It's a delight to visit Katie O'Neill's worlds, where princesses save themselves, dragons have tea parties, and seahorse-unicorn hybrids protect the sea. The New Zealand native first grew her fan base through her Tumblr comic Princess Princess, about a Princess stuck in a castle who gets saved by another Princess and they take "happily ever after" into their own hands... and that's just the beginning.
Her beautiful work got the attention of Oni Press executive editor Ari Yarwood, who offered to publish O'Neill's next book, Princess Princess Ever After (2016), the sequel to her popular webcomic. Next was Tea Dragon Society, an all-ages children's book about a young blacksmith apprentice named Greta who in her spare time learns how to take care of endangered and finicky dragons who magically grow tea leaves from their antlers. The book was so popular last year that Oni released a Tea Dragon Card Game (Renegade, 2017) and a Chamomile plushie they can barely keep on the shelves.
Writing and drawing all of her own work this year, O'Neill won not one but two Eisner Awards at San Diego Comic-Con for Tea Dragon Society: Best Publication for Kids (ages 9-12) and Best Webcomic. The book also won the 2018 Dwayne McDuffie Award for Kids' Comics and a 2018 Harvey Award at New York Comic Con (Best Children or Young Adult Book). Last month, O'Neill published her latest graphic novel with Oni Press, Aquicorn Cove, for the same age group and already has a prequel in the works.
SYFY WIRE caught up with the very busy artist to talk about her process, inspirations, and how she makes time for it all.
Congratulations on your Eisner Win! What did it feel like to win such a prestigious award for your work?
Thank you so much! It feels absolutely amazing, if I didn't have the trophies to look at I would have trouble believing it really happened. It's a huge honor, and it made me realize how thankful I am to work with a publisher who helped me make exactly the book that I had in my heart. Every element of The Tea Dragon Society is something important to me, and something I would have loved as a kid, so receiving recognition for that makes me incredibly happy.
When did you first realize that you were an artist?
From the time I was a kid, I've always expressed myself and the things I loved through drawing. It's been a part of me my entire life; it feels as essential as eating or exercise. As a teen, I began to use art to build worlds and create stories, which is what gradually led me to comics. However, I didn't study art at school, so I feel very grateful for the circumstances that have led me to be able to do this full-time.
Of all the genres of graphics novels, why did you gravitate to children's stories?
They're what comes most naturally for me to write, and it's extremely gratifying to write for children. They react so creatively and passionately to the worlds you set up in your stories. I absolutely adore the Tea Dragon drawings and lore that have been sent to me by parents since the book came out. I have a huge fondness for so much of the fiction I enjoyed as a child and early teen — the works of CLAMP and Diana Wynne Jones, Harry Potter, Pokémon, even Neopets — and it would be my dream to create something that could live in the same place in people's childhoods.
You have a very distinct style. What's your process? Digital? Watercolor and inks?
I do a bit of pencil sketching, but past that all my work is digital — there are amazing brushes out there that can give it a really organic feeling. I've recently moved to mostly working on an iPad Pro, which feels so natural and has been great for helping me get out of the house to work.
How do you balance writing, drawing, and coloring your comics?
I tend to work in completed stages — scripting, thumbnailing, and then penciling and coloring each page at a time. In some ways, it's a smoother process when you do everything yourself, and I'm really lucky to have an editor who is very familiar with my work and trusts me to figure things out as I work, rather than laying out at each step.
Who are some artists/writers that inspire your work?
One of the biggest inspirations for me growing up was a manga artist called Kiyohiko Azuma, author of Azumanga Daioh and Yostuba&! — the way he observes everyday action and uses panels to pace out reactions and jokes is something I reference a lot. I'm also really inspired by the watercolor work of Amélie Fléchais and Sang Miao.
What is Aquicorn Cove about?
It's a story about a young girl, Lana, and her father returning to their seaside hometown to help with the clean-up effort after a major storm. While there, Lana discovers a magical undersea colony of Aquicorns, seahorse-unicorn hybrid creatures who guard the reef, as well as a small injured baby Aquicorn that she nurses back to health. As she does so, she wonders if the fate of the town and the reef might be connected and begins to question the complicity of the adults she has always trusted to look after her.
Aquicorn Cove is dedicated to reef preservation. Is nature preservation something that you're passionate about?
Absolutely. I'm passionate about all forms of conservation. Marine conservation is so important for the well-being of the entire planet — so much life depends on the sea. It's also extremely delicate, and though we're making great progress in terms of growing and re-grafting coral and understanding the risk factors, we're at a really crucial time where we need to make big choices to protect the environment for future generations.
Both Greta and Minette from The Tea Dragon Society are strong young girls who have suffered loss but still trust and see the good in others. Is that what makes them magical?
I think that with my stories, I always want a feeling of hope and healing, balanced with the hardships that kids may face in life. It's a fine balance between acknowledging the depth of pain they may go through while offering a place for love, recovery, and growth.
The Tea Dragon Festival was just announced as the companion story to The Tea Dragon Society last month. Is it a continuation of the same story?
It's a prequel story, so it features a couple of familiar characters from The Tea Dragon Society along with some new faces. I was excited to build on the basic concepts of the world already in place while also exploring a new direction, so readers will get a chance to see Tea Dragons that are raised in a different culture and have a different bond with their caretakers.
Your graphic novels are very diverse. What advice do you have for other creators who have trouble incorporating diverse characters into their children's stories?
I think that incorporating diverse characters is the most natural thing to do. The world around us is inhabited by people of so many races, religions, genders, and sexual identities. To make the world in a book reflect that, be mindful and do the research, and remain thoughtful of writing an experience reflective of others' experiences without co-opting it is as your own.
What's your next project?
I definitely have more stories for the Tea Dragon world in mind that I would love to share, and I'm very excited to try dabbling in some early reader comics soon!