It's time to declare: Code Green
Her cartoons have been included in exhibits at the Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art (New York), the San Francisco Comic Art Museum, the Andy Warhol Museum (Pittsburgh), and the Institute for Policy Studies (Washington, DC), among other venues.
A graduate of the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University and now based out of Florida, Stephanie was kind enough to make time for a chat. The results are below.
Planet Green: When did you start drawing and how early in that process did your radical perspective help shape and inform what and how you drew?
Stephanie McMillan: I loved drawing even as a toddler, as soon as I could hold a crayon in my fist. The first overtly political drawing I did was for my high school paper, during the Reagan era, after I’d read a book about the dangers of nuclear war (The Fate of the Earth by Jonathan Schell). I drew it with a ballpoint pen—it showed a family being vaporized in front of a mushroom cloud. That book turned out to be the doorway through which I began to glimpse the underlying omnicidal nature of the American Empire. After this I read voraciously about history and political theory, and once I understood that capitalism is based on exploitation, I became its enemy.
PG: How did that realization impact both your life and your art?
SM: I spent many years as a revolutionary communist, organizing and agitating against imperialism, and about social justice issues like police brutality, reproductive freedom and immigrant rights. I viewed these issues as interconnected social "fault lines"—contradictions that, under the right conditions, could cause the whole system to crack apart. In 1992, while still an activist, I started drawing cartoons for a weekly paper, and in 1998, frustrated with the difficulty of building a movement during an overall ebb in radical politics, decided to focus my political energies purely on cartooning. That year I started Minimum Security as a weekly editorial cartoon. In 2005, NBM Publishing issued a collection of these comics, and I added regular characters. When United Media approached me about syndication and added it to comics.com, I ramped the pace up to five cartoons a week. This past April, I switched from the joke-a-day format into a long-form narrative. It‘s now a story about how a group of friends goes through twists and turns while figuring out how to effectively fight the system. About a year ago, I started drawing an additional cartoon called Code Green. It’s a weekly editorial cartoon that focuses on the environmental emergency.
PG: Your art and activism seem practically synonymous.
SM: The content of my cartoons is absolutely determined by my work as an activist. Without that experience, I would know much less about how the system works or how to combat it. The purpose of my work is to expose the crimes of the system in a way that’s accessible to readers, and to use ridicule to inspire contempt for those who run things. I think if we can laugh at those in power, we will fear them less, which makes us stronger about fighting back. The stories I tell in my comics, the points I make, are all intended to help inspire resistance, to help people who are on that path to make sense of things, and to cheer them on. Resistance and revolution are at the core of my life’s purpose. Art is merely a means, one way I have found that I can help further this objective. I have recently (especially after the Gulf oil spill), been increasing my work in other areas too. I will do whatever it takes, anything I am capable of and more, to help stop the planet from being killed and to eliminate this murderous system of exploitation.
PG: Your book with Derrick Jensen, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, would be of particular interest to Planet Green readers. What would you hope a budding environmentalist might learn from reading this graphic novel?
SM: Derrick and I decided to create this book after discussing Al Gore’s
Inconvenient Truth. We agreed that the film presented the problem of global warming in a compelling, appropriately urgent way. But when it came time to guide people to action, it was worse than inadequate—it was misleading. Gore’s list of "10 Things You Can Do" (and countless other lists like it) directs the audience’s attention away from the source of the problem, industrialization, and it attempts to convince us to blame ourselves instead. It asserts that if we modify our behavior as "consumers" (change our light bulbs, adjust our thermostats), then we can save the planet. This is a lie. What this list didn’t show was the math. We did. If every person in the United States did everything that Al Gore recommends at the end of the film, there would be a one-time reduction of CO2 emissions of 21%. Obviously that’s not going to put much of a dent in the problem. More importantly, it leaves the worst polluters, big corporations, off the hook. Exxon-Mobil alone is responsible for 5% of all global CO2 emissions. The US military consumes 395,000 barrels of oil a day. Do you think dismantling that might be more effective than obsessing about not leaving our refrigerator doors open? Yet the latter is what we are told to focus on. We are told, over and over, that the only power we have is over our own lifestyles, and specifically as "consumers"—how very conveeeeenient for those who profit from the murder of our planet and then profit again from selling us "green" products.
PG: So, we're often manipulated into acting against our own interests and the interests of our eco-system?
SM: Most of us care about the Earth’s health, understand that our own wellbeing and lives depend upon it, and would like to live in a non-destructive way. No one but profit-oriented sociopaths can enjoy the fact that 120 species are going extinct each day, and that our environment is getting thoroughly trashed. We live under a system that functions by converting living beings into commodities, for the profit of a few. Yet we are told that the environmental crisis is our fault because we consume too much as individuals (at the same time, everything about this economy—its media, its reward systems—push us to consume more and more). We created As the World Burns to help readers see that solutions are not to be found in our individual consumer choices, but instead can only be achieved by fighting against, defeating and dismantling the industrial capitalist system.
PG: Do you feel your message is more easily accessible via the characters you've created?
SM: I do. This was my primary concern when I created them. Bitter medicine goes down easier with sugar, so I made the characters as cute as possible, and the jokes amusing, the colors appealing. I know my message is pretty radical and can be difficult to accept (especially for those just beginning to explore the issues), and so I’m careful not to put any additional obstacles in the way, stylistically. I want readers to feel welcomed by my cartoons as soon as they see them, and encouraged to be open to what they’re saying.
PG: Do you have a favorite character? If so, why?
SM: I love them all, and each one is a mix of different parts of myself and people I know. The one I probably enjoy writing for the most is Bunnista, the rabbit, because he is the most unfettered by rules. He doesn’t worry about what others think of him, or if anyone agrees with him, or if his actions are the most practical or effective, or if his way is the best way to build a resistance movement. He just loves, more than anything else, to make industrial infrastructure explode into a million flaming pieces. It’s very cathartic for me when he does that. An adorable cartoon bunny can get away with doing things that I can only fantasize about.
PG: Tell us more about your upcoming children's book.
SM: It’s called Mischief in the Forest. Derrick wrote the story some years ago and asked me to illustrate it. It’s about a grandmother who likes to knit sweaters and mittens for her grandchildren. She believes she lives alone in the forest, until she discovers that someone has taken her yarn. Through this incident, she gets to know her forest neighbors, creatures of many species. It’s about connecting with and appreciating the natural world.
PG: How can folks find your work and connect with you?