First appeared in IWW Industrial Worker:

Reprinted at

by Dr. Zakk Flash

The Beginning of the American Fall: A Comics Journalist Inside the Occupy Wall Street Movement Text and Art by Stephanie McMillan 144 pp. Seven Stories Press. $16.95 Release: 13 November 2012.

Stephanie McMillan, along with her illustrated comrades, recounts the burgeoning influence, successes, and failures of the global justice movement and Occupy Wall Street in particular, from hopeful inception to uncertain future in her latest graphic novel, the Beginning of the American Fall. The novel attempts to encapsulate the early days of the movement (and the artist’s own radical roots) through expertly illustrated comics and connective essays.

Winner of the “poor man’s Pulitzer,” the 2012 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the book’s illustrations and text follow McMillan from her beginnings as an environmentally-conscious college activist to her growing radical awakening. Narrated by McMillan (and placing her firmly in the action), the story weaves together the artist’s own sensitive reflections with sociopolitical context. McMillan herself comes across as a participant of great optimism and enthusiasm, tracing the arc of her own expectations with the movement’s limitations.

Even as the social movements of the current era draw heavily on the experiences of the sixties in terms of slogans and courses of action, the medium of this book brings clarity and accessibility in an art form that captured the political and cultural foment of that period for a good number of today’s activists. While not precisely in the spirit of irreverent, anti-capitalist underground comix like Zap, the artwork does succeed in capturing the energy and emotion of Occupy Wall Street and its precursors in a style that is both engaging and clear.

McMillan is no stranger to this type of illustrated social commentary; she’s drawn and overseen the syndication of the daily Minimum Security strip since 1999 as well as the acclaimed Code Green weekly. Her work as an activist with One Struggle, Hands of the Haitian People Coalition, and Stop the Machine provide her work as an artist a voice more directly empathetic than the newspapers, even as they cover the same events.

McMillan is a gifted illustrator and the Beginning of the American Fall succeeds as a profoundly honest graphic primer but the work is not without its own limitations. The panels, which are colorful and often hopeful, fail to capture the messiness of radical movement building and the insanity of the capitalist death spiral. The pared-back visual style relies too heavily, at times, on accompanying observations to drive the message home.

Fawning platitudes from peripheral characters on the nature of resistance seem to blunt the story somewhat, especially in regards of what is to be done. Nonobjective writing gives way to promotion of other activists and their work. Perhaps this is to serve as introduction but often it seems more like simple sponsorship. The condensed format of the book makes it difficult to overcome some of these barriers but McMillan succeeds admirably in her analysis and explanation of the global justice movement, making these issues insignificant in the whole of the work.

No one claims this volume to be definitive. While it is tempting to criticize the book for what it does not include, the subtle, yet powerful story presents a compelling and persuasive argument for justice.

As biographical narrative, the story is a sympathetic portrayal of an attempt towards an egalitarian, bohemian, and completely rebellious future. Snippets from speeches and books incorporated into the narrative provide an opportunity for an engaged audience to seek more. The visual approach and accessibility of the work provides a jumping-off point that is simple, honest, and an insight into the cultural impulses of the moment.

McMillan’s tale is generally more interested in the human story than official documentation. It isn’t a comprehensive examination but one that dissects a system that has increasingly been shifting wealth upwards. The Beginning of the American Fall steers clear of the gentrified graphic novel trap, daring to repudiate capitalism while knocking those who use populist sloganeering without deeper analysis. McMillan gamely identifies reformist attempts to make a gentler capitalism as a palliative to nullify radicalization and should be commended.

Occupy Wall Street has elicited wildly divergent opinions as to what the movement means in the short-run and what the future portends. With nimble illustration and idealistic wonder, Stephanie McMillan has contextualized her personal insight on the movement and what it means for planetary survival, egalitarianism, and real human freedom. She’s made a damn good read while doing so.

Dr. Zakk Flash is an anarchist political writer, radical community activist, and editor of the Central Oklahoma Black/Red Alliance (COBRA).
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