STUART MCMILLEN is a cartoonist based in Canberra, Australia. Stuart draws long-form comics inspired by issues such as science, ecology and social issues. His comics have been translated into numerous languages. St Mathew Island and his adaptation of Amusing Ourselves To Death both had in excess of a million views. He has worked on numerous projects including for Geoscience Australia, CSIRO National Science Week, Brisbane Council and the Griffith Business School.
When did you first get into drawing cartoons?
I drew lots of cartoons when I was a kid, inspired by newspaper-style gag comics. There was something great about the artists being able to spin lots of different storylines out of a fixed roster of characters. Somehow, the artist had to be smart enough to, first of all, create interesting and distinct characters (such as Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes). And then the artist had to think of interesting situations to put the characters in (e.g. Calvin being forced to go camping by his parents, or being watched by a babysitter).
So I drew lots of cartoons all throughout primary school – especially between the ages of about 9 and 12. I even had a recurring gag-based comic strip entitled Uncle Grommet, which I would draw on weekends and school holidays. Unfortunately I stopped drawing totally between the ages of about 13 and 21.
Did you read comics growing up and what were your favourites?
My local library had lots of cartoon and comics-related books. During primary school [age 6-12], the books that I kept returning to were Calvin and Hobbes, Peanuts, Garfield, Footrot Flats, Asterix and Tintin. MAD Magazine was also an inspiration, to see the way that they would poke fun at authority figures and all aspects of life. Sort of like a printed version of The Simpsons, which I also loved.
There were also two very informative “how to draw cartoons” books by Australian cartoonist James Kemsley, which taught me about the nuts and bolts of drawing and laying-out comics. I still sometimes look at these Kemsley books for ideas, and recently loaned them to a friend who was interested in learning cartooning. I hope those books are still in print by Scholastic, but somehow I doubt it.
You have said that you used to feel like you had the answers before but now you are not sure, can you elaborate?
That comment is taken from my website bio, and was written to contrast the comics that I feature on my current website, stuartmcmillen.com, versus the comics that I featured on my old website recombinantrecords.net.
When I started drawing my Recombinant Records comics in 2008, I did so with the purpose of wanting to inform people about environmental sustainability. I wanted to educate and inform people, and ultimately change their minds and behaviours towards more environmentally-friendly habits.
Unfortunately, the approach I used with these early Recombinant Records comics were quite preachy and propaganda-like. They often felt like sterile, government-funded pamphlets. The stories were wrapped up a little too neatly, and I sometimes over-promoted the advantages of certain solutions such as green roofs, without discussing the disadvantages.
At the time, those comics were the best that I could manage. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I see their flaws. In fact I recently spoke about my move away from ‘propaganda’ comics during a recent podcast I did about communicating science with cartoons.
So, in 2010 I decided to draw a ‘line in the sand’ between the mixed-bag of comics on Recombinant Records, and the newer batch which I would collect at stuartmcmillen.com. St Matthew Island was the first comic that I felt was good enough to bring forward and include in my current portfolio of comics.
As well as St Matthew Island having a solid story beneath it, I liked the way I handled the storytelling. The narration is deliberately stark, and only describes historically-verifiable events that occurred in the past.
Image St-Matthew Island. Stuart Mcmillen
Even though I was clearly using the reindeer case study as an analogy for human beings, I chose not to state that connection in my comic. And that is the power of the comic. It is almost like there is an undrawn final page of the comic which the reader has to imagine their own. This made me happy. Instead of spoon-feeding my readers “the answer”, as I did with my Recombinant Records comics, I was finally encouraging my readers to think for themselves!
That is an approach I’ve carried forward to the other comics on stuartmcmillen.com. For example, with War on Drugs, I chose not to conclude the comic with a propaganda-like ending. I could have very easily concluded with a pre-chewed ending about how we must “legalise drugs now”.
Instead, I deliberately invited the War on Drugs readers to puzzle the issue for themselves, and seek their own answers. I do this to increase reader-engagement, but also because I am not positively sure that I am correct with all of my beliefs. For example, even though I believe that a drug-legalised society would have fewer harms than our current drug-criminalised society, there is a chance that I could be wrong!
I guess I am seeing the world in less black-and-white terms than I previously did in my teens and early twenties. And I’m choosing to frame my stories around things that I know to be false, rather than things that I believe to be true.
You have said that Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman changed your world view, in what way?
I first heard about Amusing Ourselves to Death via a reprint of the book’s infamous foreword, which compares Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four and Huxley’s Brave New World.
When I eventually read the book, I realised that it was mostly about the news media. Particularly television news broadcasts, which Postman compared to entertainment programs, complete with their own theme song!
Postman compares the trivial ways that most so-called “news” stories are covered by television. Such as entire points of view being reduced to soundbites, as well as the unrepresentative and unnecessary use of vox pop interviews.
The book encouraged me to examine my own news-watching habits, and see that it is often a distracting waste of time. Rather than constantly being drip-fed information about breaking news stories, I now choose to put more focus on longer time-frame topics, or to examine issues after the dust has settled.
You made a brilliant cartoon adaptation of Amusing Ourselves to Death which went viral were you surprised with the attention it got?
I thought that the Amusing Ourselves to Death comic was the best one that I had released to my website up until that point. I thought I had chosen a good topic/quotation to illustrate, and thought that the artwork was more distinctive than anything I had previously drawn.
After building steam for a few days after its initial release in 2009, the comic eventually reached the front page of reddit.com. I would have otherwise been unaware of this for many hours, but my friend noticed it and messaged me at 10am when I was in the office, working my ‘day job’. At that moment, I was torn between carrying out my normal work duties, and trying to monitor the internet-buzz surrounding my creation!
At the time, my website was hosted on a budget web server plan, with low bandwidth and CPU resources. Noticing the spike in traffic, the company suspended my account, because my website was using more bandwidth than the other sites on the shared server, combined!
Unfortunately the company decided to suspend my account when the comic was still rising in popularity via reddit. I think the comic would have been much more popular if things had been able to spread like wildfire, without being hampered by the reddit effect.
Anyway, this was my first experience being ‘noticed’ on the web by a large number of readers. It was a great feeling to know that other people were reading and discussing my work. I wanted to repeat the experience by publishing more provocative comics. Though I made sure to upgrade to a ‘reddit-proof’ server first!
Why do you think comics are such a good medium for tackling serious issues?
I think comics are a good communication medium to tackle all issues. They offer a great balance between ‘reader involvement’ (the fact that readers have to actively read the story rather than passively watching a video) and ‘creator control’ (the fact that, unlike the sometimes-vague images conjured by prose text, cartoonists can draw specific images to focus the reader’s attention).
Unfortunately, some people discount comics as simply being static, and therefore inferior, versions of animations. They assume that because comics are less technologically impressive than animation, that comics must therefore be inferior to animation. I think that this is false, and that comics are actually superior to animation in many ways.
To understand the communication benefits of comics further, I encourage people to read Scott McCloud’s seminal book Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (1993). This book describes the unique way that comics spark our brain. To prove his point about the benefits of comics, McCloud drew the book as a comic itself! I would call it an essential read, even for non-cartoonists.
Can you tell us about one of your favourite projects you have been involved in as a cartoonist?
The best comic I have produced to date is Rat Park, which I released in 2013.
Not only did I unearth a classic science experiment from obscurity, but I’m proud of the way that I told the story through the engaging medium of comics. Personally, I think I described the experiments better than any other book or article that I had previously seen.
I was happy that I wrote an engaging comic, but also that I made efforts to stress the nuances of the experiment, and some of the finer points of the results. I was also careful not to over-step the bounds of science when writing my conclusion. I wrote a blog post about the tightrope that I walked when planning the comic, which explains things in greater detail.
Rat Park had over 300,000 readers in 2013 alone, and the reaction was almost universally positive. People especially praised the ending, which thought beyond the rodent-based experiments, towards the world of human addictions. I’m happy to report that Prof. Bruce Alexander, the main ‘character’ of the comic, tells me that he has had a renewed wave of interest into his decades-old addiction research!
Can you tell us more about your next project?
I am being deliberately vague about my upcoming project, as I don’t want to ruin the surprise!
All I can say is that I am working on a 120 page comic, which I have spent most of 2014 creating. It will a step-up from my previous comic, the 40 page Rat Park, on all fronts. Obviously the page count is three times longer than Rat Park. But beyond this, I am also stretching myself with the artistic and storytelling techniques that I am using.
Right now I have almost finished the line art, and now need to do the colouring, as well as organise the translations with my international team of language translators. Where possible, I like releasing my comics in the maximum number of languages simultaneously, and right now my website is available in 9 languages.
Sorry for being so cagey about the specific details of this project. I expect the comic to be released in February 2015, so keep your eyes peeled for my email update!
A growing portfolio of Stuart’s comics from 2011-present can be found at www.stuartmcmillen.com