Stephanie McMillan Talks Comics Journalism and Why "Capitalism Must Die"
Stephanie McMillan's "Capitalism Must Die"
Broward County activist Stephanie McMillan's heart has always pumped rebel blood. When she was 12, she dreamed of joining a commune and resented missing the '60s. When she was 15, a cousin gave her Jonathan Schell's Fate of the Earth, a book warning against nuclear proliferation, which she promptly reviewed for her high school's literary magazine. And already deeply politicized teenager, she discovered cartooning could serve as an outlet for her ideas while attending college at NYU in the late '80s.
Since then, she's published several books, and her strips have appeared in papers across the country, including the Los Angeles Times, the Sun Sentinel, and news site the Daily Beast. Howard Zinn described her award-winning comics-journalism collection The Beginning of the American Fall as "social satire at its wittiest and most engaging." And in a recent statement to New Times, Ted Rall, boss man of cartooning, described it as "some of the best editorial commentary in visual form that has ever been produced."
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New Times: You've been doing this since the early '90s. What about comics or which comics writers influenced you to take it up?
In the late 1980s, I lived in New York, and the comics that appeared in the Village Voice and other alternative papers inspired me: Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, Ted Rall, Nina Paley, Stan Mack, Jules Feiffer. Also, I really liked the comic "Love and Rockets." They opened up the comics genre beyond simple gags and superheroes, and the insipid editorial cartoons that were the norm in mainstream papers. They made it clear that comics could be tools of political persuasion, and could spread radical ideas.
Did you work for XS and City Link as a cartoonist and/or a journalist? What's your background in journalism and reporting?
For a while XS did run my cartoons, and that is actually the first publication that ever did so, and the reason I started drawing them regularly. I also wrote book reviews and other short pieces, and occasionally did illustrations. But my actual job at both was typing calendar listings. When I was hired, I was an organizer with a group called Refuse & Resist. Early on, I wrote an article about the unjust detention and deportation of immigrants, and was told that because I was involved in the cause, my journalism could not be viewed as "objective" and would undermine the reputation of the paper. I was given a painful choice: I could be a journalist, or I could be active in the causes I believed in. I chose the latter, and was offered the task of calendar listings, which I did for 13 years until I was laid off.
Now, I'm struggling to make a living, but it's more important to me that my work serves my objectives as an organizer. And being independent means I can draw and write whatever I want. The only opinions that matter to me are those involved with me in the fight against global capitalism and imperialism, and the people I'm attempting to reach in order to inspire or assist them in becoming organized and active. If my work is effective that way, then making money is secondary, and I try not to spend attention and energy on that any more than necessary for survival.
Why did you write Capitalism Must Die, which comes out in October?
I'm an organizer for a broad anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist group called One Struggle, and at the revolutionary level I'm involved in a project called Idées Nouvelles, Idées Prolétariennes (INIP). Because we haven't had a mass movement against the system in the U.S. in a generation (Occupy was more of a mobilization, and was forcibly dispersed before it could develop into a movement), there is a very low level of political and ideological consciousness in the US.
This is a huge obstacle in building a movement. Most people -- even those who are discontent -- don't understand how the system we're living in actually works, why it's so destructive and cruel, and this weakens our collective capacity to struggle against it. So I wrote CMD both to explain the basics of what capitalism is and what's wrong with it so that we can begin to develop strategies for eliminating it, and to use as an organizing tool. One Struggle has used a condensed version of it several times already as a slide show presentation, to facilitate discussion and build organization, and more of these presentations are being planned for different cities.
In addition to Capitalism Must Die, you're putting out The Minimum Security Chronicles: Resistance to Ecocide. Tell me a bit about that.
The Minimum Security Chronicles: Resistance to Ecocide is a graphic novel about a group of friends who struggle to find ways to stop the destruction of the planet, and specifically a geo-engineering project. It's not only a story, but also a thought experiment, in that the characters attempt various tactics and strategies and then have to face the usually unsuccessful results.
What does comics journalism offer that traditional journalism can't? Or what does comics journalism add to traditional journalism?
One important advantage of using comics journalistically is that it can guarantee anonymity to people being interviewed, quoted, or written about. In countries like Bangladesh and Haiti, which I'm focusing on for Commodity Chains (see below), workers who organize to assert their rights can be fired, attacked or even killed. So taking photos of them is out of the question. A drawing can look like a person without looking like a specific person.
Another advantage is that it can depart from reality to illustrate an abstraction. An evil-looking Uncle Sam is a symbol of imperialism, which would be hard to capture in any other way.
What's in the works beside those two books? Anybody you're collaborating with?
Currently I'm working on a project about imperialism, and specifically the global garments industry, called Commodity Chains. While I'm writing and drawing it myself, I also seek the input, feedback and ideas of people and groups who are involved in the struggles of garment workers. One of them is Batay Ouvriye (Workers Fight) in Haiti. My purpose isn't simply to spread information, but to help build concrete solidarity, support and strength for these struggles. Batay Ouvriye needs immediate financial support, by the way. Anyone interested in donating can email me for information on how to send funds at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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