May 29, 2006

Minimum Security for Maximum Effect

Culture Groove

By Autumn Tweeter

There is a long tradition of social and political commentary and editorial cartoons, which have been around since the 16th century, continue to be a popular medium. The internet has enabled many artists to publish their own comics and one of the most insightful and forthright comics online is Stephanie McMillan’s Minimum Security.

CG: Can you tell us how you came up with the name and characters for your comic? How many recurring characters are there (other than public figures) and what is the story behind them?

SM: “Minimum Security” comes from a quote I read in a newspaper years ago, about a prisoner who had just been released. Outside, he looked around and noted, “I’m still not free; I’m just in minimum security.” The name speaks on the one hand to the police-state atmosphere, the monitoring of people and loss of civil rights, and on the other hand to the anxiety and insecurity that characterizes life in this society, the constant worry about work, money, health, relationships … everything really.

For a long time I didn’t use recurring characters, but a couple of years ago I decided that developing some would lend more depth to the strip. Characters that are around for a while build up meaning that they carry with them, and so their actions and responses don’t need to be explained each time. Their personalities are known. These characters evolved from many sketches that I did for a year or so before starting to use them.

– Kranti is a determined environmentalist who finds it preferable to be with plants than with any other kind of being. She’s unable to look away from the horrors of our society, and 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 escaped from a cosmetics testing lab (where one of his eyes was destroyed). His mission is to liberate the other animals from the lab, and he’s willing to try anything.
– Nikko is Kranti’s brother, a nice and smart person who’s inexplicably bewitched by pop culture and television.
– Javier is Nikko’s boyfriend, and is more politically active.
– Bananabelle is a liberal who has a good heart and cheerful nature, but is pretty much in denial about everything and still holds faith in the system. I use her to represent the mainstream outlook.
– Zen Pug asserts that happiness can be found within, and doesn’t really get that there’s a real world affecting people in ways they can’t control through positive affirmations.
– There are also two characters without names that I use as ideological symbols: one is a Christian-fascist wingnut, and the other is a nationalistic, xenophobic, generally reactionary jerk.

CG: Minimum Security covers a very wide range of topics from popular culture to international politics to environmental issues. How much time do you devote to research and reading the news and do you have any favorite sources that you view on a regular basis?

SM: I read a lot! I even read when I’m doing other things like brushing my teeth or walking or eating. I also listen to a lot of radio broadcasts online while I’m at work.

Here are some of my favorite sources:

Against the Grain:
Common Dreams:
Democracy Now:
Independent Media Center:
Megh Barta:
Truth Out:
I also usually look at yahoo news headlines a couple of times a day.

CG: As an activist, do you think you’ve been able to reach more people through comics than through just writing articles? What have been some of the more memorable responses you’ve received?

SM: Yes, I think for me comics are a good way to try to reach people. Someone, I can’t remember who, said that sometimes people become cartoonists because they can draw a little bit and write a little bit, but can’t do either one really well. I think that applies to me … the combination comes out better than either element would alone.

The responses that make me really happy are from people who tell me that I’ve expressed something they’ve thought but couldn’t articulate, that my work has somehow helped them to make an argument or clarify their thinking. I also love it when anyone tells me they’ve put my cartoon up on their fridge or their classroom door or on a flyer. This kind of feedback makes me feel like I’m making a difference.

CG: Earlier this month, there was quite a bit of discussion regarding your cartoon “Ask Bill”, which features a conversation about which salad dressing to use and a phone call to South Dakota Bill Napoli, who is described as believing “women can’t make our own decisions”, to ask his advice… and you mention his home and work phone numbers. This comic was also sold on ebay for $2,200 with the proceeds being split between Planned Parenthood and the Oglala Sioux Tribe. Did the public response suprise you in any way? What is your reaction to any of the responses given by Bill Napoli?

SM: The reaction did take me by surprise. I was really happy about being able to tap into and facilitate an apparently widespread urge to irritate a really evil politician. He got hundreds of calls from that cartoon. My favorite response of Napoli’s was a quote in the Rapid City Journal: “That cartoon generated a huge amount of filth, intolerable filth.” That made me laugh so hard. I posted it on my web page as a promotional blurb.

CG: What do you hope people will take away with them after reading Minimum Security?

SM: My main message, that I seem to keep saying over and over in different ways, is that we have to figure out how to stop the insanity, stop people from being dispossessed and their freedom crushed by business interests, stop the whole planet from being murdered. I try to expose the roots of the atrocities, why they’re happening, as well as their mechanisms, because I want to help people see that what’s usually accepted as “normal” is actually madness. Mercury and PCBs in fish, video cameras everywhere, money valued over life, fake food –- my cartoons are my way of saying, “You don’t have to accept all this!”

CG: Do you have any new projects or recent news to report about Minimum Security?

SM: I do, but they’re so vague at this point that I hesitate to bring them up. One thing is that I might soon have an agent for licensing my characters. Also I’ve started talking with one of my favorite writers about working on a project. Plus I’ve been sketching out some ideas for a short graphic novel. I’ll definitely keep people updated in my LiveJournal as things take shape.

CG: Do you have any suggestions for people who might be interested in activism?

SM: Yes! Figure out where your loyalties lie — (with the living world and all its creatures or with the system of destruction) — and basically what you believe in. Then fight like hell to make a better world. Find a compatible group or work alone or with a friend. Learn by doing, and don’t worry about being perfect. Question and examine everything. Accept that you might feel discouraged at times, but also know that you might be amazed by how far the ripples of your actions will reach, without you even knowing it. No sincere action is ever worthless. You’re never alone.

Minimum Security

Stephanie’s LiveJournal