Capitalism Must Die!: Stephanie McMillan's New Comics Journalism

If adolescent rebellion is, for most kids, just a developmental phase, for Stephanie McMillan it was more like a political awakening. Even as a middle-schooler, this Broward County native dreamed of joining a commune and resented missing the '60s.

But as an adult, she had to make a living. She was just a few years out of college when her job at a corporate-owned media outlet collided with her radical beliefs.

It was 1992, and McMillan was writing for the popular Fort Lauderdale alt-weekly XS (later known as City Link). She had just finished an article about the detention and deportation of immigrants. Because, however, she also was directly involved in the issue she was covering — McMillan was an advocate for detainee rights — her boss said her work could not be viewed as objective: It would undermine the paper's reputation.

Give up participating in the struggles she believed in, she was told, or give up writing and reporting hard news.

So McMillan stepped away from the news side and instead wrote XS's event listings, a position she held until it was eliminated in 2008. The early and sudden change of office tracks allowed her to remain an activist outside of work but, as it turned out, did not spell the end of her serious journalistic pursuits.

McMillan is part of the genre of comics journalism — using words and illustrations for journalistic purposes. The funny pages and superhero comics don't count, but the form includes editorial and political cartoons as well as long-form reportage in graphic novels.

Comics journalism is not new, but by many accounts, it's experiencing a moment right now. In May, the Christian Science Monitor offered "Five Reasons Graphic Novels Are the Next Big Thing at Your Library." In 2011, the Poynter Institute described practitioners as a "new breed of journalist."

Take, for instance, the partnership between Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and ever-serious journo Chris Hedges of the Nation and pioneer cartoonist/fellow war correspondent Joe Sacco, who in 2012 co-released Days of Destruction, Days of Revolt, an illustrated polemic about poverty in America. Or Georgia congressman John Lewis, who last month made an appearance at Comic-Con to promote his graphic novel March, a firsthand account of his years as a civil rights activist. Then there is cartoonist Matt Bors, who became a superstar among millennials when he published a strip on eviscerating Time magazine's (and others') lazy "generational slander." It went viral.

McMillan's 2012 book, The Beginning of the American Fall, a composite of essays, reporting, and drawn images from her time at Stop the Machine (an Occupy-type protest group), epitomizes the genre. It also won an R.F.K. Journalism Award. Her latest, Capitalism Must Die, due out in October, doesn't have a plot per se but is a series of one-panel drawings and essays, organized by chapters (including one titled "50 Ways to Prepare for the Revolution") that support the thesis of the title.

"There are a lot of texts out there that explain capitalism. But many people find them difficult, overwhelming, academic, and often boring," McMillan says about why the text/comics hybrid proved advantageous for such a dense subject. "I wanted to present the topic in a form that is very accessible to the most people possible, because for me this is not an intellectual exercise or a means of self-expression but a way to help build a movement.

Still, "capitalism is extremely complex," she continues. "While I can condense information pretty well, there's a limit. Some elaboration in text is really necessary."

Capitalism Must Die features McMillan's signature style: a cute, simple approach to drawing, coupled with acerbic, take-no-prisoners messaging. Her regular cast of characters is all here: the squished, ogre-y corporate types who kill off the planet and speak only caveman; the smug, dodohead, fratboy capitalists who don't understand why you didn't inherit millions and in turn invest it properly; and, of course, the quick-witted yet patient revolutionary rabbit, Bunnista, who puts up with all of them.

"Stephanie is one of the most extraordinary writers and cartoonists in the United States," says Ted Rall, a widely syndicated editorial cartoonist and Pulitzer Prize finalist. "Her comics journalism, for example [The American Fall], ranks among some of the best editorial commentary in visual form that has ever been produced.

"I love her graphics style," he continues. "[Her] line is edgy and crackly and feels very vibrant. Not too many cartoonists can pull that off."

Rall, who's edited McMillan's work in the past, describes her as an "artist engageé," an artist engaged in the world. And it's this that ultimately sets her apart from her comics peers.

"Like Simone de Beauvoir and Jean-Paul Sartre, Stephanie is deeply involved in trying to change the world whose injustices and oppression she comments upon in her work," he says. "She doesn't sit on the sidelines as do as so many others in our profession. I don't know why it is, but a lot of cartoonists seem to be interested in one subject: themselves. Not her. Not at all."

McMillan, who also contributed to the third volume of the best-selling Graphic Canon anthology, is skilled enough at her craft that cartooning pays the bills, via advances for books, freelance work (she's been published in the Los Angeles Times and the Daily Beast, to name a couple), commissions to illustrate graphic novels, and Kickstarter campaigns.

"People often resist fully comprehending the reality of what's happening to our world and its people, because it's so painful," McMillan says. "When I share information, sometimes I've made friends burst into tears and then stop talking to me. This is not really the response I'm looking for. I want to help strengthen people to resist, not make them depressed. I've found that if I put a sugar coating on the bitter pill, the medicine is more likely to be accepted.

"Oscar Wilde once said, 'If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh. Otherwise they'll kill you.' So I try to make the truth amusing."

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Erica K. Landau