The Revolution Will Be Illustrated: Stephanie McMillan’s Occupy Cartoons
by Michael Arria

History decays into images, said Walter Benjamin, but what about comics? Stephanie McMillan has been covering politics through her comics since 1992, but where does the medium fit into the era of Twitter and the 24/7 news crawl? Her new book, The Beginning of the American Fall, tackles that question head-on. It might just be the best account yet of Occupy’s birth, refusing to downplay the divisions or underscore the successes of the movement. The work wraps memoir, political philosophy, and reporting into one succinct illustrated package. The book, and her cartoon “Code Green,” the only consistant comic about the environmental crisis, recently earned her a journalism award from the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice & Human Rights. McMillan was kind enough to answer some questions for Motherboard regarding Occupy, how her approach has changed, and what’s coming next.

Motherboard: Did you know you wanted to cover Occupy through comics, or did the process kind of happen organically after you became involved?

McMillan: I was already an organizer for a collective called One Struggle in South Florida in Fort Lauderdale and Miami. When we started to hear about plans for Occupy Wall Street and Stop the Machine [a similar action in DC], some of us were cautiously excited. Of course no one knew what the actual potential of it was; there were frequently all sorts of calls for action and most fizzled into nothing. I had my doubts about it because it was initiated by Adbusters, a magazine that celebrates the style of radical politics yet has little substance. But the timing was good. In the middle of a global upsurge against capitalism’s structural adjustment policies, one could feel discontent simmering under the surface in the US as well. An outpouring of anger felt immanent; the only question was what form it would take.

Plans for Occupy and Stop the Machine seemed to be a departure from the bankrupt forms of “protest-as-usual,” in that the participants would refuse to leave. So this drew our interest, and, it turned out, the interest of many thousands of other people too.

In One Struggle, we discussed how we might relate to the events, depending on how they developed. We understood that it would likely be a wave that would crest and recede, so we decided to participate without dissolving ourselves into it as an organization. We wanted to still be here afterward, without losing our anti-capitalist/anti-imperialist character. In fact, we wanted to spread our ideas and build our own organization within the upsurge, which we did.

So I went to DC, bringing copies of the One Struggle newsletter to distribute, ready to connect with potential allies. Meanwhile I contacted the Cartoon Movement, an Amsterdam-based agency, to see if they’d want the event covered in comics-journalism form. I wanted to document it, plus I figured it would help finance the trip. They agreed to take ten pages.

Comics journalism was a form I had never tried before. I was used to drawing in a very abstracted style, with cute animals and simple, colorful backgrounds. I usually never bothered much about getting settings right, or learning how to draw structures like buildings and cars. The last figure drawing I had seriously practiced was many years ago.

But documenting these protests would require a more realistic style, which it turned out that I enjoyed. I took a lot of photographs to use as references. I switched to real pen-and-ink, the kind you dip out of a jar, which provides a more fluid line than the drawing pens I usually used. After the initial ten pages ran on the Cartoon Movement’s website, I showed them to Seven Stories Press. They asked me to expand them into a book.

Do you find it increasingly difficult to do the kind of work you do when things are happening and changing so rapidly? Do you approach these kinds of projects any differently than you did in the early ’90s?

It’s both easier and more difficult–not so much because of the nature of events but because of the evolution of media. Most people in creative fields have had a tough time transitioning their careers to the web, because readers expect most content to be free, and very few websites pay much (if at all). Pay rates for print have plummeted as well. I lost my own job at a newspaper in 2008, and it has been hard to get by without that paycheck.

At the same time, the web is the breeding ground for exciting new artistic forms, and comics journalism is one of those emerging forms. So while it’s harder to make a living for each individual “content provider” (as the newspaper I worked for called us), it’s easier to have our work widely seen. Selling our work requires a lot more marketing, networking and self-promotion, building relationships with readers and an ever-changing list of multiple clients. It also requires many of us to juggle multiple forms. Right now, besides this comics-journalism book, I also have a new novel just published [The Knitting Circle Rapist Annihilation Squad, co-authored with Derrick Jensen], and a completed graphic novel coming out next year. Plus I draw a comic strip five days a week, and write weekly essays about political theory.

Seven Stories wanted The Beginning of the American Fall done quickly. I put the whole thing together in only a few months, working 16-hour days. I’m now in the planning stages of possibly doing a similar comics journalism project about the struggles of sweatshop workers in Haiti, connected to solidarity work that One Struggle is doing.

It was a challenge to capture the rapidity of events, especially as a participant. There was so much going on, and having to filter it down even to a sort of collage-like collection of impressions still left a lot out. I found myself simultaneously trying to document events as I was helping to make them happen. Of course in this process there is no pretext of maintaining a mainstream journalistic notion of “objectivity,” which is a lie anyway. But there is a deeper level of honesty if one is involved in a story, because only as a participant can one deeply comprehend the complexities of a situation.

Right, I think your book ends up being so compelling because it recognizes the contradictions and messinessthat exists in every social justice movement. What was your opinion of the mainstream media’s coverage of Occupy?

No one can adequately understand—or convey an authentic interpretation of—a phenomenon without being immersed in it. It’s like being a tourist in an unfamiliar country, not knowing the language, not understanding the lives of the people, and then trying to write about it. It can’t be done. Most members of the mainstream media came to Occupy as utterly ignorant tourists, knowing nothing about the forces involved—the various political interests, the levels of consciousness, the backgrounds of movements and the trends being expressed within those, the layered meanings of specific words used in non-mainstream political discourse, the language of class struggle.

So there was no way that they could cover the protests without being ensnared in their own hangups: their binary “for and against” formulas, the pithy sound bites, the drive to sensationalize and focus on conflict to please a bored and saturated market. “If it bleeds, it leads.”

They kept trying to boil it down to one story. Sometimes this inadvertently benefitted the protesters, such as when widespread media coverage of several women being pepper-sprayed by police enflamed general outrage and caused the protests to grow. But mostly it flattened the events and made them more difficult to understand and engage with. The complex reality of what occurred could be much better apprehended in the aggregate of work by the independent writers, filmmakers and bloggers who were active within it.

What happened to the movement?

Just last night I gave a radio interview and someone asked me if Occupy disintegrated because of its lack of unity. Since the media focused a lot of attention on the refusal of participants to put forth a single specific demand, many spontaneously blame Occupy’s diversity for the fact that the encampments are gone.

The internal contradictions of Occupy were not insubstantial, but to blame them or label them the fundamental problem is a mistake. The main reason the encampments dispersed was that they were crushed by a greater force, a hostile force. The state forced them out. Mayors of major cities got on a conference call with the FBI and Homeland Security and planned the evictions, and then their armed forces—the police—carried those evictions out.

But Occupy is not dead; there is still an energy of resistance struggling to express itself. It is being forced to evolve, to become mobile and to take even more diverse forms. It would have been impossible to hold territory anyway, in the city centers of the most violent and heavily armed country in the world. Some people, who expected Occupy to be “it” –to be the beginning of the revolution, may have been disappointed enough to give up. But many others are cohering into organizations, are continuing to experiment with different forms of resistance, are being active in various capacities. Certainly the social problems that sparked Occupy in the first place have not been resolved; they are only intensifying. So there will be other uprisings, increasing resistance in various forms.