This Modern World - teaserThis Modern World Introduction
‘This Modern World’
‘There’s a lot of competition for eyeballs in the world these days, and I want to put out work that’s worth the time it takes someone to read it.’
Tom Tomorrow is the nom de plume of Dan Perkins, who has been drawing “This Modern World” for 20 years. Now appearing weekly in The Pulse, the political cartoon is a fixture in alternative newsweeklies and appears in some 80 newspapers across the United States and on websites such as the DailyKos.com (where Perkins edits the comics page). His illustrations have appeared in The New York Times, The New Yorker, Spin, Mother Jones and Esquire, among others. In 2009, Perkins created the cover art for the Pearl Jam album “Backspacer.” His cartoon is the subject of nine published anthologies and he is also the author of the children’s book, “The Very Silly Mayor.” Perkins’ work has been awarded numerous honors, including the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in 1998 and 2003. As the late Kurt Vonnegut put it: “Tom Tomorrow is the wry voice of American common sense, humor and decency.” We couldn’t agree more, and engaged Perkins for an email interview to celebrate the launch of “This Modern World” in The Pulse.
The Pulse: Cartoonist Ted Rall wrote recently that political cartoonists are in danger of not only becoming extinct, but some are playing a role in their own demise through plagiarism and laziness. He also blames editors for going with “safe” cartoons and says a lack of quality has also been to blame. How do you keep your work fresh and what do you do to avoid repeating yourself?
Tom Tomorrow: I write one cartoon a week, and have been doing so for about 20 years. What that’s meant for me is that I have the luxury of spending a couple days each week writing and rewriting each cartoon, giving it a lot of thought. The gestation period is crucial. I’m not big on rushing work into print. There are exceptions, but you can generally tell when somebody didn’t really think an idea through. The other thing is to always keep the reader in mind. There’s a lot of competition for eyeballs in the world these days, and I want to put out work that’s worth the time it takes someone to read it. All that being said, I’m one person with a fairly consistent world view and a set of recurrent characters and themes, so there probably is plenty of repetition. I guess the trick is trying to keep the repetition fresh. It’s like something Keith Richards said about rock music once—you have a limited set of chords and riffs, and the trick is to try to do something new within those limitations.
The Pulse: Compared to other alt-cartoonists, you’ve got quite an enterprise going—the comics page of the Daily Kos website, books, album covers, public appearances, etc. You’ve been doing this a long time and it’s been tough going for cartoonists in general and alt-cartoonists, specifically. We’re happy to have “This Modern World” leading off our new comix page, but have you ever thought of giving it all up?
Tom Tomorrow: Oy! Every Monday morning, when it’s time to come up with a new idea. By the end of the process I’m usually pretty happy to be doing what I do. But those Monday mornings when I don’t really have any ideas in mind can be kind of brutal.
Also, I wouldn’t overstate Tom Tomorrow, Inc. For instance, I don’t have a book publisher right now—the Internet seems to have pretty much killed the anthology-publishing part of my career. I have a couple of open offers to do something long form, but it’s like a one-person Gift of the Magi—I have those offers because I am known for the work I do as a weekly cartoonist, but the work I do as a weekly cartoonist leaves me little time to explore those offers.
The Pulse: Election years are a feast for political cartoonists. It’s been a wild ride so far. How do you see the GOP primaries playing out and do you believe the eventual nominee can beat Obama?
Tom Tomorrow: To the extent that I play the cartoonist-as-soothsayer, I tend to predict general themes more than specific political outcomes. I’ve had some success as a graphic Cassandra—I was writing about the housing market crash six months before it happened, and it would be hard to argue that my initial opposition to either the Afghanistan or Iraq wars was mistaken. But the thing about predictions is that you’ve usually got 50/50 odds, and in retrospect you just point out your successes and conveniently ignore the ones you got wrong. That said, I’ll go way out on a limb and suggest that Mitt Romney is extremely likely to get the GOP nomination, unless he doesn’t, and that it’s possible he’ll beat Obama, but he probably won’t. Or something entirely unexpected could happen! How’s that for a bold prediction?
The Pulse: We know you and other alt-cartoonists suffered a huge setback in 2009 when Village Voice Media cut comics from its papers. Have you recovered any ground in print since then (besides The Pulse, which we know isn’t paying the rent)? And, all things considered, would you just as soon this whole Internet thing never happened?
Tom Tomorrow: Well, that’s a complicated set of questions. The VVM cartoon massacre was a huge setback, no question. For readers who don’t keep track of the inside-baseball stuff, the New Times chain had recently taken over the Village Voice chain, creating the largest alt-weekly conglomerate in the country. When the economy tanked, they decided they could save literally tens of dollars a week by killing one of the most popular features in any alt-weekly, the cartoons. What this meant for me or Max Cannon [creator of “Red Meat,” which is also debuting in The Pulse this week—Ed.] was that in a single phone call we lost a huge chunk of something we’d spent two decades building up. I lost a dozen major cities. It was like a nuclear first strike on my career. I’m not sure there’s ever any recovering from that, fully. I disagree with Nietzche. What doesn’t kill us actuality weakens us, so that something else eventually can.
And yet, I did get back into the Village Voice, thanks to the efforts of that paper’s editor, Tony Ortega, to whom I am greatly indebted. And the loss of those papers hit right at the moment that my friend Eddie Vedder was thinking about the next Pearl Jam album cover, which led to the band’s decision to let me have a shot at that job. And that worked out pretty well for me. I’ve had some amazing experiences as a result of that particular ride. I wouldn’t trade any of that in.
As for the Internet, well, I’m in the same situation as a lot of artists—I’ve never had more readers and the future’s simultaneously never been more uncertain. I don’t wish it had never happened, but I do count myself as fortunate to have started out in a world without it. Constant unremitting 24/7 feedback is not an unmixed blessing for an artist and/or writer.
The Pulse: The 24-hour news cycle makes it difficult to latch on to just one event before something overtakes it. Combined with everything fed to us online, how difficult is to make meaningful statement every week?
Tom Tomorrow: As I was saying before, I try to keep the big picture in mind. But this is where the Internet has changed the work I do. I used to view the cartoon much more as a vehicle to spread information people might not get exposed to elsewhere. That role has been entirely usurped by the blogs, for better or worse. But the basic tightrope act stays the same that it’s always been—I’m writing a week before about things I hope will be relevant to people a week after.
The Pulse: By nature or necessity, political cartoonists are not much in the optimism department. What’s your general state of mind—do you see any hope for us are or are we just biding our time awaiting doomsday?
Tom Tomorrow: Everybody’s awaiting their own personal doomsday, that’s pretty much the definition of being alive. He not busy being born is busy dying. That said, people have a tendency to adopt all-or-nothing apocalyptic thinking. After 9/11, people acted as if never before in history had America faced such a threat as, you know, a handful of religious fanatics with box cutters who managed to hijack some airplanes. Perspective is important. It wasn’t that long ago that people were building bomb shelters because the prospect of nuclear annihilation hung over us all like the sword of Damocles. These days the entire world economy’s in the shitter (as a consequence of things that people like me have been pointing out for about for 10 or 20 years)—does that mean the end of the world is at hand? Who knows? It might. But I tend to think we’ll muddle through somehow, though probably in a way that ends up making things crappier than they were before. So I guess that makes me an optimistic pessimist.
The Pulse: We think it’s very cool you did a Pearl Jam album cover, probably the first cartoon-style album cover since R. Crumb took on Janis Joplin and Big Brother and The Holding Company. Is Eddie Vedder as cool as we imagine he is?
Tom Tomorrow: I’m not going to lie to you—he really is. But beyond that, he’s just an extraordinarily decent person. I consider myself quite lucky to count him as a friend.
The Pulse: We won’t keep you long. We’ve got deadlines, too! How awesome is it to finally crack the pages of The Pulse?
Tom Tomorrow: That’s a self-deprecating question on your part, but the truth is, the alt-weeklies are still what keep me afloat, by which I mean, how I pay my goddamn bills. Cartoons like mine grew out of the ecosystem of the alt-weeklies and remain primarily dependent on it. The extent to which papers like yours support this kind of cartooning —or don’t—will literally determine whether or not this sub-genre of an art form survives. Adding a new paper gives me hope that I might squeeze a few more years out of this whole cartooning racket, before I settle into my inevitable new career as a greeter at Walmart.