The evolution of the Add Oil Comics formula

My comic went viral, now what?

As I mentioned in the last article, I made a comic about Occupy Hong Kong in the midst of the protest last year that went viral online. It was the first time I’d created anything that was shared so widely, and it also happened to support a social movement that I believed in. Thrilled with the result, I set out to replicate its success by making more social advocacy webcomics. Add Oil Comics was born.

I knew immediately that I wanted to continue making comics based on other people’s writing rather than my own experiences. (I generally don’t find my own experiences and views around social issues particularly interesting, so it was an easy choice.) But I wasn’t sure where I would find the next piece of writing to illustrate. I began regularly scanning and skimming news and social media outlets. I hadn’t yet developed any criteria for selection, so I was mostly going off of my gut feeling for what would make a good comic strip.

The first texts that jumped out at me were by Joshua Wong and Tim Cook, writing about Occupy Hong Kong and LGBT rights respectively. Both pieces were polished, passionate, and compelling: good sources for comics. But as I discussed them with my friend Lokman, he noted that they were written by prominent figures and had already spread far and wide. Most importantly, he observed that unlike my earlier comic (or book project), neither of these pieces highlighted a bottom-up, ordinary person’s perspective.

I heeded his advice: one of the comic’s unique points was that it focused on the experiences of ordinary people, and it made sense to continue that practice. Using that as a guideline, I continued to make comics about Occupy Hong Kong over the next two months. I also began to illustrate strips on the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. This was back in November and December of 2014, when both movements were in the limelight in the mainstream press as well as trending on social media.

My tweet from 25 Nov 2014: “My Twitter feed right now: pepper spray castles at #OccupyHK and riot fire at #Ferguson. Chilling.”

Thanks to my publishing partnership with Inmedia, my Hong Kong comics continued to thrive. But my comics about Black Lives Matter and the US had largely fallen flat. I began to doubt my approach: what if my comics only worked for Hong Kong, or because Inmedia already had a large social media following? What if turning other people’s writing into comics was not a good idea after all?

Excerpts from my first two Black Lives Matter comics. Writing by kenyatta cheese and Tumblr user whatagirlwantsbutdoesnotneed.

I plowed ahead. I figured I would at least give this webcomic experiment a few more months before re-evaluating. During this time, I randomly stumbled upon this speech about transgender parenting on Tumblr. Even though it was about an issue I knew relatively little about, I found myself moved by its words. On a whim that same evening, I decided to turn it into a comic.

My first comic on transgender experiences. Writing by Debi Jackson.

It was a complete surprise when I woke up the next morning, and the strip had exploded online on Tumblr. The likes, reblogs and comments poured in:

I wish I was this lucky!!
NB. Future parents
Hope
You know, I almost cried at this, don’t even know why, just…
This made my heart smile

More than 900 Tumblr reblogs and 1500 likes later, I was ecstatic that Add Oil Comics had proven itself outside of Hong Kong.


Patterns and statistics

Over the past year, I continued to scout for things to draw, and I began to publish comics on transgender experiences, alongside Black Lives Matter and the Umbrella Movement (which sprang out of Occupy Hong Kong). To date, I have published 22 strips on Add Oil Comics. Here are some patterns that have emerged within its coverage.

Points of view covered:

  • Parents & teens
  • Students & teachers
  • Police & activists
  • Knowledge & social workers
  • Ordinary black & trans people

Types of writing:

  • Personal accounts/reflections (10)
  • Open letters (8)
  • Essays (2)
  • Interviews (2)

Sources for writing:

  • Tumblr (8)
  • Independent news sites (7)
  • Facebook (4)
  • Twitter (2)
  • Other (1)

I’m still picking what to draw based on my gut instincts, but I’ve also become more attuned to certain stories. If possible, I like to illustrate stories of pain and struggle that involve real people and places, written from a first-person perspective.


The Add Oil Comics model

Based on my observations so far, here is why I think the Add Oil Comics model of illustrating other people’s writing works:

  • I’m amplifying the under-represented voices of ordinary people. Their perspectives and stories are simply not featured very prominently in the mainstream media, or if they are, they’re heavily narrated and filtered. Readers simply appreciate being able to read an unfiltered, on-the-ground perspective.
  • The comics act as gifts to the community where the original story came from. Any cartoonist will tell you that people like to be drawn. Similarly, people are thrilled when their writing is illustrated, and will often share the result excitedly amongst their friends. That is how my comics sometimes find their way into networks and communities that I don’t ordinarily have access to.
  • Selecting and illustrating a piece of writing marks it as “valuable,” and invites the rest of the community to join in. The single most surprising reaction to my comics occurs in the comments section. For certain strips, particularly the ones that do well, people will often gush with enthusiasm and/or rush in to share their experiences. It is a much more earnest and emotional response compared to the typical fare of smart-aleck internet comments. I believe this reaction happens because people see themselves, or ordinary people like them, reflected in the comic and feel (to a certain degree) validated by it.

Illustrating other people’s stories has been a transformative experience. Not only have I learned new things, but actively putting myself into other people’s shoes to try to understand their emotional state has been a powerful exercise in empathy. It has made me more sensitive towards other points of view, particularly those of people who aren’t like me, or who don’t share my political beliefs. If you are an illustrator or cartoonist and you’re reading this, I would invite you to try it for yourself.


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This is the second article in a multi-part series about Add Oil Comics’ first year on the internet. We will look back on what worked and what didn’t, how our goals have shifted since day one, and maybe learn a bit about what it means to be a political cartoonist on the internet today. Stay tuned.

Edited by Christina Xu and Lokman Tsui.

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