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Tom Tomorrow in the Flesh: Even in action figure mode, our hero's pen is mightier than the sword.

Here Today, Tom Tomorrow

Metro Santa Cruz's newest contributor talks about life as a dissident cartoonist in this modern world

By Bill Forman

As a kid weaned on Peanuts and Mad magazine, Dan Perkins was already thinking outside the panel when it came to the conventions of cartooning.

"I filled sheet after sheet of three-hole-punch notebook paper with pencil drawings of googly-eyed characters, who were, even then, excessively verbose," recalls Perkins, nee Tom Tomorrow, in the foreword to one of his cartoon collections.

Years later, while working in an Iowa City copy shop, the budding artist bought a stack of Life magazines from a thrift store and began cutting out the advertisements. "Happy anachronistic consumers," he explains, soon creeped into his collages, which in turn found a home in Processed World, a subversive zine put out by a bunch of Situationist-obsessed temp workers Perkins fell in with after moving to San Francisco. Adopting the retro-futuristic monicker Tom Tomorrow, he was soon creating the clip-art transfigurations of reviled politicians that, along with a certain lovable penguin, would become his trademark.

Today, Tomorrow's This Modern World strip is in the upper echelon of America's most successfully syndicated "alternative" comics, a wistfully incisive indictment of our political culture that sometimes feels like the last bastion of critical thinking in an increasingly docile media environment.

Metro Santa Cruz is delighted to welcome This Modern World to our pages beginning this week. To celebrate his debut, we asked a bunch of questions that made the cartoonist even more depressed than nature had intended.

METRO SANTA CRUZ: In addition to cartooning, you've been writing your own blog of late. Does that suggest that you have more to say than can be expressed in four to six panels?
TOM TOMORROW: I don't know that I could really be the judge of that. I think four to six panels is probably just about right! But yeah, there are many weeks in which I am pissed off by more things than I can fit into the cartoon. ... So yeah, the blog sort of handles the overflow, but I have perpetually mixed feelings about the blog.

Your drawing style so efficiently mocks that '50s clip-art style that a lot of people may not realize how much you actually draw. I mean, obviously there wasn't '50s clip art of George Bush.
Well, that's the thing that puzzles me when people say that it's just clip art and dismiss it. Where do they think I'm getting it? Do they think there's a book of '50s clip art, as you say, of George Bush and Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld? But you know, I am the first to admit that my artistic skills are limited. I actually don't give a shit anymore. It's out there; people can enjoy it or not. I know that I work fairly hard on it, and I just don't care any more what people think. I've just been doing it too long.

I remember David Lynch had a cartoon in the L.A. Weekly ...
Yeah, he did that cartoon called The Angriest Dog in the World, which was literally the same panel every week, of a dog on a leash.

Yeah, he'd literally just phone in the dialogue. And sometimes lately with 'Life in Hell,' I'm starting to wonder if Matt Groening is borrowing that approach.
Well, I have to admit that I don't see Life in Hell as often as I used to. But I would caution you on this: I've been doing this in print since about 1990. And I've been getting letters saying that I'm not as good as I used to be since about 1991. I don't know what it is. Maybe all artists and writers get this. But a week will not go by that someone doesn't write and say: Well, you're not as good as when you did those cartoons about X. And whatever X is, it's maybe a thing that I did in a cartoon once 15 years ago. So you have to be careful with that. There's something about the familiarity of cartoons that seems to breed contempt sometimes.

It's like bands, isn't it? Whenever you heard them first is when they were at their best.
Yeah, and you can't control what people think. All I know is that I spend way too much time on this to be plausibly considered to be phoning it in. My life would be a lot easier if I were phoning it in, but I'm not sure who I would phone it in to exactly.

I worked at a paper in Sacramento where a number of people said that not only did they read your cartoon first, but to a large degree they also got their news from it.
That's a terrifying thought.

Is that gonna haunt you for a while or are you able to convince yourself it's not true?
No, I've heard that before, and it always makes me a little bit uneasy. Actually you know what I think is a really good source for news--and I'm certainly not the first person to say this--is The Daily Show. Because they actually hit all the stories that really need to be hit on a daily basis, hence the name, and they're actually pretty smart about it. They have the smart satire and the dumb comedy, and I hate when they go for the dumb comedy, when they start making fun of people on the street who don't really deserve it.

Well, they are daily.
And they're coming at it from a comedian's perspective, and that's not always the most intellectual. But you could actually do worse than to keep up on most of the day's stories from The Daily Show. Now from a weekly cartoon, I think you could do better.

Being syndicated in alternative weeklies for so many years, how do you view what's happening to the medium, particularly in light of the New Times/Village Voice merger?
I really don't know. There are times when I look at it thinking: Well, I've had a pretty good run. I didn't have to have a job for close to 20 years. Fortunately my wife is gainfully employed. But seriously, I don't have a stable profession. People like me come in and out of style all the time. If I were at the level I'm at in any other field, as a writer or musician or something, I would have probably made a ton of money by now. ... Early on a lot of people were predicting there would be this big jump to the daily press, but that never really happened for me.

Why do you think that was?
There's a danger here, in that I don't mean to pat myself on the back for being so daring and bold and speaking truth to power or any of that nonsense. But the work I do and the style in which I do it is just not something that meshes easily. Daily paper editors are much more used to the single panel cartoon that has a quick visual metaphor and makes a quick comment about whatever happened in yesterday's news. That's what they want. And you know, the few dailies I've run in have always looked at my strip as some weird hybrid of column and cartoon. ... As the country turns seemingly more and more conservative, or at least that's what editors are afraid of, they're not gonna embrace a cartoon like mine. So yeah, we shall see.

Sparky, We Hardly Knew Ye: A 1999 strip traces the origins and ultimate resurrection of a wonder penguin.

OK, then, let's talk about penguins. What's with those sunglasses Sparky wears?
Well, you've seen those pictures of those little visors that Eskimos used to wear?

Uh, no.
Well, they basically were kind of wraparound with just a little slit to keep out the snow glare. So it was kind of that crossed with these punk sunglasses that were sort of in vogue at the time that Sparky came into being. It seemed like an appropriate thing for a penguin to be wearing. If you Google Eskimo sunglasses, there's a whole bunch of references to it, so I'm not making this up.

Speaking of punk, how did you hook up with the 'Processed World' crowd?
I knew a lot of those people, but I wasn't an active member. I contributed artwork and would go to their collating parties. And I certainly was living the life, doing the temp work.

Did you ever do any sabotage?
You're referring to the fact that the magazine would encourage people to sabotage their employers as a sort of general protest against the shitty conditions that the temps were in?

I'm sure the statute of limitations must have passed by now.
Yeah, but no, I never did. I will confess that I didn't always work as hard as I should have on those jobs.

What about animation? 'Saturday Night Live' had you develop some spots, and your Nader cartoon was featured at his rallies. What else have you done?
Well, this never got to actual animation, but I did work on a script with Michael Moore for a year. It was right after Bowling for Columbine, and there was this French guy who wanted to give him the money to do another documentary. But Michael wanted to do this animated piece that we were working on. It was kind of set in the moment, right after 9/11 and as we were gearing up for the war in Iraq. If you read my cartoons about the small cute dog in the parallel universe who accidentally becomes president--it was basically a movie about the small cute dog, except that he gets lost and ends up in this war zone. And a character who bore an uncanny temperamental resemblance to Bill O'Reilly was sort of the central character. And lots of zany things happened.

I'd pay to see that.
Oh, I think you and at least a hundred other people. No, it was actually a good script. It's probably a bit dated now, but it would have been a good film.

It could have been the film that swayed the election.
What Michael worked on instead of President Dog was Fahrenheit 9/11, which came much closer to swaying the election than our little cartoon movie would have.

You don't know that.
Well, animation takes so long that it's unlikely we would have had it out before the election anyway. The stars were kind of lined up against that one.

So what are you working on right now?
I'm in the final push on this next book, which will be full color and should be out this winter.

It's another collection? What will it be called?
Well, yeah, it's the strips from the last couple of years. And given the political climate and where we've gone in the past few years, the title of the book is Hell in a Handbasket.

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From the November 2-9, 2005 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

Copyright © 2005 Metro Publishing Inc. Maintained by Boulevards New Media.

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