Cardiff-based writer and illustrator Sarah Millman launched her comic NPC Tea last year at Thought Bubble in Leeds. She has worked freelance, both as an artist and as a writer. She has worked on a game called Master Reboot, where she plays the voice of a computer. She is also a big fan of tea and sleep. It is inspired by Final Fantasy, Pathfinder, RPGs generally. NPC Tea is about a tea shop in Cardiff run by colourful characters, such as punk orcs, high-strung elves, summoning-obsessed humans and a stoic, impatient fire spirit. It is a slice-of-life comic with a peppering of fantasy! Forbidden summoning magic is rearing its ugly head and people are trying to take control of the old spirits.
Behind Sarah Millman is a loot shelf filled with such wonderful curiosities like a Bulbasaur plushie and tiny Lego figures. With a sloth calendar sitting side-by-side with Art Nouveau, Sarah talks to Selcouth Station’s Haley Jenkins about the best cup of tea, how her characters came to be and the wonderful success of her Kickstarter! Please support Sarah here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/milmo/npc-tea-issue-3
H: Congratulations on your Kickstarter success! I see on Twitter now – as an extra goal – you are hosting a vote, asking whether your supporters want stickers or fake tattoos as the next Kickstarter tier? [Since this interview, the next achieved goal - £1800 - will introduce a 3D paper toy of NPC character Bryn]
S: Thank you! People were coming up to me the con in Cardiff and saying CONGRATULATIONS. I was like “Thanks aaah!” *weepy voice*. Yes I really wanted the fake tattoos so I could put them on myself!
H: To be fair, you do have a lot of illustrations in NPC that could relate to tattoos quite easily. Like the fuchsia steam-images of the four elemental spirits. Did you find out about breaking the goal before your fans told you or did your fans bring you the news?
S: No I found out before, it was about half past ten that we reached the goal and I was like: “Wha...what do you mean....wha?” *laughs* I tried not to go too crazy!
H: Tell me a little bit about the Cons, because that is where we met. I was broke and knackered by the time I got to you as I made the mistake of getting to the Comic Village last! I was quite disappointed by all the commercial, mainstream stuff in the other room as I wanted to see art and Indies, then I went to the Comic Village and all my money just disappeared.
S: Haha that is kind of how Comic Village usually goes! It’s either overwhelming and terrifying, or stressful because no one is there, or you’re knackered. Or all at once! Thought Bubble in Leeds is AMAZING. It is really good if you are looking for Indie, because that is literally all it is. It is quite competitive to get in: you have to apply with your work and they determine whether you are good enough. I really hope I get in because all the great comic artists I love are there. I don’t really do celebrities, just people I love.
H: Do you get nervous sending off your work?
S: It’s always nerve-wracking sending work to people who aren’t necessarily your friends or family, they are not obliged to be nice. There is always a moment of: “Here...it..is...aaah....oh god”
H: I prefer sending my work to strangers because I know I’m going to get an honest opinion on it. There is an assurance that it is legit, on merit and not ‘pity publishing’. And when they say they want to publish it I’m like “Really? Oh okay I have you convinced!” It’s like I’ve sneaked in somehow.
S: [as Haley] they haven’t noticed me yet haha!
H: I’m going to get the Fraud Police turning up on my door and going: “We’ve found you out!”
S: Seriously though, I feel like everyone I chat to feels the same way. I uploaded the script of Issue #3 to an artist, who is doing a sketch for me. She said she didn’t know which character to do for the cover. I said “Here this character is in it loads!” but at the same time it was like “Oh God!” because it feels like you are showing someone your dirty laundry or your room for the first time. You are waiting for them to realize what a terrible person you are!
H: You do feel suddenly very vulnerable and you want to apologize for everything. Apologizing for even breathing! Like “Sorry I stole your oxygen!” It is kind of sad but also kind of funny.
S: I was speaking to Emily B. Owen, author of Brain Shoodles in Cardiff. She talked about how her comic, which is all about her experiences with depression and anxiety, she was saying it is that vulnerability times a thousand! Because when you are writing in fiction, you feel vulnerable, but when it is actually about you, it’s a lot worse. People were coming over to her and telling her how the book made them cry and she was like “Oh okay! *squeaky voice*”
H: [laughs] Cry in a good way or a bad way?
S: A good way! Like “I totally empathise with you and understand what you are going through and THANK YOU!” and she’s like *untranslatable high-pitched eek noise*.
H: I think that is what strikes me most about the cons, that there is this lovely community feel and everyone is just wanting to talk, share their work and it’s all very friendly. It makes me really wish I could do comics, but I suck at drawing! Anyway we should probably talk about your work at some point!
H: I’m going to do a mix of silly questions that I want to ask and more serious questions that other people probably want to know the answers to. One thing I really loved was how you use very distinct colour toning. So for instance in the University panels it’s all red, but when you enter the café it's all green. I thought that was such an interesting technique. So why did you choose to do that shifting colour palette, rather than colouring in everything individually?
S: I’ll start with the lame technical reason. It was because it just saves time. I do everything myself and I think I’m an ‘alright’ colourist, but I don’t particularly enjoy doing colour. I like to work quickly. So I thought it would be good practice to do something really different and I’ve always wanted to do a restricted colour palette, combined with the fact I don’t really like to use narrative boxes. Having two colour schemes means I can switch between scenes without narrative boxes and it still make sense. So you can clearly tell that we've changed locations and characters without the "later..." or "in another part of the city" which I've always found kind of cheesy. I like to work in dialogue and images, because I feel that is what comics are made for. So it was really easy then to combine one colour to another. So for example when Hannah goes from the street to the tea-shop, its combining the darker tones that are hers with the greens of the tea-shop. And all the Bryn magic fuchsia colours I did because I wanted the magic to look insane! I really wanted it to be bright and crazy! Which is really the whole point of the story, it is the mundane and the magical crashing together, so I really wanted to reflect that in the colours as well.
H: Wow, good answer. So – why tea?
S: Aww why NOT tea? I always get like fake angry when this question is asked because I’ll be like “Why wouldn’t it be tea? Why not tea? SERIOUSLY?! Tea is the best! And if you put milk in first [before removing the teabag] you are a filthy animal!
H: What the ideal cup of tea process then? I want to see how much I agree!
S: If it was Bryn, it would be loose leaf. But for me it would be Earl Grey, soy milk and a tiny bit of sugar. The thing that annoys me in Costa is when I ask for Earl Grey, I can see them put the tea bag in and then put the milk in on top. Instantly after it is like *makes angry noises* I have actually taken pictures of my tea, which is milky white with a floating bag in it. COSTA. Naming and shaming! I’m so livid right now! And I can talk about that kind of stuff now because I make a comic with tea in it! On a more serious note, I chose tea because the comic is about living peacefully and enjoying a chilled out time in a setting that is usually full of conflict. And what is more relaxing than having a nice of tea right?
H: When you said ‘conflict’, my instant thought was the good vs. evil battle of fantasy, but simply: University. Because that is where Hannah is it seems?
S: Yes I haven’t talked that much about the University yet. It is based on Cardiff University. Basically you have exams where they test your magic level and if it is good enough, you can go and study it at University. Hannah doesn’t have any magic, she is more involved in the academic side of it. When I was at art school, we had to do a lot of the academic side of it and a lot of people just wanted to draw, but then I was like “I like essays”. So Hannah is that kind of nerd, she’s like “I can research things! Yay!” It comes it into more later on.
H: Yes I loved essays too! I loved learning about the nuts and bolts of language.
S: I studied at Warwick University for Film & Television Studies for two weeks, then I dropped out. Because it was completely academic. I wanted to make things, more than just good essays.
H: I think half the reason I started the website is because I missed writing essays! Though the website is way more casual than an essay. I have to share my IDEAL tea now before we move in is: Yorkshire brand builder’s tea, strong brewed, goat’s milk, teaspoon of honey from British bees. So, when did you realize illustrating is a passion you wanted to peruse?
S: I’m always drawn really. I come from a family of quite creative people. I started making comics for the age old reason that I did an animation course and I couldn’t animate! It seemed like if I wanted to tell a story through images, comics were the best. I love manga, I’m a huge nerd, so comics seemed a good way to channel that.
H: It’s all very natural and organic growth.
S: I’ve looked around lately and I’ve been “Yeah! This is all going alright!” You'll try something out, get sucked into it and then realize it's what you wanted all along. I didn't think I'd be a comic artist when I was younger but now I can't imagine doing anything else. It lets me write stories, it lets me draw, what more could you want really!"
H: Do you have any rituals, routines or patterns? Does the cup of tea come first?
S: I’m terrible, I have no rituals or routines. I do have rituals for NPC now because I’m working full time on it and I can do an issue in a month and a half solid. So I get up at like 8am and work until 3am, I’ll have breaks in between and make food, but I’ll pretty much work until I’m tired. I don’t particularly have a routine of how I do my day, but I make sure I have tea, trail mix and a lot of podcasts. I work best between 1-3am.
H: WOW that is commitment!
S: It sounds crazy but it’ll get to the point where I don’t care what I write, because all of my nervousness and stage fright goes and I'm actually writing what I enjoy rather than what I think I should be writing. I’ll wake up in the morning and I will either be like “What the hell have I done?” and edit the shit out of it. Or I’ll look at it and go WOW, this is actually good. So because of that I do take naps. I’m atrocious if they ever ask what my routine is, I’ll look at them and say DON’T DO WHAT I DO. I’m a terrible example, but I love it!
H: How has your work/method/style changed over time? So how has it progressed, have you changed tools half-way through?
S: Going to restricted colour was a big thing. Most people go from black and white to colour. I’d like to think I’ve got better. I used to use pencils but now I am completely digital. It saves time and I can work faster, I’ve got one of those cintiq bad boys. I used to just use Photoshop and an App I had on my phone, whereas now I use programs like Open Canvas, which is really good for line art. Funnily enough when I was in Uni studying illustrations, I was told “none of this manga crap!” and had it sort of beaten out of me. Then as soon as I left it came back and now I’m putting it back in, finding a nice balance with what inspires me. I have to watch it otherwise Hannah’s eyes will sometimes go massive.
H: It’s not the eyes you have to worry about in manga, it’s the other things....*gestures at boobs*
S: Oh no, no. Even when I was a huge manga fan, I never try to go yaoi hands, never do big boobs. I try to make it more real.
H: What is your favourite manga?
S: Well not all manga are created equal. I’m really into Junji Ito at the moment, who is a kind of horror artist. My confession is: Yuri on Ice. I cried at Yuri on Ice and I don’t care. Another confession is Miss Kobayashi's Dragon Maid. I also love Princess Jellyfish, it’s so great! It’s basically about all these girls who live in a flat in Tokyo, they are all NEET.’s [Not in Education, Employment, or Training] and they are all single ladies, living in a flat, they are all massively nerds and their nerds about different things. They are all quite anti-social and they call it the ‘nunnery’, because they never go outside, they never speak to men and it’s quite funny.
H: So how did you come up with the idea for NPC Tea? What POSSESSED you?
S: It’s difficult really because all the characters came from different places. On the Kickstarter video there is a lot of talk about it being a pacifist thing and it is, because the whole premise is trying to be an NPC [non-playable character] and trying to live peacefully in a fantastical world. I play a lot of Final Fantasy and I always thought what the NPCs were getting up to. All the characters had been in my mind for a while and I just wanted to write something that was really fun and a bit nerdy.
I think the moment I decided to start writing it was when the government voted in favour Syrian drone strikes and I got really pissed off. So I wanted to do something that was about the benefits of being peaceful and when you see people getting angry about nuclear weapons, getting all BUT WOULD YOU PRESS THE BUTTON? WOULD YOU? I think: why are some people so war hungry. With the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings I used to wonder what they did all day, how they were boring eating and sitting around smoking weed all day. But then I realized: that’s amazing. So that was my inspiration for what I wanted to write: some good likable characters that liked to chill, not throwing their weight around the entire time. Strong but not aggressive. Good with sensitivity but not patronising.
H: That is something I’ve noticed coming into the indie community, that there are so many more diverse characters. There are more LGBT characters, more varied body images, whereas in the mainstream it is dominated by big chunky white guys – which is a big generalization I realize – and it’s just refreshing to come into something different. For example, I am a large lady, I am curvy and I like it. But I have never seen a cuddly female protagonist in comics until I have gone over to the indie comics and I’ve already found so many cuddly women and people who are like me. There is a healthier body presentation.
S: The main thing for me is that it’s just so boring. I was looking at a previous comic I did and watching people on the street, when I realized all my characters were white. So I thought in terms of challenging myself as an artist and realizing all my characters looked the same. Plus it makes it more fun to draw. I don’t want to go slapping people in the face with THESE PEOPLE ARE DIVERSE, they just happen to be black. I don’t know enough about people’s experiences, but when you see an opportunity to do something like that, I think you need to take it. I never drew Hannah any other way than she is now really. I didn’t see characters like her often and I enjoyed drawing her. There's a new character in issue 3 that's a model, and it was really important to me that she was attractive to women (in general, that is). I was looking at female idols and celebrities that a lot of women found inspiring and - well, attractive - the kind of thing that's different from the traditional "sexy" comic character. At least, that's what I was trying to do haha! It's all about what your readers see at the end of the day. It's about what suits the character too. She's meant to be aggressive but she owns it, she's like a sassy female force. Beguiling but definitely with claws.
H: Do you have a favourite artist/artwork?
S: Oh that’s really hard! Shaun Tan I really like, he did things like The Arrival. Also Hiroaki Samura is really great, he did The Blade of the Immortal. I was inspired by him a lot. And Yoshitaka Amano, he did all the designs for Final Fantasy. David McKean I also like. I’m really inspired by things like Bioshock Infinite and manga like Noragami. I really like Rachel Smith, who wrote The Rabbit and House Party. Sarah Graley is really good she does things like Our Super Adventure and Kim Reaper. Oh and Sajan Rai [Childish Butt-Vomit]! Ah I don’t want to forget anybody! Who are some of the indies I love? Kate Ashwin from Widdershins comics. Oh and I cannot not mention Dragon Age *picks up Dragon Age books and strokes it with her face*.
H: I hear good things about Dragon Age, but I haven’t played it. Do I need to?
S: It’s got fantastic storytelling. You can date everyone and you can be a lesbian elf and run on the top of buildings...yeah its great! A lot of people say it’s too much storytelling, but that isn’t a thing!
H: Yes I’ve had this debate before about how lore effects gameplay, what is too much and what kind of balance needs to be struck. How much plot is useful, how much is too much. For example, Life is Strange 2 is coming out and it’s a prequel. And we were debating whether we actually need a prequel when we already know how the story goes. It is putting in lore before the actual story. Then you have things like Outlast 2 and there are pages and pages and pages of lore!
S: I was just about to mention Outlast! The biggest complaint is that the story does not work without reading those pages. And you stop to think: I don’t play games to read! I mean I like lore but I think it should be optional. That’s the thing about Dragon Age, there are pages and pages, there is a full on book in there if you want it, but if you don’t read it then it doesn’t matter. I didn’t read hardly any of the lore, I was just like SKIP SKIP SKIP, okay I want to go and talk to that sexy elf there! I’m always really conscious of writing something fantastical and making it work for people who just want to read, not make pages of dictionaries and appendices. It’s just asking a bit much of your reader or your gameplay. It’s like: here is what you want to do but first you must read this and this and this. Some people love that though!
H: Another good example is Skyrim. In that the lore is there, but you don’t have to read it. There are books and books and books in Skyrim. I think optional is the best thing. Anyway, another question! Do you do a lot of research when it comes to your work?
S: I do but I think a lot of it is quite organic. I think I naturally take in a lot of research through documentaries and reading. But in terms of NPC Tea, the spirits are based on actual gods and goddesses. I did a lot of research into things like the Reformation, like the how people actually saw religion and translate that into how people would have thought about magic. I think it is really important to have good research when it comes to topics like diversity, characters that’s aren’t like you, I think that is really important. There is something coming up that I am going to have to research very intently, because it would break my heart if I tried to represent someone and did it really badly, or fall into a trope or stereotype.
One thing I was really complaining about the other day was trying to find evidence of magical rituals and magic. I can always find books that are very modern, superficial and don't have much tradition - there's plenty on the gods, but not much on what their worshipers were actually doing... though that's probably down to my terrible research more than anything else.
H: What is your dream project? If you had all the resources and time, what would you do?
S: I try to make every project I work on a dream project. I always try to be fully invested in it. I would really love to do a biography. If I did that I would want to do two historical figures. Because I don’t think enough has been done on him I want to look at William the Marshal. Secondly, Chevalier D'Eon, who was an incredible French figure who was a transgender person. She was a spy and infiltrated the Spanish court by dressing as a woman, then later identified as a woman. There are paintings of her and one manga adaptation, there is a lot of stuff written in French, but otherwise not that much. I think there could be something really fun there.
H: What couldn’t you do without? And family and friends is a given!
S: Probably my cintiq, my drawing tablet. I had a life before my cintiq and my work too a long time. There are moments when the driver goes and my life can’t continue!