Why I started making social advocacy webcomics based on other people’s writing
The Add Oil Comics origin story
October 24, 2014
We were entering the second month of Occupy Hong Kong. Throngs of students and adults alike were camped out in high-traffic neighborhoods here in a long battle for a more open and democratic process around the election of the city’s highest-ranking government official, its Chief Executive. Despite occupying a four-lane highway downtown and key intersections elsewhere, the protesters had yet to persuade the government to change its plans for electoral reform. They had the numbers (over 100,000 people joined the protest at its peak), they had the world’s attention (Occupy Hong Kong graced the cover of Time magazine not once but twice), and they were asking nicely (protests remained peaceful despite police and gang incursions) — what more could the protesters do to convince the government to change its mind?
I supported the protests, and I wanted to help. But as an outsider to the world of politics, I wasn’t sure what I could do. For many nights in a row, my friend Lokman Tsui and I had been showing up at the protest site down by the highway to show our support. It was electrifying to be part of the movement, but as the weeks wore on, it began to feel disempowering. Our numbers were thinning, and the government seemed content to sit back and wait for us to tire ourselves out. The atmosphere on the ground was tense. Nobody knew what was going to happen next.
Like many others around me during this period, I was glued to the news. Scanning the headlines one day, I came across an article on Inmedia (an independent, local, Chinese-language news site) by a young teacher-in-training about her struggles at home. The piece was powerfully written, poetic in its succinctness, and described a common problem faced by many of the student protesters. In it, the author writes about the tense situation between her, an avid supporter of the protests, and her mother, who thought of the protesters as entitled brats. She ends the piece with a plea to her mother, asking the latter to look at the broken system around her, rather than simply rely on biased reports in the local mainstream media.
While I was reading the article, I found myself subconsciously imagining what it would look as a comic strip. By the end of the article, the cartoonist in me had decided that it would make a great comic. But to make sure my instincts weren’t completely off the mark, I checked in with Lokman. I sent him an email and asked, “What about turning this letter into a comic like this — can do Chinese and English versions?” “I love the idea!” he replied.
After several days of drawing, re-drawing and coloring, I was at last satisfied with the end result. I released the comic online: on Tumblr, Twitter and the Inmedia website. The comic received some traction on Tumblr and Twitter (35 and 50 reblogs and retweets respectively) but failed to elicit much of a response on Inmedia (1–2 paltry comments). It wasn’t a stellar response, though I didn’t have any expectations at the time. Turning the article into a comic was as much an act of self expression as it was an experiment in internet publishing and awareness raising.
A few days later, Lokman and I spoke to the team at Inmedia about publishing the comic on their Facebook page. We figured it couldn’t hurt to ask, and we really didn’t have much access ourselves to Inmedia’s core audience of Hong Kong-based, Chinese-speaking students and professionals. (Tumblr and Twitter do not have much reach here, for example.) After some back and forth, they agreed to publish it.
A few hours later, it went viral.
The comments poured in. First, there was a wave of commiseration:
I thought I was the only one who had a big fight with my parents :-(
My dad and mom are like this too :’(
Sad but true.
Then a wave of consolation:
You want to use your body and life to change society, but your parents only want to use their body and life to protect you.
Don’t worry. Stick to your beliefs. Our parents are old, it’s not easy to change their minds.
A few sympathetic parents even joined the fray:
I went with my son to Mong Kok, saw him get pepper sprayed, beaten with a police baton, my heart hurt, I ran up front to tell the police not to randomly strike protesters. I just want my son to be able to live with dignity in Hong Kong.
The amount and intensity of the responses was overwhelming. I had hoped that my comic would resonate with the Inmedia audience. But I had not anticipated that people would connect to it emotionally, take solace in its words, and be compelled to share their own stories. Nor did I ever dream that it would be shared on Facebook 2,696 times (the original, text-only article was “only” shared 810 times) and reach a grand total of 783,872 people there. I watched, wide-eyed, as the comments and numbers continued to roll in over the next few days.
As the activity slowed to a halt a week later, I realized that maybe I was on to something.
This is the first 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.