Tom Tomorrowland: A Conversation With Dan Perkins
Smiling, unpleasantly familiar air-headed newsreaders named Biff and Wanda pour forth with nauseating encomiums about budget battles that go nowhere, tax cuts for the rich and just being happy with the way things aren't. Pleasant, smug, self-satisfied people of all kinds rabbit on about locking up criminals, gun ownership, illegal immigration and any other news of the day from the Wired magazine phenomenon to glad-handing network-building corporate ladder-climbers.This Modern World is not your average comic. And Dan Perkins, a.k.a. Tom Tomorrow, the creator of the increasingly popular weekly strip, may be the only widely read cartoonist in the country with the nerve to say things like, "The Republicans are so full of crap it's oozing out of their ears." "Uh, that's not the kind of thing that Time magazine is likely to print," deadpans Perkins. Right you are, Dan. But the 100-plus alternative weekly newspapers and other publications that have made This Modern World a regular feature obviously aren't looking for cautious middle-ground opinions from the sardonic San Francisco-based cartoonist. At a time when the acceptable political spectrum seems to run the gamut from conservative to very conservative to Neolithic, Perkins' work is unabashedly angry, independently left-of-center and harsh in its judgments. "Really, I just hope to be a destructive and unpleasant force," he says with his characteristic flat delivery. "I hope to make people realize how hopeless their lives are so they can just wallow in despair and cynicism." Well, not exactly. Perkins is, of course, a smartass, but he is also a thoughtful craftsman who takes his opinions and his work seriously. "Look, you can't have the debate about what the emperor should wear until somebody points out that he's naked," says the slight, unassuming Perkins, sitting in his cramped San Francisco studio, surrounded by Michelin Men, Elvis dolls and a collection of toy penguins in honor of Sparky, the strip's penguin character, which Perkins employs as a Greek chorus to speak directly to his readers in his own voice. "It's just a cartoon. It's just there to add one small voice to the debate. It's astonishingly unlikely to affect the debate any way whatsoever," Perkins says. "That's why I am so amazed at the vituperative e-mail I get from dittoheads. They are just apoplectic about the things I write. I want to say, well, just don't read the cartoon, because honestly, it's really not going to have much of an effect on anything. I mean, NAFTA passed, we don't have a single-payer health care system -- it has very little impact on anything." That may not be entirely true. Certainly the voices in Perkins cartoon at least give aid and comfort to those of us who can't take much more of the ridiculous budget debate or the folly of the evening news. Think of it as a little island of sanity in a sea of dittoheads, as those who slavishly follow the political lead of Rush Limbaugh label themselves.Of course, it's easy to see how those who trade on ignorance and revolutionary Republicanism, like Limbaugh, might find Dan Perkins a shade irritating. "Hey, look," he says, reaching into an aquarium on a shelf in his studio and pulling out a small, green, lizard-like creature. "I even have my own newt, a real one. Only this one's a lot less slimy than the one in Washington." For Perkins, 34, the strip has grown progressively more political since he first began publishing it in 1986 in a Bay Area 'zine called Processed World, a kind of underground newspaper for office workers. At that time, it was more of a commentary on commercialism set in the near future that grew out of his work as an office temp in San Francisco.The name Tom Tomorrow -- a variation on an old Saturday cartoon character named Tom Terrific -- was chosen to reflect the futuristic bent of the original This Modern World. As the strip grew more political and more popular, Perkins stayed with the alter ego, and now he answers to either name. "Dan, Tom; Tom, Dan -- it doesn't make any difference," he says.The look of This Modern World also evolved from that original futuristic theme, eventually becoming something quite unique in the comic strip world. Many of the characters in the cartoon -- people like Biff and Wanda, the newscasters, and the many regular folks that populate the Modern World universe -- are images appropriated from relentlessly cheerful magazine advertisements from the 1940s and 1950s. He then supplements those images with his own drawings of favorites like Bill Clinton and Rush Limbaugh. "It's not that I can't draw, you know," Perkins says, noting that the appropriated images are simply a way of giving the strip its characteristic look. Finally, that look is completed by the textured backgrounds he uses: polka-dot patterns and generic images of buildings and skylines.But the artwork isn't the end of the story. Perkins says he spends the majority of his time getting the words right. "I start the week on my PowerBook writing the words," he says, "because these are really little mini-essays." Once the words -- which he uses like small movie scripts -- are ready, he letters his panels and then fits the images in by hand around the text.The result is a special kind of cartoon. It's not a bidda-bee, bidda-boom quick punch-line thing. While often funny, at other times This Modern World seems uncannily succinct on a given issue as its smiling characters spout the nonsense of the day with ironic cheerfulness. "Lock them up and throw away the key," says a smiling woman in a recent strip on prison growth. "I don't know why we didn't think of that sooner," chimes in her beaming male companion. They could be selling high-test gasoline, cigarettes or apple pie -- and that seems to be the point. This Modern World creates a deconstructed universe of mundane idiocy that is uncomfortably familiar.You don't have to scratch very deep with Perkins to find his underlying core of both cynicism and anger, factors that constantly animate his work. "A lot of what I am doing is about class politics," he says. "The Republicans are fond of saying the American people are tired of class warfare whenever you point out that the system is rigged in favor of rich people, and as a result, they have been able to just eliminate the discussion of class. "Well, some guy who makes $15,000 a year is pissed off about taxes, and they use that to promote tax cuts for guys who make $200,000 a year -- because of the classless society ... these brain-dead simpletons don't realize that they are paying out a lot more of their money for groceries and rent so that some rich guy can afford another yacht." That kind of talk won't get Perkins an invitation to sit in with The McLaughlin Group to discuss the issues of the day, and he seems to realize that his anger and bitter humor aren't likely to win him a platform with more conservative media outlets any time soon. In fact, he seems critical of other cartoonists whose work has landed them on a national -- and more lucrative -- stage. The former Village Voice cartoonist, Mark Alan Stamaty, for example, now appears regularly in Time magazine with his Washingtoon strip, but Perkins finds the work lacking in edge. "What Mark is really saying is that these guys are all weird, that politicians are odd and quirky," he says. "It's not such a big leap for him to be in Time magazine." During an afternoon spent with Perkins in his studio and wandering around nearby Golden Gate Park, the cartoonist is polite about others in the craft, but he also keeps his distance from praising other colleagues too highly. "I've been doing this long enough that it is my own," he says when asked to name his influences. "I wouldn't want anyone to think that I am borrowing work from other cartoonists." He does say that he's a big fan of Bill Griffith, who draws Zippy the Pinhead, and that he loves the work of Herge, the Belgian artist who created the popular TinTin series of books and comics. "I've even made Herge part of my personal iconography," he adds, displaying a recently acquired tattoo on his bicep of the rocket ship that TinTin uses for his cartoon adventures. It is clear that Perkins, like many creative people, sees his niche as uniquely bold. While many Americans might consider Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and the popular Life in Hell cartoon, a risk-taker, Perkins notes that Groening has built his strips on "universal themes" like love, sex, death and childhood -- topics that are less likely to raise a storm of hate mail or scare away advertisers.Not that Perkins is complaining. In fact, it would appear that This Modern World is doing pretty well. "I can pay the rent, I have a studio and I have money left over at the end of the month," says Perkins. "When I travel to give a talk, people actually come out and listen to what I have to say, and I am just very grateful for that."While he often makes fun of the fictional This Modern World "marketing department" in his cartoon, his success is starting to create such a beast. A line of T-shirts will soon be available, including a "Sparky for President" shirt for the 1996 election season.With two This Modern World books out (Tune in Tomorrow and Greetings from This Modern World, both published by St. Martin's Press) and a third due later this year, Perkins is riding a wave of popularity that has made his strip one of the most recognizable features in alternative newspapers all over the country. "The alternative newspapers kind of get derided by those who don't read them," he says. "But so many people do read them that they are the real growth sector of the newspaper industry. ... I think it depends on whether or not your entire raison d'etre is to avoid offending Aunt Millie or not. The alternative press isn't afraid to offend."No fan of Bill Clinton or temporizing Democrats, Perkins is also willing to wade into politically incorrect waters to make a point. In a strip last year, he wrote that many supporters of death row inmate and cause celebre Mumia Abu-Jamal seem ultimately less interested in his actual guilt or innocence than in his political beliefs and symbolic value.Perkins also has criticized the hip and trendy. For example, he despises Wired magazine and considers the high-flying periodical so much high-tech Republicanism. "Wired is to the '90s what Playboy was to the Sixties," he wrote in a strip on the subject, "a magazine devoted to convincing impressionable young men that nothing is hipper than being a good consumer."While the strip does run on the op-ed page of a handful of daily newspapers and once appeared in the New York Times magazine, Perkins says he has turned down offers from traditional syndication services because of his commitment to the alternative press."They would want me to come into Sacramento, for example, and leave the News & Review for the Bee," he says. "I won't do that."The other reality, of course, is that most dailies wouldn't touch a lot of what Perkins writes with a fork. When asked why he is more offensive than, say, Doonesbury, he says, "I am a lot harsher and more upfront in my criticism, I guess. But I don't have nudity, I don't have swearing, I am not calling for the violent overthrow of the government. I'm just presenting a perspective that a lot of people share. Frankly, I don't know what is so radical about that."Radical or not, Dan Perkins is also a very funny fellow whose wry wit keeps the strip from getting too heavy-handed in its politics. A college dropout from Iowa City, Perkins is a private soul and no candidate for the Rikki Lake circuit. He steers the conversation away from personal topics, saying only that he's had a tough couple of years recently, that his parents were divorced when he was young, and that he has two half-sisters. He admits to being a nerdy kid, rather than a football hero, in high school, but then shoots back, "Are you asking, is my cartoon just a desperate cry for attention? No, that's not the case. I had friends in school, but I always felt like an outsider, and to a large degree, I still do."A student of graphic design and a tireless collector of the right images to give the strip the look it needs, he is aware that the old-advertising faces offer a pleasant hook."I am very aware of things that draw the eye in, and that's important because it is a very wordy strip, and I want to make it visually appealing."In that sense, he has certainly succeeded. No one who sees This Modern World more than once or twice will forget the way the strip looks. Like any good cartoonist, Perkins has carved out a distinctive territory for himself. His smarmy characters and washed-out graphics, punctuated by heavy black lines and geometric backgrounds, are as certain a signature as any artist could hope for.But of course, the rest of the signature is found in his politics, which he describes as being "eminently sensible" while steering away from any other label. "I'm pro-labor and pro-justice," he says, "but I don't want to be pigeon-holed on the left. Those labels don't mean very much anymore when you have Phil Gramm and Newt Gingrich running around saying smash the state and sounding like teenage anarchists. "I just have a sense of right and wrong, and I try to proceed from there."For his growing number of readers, he is obviously proceeding in the correct direction.