A Nickel's Worth with Stephanie McMillan20 Questions with Stephanie McMillan
By Scott Nickel
A Nickel's Worth
Stephanie McMillan is the cartoonist behind the thought-provoking, funny and wonderfully subversive comic strip, MINIMUM SECURITY, which you can read daily at the comic.com site or on Stephanie’s own site.
Be sure to check out Stephanie’s blog and pick up the MINIMUM SECURITY books.
1. When you were a kid, did you want to be a cartoonist? Did you draw?
My earliest drawing memory is from age three. I drew a stick figure with hands that were little circles with many long lines radiating from them. I proudly showed it to my dad at the breakfast table. He tried his best to be encouraging, but informed me that hands have only five fingers each.
When I was about 10, I fell in love with PEANUTS and traced them over and over. I read comic books like RICHIE RICH and ARCHIE, but it was PEANUTS that I became obsessed with (an obsession that shaped the dreams and future careers of many of my generation of cartoonists -- we were hopelessly brainwashed in our formative years).
I loved learning art in school, from finger-painting in pre-school through anatomy classes in college. In fifth grade my wonderful art teacher Mrs. Lihan taught us how shading works, and I still remember the thrill of learning that secret.
2. What was your first paying cartoon job?
In the late 1980s, when I was still in college, I got a job painting cels for short animated cartoon that was intended to motivate the sales team of Huggies diapers in their competition with Pampers. We got $4 an hour and worked 14-hour days. In 1992 I was offered a part-time job at a weekly paper, and the editor, Stephen Wissink, offered me the opportunity to draw a regular editorial cartoon. I did that for years before it ever occurred to me to try to self-syndicate.
3. Describe the process you went through when you created your comic strip, MINIMUM SECURITY.
When I started the strip in 1999, I didn't want to just to "be a cartoonist" in the abstract. I'd been an activist/organizer since high school (and the system didn't crumble, damn it!) After 15 years or so, I finally got tired of handing out leaflets on street corners -- I wanted to encourage resistance in a more efficient manner, and one more suited to my personality.
MINIMUM SECURITY started as a political/editorial comic, formatted in the style of my favorite alt-weekly comics: a multi-frame slightly vertical rectangle, once a week, no recurring characters, very wordy.
When the U.S. started the war against Iraq (despite the largest global protests in history), I fell into a period of despair. It seemed that nothing I or anyone could do would make any difference. I stopped drawing and started gardening. After nine months I got over it, and started again with a single-panel editorial cartoon.
Soon I started toying with the idea of having regular characters and continuous story lines. I figured that they might make the comic more appealing, bring readers back to find out what happened to characters they might grow to care about. I switched to a strip format, and Kranti first appeared in 2004, saying something sarcastic to Uncle Sam about using napalm. She looks a lot different now than she did then!
4. MINIMUM SECURITY is syndicated on United Media’s website. How did you hook up with them?
Over the years I received many form rejection letters from all the major syndicates. When Ted Rall became Editor of Acquisitions at United, with the mission of bringing a new generation of cartoonists onto the comics pages, he told me MINIMUM SECURITY was on his short list. I was thrilled, of course. It started running on comics.com, and I increased the pace to five days a week. It was in line to be syndicated in print when the economy fell into decline, and newspapers began dropping more features than they were buying.
5. Where do you stand in the print comics vs. web comics debate?
Squarely on both sides. I want my cartoons to be everywhere.
I'm not going to reject methods of making a living from my work -- I try it all. I've sold artwork on eBay. I have a website with advertising and stuff for sale, and I'm striving to increase the income from that, learning as much as I can from successful web cartoonists. At the same time, print might be dying or it might not, but as long as it's still around, I want my cartoons to be there. My comics appear in several print publications, including a daily paper. I'm also negotiating right now with another daily paper to run a regular editorial cartoon. I draw original cartoons for magazines, and sell reprints. Presently I'm working on coloring the pages for a French edition of my graphic novel. After that I have another graphic novel in the pipeline, and illustrations for two other books.
I think the "print vs. web" comics debate is ridiculous, frankly. Some people obviously make money in each realm. Most don't. It's the work that's important -- why would anyone want to limit where it appears?
6. The web affords a great deal of creative freedom. Would you be interested in doing a traditional newspaper strip?
I've been drawing MINIMUM SECURITY in the visual style and form of a traditional strip for more than two years, so absolutely yes. In spite of the condition of newspapers, I still have the goal of getting it onto the comics pages. I'm stubborn.
7. What’s the future of comics? The Internet? iTunes? The Kindle?
It could be any or all of these (and definitely cell phones), except that we're in the process of not only an economic collapse, but also a catastrophic ecological collapse -- which means human civilization is going down too. In the future, when electronics are nothing more than heaping mounds of toxic junk, the few survivors will draw cartoons on the crumbling walls of abandoned houses.
In the meantime, though, people want to read comics online and on their phones and ipods and everywhere they read everything else. People have a primal need for jokes and stories. Of course, as a cartoonist I would like more mechanisms to develop that would make it a paying profession for more than a few people, no matter what the venue. Otherwise, as we see with the decline of journalism, we'll end up with an endless cycle of young hopefuls who struggle to squeeze a bit of coin from the vague promise of "exposure" (or do it for love after earning money elsewhere), before giving up in frustration and the next wave of young hopefuls takes their place.
There are good and bad things about that cycle, which is already in play. We gain an endless variety of comics blessed with freshness and enthusiasm, but must sift through a lot of crap to find the good ones. The art form has become more accessible and democratic, but we're losing some of the pros who have spent years honing their craft. Some of the pros had become lazy and deserve to fail; others will be missed.
All of the independent cartoonists I know, whether they focus on the web or on print, talk and strategize endlessly about how to make a living. It takes iron discipline and a lot of slogging hard work. They must develop good business skills and configure multiple revenue streams. On the web, it's advertising and merchandise (including books). In print, it's cultivating clients, and doing illustration work or graphic novels on the side. Usually (certainly in my case) it's a blend of everything, whatever works. In either realm, making a living usually means that we have to spend more of our time marketing and selling than actually creating comics.
A lot of us didn't realize this when we decided to become cartoonists. In our daydreams, we sit at our desks, left alone in peace to create soaring works of genius while cash magically appears. Sadly, it's easier to win the lottery than to achieve that glorious condition.
Comics as an art form is in transition, and flowering. There's so much great work everywhere, and so much stupid crap as well. People will try everything, display comics in a million places. I don't know what will end up working and what won't -- the evolution of media is rapid and unpredictable. With persistence, luck, and a determination to hone business skills whether we like them or not, those who draw good comics will find their audiences.
8. Tell us about your graphic novel, As the World Burns: 50 Simple Things You Can Do to Stay in Denial.
I worked with the amazing writer Derrick Jensen. He wrote the bulk of it, using the characters from MINIMUM SECURITY, and I illustrated it and wrote a few of the sections.
It's a response to the lie that individual lifestyle changes are the solution to ecocide. For example, Al Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth lays out the problem very well, but at the end is the usual tired "what you can do" list that everyone pushes because they don't impinge too much on our "non-negotiable way of life." These lists always include things like taking shorter showers and changing light bulbs to more energy-efficient ones, and never include things like stopping industrial production and overthrowing the system that puts profit ahead of a living world.
In spite of its serious subject matter, As the World Burns is very funny and involves space aliens who arrive to eat the planet and bunnies rounded up and locked in detention centers.
9. Name five of your favorite cartoonists or comics.
Five that immediately come to mind (there are many more that I love also):
All of my Cartoonists With Attitude comrades, Matt Groening, Rene Engstrom (ANDERS LOVES MARIA), Winsor McCay (LITTLE NEMO IN SLUMBERLAND), Alison Bechdel (DYKES TO WATCH OUT FOR), Steven Cloud (BOY ON A STICK AND SLITHER), Jim Meddick (MONTY), and Kate Beaton (HARK! A VAGRANT).
Oh, is that more than five? Oops.
10. How do you develop ideas? Which comes first, words or pictures?
I think about where I want the story to go, break it down into small steps, and then write jokes around each step. I work on them in batches of five. Sometimes I have to lie down and take a nap for the ideas to develop -- it's easiest when I'm about to fall asleep or when I just wake up. Taking a walk sometimes helps too. I write out detailed scripts and then edit them down as short as possible. Usually a few days later I draw the whole batch at once.
11. Do you ever worry about running out of ideas?
I'm not worried about running out of topics and stories -- those are infinite -- but I do often have trouble coming up with ways to make them funny. Jokes don't come easy for me. Sometimes it's just impossible and I have to take a break and come back another day.
12. What’s Ted Rall really like?
Ted is one of the best people I know, and I'm honored to call him a friend. He has integrity, and has sacrificed personal gain for his principles many times. He doesn't just care about art or writing for its own sake, but strives to make a difference in the world. He cares about, and constantly finds ways to assist, cartooning as an art form and cartoonists as individuals. He's a brilliant editor, as everyone he's worked with in that capacity would attest. He works incredibly hard -- I have no idea how he finds time for everything he does. He has an extraordinary breadth and depth of knowledge of history and current affairs. And he loves a good argument, which may not be a huge surprise to many who've come in contact with him!
13. The web provides instant feedback from readers. Do comments influence the direction of the strip or the subjects you write about?
Once in a while a reader will send me a great idea that I use. I always give credit when that happens. Some people hate the politics of the strip and send criticism that is not constructive, and I just ignore and delete that. Occasionally someone will make a point that makes sense, and I might think about it and take it into account, but I prefer to receive critical feedback from people I know, when I ask for it. I respond best (as most everyone does) to encouragement. My favorite comments come from people who tell me that they've been strengthened by my work. That inspires me to make it sharper.
14. What are your favorite books, TV shows, songs and films? (Yes, that counts as one question.)
I won't say all of these are absolute favorites, but ones I love and can think of right now.
Derrick Jensen's Endgame, A Language Older Than Words and Culture of Make-Believe
How the Steel Was Tempered, Nikolai Ostrovosky
Mother, Maxim Gorky
Buffy the Vampire Slayer
"Paris Match," The Style Council
"Nothing Can Stop Us Now," St. Etienne
"Steppin' Out," Kaskade
"One More Time," Daft Punk
"Simply Beautiful," Queen Latifah and Al Green
Fun with Dick and Jane
The White Rose
15. What are your tools of the trade?
I draw on smooth Bristol board, starting with a non-photo blue pencil. I use a cut-out paper template to draw the strip's outline. The size is 9.5 x 3, so I can fit two on a sheet of 9x12 board (I draw kind of small so I can take my materials anywhere without a lot of hassle). I use a varying combination of pens that include Gelly Roll (medium for lettering and drawing), Micron (05 for boxes, 005 for details), Faber-Castell brush (for filling in black), and random ones like Le Pen. I've tried so many kinds and they are all flawed. For example, the tips of Microns bend too much, brush pens only look good if you draw huge, and Gelly Rolls skip over pencil. I'm never satisfied with pens.
16. What’s the best part about being a cartoonist?
The absolute best thing, and the reason I do this, is when readers tell me I've helped clarify issues for them, or have bolstered their strength to resist the system. I love drawing cartoons, but if I could better assist resistance by writing, I'd write. If I could better assist resistance by washing windows, I'd wash windows.
The second best thing is to be in charge of my own work. I hated having a job and being told what to do. I'm highly motivated and work hard, but if someone with authority over me tells me what to do, I automatically don't want to do it. I've always been contrary that way.
17. Have you met any of your cartoonist idols? Under what circumstances?
I've met cartoonists and others in the arts whose work I very much admire. I go to conventions and discuss things with a group of lefty political cartoonists called "Cartoonists With Attitude" (cartoonistswithattitude.org), and I feel lucky to count them as friends.
Their work inspires me, some for many years.
18. What advice would you give aspiring cartoonists?
If you want to make a living at it, be prepared for a hard road. You must be driven, determined, and love to write and draw. You should be willing to learn business and marketing skills, and be flexible enough to adapt to a constantly shifting media landscape. If you can be persistent, it's incredibly rewarding to look back on a body of work that you can be proud of.
Most importantly, make cartoons that give voice to what you most care about. The world needs more art of all kinds created by people who are passionate about their issues, and less meaningless crap created to target the latest trendy marketing niche.
19. How important are awards?
Some editors like to know that the content they choose has been pre-validated. If their boss complains the cartoon sucks, they can say, "But it won a Magnificent Humor Quality Award!" and thus avoid responsibility for making a bad decision.
20. What’s something that nobody knows about you?
Awhile back, trying to make enough money to quit my job, I tried day trading and made a whopping fortune of $250 in only one year.