The Activist Cartoonist’s Creed: Keep Laughing All the Way to the Revolution

Graphic novels, comic strips and caricatures all have the power to draw real live humans to action.

stephanie mcmillan book cover howard zinn loved it

Woman with Backstory: Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, judged this collection of Stephanie McMillan’s cartoons from 1999 to 2005 to be ‘social satire at its wittiest and most engaging.’ (Illustration courtesy Stephanie McMillan)

A good cartoon makes one simple, concentrated point. The artist must decide what idea to convey and pare this down to its essence; otherwise the cartoon will lack clarity, and fail artistically. The particular combination of images and simple textual messages makes a cartoon uniquely accessible, more easily understandable than either images or text alone.

A cartoon commands visual attention, and is the first thing a reader’s eyes are drawn to on a page, on paper or online. When done well, a cartoon reaches the reader’s consciousness with instant clarification, turning a previously complex or obscured concept into something suddenly obvious.

I’ve been drawing political cartoons for 20 years. The forms have ranged from editorial cartoons to comic strips to graphic novels to illustrations. For even longer than that, I’ve been active in movements for a better society—one that is sustainable and free of exploitation and other forms of domination. My work as a cartoonist is just one of the ways I participate in that larger struggle.

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My newest completed project is a book of comics journalism, The Beginning of the American Fall, published this month by Seven Stories Press. The book reports on the first major protest movement in the U.S. in decades.

Uprisings sparked into life in North Africa and Europe in response to austerity measures, rising food prices and unemployment. They circled the globe, and finally reached the United States in the fall of 2011. With the American economy in deep crisis, the population was seething. Action finally erupted with the launch of Stop the Machine and Occupy Wall Street. I participated in protests in several locations, both as a comics journalist, but also as an organizer. The book that resulted is an account of the first few months of the movement.

When we laugh at those in power, we become less afraid. We become stronger.

The Beginning of the American Fall goes beyond dry observation to provide a genuine insider’s perspective. The text and drawings combine interviews, dialogue, description, political conflicts and personal experiences to present a picture of a unique historical moment.

Readers tell me that the book accurately captures many of the issues people have been wrestling with Occupy—the contradictions and mixed feelings about various aspects of the protests. My goal is to connect with people who are concerned with the fate of society and the planet. When they tell me that my work helps clarify arguments, cheers them on, and encourages them to fight back against the system, then I’m satisfied. This is what I do it for.

When our political, economic and social systems are destroying the lives of the people and the planet, nothing that anyone does can be neutral. Art, in particular, is always political in one way or another. This is true even when it pretends to be purely decorative or abstract.

The world is in a state of emergency. Conditions demand that artists of all kinds (and everyone else, for that matter) consciously offer their work in the service of ending this intolerable, unjust and ecocidal system, and contribute toward a movement to fight back and transform society. The world is crying out for a culture of resistance, a broad alternative culture that popularizes and advances the interests of fairness and good faith.

Cartoons are well suited to both exposing the system and encouraging resistance. They can counteract dominant ideology like a fast punch, attacking and subverting those in power and their official pronouncements by exposing the inevitable hypocrisy and lies. And if they’re funny, their power is magnified.

Those who wish to expose the system and spread radical or revolutionary ideas do well to heed the advice of Oscar Wilde: “If you want to tell people the truth, make them laugh; otherwise they’ll kill you.”

Humor is the sugar coating on a bitter pill, helping people open up to difficult ideas. Cute or abstract characters can utter outrageous opinions that actual humans wouldn’t get away with.

I often use the phrase “resistance through ridicule.”

When we laugh at those in power, we become less afraid. We become stronger.

Do you have a favorite political cartoon? Describe it in COMMENTS.

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