The Tea Dragon Festival. By Katie O’Neill. Oni Press, ISBN 978-1620106556 (hardcover), 2019. US$21.99. 136 pages.
I read The Tea Dragon Festival during an early morning idyll, propped up in bed with a cat curled up on my lap (our cat Max likes to hang with us when we read). That sounds about right — it’s that kind of book: tranquil, comforting. A purring cat, basking in a morning ritual, is a pretty good stand-in for the semi-domesticated “tea dragons” that populate its world. In fact, here on KinderComics I described this book’s predecessor, The Tea Dragon Society (2017), as an “idyll full of greenness and life” and a “cat-lover’s daydream.” The same goes this time.
The biggest problem I had with this sumptuous book was reading it by diffuse sunlight: O’Neill’s occasional layering of dark or muted colors posed a challenge to my eyes; I couldn’t make out certain expressions and overlapping shapes. I ended up having to turn on my reading lamp and point it directly at the pages — then the expressions popped. So, I recommend reading The Tea Dragon Festival by strong light; then you’ll really get to see O’Neill’s ravishing color work. When well-lit, the book fairly glows.
Cover blurbs describe Festival as warm, charming, and gentle. Again, that sounds right. The story skirts pain and hardship; though it evokes some subtle melancholy, its characters are not burdened with difficult ethical decisions or hard losses. The vibe is green, dreamlike, and utopian (with the now-expected traces of Miyazaki). The one potential source of serious conflict appears and disappears in a handful of pages. In fact, the book is so quiet and anodyne that it’s quite a surprise when a fight briefly breaks out:
Like its predecessor, Festival takes place in an eco-topia: an idealized rural culture defined by caring community and respect for traditional crafts. The story, again, focuses on a growing girl who is learning a craft — in this case, cooking — and her interactions with dragons — this time, not just miniature tea dragons but also a full-blown, shape-shifting, often humanoid dragon. This dragon, Aedhan, considers himself the appointed protector of the girl, Rinn’s, village, but has been waylaid by a magical, eighty-year sleep, from which he has only just awoken. He is filled with regret for the years he has missed. Rinn takes responsibility for helping Aedhan get to know her people and acculturate to village life — so, once again, the story revolves around the sharing of memories, as Aedhan moves from outsider to trusted villager. Though longer and more ambitious than the first book, then, Festival takes up the same concerns and exhibits the same qualities.
I like O’Neill’s work for emphasizing, as I’ve said before, loving connection and tender gestures. But I have to repeat another observation too: this book’s delicacy left me wanting more complication, more trouble. I wanted a harder story, something that would show the characters’ values when put to a fiercer test. It’s easy to love the world O’Neill has created, one of sharing and openness, indeed a queer, feminist, anti-capitalist utopia. Clearly, she herself loves the world and its characters. I particularly like the inclusion of signing (American Sign Language) as a plot element, which sharpens O’Neill’s already impressive sense of (in this case literal) body language. The story, though, gives no sense that the apple cart has ever been upset, or the people’s equanimity challenged, by the ordinary work of survival. O’Neill seems to prefer quieter dilemmas, smaller stakes. Festival is sweet and affirming, but its plot evanesces soon after reading, leaving behind an impression of a personal wonderland, exquisitely tended and mostly about the pleasure of its own rendering.
I’ll happily read more by O’Neill: she’s a gifted cartoonist and book artist. Each time I read her, though, I become terribly aware of my own cynicism. Harrumph!
Gender Queer. By Maia Kobabe. Colors by Phoebe Kobabe. Sensitivity read by Melanie Gillman. Oni Press, ISBN 978-1549304002 (softcover), May 2019. $17.99. 240 pages.
Glad to get to this one, at last.
Gender Queer bills itself (on its cover) as both a memoir and a guide. It does both well. As a memoir, it is intimate, recounting a personal story about the push-pull of body and mind, self and society. It is as candid as it must be, as discreet as it can be. This is Maia Kobabe’s story, told with autographic frankness. As a guide, it gestures beyond the personal, giving an authoritative (though not universalizing) perspective on gender dysphoria, asexuality, and the politics of being a nonbinary subject in a binary culture. Actually, it works well as a guide because it works as a story — meaning Gender Queer is authoritative because Kobabe lived it. The book demonstrates how comics, by interweaving picture, word, and symbol, can evoke the general through the particular; how graphic memoir can do the work of political as well as autobiographical witness. Gender Queer credibly witnesses to tough issues precisely because Kobabe does not assume that anyone else has lived with those issues in precisely the same way; that is, the book honors the specificities of eir life (Kobabe uses the Spivak pronouns e, eir, and em). The quirks of eir own experience make the book what it is—yet sharing those quirks brings a vivid honesty that will speak to readers whose circumstances are very different from the author’s.
Gender Queer is bookended by scenes of teaching and learning. In the opening, Maia struggles with eir autobiographical cartooning class, taught by MariNaomi (part of eir Comics MFA at the California College of the Arts); e resists the idea of sharing eir “secrets” on the page. Overcoming that resistance is prerequisite to the very book we are reading, and Kobabe depicts eirself tearing away a kind of veil to share eir story with us. In the closing, Maia teaches eir own comics workshop to tweens and teens at a local library, but struggles again: e reproaches eirself for not coming out to eir students, that is, not sharing eir nonbinary identity and preferred pronouns. Oddly, then, this coming-out story ends with an instance of not coming out, and of self-blame. The book is open about troubles and misgivings of this sort, as well as the familial and social awkwardness of negotiating new pronouns. In one striking scene, Maia’s aunt, a lesbian and committed feminist, responds to the pronoun question by challenging Maia’s perspective on FTM transitioning and genderqueerness, suggesting that these things may stem from misogyny, from a “deeply internalized hatred of women” (195). Maia is troubled by this challenge, of course, but the scene plays out with a delicate touch (eir aunt is properly supportive, not an adversary). Thus Kobabe is able to field a sensitive question, perhaps even to defuse the likely skepticism of some readers. I confess that these admissions of awkwardness and trouble swayed me; it was good to see Kobabe dealing with the struggles of family and friends without rancor or caricature. Gender Queer is that kind of book: humanly complicated, and willing to lean into complexity and trouble (it pairs well with L. Nichols’s Flocks in that regard).
As an autographic, testimonial comic, Gender Queer adds to the fund of helpful cultural resources available to queer and gender-nonconforming young people. At the same time, it testifies to how Kobabe has drawn upon cultural resources in eir own journey: books, comics, Waldorf schooling, homeschooling, and art teachers (two depicted here, MariNaomi and Melanie Gillman, are queer cartoonists themselves). In Maia’s quest for self-understanding, books loom large: e is a voracious and self-documenting reader, a lister of books read and re-read. Kobabe’s account suggests that storytellers such as Neil Gaiman, Tamora Pierce, and Clamp served eir as resources for self-fashioning. A now-poignant passage recounts how Maia, a delayed reader at age eleven, taught eirself to read so as to devour the Harry Potter books (the irony of which, at the present moment, cuts like a knife). At a key moment late in Gender Queer, Kobabe turns to another book, neurophilosopher Patricia Churchland’s Touching a Nerve: The Self as Brain (2013), and even conjures Churchland as a character, an expert witness whose testimony about “the masculinizing of the brain” affirms Maia’s sense that “I was born this way.” This flourish is perhaps a touch too triumphant: Kobabe gives no sense of the intellectual debate around Churchland’s ideas, but simply invokes her as a bookish authority and solution. In any case, Gender Queer is, through and through, the record of a reader’s life.
Style-wise, Gender Queer favors spareness and economy. Scenic backgrounds are few, and deliberate; Kobabe’s panels often consist of head shots against color fields. Conversation, reflection, and expression are everything. Pages typically follow a grid, whether unvarying or, more often, a bit relaxed, letting the white of the page show through:
On the other hand, Kobabe lets rapturous, full-page drawing take over every so often. Clearly, eir minimalism is a considered choice, as confirmed by certain passages that break with the general sparseness. Dig for example these two facing pages:
Though Gender Queer is discursive and text-filled, it never feels clotted. Kobabe’s organic hand-lettering and use of unbordered elements give the art breathing room. The pages include telling pauses, open bleeds, and dialogic exchanges that add up to a accessible, even brisk, read.
Disarming is a good word for Gender Queer: the book’s honesty about dysphoria and bodily phobias may trouble some readers. I myself started the book in, admittedly, a guarded or hard-hearted mood, skeptical of the family ethos depicted: the utopian, back-to-the-woods values, the homeschooling, every little thing that I could interpret as a sign of sheltering or self-indulgence. Of course I was being pigheaded, and wrong — as the book’s warmth and complexity so clearly showed me. Gender Queer is moving and informative, an invaluable memoir and guide.
Sadly, this blog has been temporarily waylaid by academic duties (insert drawn-out Schulzian sigh here). However, I can poke my head out of the ostrich hole long enough to report, albeit belatedly, that the graphic novel Archival Quality (Oni Press, 2018), by Ivy Noelle Weir and Steenz, recently worn the 5th Annual Dwayne McDuffie Award for Diversity in Comics given out at the Long Beach Comics Expo. Geoff Boucher had the news, at Deadline Hollywood, back on Feb. 15. I'm sorry I didn't catch this fast enough! I reviewed Archival Quality last March.
This year's other nominees for the McDuffie Award for Diversity were: Papa Cherry by Saxton Moore and Phillip Johnson (Pixel Pirate Studio), Exit, Stage Left!: The Snagglepuss Chronicles, by Mark Russell and Mike Feehan (DC), Destroyer by Victor LaValle and Dietrich Smith (BOOM!), and The Carpet Merchant of Konstantiniyya by Reimena Yee (self-published, about which, more here).
The Tea Dragon Society, by Katie O’Neill. Oni Press, 2017. ISBN 978-1620104415. 72 pages, hardcover, $17.99. Designed by Hilary Thompson.
A gentle, winsome fantasy set in an unspecified secondary world with hints of backstory, The Tea Dragon Society is a lush, verdant, lovely thing: an exquisitely rendered, Miyazaki-esque idyll full of greenness and life. Testimony to a very specific set of passions, the book practically elevates cuteness—in the form of miniature, catlike dragons who have to be coddled and protected—to a moral good. In this world, traumas and losses have happened in the past, to be sketched in via poetic flashbacks, while the present action has a quiet, almost palliative quality (absent Miyazaki’s occasional hardnosed gift for terror and trial). The artwork conjures forms and volumes through blocks of color rather than heavy linework, and makes me swoon from its sheer gorgeousness. Aesthetically, then, the book as Object fairly mesmerizes me, though I confess that the ingratiating sweetness of the conceit, the world and its dragons, wears on me a little. Call me a grouch.
Ironically, this handsome, bookish book began as a webcomic. I say ironically because The Tea Dragon Society is a heartfelt paean to traditional crafts—blacksmithing, dragon-tending—and the people who keep those crafts alive, passing on skills and techniques but also, most importantly, memories, both personal and cultural. The protagonist, Greta, a young smith in training, rescues a lost tea dragon and finds herself entering a new world of dragon-keeping, one of utmost delicacy. Tea dragons literally grow tea leaves from their horns, leaves that can be harvested only with a knowing, gentle touch. The tea brewed from said leaves brings back memories: to drink tea dragon tea is to reexperience the past, in quiet reverie. Dragon-keeping and tea-making are slow arts, requiring patience, precision, subtlety, and empathy. There’s a strong suggestion of Japan’s traditional craft (kogei) and art forms, forms bound up in the succession of generations, in the spirit of particular places, and in the relationships between mentors and pupils. Greta comes to know two dragon-keepers: a couple of former adventurers, now settled, who are striving, in defiance of cultural change and time, to keep the tea dragon tradition alive. She also meets the keepers’ shy, enigmatic ward, Minette, a girl who, it turns out, was once a prophet. Love between the two keepers, as well as the possibility of love between Greta and Minette, is romantic and idealized, queer-affirming, and chaste but not timid (i.e. the romance, though never earthy, is more than implicit). Gender conventions are flouted at every turn, albeit gracefully. The book strikes me as aesthetically genderqueer, its characters always beautiful and its art sensuous, yet it’s entirely, as we say, child-friendly: a quiet ecotopia of loving connection and small, tender gestures.
Like its dragons, The Tea Dragon Society has about it an air of preciousness and fragility. The story is based on a pretty frail concept—albeit one elaborately explained in the book’s back matter—and readers unmoved by the bonding of dragon and caregiver may find the tale twee and oversweet. The logic of the story’s world frankly seems rigged so that O’Neill’s particular interests, dragons and tea, can together serve as a metaphor for the way that craft traditions preserve cultural memory. There’s a tidiness about the conceit that isn’t quite believable: tea dragon tea leaves only evoke memories shared by dragon and owner, meaning that the dragons do not pass on memories of their own, but only those experienced by the bonded pair of dragon and caregiver. Dragons rarely bond with each other as strongly as they do their caregivers, and so the social lives of these creatures are bound up in the dyadic closed circuit of dragon and owner. This is a tad too perfect, I’m tempted to say—something like a cat-lover’s daydream. In that sense, The Tea Dragon Society hovers between a credible fantasy world and an indulgence as delicate as spun glass. (It’s easy to be cynical about a story in which petting, pampering, and bonding with small, cute creatures makes everything happen.) Yet the pairing of Greta and Minette—one a crafter of memorable things, the other a fallen prophet who has lost most of her memories—gives the theme of remembering a special urgency, and the bonding of the two makes for an unusual love story. Further, O’Neill’s cartooning, especially her delineation of form through color, creates an immersive visual world that is delightful to visit. The sequences of shared memory include some wonderfully organic layouts, and the book is a treat to page through and reread. Finally, I have to admire the book’s determined emphasis on working and making, so different from what we’ve been conditioned to expect from fairy tales.
I am perhaps too old and curmudgeonly for the story of The Tea Dragon Society. I admit, I’d like a world that resists and confounds its characters a bit more, something spikier and less comforting. But I’ll be sure to queue up for O’Neill’s next book (reportedly due out soon). She has the power of worldmaking and her narrative drawing is clear, graceful, and transporting. One of the charms of comics is the way the form invites us into private worlds, and The Tea Dragon Society does that beautifully.
Archival Quality. Written by Ivy Noelle Weir, illustrated and colored by Steenz. Oni Press, March 2018. ISBN 978-1620104705. $19.99, 280 pages. A Junior Library Guild Selection.
Archival Quality, an original graphic novel out this week, tells the story of a haunted museum: a ghost story. It also tells about living with mental illness. The protagonist Cel, a librarian struggling with anxiety and depression, takes a job as archivist of a spooky medical museum that once served as an asylum (my friend, medical archivist and comics historian Mike Rhode, should check this out). The catch: she has to live in an apartment on the premises and do her work only in the dead of night. Soon she begins to witness... happenings that she cannot explain. Her boss, the museum's curator, and her coworker, a librarian, tiptoe around her, knowing more than they will say. Cel, who lost her previous job due to a breakdown, is understandably perplexed and triggered by their evasions, and by the fact that no one seems to believe her reports of odd doings. She begins to have frightful dreams: flashbacks that evoke the shadowy history of women's mental health treatment. The plot, which like many ghost stories gestures toward the fantastic (as Todorov defined it), finally veers toward the outright marvelous as Cel investigates the case of a young woman from long ago whose presence still lingers about the place. Cel, as she works to solve that case, is by turns fragile and angry, defensive and determined—a complex character, as is the curator, at first her foil, later her ally. The story takes quite a few turns.
To be honest, Archival Quality's title and look did not prepare me for its uneasy exploration of mental health treatment—or rather, the social and psychiatric construction of mental illness. As I read through the novel's first half, Steenz's drawing style struck me as too light, undetailed, and schematically cute for the story's atmosphere of updated Gothic. Cel, with her snub nose, button eyes, and moplike hair, reminded me strongly of Raggedy Ann, and in general Steen's characters have a neotenic, doll-like quality. The settings seemed too plain to conjure up mystery and dread; the staging seemed too shallow, with talking heads posed before blank fields of color or swaths of shadow, lacking particulars. Steenz favors air frames (white borders around the panels, rather than drawn borderlines) and an uncluttered look. This did not jibe with my expectations of the ghost story as a genre.
But as the plot deepens, and Cel's dreams and visions overtake her, Weir and Steenz together generate suspense. The pages deal out a number of small, quiet shocks:
Further, Steenz's sensitive handling of body language brings the characters, doll-like as they are, to life. The book becomes tense, involving, and, as we say, unputdownable.
Weir and Steenz's back pages tell us that the two enjoyed a close working relationship, and you can tell this from the story's anxious unwinding. This is unusually strong storytelling, and a complicated, coiled plot, for a first-time graphic novel team. Clearly, Weir and Steenz are simpatico artistically—and ideologically too, I think, sharing a progressive and feminist outlook that shapes cast, character design, characterization, and plot.
I will admit that not everything about Archival Quality works for me. The plot, on the level of mechanics, seems juryrigged and farfetched, that is, determined to pull characters and elements together for the sake of symbolic fitness, without the sort of realistic rigging that the novel seems to be striving for. In other words, certain things happen simply because they have to happen. Further, some elements of the story, rather big elements I think, are palmed off in the end because Weir and Steenz don't seem to be interested in working out the details. At the closing, I had the feeling that a Point was being made, rather than a novel being rounded off (to be fair, I often react this way to YA fiction, even though I know that didacticism is crucial to the genre). Still, Archival Quality, behind its coy title, offers a gutsy exploration of mental health treatment, an eerie ghost story, and characters who renegotiate their relationships with credible human frailty and charm. A most promising print debut, and a keeper.