The running themes in Katie O’Neill’s charming stories are joy and friendship. Sprinkle in a dash of learning, some tea, and sometimes romance–these are a few of the ingredients that make up the New Zealand illustrator’s magical tales. There are also healthy doses of incredibly clean lines and perfectly chosen palettes sprinkled throughout. Her natural penchant for linework lends itself to the lure of her artwork. Characters, historical background, and scenes are developed on paper before they become part of a digitally colored comic. This gives each carefully curated world a life of its own.
O’Neill has been sharing her work online for the last five years, and continued to make comics for anthologies, web comic fans, and more. There’s a simplicity to her art that speaks to people of all ages. The love, friendship and kindness between characters in stories like Princess Princess and The Tea Dragon Society have a purity to them. Though there are serious themes in these stories like societal expectations for queer people or psychological trauma, O’Neill’s comics are untainted by violence and rage.
Characters deal with despair or family trauma in a mature way, seeking out the help of others or continuing on despite tragic circumstances. Even in her short comics, O’Neill manages to recall a sense of sweetness to the way that characters handle the troubles of everyday life. A great example of this is her very first full comic shared online in 2012, Counting Stars.
Counting Stars is a short but poignant comic about loneliness and every person’s need to connect with another person. In 7 pages, O’Neill manages to share several years of a young person’s life, weaving intricate emotional details into the story without dialogue. For the young woman in the story, the need for friendship is stronger than the need for romance, escapism, or any other coping mechanisms. This is a beautiful message in a divisive time, which may speak to the appeal of O’Neill’s themes and artwork. That clarity of our human need for a close, loving bond or the sharp outline of rejection can be felt over the course of a few panels.
After the positive response to Counting Stars, the illustrator went on to create more than six other short comics within the next couple of years. She also wrote and drew The Girl From Hell City. On top of this she illustrated Crystal Cadets with writer Anne Toole of The Witcher series. With her growing fan base and her love for a beautiful story, she started Princess Princess, a webcomic which would later be published by Oni Press as Princess Princess Ever After.
Princess Princess is a unique story about two princesses who are not “traditional” in the sense that they aren’t bound by political marriage or Barbie beauty expectations. These two young women are unique and real, unhappy with their family circumstance, rejecting the role they’ve been told to fill, and in need of a friend they can trust. The creatures in the story are just as important to the plot and get their own heroic moments. Princess Princess embodies love, friendship, and queerness in a genuine way that also addresses self-doubt and suffocating gender roles. As a result of her deft skill with this story and others, O’Neill was also included in a queer paranormal romance anthology called The Other Side. She worked with Kate Leth to illustrate a ouija-based comic.
Not all of O’Neill’s comics are colorful, geometrically based bliss. One of the first anthologies ever to publish a comic she wrote and drew was High Water, published by Faction Press in 2015. It is a collection of stories by New Zealand artists that explores the topic of climate change, and what the future might look like in New Zealand and the world beyond. “Below the Waves,” O’Neill’s contribution to the anthology, is a story of a future without fisheries, a New Zealand full of refugees. Its palette is much darker, called “elegiac in tone” by one reviewer. “There is incredible silence in her pages, mournful in their beauty,” said Daniel Elkin, comics editor for Comics Bulletin.
Her latest work is The Tea Dragon Society, a stunning mythology that began as a web comic in July 2016. She brings to life her love of tea and mythology, and her desire to create an inspiring all-ages tale, in a story about the Tea Dragons. The narrative follows an ancient tradition that the main character Greta is just learning about. It begins when she finds a bruised Tea Dragon in a back alley, and carries it home. This opens up a world of tea, dragons, and a diverse cast of characters. O’Neill’s mythological world includes just about everyone, from a colorful cast of fauns to a central character in a wheelchair. The Tea Dragon Society will be out as a graphic novel from Oni Press in October 2017.
O’Neill handles serious issues like friendship or climate change in different ways, depending on the story. She has a knack for choosing the appropriate artistic atmosphere for the story she’s telling. Perhaps some of this comes from her inspirations, which she cites on her Tumblr FAQ. Amongst studios like Ghibli, Disney, and CLAMP, she lists artists like Kawase Hasui, Alphonse Mucha, and contemporary Hong Kong illustrator Little Thunder. These are just a few of the creative influence that have led O’Neill so far during her own burgeoning career.
You can support Katie on Patreon, buy merchandise from her Threadless store, or hire her for a commission. Or, just follow her on Twitter, Instagram, or Tumblr. Don’t forget to mark her books as To Read if you use Goodreads.