This modern cartoonist
Tom Tomorrow’s cartoon anthology The Great Big Book of Tomorrow charts America’s path from Bush to Bush
Days after the first bombing of Baghdad by the first President Bush back in 1991, cartoonist Dan Perkins (alias Tom Tomorrow) joined 100,000 protesters gathered in the streets of San Francisco to demand a quick and peaceful end to the Gulf War. Awed by the sheer numbers present at the event—the third of its size in the city in less than a week—Perkins was hopeful the protest would garner media attention and send a message to policymakers. That night, he was shocked to see the demonstration featured for less than five seconds on the evening news. The station then cut to footage of a half-dozen pro-war demonstrators and gave that “event” equal time.
Frustrated by the American media’s ineffectual political coverage, Perkins chose to address the issue through his own media outlet: This Modern World. Then an abstract comic about a commerce-driven American dystopia, his strip already was circulated in alternative weekly newspapers nationwide.
Perkins described his birth as a political cartoonist in a recent telephone interview from his office in New York. “I sort of fell into it during the Gulf War,” he said. “I was pissed off, and I suddenly realized I had this soapbox I could stand on.” Perkins sent out a strip about the skewed protest coverage. The president and his advisers began appearing as regular characters. Sparky, the cartoon’s spokes-penguin, routinely cited facts from current news stories. It wasn’t long before This Modern World became the bitingly humorous political cartoon SN&R readers see on our letters page each week.
Local Tom Tomorrow readers are not alone. This Modern World appears weekly in 150 alternative newspapers nationwide, on Salon.com and on Workingforchange.com; and monthly in The American Prospect. Perkins’ personal Web log averages 15,000 visitors per day. “It still feels pretty small-time to me,” Perkins admitted, “but I guess it all adds up.”
The sum total can be viewed in The Great Big Book of Tomorrow. Published this August, the book is a career retrospective of Perkins’ work on This Modern World. Though it includes early cartoons and homemade zines dating back to 1983, the bulk of the book is divided between the four presidential terms This Modern World has satirized. Titled respectively “The Reign of King George the First” [George H.W. Bush], “The Song Remains the Same” [Bill Clinton part 1], “The Tabloid Presidency” [Clinton part 2] and “Hell in a Hand Basket” [George W. Bush], these chapters’ four-paneled cartoon content provides a startlingly clear portrayal of America’s full-circle journey from Bush to Bush. Cartoons from more than a decade ago depict the first Bush, Saddam Hussein, failing economics and corporate welfare as if they were written yesterday.
“Everything old is new again,” Perkins laughed over the phone. He admitted to feeling “a bit surprised” about the eerie relevance of his 13-year-old political commentary to today’s current events. “The [Bushes] certainly are touching on a lot of the same topics, although Junior’s administration is far, far more radical than his father’s. 9/11 really did change everything, in the sense that it allowed them to pursue their wildest radical fantasies of reshaping the world. That’s something I don’t think anyone would have foreseen.”
Putting a new face on repetitious political issues can be a challenge. “I see criticism sometimes that I am just saying the same things,” Perkins said. “This is true of any cartoonist or columnist with a daily or weekly deadline. If you wake up every day with a sense of who you are and what you believe—if you’re not a person who wakes up every day thinking, ‘What is this soft thing under my head, and why am I lying in a horizontal position?’—then there are going to be themes to which you return. It’s silly for anyone to think otherwise.”
For inspiration, Perkins reads The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal every morning before logging onto sites like Buzzflash.com and Cursor.org. He also receives about 50 e-mails a day from readers, many with tips and links to stories. “That’s incredibly useful to me,” he added.
E-mail feedback can be a mixed bag, though. “E-mail makes it easy for people to send you their most fleeting thought, which can be really exhausting,” Perkins related. “I used to print my e-mail address with the cartoon. Now you have to go to the site to find it. That was a very deliberate choice on my part. I also put up a notice on my Web log that if you send me the sort of crude, hateful, scatological e-mail I used to receive by the ton, I will post your letter and your e-mail address on my Web site. So, that cut down on that.”
Between deflecting scatological messages and following the developments of the war on terror, it’s a wonder Perkins is able to maintain his sense of humor. “There’s a constant argument in the world, with people saying, ‘You’re wrong!’ ‘No, you’re wrong!’ And while I genuinely believe that they’re wrong and I’m right,” he laughed, “I can’t live there. I spend more time there than most people, but I try to structure my week so I have some time away from it.”
“There are times I wish I drew an adorable cartoon about the adventures of a lovable cat,” Perkins said, sighing, “instead of doing this political work and pissing people off all the time. But I’m just not that person who can draw that cartoon about the cat. This is the life I chose, and I can’t really complain.”
That is, unless the subject is the publicity (or lack thereof) for The Great Big Book of Tomorrow. “Publishers just don’t take cartoon compilations seriously. Every few years, I put another book out, and I meet with the publicist. They talk about all the things they’re going to do, and for a little while I believe it. I’m always Charlie Brown getting the football pulled away by Lucy, every time! Now, it’s happened again! This is the Big Book, the career retrospective, and this publicist has done a worse job than ever before.”
In an effort to prove the viability of the book to his publishing house, Perkins used advertising on his own Web site to push the book to No. 13 on Amazon.com’s best-seller list. “That was huge! It didn’t stick very long, but I thought it would be good to show the publisher. I said, ‘Look! I’ve got this audience! Now you take it and run with it!’ And they took it and sort of stared at it and let it fizzle out. I’m pretty angry about it.”
While his publisher has failed to note the measure of This Modern World’s appeal, the strip has attracted the attention of several other would-be collaborators, including Saturday Night Live, U.S. News & World Report and filmmaker Michael Moore. Perkins’ dealings with the first two were short-lived. In The Great Big Book of Tomorrow, he chronicles being “terminated with extreme prejudice” by U.S. News publisher Mort Zuckerman after only a few months. Perkins’ views didn’t seem to jibe with those of the average U.S. News reader.
Perkins experienced another clash over content when Saturday Night Live hired him to do some animated shorts. In this case, however, “It wasn’t that they were opposed to my political viewpoints. There was a real tension between me wanting to do what I wanted to do and them wanting to get more—and I quote—'tits and ass’ into the cartoon. We had a different aesthetic.” The three cartoons Perkins produced for Saturday Night Live never aired. “At the last minute, they’d say, ‘It was a second-and-a-half too long,’ but I would watch the show, and they’d have a Goat Boy skit that ran on for 20 minutes. It was nerve-wracking.”
Perkins fans have probably heard rumors that he and Michael Moore, director of the Academy Award-winning Bowling for Columbine, are collaborating on an animated film. In fact, the two were seeking funds for a script they co-wrote. Unfortunately, while negotiations with investors dragged on, their work became dated. “[The script] was about things like Fox News and the war over natural resources,” Perkins explained, “and a lot of the stuff we were forecasting has happened and is over with at this point.” He remains hopeful that the two will have a chance to work together. “We’re still talking, hanging out and having coffee. So, who knows what the future holds?”
While Perkins is content to muse on these larger possibilities, he remains convinced that his most effective form of communication is This Modern World. “[It’s] this cartoon, which costs nothing to produce, which I just sit and do in my office by myself, which goes out and reaches millions.”
In addition to feedback from fans and detractors, the weekly print version of This Modern World has garnered reactions from the political celebrities he caricatures. At a political convention, Bill O’Reilly once confronted Perkins over his work, insisting Perkins had been too hard on him. “He’s really thin-skinned. He’s the only person I’ve met who was just, ‘Grrr! Offended!’” Perkins reported.
Others seem to miss the point of Perkins’ criticism entirely. “I’ve done a number of cartoons about Alan Colmes being a terrible spokesperson for the left. He always sends me an e-mail asking for an autographed copy, which isn’t the response I want to provoke.”
Recently, Perkins received a similar request from Senator John Kerry’s office over a cartoon blasting ineffectual Democratic legislators. “I had to think about it,” Perkins admitted, “because there’s a sort of co-opting when a politician takes the cartoon and hangs it on the wall and says, ‘Ha ha! I can laugh about myself, too!’ I finally decided to sign it, ‘Dear Senator Kerry, Please prove me wrong.’ I figured I could live with that hanging on his office wall.”