For a lot of us, green living means changing our light bulbs, doing our best to recycle, and signing a petition to save polar bears. Baby steps, we tell ourselves; we can't overhaul the system overnight. But according to the graphic novel As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial, penned by activist-writer Derrick Jensen and South Florida political cartoonist Stephanie McMillan, this kind of thinking is precisely the problem. Partly because the Earth will incinerate before we get off our collective asses. Partly because "simple" solutions reduce the urgency of the problem. But mostly because it places blame on us, the individuals, instead of them.
Who are they? Greedy corporations, even greedier government officials, and, in the world created by Jensen and McMillan, alien robot machines who want to consume the planet. Luckily for the robots, America already seems to have bureaucracies in place for alien life forms interested in stripping the Earth.
Enter superhero best friends Bananabelle and Kranti, both of whom are human, and Bunnista, the lovable one-eyed bunny revolutionary who rescues animals from research facilities and bombs dams à la the Animal Liberation Front. Bunnista sets the tone of the work immediately — page one, bubble quote two — when he responds to a statement made by Bananabelle, who is all about hopefulness and Al Gore-style optimism after viewing some Inconvenient Truth-type film.
"Did you know that if you recycle a single aluminum can, you can save enough energy to power a television set for three hours?" she asks.
With tongue planted firmly in cheek, Bunnista counters, "Oh my GOD! That is SO HELPFUL!" He proceeds to list all the problems with her claim: Big Industry tears up Africa for bauxite (the main source for aluminum), Big Industry builds dams for aluminum smelting, dams choke life out of rivers, person drinks soda, person develops diabetes, person recycles can, Big Industry builds coal-burning plants to melt recycled cans, coal toxins pollute the air. "So you can drink more soda," Bunnista avers. Added bonus: With the three hours of energy Bananabelle has saved, he quips sardonically, she can watch three episodes of Survivor.
Cartoonist McMillan lives in Fort Lauderdale and got her start cartooning at the now-defunct weekly newspaper XS. She co-wrote and illustrated As the World Burns in 2007 and has recently finished a full-color version that will be released in October. She explained what inspired As The World Burns. "[Jensen and I] thought [An Inconvenient Truth] presented the problem [of global warming] really well. But when it came to solutions [Al Gore] betrays the cause, makes every solution personal, leading us to blame ourselves instead of looking at the actual problem: our economic system."
In As The World Burns, satire bites through the sharp vampire-pointed teeth of McMillan's corporate overlords, through the beady eyes and Reaganesque hairstyle of the story's corrupt fictional president, and along the goateed, pointy face of a Zen-liberal who has the gall to lecture a fox about its diet: "It's ten times more efficient for you to eat plants than it is for you to eat mousies."
Minimalistic and outlined in black and white, McMillan's drawings look deceptively simple on first glance. But in fact, her work is complex without being stylistically intricate. Bananabelle, Kranti, and Bunnista are all sympathetic characters and outlined in a style reminiscent of Charles Schulz's Peanuts, with nothing ominous or too sharp. The Al Gore caricature, however, has a hilariously pear-shaped head, deep eye circles, and jagged spaced-out teeth. In creating the almost faceless talking heads at a terrorist roundtable news discussion, McMillan takes a cue from Dadaists: The participants have no clear facial features to make out except for mouths. Sure, these look like something a 5-year-old could do, but McMillan achieves her goal of dehumanizing the talking heads.
McMillan's artwork very rarely incorporates anything into the background. In fact, entire pages are devoted to one panel with one character and one quote, forcing the message front and center. The first such page depicts a withdrawn, somewhat dejected Kranti, clad in her signature black, sitting knees-to-chest, arms folded across her knees. Though usually all sass and snarl, Kranti, whose name translates to "revolution" in Hindi, sits in the middle of the white page. The already-limited detail of her body gets even more lost through her positioning, adding a bleakness to her gloomy state: "We will go quietly, meekly, to the end of the world, if only you allow us to believe that buying low-energy light bulbs will save us," she says.
As The World Burns aims its pen as much at Al Gore's featherweight ideas and lifestyle liberals as it does at corporate greed, corporate media, capitalism and consumption. While the message is serious, most of the dialogue and artwork is ripe for laughter. The villains provide nonstop giggles, like when the president confuses aliens from outer space with aliens from Mexico. "Aliens!" he cries. "From Mexico?" It goes on: "The ones overrunning the planet?" Yes. "The ones threatening our way of life?" Yes. "The ones who aren't really human like we are?" Yes. "The ones without permits?"
Though it doesn't overtly state it, As The World Burns, at its core, is a lesson in anarchist philosophy, implying that the Earth would be better off without a government beholden to an industrial economy. Initially, the graphic novel's underlying message may seem heavy-handed and preachy, but the writing is so acutely entertaining that the message doesn't feel force-fed. Despite all the dark humor and doom-and-gloom, the book actually ends on a hopeful note. Plus, the drawings are so darn cute.