To call Stephanie McMillan a cartoonist is like calling Paul McCartney a musician. It’s accurate in all meanings of the word. But leaving it at just cartoonist (even adding “editorial” as a descriptor) comes up short. She might rightly be described as a social activist and agitator, one whose pointed commentary and analysis are conveyed most visibly through pictures and their associated dialogue bubbles. Her incisive work caught the attention of the Sigma Delta Chi Awards judges, who recognized her excellence for the recurring syndicated cartoon “Code Green,” about environmental issues. The Fort Lauderdale, Fla., native studied film animation at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. Next year will mark her 20th drawing regular cartoons for newspapers.
What was your first reaction to winning a Sigma Delta Chi Award?
I was thrilled, of course. It means a great deal to me to be recognized by such a widely respected organization. I’m honored to be grouped with journalists who have done such great and important work. Beyond the personal level, I’m pleased that they chose cartoons of a non-traditional style and by a woman, both of which rarely win major awards.
Your cartoons focus — rather bitingly — on “green” or environmental topics. What’s the inspiration behind that theme?
Though my focus was, for a long time, on social justice (which I still care deeply about), several years ago I became very alarmed about the increasing speed and scope of the destruction of the planet. It became clear to me that this problem supersedes all others. Without a living Earth, nothing else matters. Our lives depend on it. I decided to dedicate myself and my work to confronting this reality, in the hope that I could make some difference.
Your website, where you have all of your “Code Green” samples, has a built-in German page, too. What’s the story there?
Last year I visited relatives in Germany, and they helped me translate my cartoons and send them to German newspapers. Not much came of the attempt, but I do have some regular readers in Germany, so I keep them on the website in their honor.
I read that one of your big inspirations was “Peanuts.” Any other artistic inspirations or “heroes” from the editorial cartooning field?
Yes, I’m very partial to the cartoons that have traditionally been run in the alternative weekly papers, such as Matt Groening, Lynda Barry, Ted Rall and others. When I lived in New York, I picked up the Village Voice religiously, just for the cartoons. I loved “Stan Mack’s Real Life Funnies,” “Washingtoon” by Mark Stamaty, and Ben Katchor’s “Julius Knipl, Real Estate Photographer.”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but it seems like there’s a big gender gap in your field (not just cartooning, but more narrowly editorial cartooning for news outlets). Why do you think that is?
Part of it is that there aren’t very many cartoonist staff positions at newspapers, and the few that exist are often held for life. Some cartoonists have held these positions since the days when certain types of work were considered “men’s jobs,” and women were not considered serious opinion-makers. Times have changed, but these jobs come up so infrequently that many women, noting their slim chances, don’t even bother to aspire to them.
Also, women are often still, for some reason, expected to focus on “women’s issues.” These consist, in some minds, of children, dating and dieting, not world affairs and current events. I would also like to know why they don’t hire more female cartoonists. That said, I know many wonderful (male and female) editors who have valued my work and have never made me feel marginalized in the slightest.
The third factor is our social conditioning. Men and women are expected to behave differently. Sharply critical statements, when uttered by men, are considered bold and assertive; but the same statements uttered by women are often labeled “shrill.”
Did you ever think being female would be a stumbling point for you when trying to “break in”?
I don’t think of being a woman as my main obstacle; succeeding as a cartoonist of any gender is against great odds. However, it is a factor. People say that they would like to see more women cartoonists, but then do not give us work. I like challenges, but it’s a difficult career path, and occasionally I worry that I may have to quit.
What about considering another route in media/journalism? Did you ever say, “Hey, I’d really like to be a reporter or producer”?
I love writing, and I’ve written many essays and book reviews and so on. I co-wrote a novel recently that will be out next year. My motive in drawing, writing and everything else is to further the larger aim of improving our situation in the world. For me, being a cartoonist isn’t the point; the point is to assert opinions about politics and social issues and so on, in ways that might have influence. I do love cartoons, but I would express myself in whatever form or venue where I could build a loyal audience. I think my most valuable skill is honing down an argument to its essence. This is very suited to cartoons, which must be instantly understandable.
You also write another strip called “Minimum Security,” which is much different than “Code Green.” What’s the inspiration behind that?
“Minimum Security” started out as an editorial cartoon but changed to a daily comic strip when it was acquired by United Media. It’s currently a long-form narrative about a group of friends trying various strategies and tactics to save the planet from corporate overlords. It’s a thought experiment. I take readers through various activist schemes and personal crises, and no one in real life gets hurt.
Take us through your typical day or at least from concept to completed product. How does that creative process work for you?
I spend about two hours every morning reading, catching up on current events as well as digging into deeper political analysis. I create the cartoons on a weekly cycle. Each Monday and Tuesday, I write scripts for one “Code Green” cartoon and five “Minimum Security” comic strips. Sometimes this is a lengthy and difficult process; but when I’m lucky the ideas come quickly. If I have extra time, I spend the rest of the days marketing and seeking clients. On Wednesdays and Thursdays I usually do other freelance work, and then Fridays and Saturdays I draw all the cartoons at once. On Sundays, I color them. I post and send them out to all the places they have to go on Sunday nights and Mondays; this alone takes several hours. Then the cycle begins again.
OK, the inevitable “advice” question. To those wanting to get into cartooning ― maybe the young journalism student out there who’s also a kick-butt artist with a knack for humor ― what do you say?
If you love it, and are prepared for a long and difficult road, then you should do it. There are a few quick successes, but for most, it takes commitment, persistence and stubbornness beyond all reason. If you’re the kind of person who won’t give up, and you can work hard and long hours, and you’re willing to sacrifice a great deal to do what you love and believe in, then you can make it. If you want to, you should try. Life is too short, too precious to settle for mediocrity, whether it’s in love or your profession or anything else.