and listless as they continually run out of energy and flop in the middle of whatever they’re doing.
Nrama: What were some of the mythological/cultural elements that most inspired the story?
O'Neill: I really love the dragon mythos. I think it’s because they have this familiar shape in everyone’s consciousness, and yet there are so many variations according to different cultures going way back into history.
It fascinates me so much, and I really wanted to push the idea of dragons into something very domestic as a fun contrast to the usual concept of strength and fierceness. I think it makes people laugh to see them as exaggerated versions of domestic cats.
Nrama: The book has a bit of LGBT romance, with a bit of interspecies vibe to it, but it's very sweet and subdued - and again, kind of reminiscent of classic children's stories, where the characters encounter older couples or longtime companions that give them a sense of adult relationships.
It's interesting to see more modern depictions of relationships put into "classic" types of storytelling, but what do you feel are the biggest challenges in combining those elements?
O'Neill: I think the main challenge lies in making them feel organic, as though the characters from one of those storybooks have grown up and lived a full life and have grown old together. I drew very deliberately on the classic Golden Book aesthetic to help develop that, and even though the setting is fairly modern, I kept certain elements fairly archaic. There are no cars, just creatures with wagons, and the only occupations depicted could exist at any time in history - merchant, blacksmith, bounty hunter, etc.
I spent a lot of time fine-tuning the setting, I wanted it to feel contemporary but with a gentleness and simplicity. I think having that made it possible to make a modern variation of classic storybook tropes.
Nrama: Do you have plans for more stories in this world?
O'Neill: Definitely! I’d really love to flesh out the lives of the characters more, as well as slowly and gently build up their world, and explore other types of magic and creatures that exist in the world of the books. I’m very much into stories that span lifetimes of characters - I think even when the stories themselves are simple, they create profound depth and a connection with the reader.
Nrama: What's next for you?
O'Neill:I’m currently have something new in the works that’s a little diversion from the tea dragons world while I plan the next story, but has a lot of shared elements - especially magical creatures!
Nrama: Anything else you'd like to talk about that we haven't discussed yet?
O'Neill:If anyone is interested in my projects and art, or enjoys photographs of baby axolotls, the best place to find more of my work is over on my Twitter, @strangelykatie!