There’s a lot of pressure on media to be innovative, to have big twists and complicated plots or to be the splashiest out there. This is reinforced every time consumers deride a piece of media because they could “see the end coming” or “guess the twist” with no regard for the journey, the world, the characters. Katie O’Neill’s The Tea Dragon Festival, published by Oni Press, is not for that audience.
The Tea Dragon Festival is a companion story to O’Neill’s Eisner Award-winning webcomic The Tea Dragon Society. In this soft, third world fantasy, tea dragons are rare creatures that when properly tended to grow tea leaves on their body. The world is diverse and the artwork is soft and whimsical. In the original series, tea dragons are rare enough to the point where the protagonist, a young blacksmith’s apprentice, must be told what they are when she encounters one, however, The Tea Dragon Festival takes place before the main story in a town where the little dragons are more common.
Rinn, an aspiring cook with a knack for gathering encounters a real dragon while out procuring items townfolk need for the festival. While tea dragons are quite known to Rinn, Aedhan is something different. Asleep for 80 years and forgotten by nearly everyone, Aedhan is distressed to learn that the town he was assigned to protect has moved on without him. Visitors to the town and familiar faces to those who’ve read The Tea Dragon Society, Erik and Hesekiel, reveal that they’ve come following the rumors of a creature that makes people fall asleep in hopes of getting it to stop. The story primarily follows Rinn as they discover who they want to be in the world and Aedhan as he tries to reconcile the passing of time and how they help each other be content with who they are.
The soft, dreamy quality of the artwork and the way the story is never rushed garners the same aesthetic as the quiet magic of Miyazaki films. Scenes are focused on cooking and making tea and gathering items offering full immersion into the world and not just a quick dunk to deliver some action. The characters themselves are quite diverse, Rinn is a brown and genderfluid. Some of the other characters are anthropomorphic animals living alongside humans ala BoJack Horseman. Additionally, the graphic novel features a deaf character which prompts most of the town to learn sign language and Aedhan whose humanoid form is basically a fursona of his dragon form. And of course, there are the tea dragons the series is named for flitting around.
One of the hardest things about growing up is realizing that the path you’ve envisioned for yourself is not always the path that’s best for you to follow. Another hard thing is realizing that just because paths have been closed off to you, sometimes due to no fault of your own, doesn’t mean there aren’t more paths available. The Tea Dragon Festival addresses both of these wonderfully with an added message showing skills have value even if you don’t see it right away. We learn these lessons from changing careers and changing majors and often times it feels like a failure to give up on one dream but The Tea Dragon Festival really shows that deciding on a different path or being incapable of completing your original goals isn’t a failure, just the start of a something new.
The Tea Dragon Festival is available in comic book stores everywhere September 18, 2019
Rating: 4.5/5grumpy little dragons