What worked, what didn’t, and my plans for year two
Add Oil Comics was launched in October 2014 during the Occupy Hong Kong movement. Its founding was sparked by the overwhelming response I received from a comic I made about the social movement at the time. Since then, Add Oil Comics has evolved into a bi-weekly webcomic series that covers Black Lives Matter in the US, the democracy movement here in Hong Kong, and transgender experiences worldwide.
In this article, I want to take a step back and reflect on Add Oil Comics’ first year of operations. I begin by revisiting my original vision for the series. Then, I review what did or didn’t work with our audiences over the past year. Lastly, based on these reflections and observations, I share my year-two plan for Add Oil Comics.
At Add Oil Comics, I continue to explore my interest in amplifying bottom-up narratives. I had previously investigated this phenomenon at The Civic Beat, where we studied how internet memes were used to draw attention to and amplify social issues around the world. With Add Oil Comics, I wanted to take a more active role by using comics as a tool to amplify ordinary people’s stories and perspectives around social issues. This overall mission hasn’t changed, though the messages that I specifically wanted to amplify have shifted over time.
Initially, I imagined that Add Oil Comics would showcase politically moderate voices from different sides of a social issue or movement. As I created more comics, this editorial line shifted. Instead of drawing on different sides of a social issue, I found myself picking sides. It simply didn’t feel right amplifying perspectives that I didn’t believe in. I do, however, try to move out of my comfort zone whenever I can to draw from a diverse cast of voices.
That time I surveyed six perspectives around Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement, one year later.
The original vision was that Add Oil Comics would illustrate reader-submitted stories. Using already-published writing on the internet was meant to be a short-term measure. But as time worn on, my submission box remained empty. Meanwhile, illustrating other people’s internet writing was fast becoming the defining feature of Add Oil Comics. As An Xiao Mina cleverly put it, “Add Oil Comics illustrates the social web,” making the series a unique creature in the world of online comics.
My one stretch goal for this project was to enlist the help of other illustrators and cartoonists. This is why the comics are published under a brand (“Add Oil Comics”) rather than just my name. Unfortunately, the series currently doesn’t have a large enough audience for me to (comfortably) reach out to other illustrators and cartoonists. But I never expected this to happen quickly or easily, so I’m happy to continue waiting until it’s the right time.
The comics format
My fundamental assumption behind Add Oil Comics is that more people would pay attention to and share something if it was illustrated as a comic strip. I believe that comics are a powerful medium because they’re more accessible (visually and emotionally) than prose, but less demanding than video (allowing readers to set their own pace).
Luckily for me, my assumption turned out to be true — I even have some data to prove it. Using Inmedia’s Facebook page, I have tracked how my comics fared compared to the original text-only articles in select cases where both were posted to their Facebook page. Based on the three examples I found, my comics have 270%, 199%, 121% as many shares, likes and comments as their text-only siblings on Facebook.
Stories of lived experiences
The four comics that went viral were all stories of personal experiences, and within that genre, specific stories of pain and struggle. Opinion pieces, on the other hand, tended to receive a relatively lukewarm response. In addition, people have commented that the former has made them tear up, which is a compliment that I haven’t received about any of the opinion pieces.
The comics that went viral: A Letter to Hong Kong’s Parents, Debi Jackson reading, A Teen’s Message to Zander and Leelah, #SeenAsThreatening.
There are several ways that I work together with Inmedia here in Hong Kong:
- They publish our Hong Kong-related comics on their site and Facebook page, which allows us to reach new and different audiences.
- They happen to be my number source of writing for my Hong Kong comics.
- They’ve translated some of my essays about Add Oil Comics into Chinese, and published them on their site.
We don’t have a formal agreement around any of the above; nonetheless it’s been a fruitful collaboration.
Tumblr is the only social media platform I’ve used for Add Oil Comics where random strangers will find my comics from their hashtags and share it amongst their friends.
The subreddit communities on Reddit have been a great forum for my comics, even though I’m not a regular visitor of any of them. Because subreddit communities explicitly declare who they are for and what the rules are, it’s relatively easy to drop in, submit a link and contribute to the community.
What didn’t work
Long, wordy comics
Long comics with lots of text were not well received. A longer comic usually means more pictures/panels needed, and as a result, I have less time to spend polishing each panel. In addition, I sometimes have to cram panels together in fear of running afoul of Tumblr’s ten-image limit for photo posts.
Creative Commons licensing
For my first dozen or so releases, I tried to contact the original author (post-publication) to get permission to license the comics under a Creative Commons non-commercial license. Whenever they did respond, they were always happy to see that their writing had been illustrated, and then confused about what I meant by licensing and “Creative Commons.” The response was along the lines of: “Why are you even asking? This is great! Yes, of course.” After a while I stopped asking. I always reach out to tell them about the comic, but I skip the confusing back-and-forth about Creative Commons licensing. I haven’t received any complaints to date.
As I mentioned above, I haven’t received any. But, to be fair, I’m also not advertising the fact very avidly — it’s just a small link on my Tumblr page.
I’m not a regular visitor to any of the above sites, so perhaps it’s only right that my comics didn’t receive much traction there. In the case of Buzzed Community, Ello and DeviantArt, barely anyone saw my comics. In the case of Imgur and Cheezburger, people saw them, but were expecting webcomic humor and/or politically aggravated.
The people of Imgur really didn’t like this one Black Lives Matter comic: it received so many down votes that it was taken off of the public feed.
What I’m trying to figure out
Ideal webcomic format
How big should the text be? What kind of color palette should I use? How much text should there be per panel? While I have some experience with this as a cartoonist, I don’t have the operational scale to test these systematically.
Facebook, Medium, Instagram
In the case of Facebook and Medium, Add Oil Comics has a modest number of followers but very little engagement. In the case of Instagram, Add Oil Comics only has eleven paltry followers, and the only engagement comes from whenever I post a comic to my personal Instagram account.
My year two plan
Having Inmedia as an informal publishing partner has been a huge boon for my Hong Kong-related comics. I’d like to find similar partners for my Black Lives Matter and transgender experiences comics. Also, I want to keep an eye out for one-off partnerships — such as doing a one-time collaboration with a magazine or internet publishing platform.
Settle on a house style
While experimenting with different illustration processes has improved my craft, settling a single, house style will save time and encourage readers to recognize the series.
Blog about process
Promote the series by writing articles such as this one.
Pick a fourth topic
I started with the democracy movement in Hong Kong, then picked up Black Lives Matter and transgender experiences. What’s next?
This concludes our first year’s annual report. What else would you like to know about? What else do you think we should focus on in the new year? 🎉
This is the third 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.
A copy of this article first appeared on Medium.
Thanks to Edlyn Yuen and Shu Kuge for their help in editing this article.