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Tom Tomorrow. (The Progressive Interview).

Cartoonist Dan Perkins, better known as Tom Tomorrow, has been drawing his weekly "This Modern World" cartoon strip for nearly twenty years. The strip first appeared in the groundbreaking zinc Processed World after Perkins moved to San Francisco in 1984. The cartoon began as a tour through consumer culture and the drudgeries of work. Perkins's outrage at the Gulf War coverage in 1991 provoked a shift in focus to politics and the media. "This Modern World" is syndicated and appears in more than 130 U.S. newspapers. Perkins's cartoons have also appeared in Newsweek, U.S. News & World Report, The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Nation, The American Prospect, Z Magazine, Peace Review, Sojourners, and TV Guide, as well as in numerous books. He produced three short animations (never aired) for Saturday Night Live and has run a blog (a web diary of commentaries) on his site, www.thismodernworld. com, for the past year. He's the author of several books: Greetings From This Modern Worm (1992), Tune In Tomorrow (1994), The Wrath of Sparky (1996), Penguin Soup for the Soul (1998), and When Penguins Attack/(2000)--all published by St. Martins Press. His forthcoming book, The Great Big Book of Tomorrow, will be out later this year. Perkins has become a potent satirist and political critic. He moved to Brooklyn a few years ago, and when I interviewed him his car had just been stolen. Even so, he seemed to be in a reasonably good mood.

Q: Your cartoons are distinguished by their humor and their wordiness.

Tom Tomorrow: I try to keep a balance between the wordiness and the humor. I may go off in one direction or the other from week to week, but they're both important. The commentary is what keeps it fresh and interesting to me, and allows me to keep doing this week after week without going insane, as I surely would if I were drawing a comic strip poking gentle fun at the foibles that make us all human, maybe with some adorable children and a talking animal of some sort. But if I'm only ranting and raving, if it's not funny, then no one's going to waste their time reading it. And why should they?

But humor is very subjective. The most frequent response I get from conservatives is, "That's not even funny." As if there is some objective standard of humor, something you could program into a computer and quantify. In reality, whether you think a political cartoon is funny or not mostly depends on whether you agree with the underlying assumptions of the cartoonist.

Q: The characters in your strip often seem drawn from 1950s advertisements. Your strip has an old-fashioned feel, yet it's called "This Modern World," and your pen name is "Tom Tomorrow."

Tomorrow: The strip began by satirizing the ways in which our society worships and fetishizes consumerism and technology. In appropriating these images of cheerful consumers from the fifties, I was deliberately setting up a sort of dissonance--the future never quite seems to happen the way the public relations people tell us it will, whether you're talking about flying cars or the dot-com economy. As the focus of the cartoon shifted to present-day politics, the images still seemed appropriate. Like consumerism, politics is mostly about people trying to sell you things you don't really need or want.

Q: What role does Sparky, your cartoon penguin, play?

Tomorrow: He's sort of the Greek chorus. I needed to introduce an element into the strip through which I could speak more in my own voice--something obviously not part of the same reality. Sparky is the only character who's aware that he's a cartoon character. He breaks down the fourth wall and addresses the audience directly. Someone once described him as looking like he wandered in from another comic strip entirely, which sounds about right to me.

Q: A lot of your humor highlights absurdities. Do you think people just laugh, or does it provoke them toward a response?

Tomorrow: I would like to imagine that it pushes them to think about things in a slightly different way. I'm constantly seeking out the telling fact, the odd little story which speaks volumes. I did a recent strip about Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, who were quick to blame 9/11 on secular humanists--people like you and me. Meanwhile, Robertson was involved in a gold mining investment with Liberia's president, Charles Taylor, who was providing sanctuary to Al Qaeda operatives in return for a million-dollar payoff. I think that's an extraordinary thing to know--that at the same time Robertson was denouncing you and me for our moral laxity, his business partner was literally harboring terrorists! It underlines the sheer hypocrisy of these people. Let's face it, I only have a little weekly cartoon. It's not going to change the world. But I think it's useful to point out absurdities like this.

Q: You've written a lot about religious fanaticism. Why do you examine it in your cartoons?

Tomorrow: I grew up around a lot of Christian fundamentalism so I'm pretty intimately familiar with it. Right after 9/11, when Falwell said it was all the fault of people who don't believe in God, I thought, no, actually it's the fault of people who believe too much in God. Religion is what got us into this megs. More religious zealotry is not going to get us out. But that's not a very popular view in America. People never seem to get these connections. They just say, in all earnestness, but our religion is good and theirs is bad!

Q: Do you consider yourself part of a political movement to try to change things in the U.S.?

Tomorrow: I'm just doing what I've always done--sending out these little smoke signals to let people know that they re not crazy and they re not alone, that there are other people out there who feel the way they do. Right now, I think the focus is less about changing things and more about hanging on by our fingernails. We're in one of those times politically where progressives will be doing a good job just to hold their ground.

Q: The first Gulf War turned your cartoon more political. Now we're on the brink of attacking Iraq again.

Tomorrow: It's been clear since 9/11 that this is where we're headed. I did a cartoon about the painfully thin justifications that have been offered, and how each time one of these justifications is questioned, we immediately jump to the next one. A lot of the country has been sucked into this: "Yes, yes, we must attack because Saddam is a bad man." But that's not enough, given what's at stake here. It couldn't be more obvious that this is about gaining some sort of control over the second largest proven oil reserve in the world. I don't know why this is so hard for people to understand. And of course, the hypocrisy becomes utterly transparent when we compare Iraq to North Korea.

We have an incredibly arrogant Administration. They just don't care. Bush comes out against affirmative action on Martin Luther King's birthday. He announces a National Sanctity of Life Day a week before the anniversary of Roe v. Wade. This morning, I heard him blaming the health care crisis on trial lawyers. And don't even get me started on his tax plan. This Administration thinks it's untouchable, that nobody's going to call them on anything.

Q: And they keep getting away with it.

Tomorrow: A recent Knight Ridder poll showed that an overwhelming majority of Americans cannot correctly answer the question, "How many of the 9/11 hijackers were Iraqi nationals?" Of course, the correct answer is none. The White House keeps getting away with it because most people don't pay enough attention. The Republicans have always been very good at taking advantage of that. Reagan's people knew it didn't matter what he said so long as the pictures on the news conveyed the image they wanted to portray. It's a lesson the Bushies have taken to heart.

Q: Do you think the media complicity in this has gotten worse?

Tomorrow: They weren't exactly starting out on the high ground, and since 9/11, they've been completely cowed by the sort of morons who think that if you don't wear an American flag pin on your lapel, you must be pro-terrorist.

Q: What did you make of the Trent Lott case?

Tomorrow: What's interesting to me about that is the role of the blogs. If you read about it as it was happening, you'd think the whole thing was the result of some rightwing bloggers who took a principled stance against Trent Lott because there's no room for a Neanderthal like him in their version of conservatism. In reality, however, the story was mostly kept alive by a left-liberal blogger who calls himself Atrios (, and by the liberal writer Josh Marshall ( They kept pounding away at it, and were eventually joined by a few rightwingers like Andrew Sullivan, who, for obvious reasons, would like to pretend that the modern-day Republican Party has no room for racism or homophobia. But it's not as if these guys have subsequently gone after John Ashcroft, or Don Nickles, or any number of other Republicans whose views on race are probably in line with Trent Lott's. The right wing will take a strong public stance against racism, as long as it's in your face and unavoidable. But if they can keep it swept neatly under the rug, then they're just as happy to go on pretending it's not there.

I actually had a small role in that story myself, when one of my readers wrote me because he had a tape with a third instance of Lott saying that Thurmond should have been President. I posted this on my web site and also contacted someone I know at MSNBC, and they broadcast the story a few days later, and one could plausibly argue that this is when the tide shifted against Trent Lott.

Q: Your strip has generated some controversies over the years. For what recent strip have you received a lot of flak?

Tomorrow: Last summer, I did a strip called "Are You a Real American?" that appeared in The New York Times Sunday Week in Review section. It was set up as a quiz, asking questions like, "Do you agree that the President should have the unchecked authority to do whatever he wants until he decides the war on terror is over?" and "Do you draw strength from your unwavering faith in an omniscient deity who favors those born in the middle of the North American land mass above all others?" The final panel concluded, "If you answered no to any of these questions, then you are NOT a real American!" It showed one guy kicking another in the seat of his pants, telling him to go back to his cave in Afghanistan, but the second guy protests that he's from Kansas. Pretty straightforward, I thought--the point being that there are plenty of people in this country who disagree with the Administration and yet these people are still good American citizens. I thought I was playing defense, not offense.

Deliberately or not, Ann Coulter missed the point entirely, and used the cartoon as an example in another of her anti-liberal screeds, claiming, "This is how liberals conceive of America: an undifferentiated land mass in the middle of North America. Like all cartoons specially featured in the Times, there was nothing remotely funny about the cartoon." (As I said earlier, humor is subjective.) "Its point was simply to convey all the proper prejudices of elitist liberals against ordinary Americans." You've got to love the passion with which the Belle of New Canaan--a woman who, by her own account, spends her time in New York City, Washington, D.C., and Aspen--speaks for ordinary Americans. I grew up in places like Iowa, Georgia, and Arkansas, and in my experience, Americans are much more ideologically diverse than East Coast conservative elitists like Ann Coulter give them credit for.

Q: When people write to disagree with you, do they try to change your views or is it just hate mail?

Tomorrow: Usually, it's some combination of "you stupid liberal, here are the facts." Then they give me a screed that you'd think a fifth grader would be embarrassed to write. E-mail has made it too easy for people to express every fleeting thought. And the e-mails have gotten a lot uglier since 9/11. In the immediate aftermath of that day, I had no idea how to proceed as a cartoonist, so I simply used a photo I had taken from my rooftop, of the first tower collapsing, with a caption indicating that words were simply inadequate on this day. As soon as it appeared in Salon, I got a message from some jackass who wrote, "I'm a little surprised by your response--am I to surmise that you actually have some affection for the country you constantly berate?" Now, I've just witnessed the unimaginable, I've just watched 3,000 people die. I'm completely, stunned, as any rational human being would be--and this moron is out there thinking, "Ha ha! Here's my chance to score a debating point against that leftie cartoonist whose views on social policy differ from my own!" The wingnuts, the hard right, the Christian conservatives, and the like all seemed to believe that 9/11 was their chance to show that their opponents were not only wrong but actually traitors--people who hate this country and rejoiced to see it attacked. That's beneath contempt, as far as I'm concerned.

Q: What motivates you to keep plugging away? What keeps you from despairing at the state of affairs in the U.S. and the world?

Tomorrow: My wife and I have a baby on the way, which is, I think, a fundamental act of faith in the future. When faced with this imminent tiny miracle, one has no choice but to embrace optimism. I have to admit that the events of the past few years have left me with a feeling of incredible hopelessness at times--and yet, counterintuitively, I remain at heart optimistic about the future. We will get through this time. We'll look back on how the Administration used the war on terror as a justification for its own petty, shortsighted agenda. We'll see it as a dark and shameful period of our history, through which we somehow stumbled and survived. But it probably won't be easy going for a while.

Robert Elias is a professor of politics at the University of San Francisco. His latest book is "Baseball and the American Dream: Race, Class, Gender and the National Pastime" (M.E. Sharpe).
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Author:Elias, Robert
Publication:The Progressive
Article Type:Interview
Date:Mar 1, 2003
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