"I have this little dog-and-pony show; it's your basic cartoonist's presentation," Dan Perkins was saying Thursday at the Carolina Coffee Shop in Chapel Hill. Perkins is a soft-spoken guy with a high forehead, and at age 44 he resembles a younger David Gergen. But under the pen name Tom Tomorrow, he mounts a fierce, funny barrage on the absurdity of American politics and culture in his weekly comic strip, "This Modern World."
"This Modern World" debuted 15 years ago in a small San Francisco magazine as a satire on consumerism and technological boosterism with a cast of smiling pod people lifted straight from Eisenhower-era clip-art. It's now in some 150 papers, most of them alternative weeklies like this one. The strip's focus has broadened to include war, politics and--especially--the media, and its cast has expanded to include President Bush, Karl Rove and a sardonic penguin named Sparky. But the world they inhabit still looks like a 1950s edition of the Yellow Pages.
"From the start, the strip was based on the look of old advertising," Perkins says over lunch a few hours before he's scheduled to speak at UNC's Hanes Art Center. "As I shifted more into politics, it still seemed appropriate. Ironically, there's more actual drawing in the strip now, but I'm doing it all on the computer.
"At this point, I've got this stock catalog of characters that I've used so many times, and I bring them back in a lot. The weird thing is, I end up redrawing it every time. Even if it's just Sparky and Biff talking, I end up going over it to make sure the line thicknesses are consistent. One of my regrets is that people looked at my work and got the impression you didn't actually have to pay any attention to the craft of cartooning. A number of artists came along who are quite literally just snagging clip art, which is not what I ever did."
The strip's best known character, Sparky, emerged not from clip art but from his creator's id. "The penguin's 15 years old now," Perkins says. "If he were a kid, I'd be worrying about his college education. In high school, I was one of those kids who sat and drew, and for whatever reason I always had a penguin fixation. When I had this strip with this very stylized look, I thought I needed a voice that came from outside that media happy-talk 'reality' I had set up."
Perkins thinks the strip has changed most during the Bush years. "At times like this, you're stuck with a simpler level of political cartooning," he said. "Everyone is paying attention, and everyone knows things are bad. During the Clinton era, when I was doing a cartoon on a trade treaty or something, I used to spell things out a lot more. These days, I've gotten more interested in taking that baseball bat that I used to hit the reader over the head with, and now just tapping them lightly on the shoulder. What interests me is not the politics alone, but the way in which people try to shape the debate to fit their ends--which I guess is the polite way of putting it. The way these sons of bitches lie, blatantly, would be the impolite way of putting it.
"You know, Clinton looks good in retrospect, but he was still this centrist Democrat who sold out on a lot of things that I really believed in. If you're a political cartoonist and there's a Democrat in office, you're making fun of a Democrat, and in those days I had a lot of Democrats mad at me. In 2000 I had a flirtation with Ralph Nader and the Green Party, and I had a lot of people pissed off at me about that. In 2001, of course, we had the events of 9/11, and then just had an amazing, amazing wave of hatred sweep in from the right. So your audience response is always shifting. There was a swell of interest leading up to the election, and then that wave crashed. My e-mail has dropped, and I think people are a little bit burned out right now.
"Honest to God, I wish I could have taken a couple of months off after 9/11 and just absorbed that. It was a hard time to be a cartoonist, and it would have been nice not to have it be your job to step up to the chopping block and say, 'Here's my neck.'"
Like many political cartoonists of his generation, Perkins was led to the chopping block by Mad magazine and Richard Nixon. "I think that Mad magazine just warped an entire generation of cartoonists," he says. "It taught us to distrust advertising and politicians. There was nothing like it, and that's impossible to understand these days in the Internet age. I was 13 years old in 1974, the summer that Nixon resigned. Distrusting authority was just in the air."
Perkins also shares with other editorial cartoonists a pessimism about the future of the profession. "For daily cartooning, the newspaper editors are using syndicated work in lieu of staff cartoonists, and eventually there aren't going to be any staff cartoonists to create the work to be syndicated. It's a tough field to make a living in. At least once a week I will swear to my wife that I'm quitting, I'm done, I've had it, I can't keep doing this. And then," he says with a laugh, "I'll draw something I'm fairly happy with, and there it is.
"I have this nice little rhythm where I write something at the beginning of the week, get it out, spend the end of the week doing my business and reading the news and listening to the radio--input, gearing up for next week's output."
Just before leaving, Perkins summed up the message of his talk at UNC, which could also be the message of "This Modern World": "Think for yourself. What I'd want some 19-year-old to walk away with is what I used to walk away from Mad magazine with--that everyone's lying to you. That's really it."
"This Modern World" runs every week on the Back Talk page of the Independent.