Stephanie McMillan is the author of Minimum Security, a radical comic strip that approaches some of the most pressing issues of our time: the global environmental crisis, rampant consumerism, U.S. imperialism, and institutionalized gender and class inequalities. Much of McMillan’s work challenges readers to look beyond a system that does not serve the needs of people or the natural world. She says, "Beliefs are extremely tenacious and we’re trained from birth to believe in this system—that it’s the only possible way to live." Her work has appeared in, among others, Yes! Magazine, Comic Relief, Funny Times, San Francisco Bay Guardian, and Z Magazine. Her 2007 graphic novel, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do To Stay In Denial, a collaboration with writer Derrick Jensen, continues to inspire people to "question their solutions." Currently, Minimum Security is syndicated online by United Media’s comics.com, where it runs five days per week.
Boggs: You describe your strip as "America’s cutest pre-post-apocalypse comic." What does this mean?
McMillan: We’re on the verge of some horrible changes in this world, environmentally. It’s unlikely we can change the course of this. With vanishing species, global warming, the death of the oceans, it’s not hyperbolic to call it the apocalypse. The economy, also, will be very painful for a lot of people. The characters in my strip acknowledge all this.
There are many post-apocalyptic graphic novels and other comics out there. I wanted this one to represent our current situation, which is really pre-post apocalyptic. That’s fairly depressing in real life, though I strive to highlight the humor. I wanted the strip to be very appealing in spite of its sometimes harsh subject matter, which is why I draw it cute.
The content of your comic illustrates your work as a long-time grassroots activist. Besides environmental work, what other issues have you worked on? Do you see these and other struggles as related?
All of the political work I’ve done during my life, which has included working against police brutality and imperialist war, for immigrant rights, and protecting abortion clinics, has been with the underlying awareness that one system—structured to increase the wealth of a very few—is oppressing all the rest of us in countless different ways. I worked on issues that I thought revealed this reality and could potentially connect with other struggles to form an all-encompassing revolutionary movement. To eliminate this oppressive system, we need to attack it from every angle, and at the same time understand that we, in different struggles, have a common enemy.
The title of your strip, Minimum Security, is taken from a quote you read from the newspaper. An inmate who was just released from prison looked around and said, "I’m still not free; I’m just in minimum security." How is this revealed in your work?
The political and economic system dominates and strives to control every aspect of our existence, from our everyday doings to our innermost feelings. From being forced to work for food and shelter to standardized education, to the "infotainment" industry, we live within a very narrow set of choices. Some of my characters—especially Bunnista—challenge these limits when they come up against them. Bunnista refuses to pay his credit cards. He destroys things he thinks are bad—a cell phone tower, a television station. Javier refuses to play a popular form of music. Kranti refused, for a time, to go indoors or watch television.
We often hear from the progressive community to refuse products that stem from exploitation like sweatshops. Is this type of refusal enough to stop the atrocities?
It’s not enough, not even close. We cannot confine our political activity to choosing what products to buy and expect to make the kinds of major social transformations that we need to make. To confine our political action to choices made in the marketplace is to deny our agency as fully rounded human beings.
We hear of actions that might work if everyone did them, but there are so many of those and they never go far enough. "If everyone" would stop buying plastic. "If everyone" would stop driving cars. "If everyone" would refuse to work. It just isn’t going to happen.
The two characters you mentioned, Bunnista and Kranti, are much more radical than the others. Kranti is a determined environmentalist "unable to look away from the horrors of our society and who tries to help others understand that a lot of our ‘normal’ life actually involves atrocities against the natural world." Bunnista is an angry rabbit who, after they destroyed his right eye, escaped from a corporate cosmetics lab. He believes in revolutionary change and is willing to try anything. These perspectives are largely absent in the mainstream media. What are your thoughts on this and the state of the media today?
The mainstream media exists to serve the needs of capital and empire by telling us what to think about everything. The words "liberal" and "conservative," as they’re generally used, have no meaning. They’re used to facilitate a very narrow, pro-capitalist range of opinions that has nothing to do with real change. The supposed conflict between liberal and conservative media is a diversion created so that we’ll believe there is an authentic debate and choice, where really there isn’t any. Whenever real radical ideas do sneak into the mainstream media, they’re usually smuggled in under the guise of comedy. That’s one reason I draw a humorous, cute comic strip.
In As the World Burns, you unmask the absurd logic in the "solutions" to our environmental crisis. Kranti goes beyond critique and claims that this kind of awareness actually promotes an illusion that is harmful. Can you explain?
If we’re convinced that it will make a difference if we take shorter showers, change our light bulbs, and obsess about our carbon footprint, then we won’t have the time or inclination to smash industrial capitalism and the political apparatus that keeps it in place. If we’re blaming ourselves for over-consumption, then we’re not focusing on the real enemies of the planet—the captains of industry, politicians, and their armed enforcers.
One of the most damaging lefty slogans, one that makes me cringe every time I hear it, is that well-loved and over-used line from Pogo: "We have met the enemy and he is us." No, the enemy is not "us." It is the corporations and the people who run them and the people who help them keep their power. Those are not "us." I don’t recall ever being asked if I wanted a piece of land to be "developed" or whether I approved of a new war to capture so-called "resources." I’ll start taking shorter showers when they stop waging agribusiness. The job of people who want to save the planet is to stop those who are destroying it. It’s that simple.
The Miami Herald recently quoted you at the Miami Book Fair. You said, "It’s almost unforgivable to do work that’s not in some way trying to make the world better." At the same time, we know there are well-meaning people caught up in a system that only rewards those willing to maintain the illusion and continue destroying the planet. How can this reality be changed?
The only way is to help people understand that though it might be easier in the short run to go along with the system, it’s going to hurt us all in the long run—not even the long run; it’s actually hurting us all now. Cancer is surpassing heart disease as the main cause of death worldwide. The water, air, and soil are poisoned, harming all living beings, not just humans.
But many people don’t want to break the spell of denial and can’t bring themselves to acknowledge the pain. It is hard to break the illusions, to face the reality of what we’ve been tolerating, and harder still to stand up and fight back. We have to encourage one another to be brave, to love ourselves, and love those around us enough to do what’s right.
Whether or not we care about the consequences of particular actions depends on how far our circle of empathy extends: to our own family and friends, the humans of our nation, or all humans, or all animals, or all life.
Sometimes people expend a lot of unconscious effort to restrain and shrink their circle of empathy. In the back of their minds, they know that if they allowed themselves to care about more living beings, then their sense of horror at what’s being done to the world could be devastating. They try very hard to avoid the pain, fear, and sorrow.
Marx said that guilt is a good first step toward action. I agree, in that we need to face our own complicity, our own failure to adequately resist. But that’s as far as the value of guilt goes, to me. The vast majority of us did not create this system, we do not enforce it, and we don’t need to feel guilty for living in it. We’re its victims. Once we recognize that, our job is to defend our fellow living creatures and ourselves by fighting back.
In Minimum Security, I try to find ways of moving readers to expand their circle of empathy and to shift it from those in power to the oppressed. I also try to show how we—especially the expanded "we"—are harmed by industrial capitalism and that our interests do not lie in preserving it. My intention isn’t to make people feel guilty, instead I want to foster outrage and inspire people to act.
During the presidential election, and even afterwards, we were bombarded with rhetoric calling for "hope" and "change," yet your comic strip critiqued these notions as fundamentally flawed. One of my favorite ones had Bunnista saying, "Not even the biggest ballot box can contain my fury." Is it wrong to have hope?
It depends on whether that hope is well placed. To invest hope in the ballot box certainly seems like a mistake. There is a saying something like, "The Democratic Party is the graveyard of the radical movement." If people could transform society by voting, voting would be made illegal. Obama is certainly more appealing in style than McCain or Bush, but he’s not going to fundamentally transform the system, much less dismantle it. His job, his function, is to maintain, and, if possible, expand it. No one in that position could do otherwise.
I do have hope though. Perhaps "hope" is not the right word. I think of Gramsci’s phrase, "pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will." The meaning I find in my own life lies in the possibility that enough of us will resist this system and destroy it, so that all forms of life on this planet can continue and thrive.
Kyle Boggs is a freelance writer living in Arizona.