In the days known as P.D. (Pre Doonsbury) political cartoons with human characters were limited to the editorial page and one large square. The only political comic strip in P.D. critical of the status quo that made it into the daily papers was Walt Kelly's Pogo. Periodically it would feature a character based on first President Lyndon Johnson and in latter Richard Nixon. I seem to remember Johnson was a Basset Hound and Nixon a Hyena, both remarkably astute pieces of caricature when it came to the two men in question.
In Canada there were two of what were known as editorial political cartoonists that were head and shoulders above the pack, Aislin, the pen name for Terry Mosher and Duncan Macpherson. I think the fact that I can still remember both of them, and specific pieces of their art from thirty odd years ago speaks volumes as to their style and abilities. Both men considered it open season on politicians of all parties and leanings, and you would have been hard pressed guessing any political allegiances on the part of either man.
In those days the best you could hope for in terms of the mainstream media when it came to political cartoons was that they weren't flag wavers who demonized supposed enemies by depicting them as racial stereotypes. Duncan Macpherson was probably one of the few cartoonists who would draw an Asian face without making it a mask of evil during the height of the Vietnam war.
It wasn't until Garry Trudeau's Doonsbury that a daily comic strip in the mainstream dared to politically agitate against the powers that be. During the Watergate era of Richard Nixon his strip was actually pulled from newspapers across the United States because the content was periodically considered too volatile and he's probably one of the few cartoonists to ever have motions of censor put forward against him in the Senate.
Thirty plus years later there still aren't many political cartoons to be found on the comic pages of the mainstream press aside from Gary's strip. However, in first the alternative press, and now the Internet, political cartoons of all stripes have sprouted that make Trudeau's strip look tame in comparison. Unfortunately a good many of them, no matter what their politics, really aren't worth the paper or the bandwidth required to produce them.
Thankfully there are people like Stephanie McMillanand her comic Minimum Security that more than compensate for the failings of others. While she makes no secret of her politics and her opinions she takes the time and effort to research her information and creates cartoons that are witty, intelligent, and iconoclastic. In an era when so much of popular culture is designed to perpetuate the status quo Stephanie bravely uses her comic strip to point out that not only doesn't the Emperor have any clothes on, but that the Empire is without substance behind its pretty facade.
She tackles all the expected issues, Iraq, Homeland Security, Global Warming, and Human Rights. However unlike so many others who are apt to say this is bad, and leave it at that, Stephanie goes the step further and not only explains why, but proves it as well. Open the collection of her work, Attitude Featuring: Stephanie McMillan -Minimum Security published by N.B.M. Publishing, to almost any page and you'll see what I mean.
While the boy wonder, George Bush Jr., is called to account by her cartoons for a good many of the problems facing America (and the world) Ms. McMillan is not naive enough to believe that one figure head is the root cause. In some ways Bush is only a symptom of the system that's been nurtured and developed for two hundred and thirty one years. American foreign policy in North and South America has always been predicated on the needs of corporate America, and today's circumstances are merely a continuation of that policy on a world wide basis.
From the days of the United Fruit company's sole proprietorship of the economies of Cuba, Central America, and South America to today's rapacious demands of the petroleum industry, America's military has always been there to open new markets and defend business' right to exploit foreign nationals. Of course it's all justified in the name of democracy, although how installing military dictators like August Pinochet to overthrow an elected government counts as protecting democracy I've never understood.
Stephanie knows this and depicts Bush as being a tool of the industrial complex and his policies as having less to do with preserving America than preserving the privileges of his class and protecting the interests of corporate America. She doesn't just make wild accusations without supplying proof either. In various cartoons and strips she quotes facts and figures substantiating everything from the drop in real income across America, the widening gap between the rich and the poor, and the ever increasing profits enjoyed by multinational businesses.
But you know what's best about Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security? It's funny, well at least I found it funny, but for those of you like me who have grown tired of painfully earnest progressive people (and boy do I mean painful) she's a breath of fresh air. Where else are you going to find Bunnista, the revolutionary bunny rabbit who lost an eye to animal testing and has now dedicated himself to "the overthrow of the capitalist/imperialist system by the international Proletariat and revolutionizing all of society based on need rather than profit".
Of course Bunnista has to deal with Bananabelle Skylark who claims there's no need to change the outer world if we but only learn to live in the moment. Social problems are merely a reflection of our inner selves and the world is actually perfect, it's our consciousness that determines our reality. Thankfully, there's also Kranti. She still tries to hand out free plants on earth day to her neighbours, but is aware enough to know that we need to change the way we live if we have a hope of surviving.
The interaction between the three and the world around them lifts the strip out of the polemic and puts it firmly in the land of comics. They allow her to poke gentle fun at the left and some of the didactic that's spouted by people more in love with slogans than actual problem solving. But unlike so many others Kranti and her friends know that things aren't as rosy as Fox Television would like us to believe, and they're doing their best to figure out what to do about it.
Attitude Featuring: Stephanie McMillan Minimum Security is a collection of Ms. McMillan's work from early one panel editorials to some of her more recent cartoon strips. They are funny, wise, not a little bit sad, but most of all, intelligent. Voices of dissent are few and far between these days in the mass media, so to find one as smart and humorous as Stephanie McMillan's Minimum Security is nothing short of miraculous.
(Originally posted January 2008)
Richard Marcus is the author of two commissioned works published by Ulysses Press, editor in the books section of Blogcritics.org and contributor at Qantara.de. He has been writing since 2005 and his work has appeared in publications all over the world including the German edition of Rolling Stone Magazine.