Behind the Mask: Making COVID-19 Comics

Creators Shea and Tommy O’Neil discuss the making of ‘The Maskers’ COVID-19 comic series and their vision for a safer community

My 10-year-old son and I created ‘The Maskers’ comic series to help identify the thoughts, emotions, and frustrations of people in our community living with COVID-19. Our primary aim was to find solutions to the problem of how to be safe and social. The three-part series was started in 2020 and is an ongoing creative project, which we publish for free on our website.

Introducing The Maskers

Panel from The Maskers Episode 1
Panel from The Maskers comic series – Episode 1

The Maskers deals with thoughts (‘COVID is real’, ‘it poses significant dangers to our health, both personally and in our society’), frustrations (‘I want to get out there and meet people and do fun things!’ ‘I am sick of being cooped up!’), vulnerabilities (‘I am not sure how to protect myself and others’, ‘COVID is a real danger to my health and our way of life’), adversity (‘There are others who do not follow these guidelines that I do’, and ‘I think some people sabotage the methods I use to stay safe’), and problems (‘I need to be able to work, go to school and community events’, and ‘I want to have safe, social fun’). These thoughts, frustrations, vulnerabilities, adversity, and problems are the primary stumbling blocks for our protagonist, .

Enter The Maskers—a group led by Six-Foot Ninja – who focus on preventing COVID-19 by teaching readers how to protect their eyes, noses, and mouths from these virus particles. Actions include using masks, social distancing, protective eyewear, hand sanitation, and safe social hand-gestures and communication techniques. The Maskers model these behaviors throughout the story, and even present fun activities that are all COVID-safe. As Little Chicken masters these practices, he grows into a Masker himself (known as Super Chic) and takes on a group of villainous clowns in a closed-top circus. The clowns and venue symbolize all the unsafe practices and phrases we have navigated with the increased risk of COVID-19 transmission. Some villains are innocent whilst others are sinister – yet all create dangers that must be overcome: i.e. combating the idea that COVID-19 is just a cold; rethinking how to have fun when not in crowded spaces; resisting the notion that we have to deny COVID to sustain business as usual; and stopping the most troubling idea, that we should just let everyone catch the new variants even if it harms or kills people.

It is not always easy for the Maskers Superhero Crew to defeat the enemies. They get imprisoned, whacked with pool noodles (ahem, Ninja Sticks!), and at times feel helpless or trapped, but they always find a way to keep their humor and solve their problems in the end.

Each episode introduces new members of the Maskers Crew. For example, in Episode 2, we meet Darington Duck, who teaches us about N-95 masks and that true Daring-ness is not ‘not fearing what is dangerous’, but is finding ways to keep safe in the face of it – like the dare-devil stunt-men who wear helmets and are trained. Wendy Wave teaches us that Peace is the Way, but we can and should leave bad situations where others are not respecting our health and safety. Super Chic teaches us how to become a true rooster, protecting our friends and acknowledging real threats even when others try and ridicule you. Super Chic proves that, no matter how small we feel, we can take a grandstand and save the day.

Panel from The Maskers comic series - Episode 3
Panel from The Maskers comic series – Episode 3

The final and most recent episode tries to think about the present and future problems of living with COVID-19. The characters must overcome a virus spreading rampantly amidst many people who just want to have fun and get back to business—most are not masking anymore and are ignoring any talks of it. In this community, one in five of those diagnosed with COVID end up getting long-COVID. The variants have become more contagious. With politician “Big Cats” circumventing scientific suggestions for decreasing COVID-19 transmission, some of these problems seem insurmountable. Yet the Maskers tackle these issues by recruiting two new members: Zakia Rabbit and Henny Red. Zakia Zoinks the Magic Hare is a rabbit whose once COVID-safe business was sabotaged by rats and the big cats they worked for, and who felt forced to work in unsafe conditions where reasonable accommodations were denied. Zakia uses his magic to provide new tools – HEPA air purifiers and CO2 Monitors – which help the Maskers create and monitor good indoor ventilation for a new Headquarters where they can host safe and social fun. The Big Cats and rats try to interfere and shut them down, but the determined hen Henny Red gets ideas from the Maskers’ COVID-safe games to develop a reasoned business plan to thwart the cats and rats. The episode ends on an encouraging note: the business has generated attention and changed minds; it has encouraged others to become Maskers too.

Envisioning a Path Forward

The comic uses fictional characters and symbols to represent these concepts, yet it sticks to the facts when it comes to the solutions – including highlighting multiple actions community members can take to stop COVID transmission, exposing bad public health policies, and suggesting helpful community guidelines that are still fun, all while keeping businesses open and safe. The comic also presents links to professional and scientific resources, such as the CDC, John Hopkins, and Harvard studies. Additionally, the series points readers to resources in their community so they can try these practices out for themselves.

As the creators, we hope the Maskers Comic Series can inspire a way forward in the real world. We use the methods to maintain our way of life to build the story’s narrative. We have a COVID-safe home, and we seek out COVID-safe activities where we can follow the practices in this book. But it is hard with so many dropping all safe practices. With no leadership or organizations in our community, we are increasingly frustrated. But creating and working through the struggles in The Maskers gives us hope.

Cover of The Maskers comic series - Episode 3
Cover of The Maskers comic series – Episode 3

We think it is only a matter of time before people realize that we cannot vaccinate our way out of this pandemic. We must stop the spread of infection with small, impactful changes to the systems that we have. We model these changes in this comic series: N-95 masks, distance, hand sanitation, pandemic-level indoor ventilation, creating COVID-safe businesses that actually enforce these policies—things that people in our community started doing but dropped when our society thought the vaccines stopped the spread to an acceptable level. We didn’t know much about long-COVID at that point, when we thought some kind of herd immunity would kick in. We know more, now, and we believe that we should implement many of these measures in order to avoid or decrease mass disability in society. The Maskers imagines another path forward: one that stops infection and wipes this virus out. “Because we want to have fun and we are sick of COVID” should not be what stops us.

We hope the comic will empower people to actively engage in preventing COVID-19 and save people from the ongoing and long-term impacts on our community. We hope the comic series will show people how to create safe indoor environments in their homes and businesses, and fight for such environments in our communities. We need to get back on track. We believe this is not possible from the top-down. This change needs to come from the bottom up: from the people, for the people, through choice. We believe people can make rational choices when they understand scientific facts and feasible actions for preventing disease. These might be big dreams from small comic creators, but we believe this is exactly what our community needs: a vision of the path forward.

About the Authors

Shea and Tommy O’Neil are a mother and son dynamic duo who are working hard to advocate not only for households who are at higher risk for severe outcome from COVID (like our own), but also for the many healthy individuals out there who have gotten, or may eventually suffer from the effects of COVID: whether that be long-COVID, complications from reinfections, and/or the agony of spreading the disease to a household member. They live and work in Florida, USA.

The Maskers comic series is available to access and read for free online.

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