Interview with Stephanie McMillan, cartoonist and activist, author of “The Beginning of the American Fall”
1) How does it feel to be one of the few women in the cartoon world?
It’s hard to make a living as a cartoonist, no matter the gender. In the
last decade or so, being female has become much less of a novelty in the
cartoon/comics world. I actually don’t think about that very much. In some
instances it has probably been one factor (secondary, among others) when
I’ve been passed over for jobs or received lower pay, but I can’t control
that, so I move on, and keep trying a lot of different things to get my
work seen and to find ways of making an income from it. My (far left)
political views are actually much more of an obstacle to achieving the
traditional view of “success” than anything else. Not to mention the
collapse of print media. These have been much more significant factors for
2) Politics and cartoons. An uneasy bond?
Some people make comics for entertainment, and they tend to keep politics
out of it in order to build the broadest audience possible. Cartoonists
have even told me they don’t say what they really think in their work,
because it wouldn’t sell as well. To me, this is a criminal waste of
talent. But I blame the capitalist system, not those forced to make
unpleasant decisions in order to survive within it.
My background, however, is not in comics but in editorial cartoons, which
must be aggressively political and opinionated to be effective. This has
been discouraged in recent years (since newspapers have collapsed) by
timid editors who have become afraid of “rocking the boat” and losing
their jobs. Most have decided that it’s better to run bland and
inoffensive cartoons that illustrate, rather than comment upon, world
events. But this has been a loss for editorial cartooning, and for
readers. The best cartoons make sharp, even harsh, points that stir up
thinking, debate and controversy.
3) You once said that this system cannot be reformed. What’s the alternative?
Capitalism is inherently exploitative, ecocidal, and expansionist. Even
the nicest capitalists in the world can’t change its miserable and
destructive nature. For me, to put it bluntly, the only alternative that
can decisively eliminate capitalism is for the working class to liberate
itself – to seize political power and control over the means of production
– and eliminate surplus value (which is how capital reproduces) by
abolishing wages and private accumulation. Only this can lead to the end
of class-divided society, and to the atrocities that capitalism inherently
4) You co-wrote the book The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad. What do you think about the current events in India?
Patriarchy, and the violence used to enforce it – particularly rape and
the threat of rape – is a deep-rooted global horror. All forms of
oppression, of women and other social groups, are not to be tolerated,
must be resisted and combatted—both for their own sake, and because they
widen the divisions among the masses and strengthen the domination of the
ruling class over us.
In fact, when Derrick Jensen and I discussed writing the novel, we were
directly inspired by the Gulabi Gang – the group of women in India who
organize resistance to the oppression of women, including by beating men
who abuse their wives. A similar form of organization existed in Mao’s
China. We wrote the book to spread the example of, and to encourage,
organized resistance to oppression and domination.
5) Is there a chance for the environment or we ‘re done?
So much of the environment is already done. 94% of the ocean’s large fish
are done. 78% of the world’s old-growth forests are done. The million
people who die of pollution-related causes are done. It’s too late to save
the 200 species who went extinct today, or un-ruin the lives of those
already destroyed by global warming.
The question today should be, can any life on Earth still be saved? I fear
not, but this is no excuse to give up. We can’t understand the interplay
of all the variables and the possible surprises that may be favorable. The
future is unwritten, as they say. As long as we are not yet dead, we must
fight for life to continue.
6) How difficult is it for you to sketch from an independent perspective
about something you believe in?
It’s not difficult at all; it comes naturally. I love doing work that I
believe in. It makes me feel that my life has meaning and purpose. The
hard part is when, to survive, I need to take a job I don’t believe in.
Nothing is more tedious and boring to me than producing work that doesn’t
further the goals I care about. It feels like a terrible waste of time,
though it’s unfortunately sometimes necessary.
7) Is the “Occupy” movement alive or dead?
The answer to that depends on how you define “Occupy” – is it encampments,
or a mood? Certainly the states have effectively defeated and removed the
camps that were Occupy’s initial physical manifestation. This has led to
many people becoming pessimistic and becoming inactive, but many others
cannot go back to sleep. They are continuing to oppose and resist the
system in many creative ways. The desire for radical transformation is
I don’t think “Occupy” had developed into a real movement, but rather it
was a global mobilization, an uprising. A lot of work remains to be done
to build the kind of movements that will be necessary to defeat capitalism
and imperialism. People are out there trying to do that, but they are up
against an extremely organized and ruthless enemy. It will be a hard road,
with no guarantees.
But doing the work to build these movements is our only option. Certainly
the social contradictions that sparked Occupy are still there, and not
going away. Life for the majority of the world’s people will only get
worse, unless we defeat this evil system that feeds off our blood and
8) How did you see the reelection of Obama?
Unfortunately I think it contributed to the de-mobilization and
pacification of the people in the US. Obama is a ruthless tool of
capitalism/imperialism (as all their politicians are – that is their job),
but the system’s propaganda machine has been successful in portraying him
as a (the only) progressive alternative to the frightening and ruthless
Republicans. Presented with this awful non-choice, many understandably
chose what they considered the “lesser evil.” But this is a mistake,
because it lets the system off the hook.
This is the fault of the Left. We are too weak, as yet, to present a real
alternative to what capitalism is offering. People have allowed themselves
to be content with slight enlargements of bourgeois democracy, such as gay
marriage and allowing women into combat. These are not real advances. As
if it’s a victory for women, to be “allowed” to fight for imperialism! No,
Now that Obama is solidly back in office, and he continues killing people
and destroying the world for capitalists interests, his spell will
hopefully wear off and people can assume the necessary mindset for
building a real movement that can challenge the system.
9) From a financial point of view, how difficult is it to be an
It’s frankly awful. Many people assume that with several books published,
and cartoons that are fairly popular, that I’m able to make a good living.
The reality is that for the last several years (my “most successful” years
as a cartoonist in terms of work and awards), I haven’t been able to even
afford to rent an apartment or buy health insurance. And this is after
working about 12-14 hours a day. I once figured out how much I make per
hour, and it turned out to be about half of the minimum wage. Last week, I
applied for a part-time job unrelated to my field. I don’t want to take
the time away from my organizing and cartoon work, but may have no choice.
A small number of cartoonists are able to “make it big” or manage a good
living, but they are a tiny minority. Most of my colleagues are struggling
to keep their heads above water, especially since the collapse of print
media. This is the situation in many creative fields, not just cartooning.
10) What kind of feedback you get from your readers?
My readers keep me going. They are wonderful, so supportive and
encouraging. When they tell me that my work helps them to understand a
political reality or a theoretical point that helps them in their
struggle, then I feel very satisfied and happy. This is what my work is
When active organizers or protesters use one of my cartoons on a leaflet,
or on a poster at a demonstration, that is so wonderful to me. Right now,
I’m putting together a series of cartoons paired with short, accessible
texts about what capitalism is and how it works, intended for use in
presentations and discussions, for organizing. It’s called, “Capitalism
Must Die! How to Kill Capitalism Before It Kills Us.”
I also get negative feedback – my share of online trolling, insults and
even death threats. But usually I don’t even read those. It does nothing
positive for my state of mind. Those types of comments don’t strengthen
me, so I ignore them. I have a mission to fulfill, and avoid distractions
when I can.
11) Is there a funny side in everything?
This depends on how large your capacity is for grim humor! Personally, I
do see a lot of humor in life, and I laugh a lot. If one can manage to
have a generally positive temperament, life feels better, and we don’t
give in to despair. Despair is defeat. Instead we can strive to view
obstacles as challenges, and crisis as opportunity.