Cartoonist Dan Perkins reflects on 25 years of 'This Modern World'
VISUAL ART Tom Tomorrow's real name is Dan Perkins. This is important information if you ever happen to call him up, because you will have to squelch the urge to blurt out "Hi, Tom!" when he answers the phone.
"It happens! That's what I get for coming up with a pen name," the editorial cartoonist laughs from his home in Connecticut. "When I was starting out, I was in San Francisco running in a little anti-corporate 'zine called Processed World. A lot of the contributors used pen names, because there was always a sense that you might get blacklisted or boycotted or something if you were associated with it. So I started using this pen name, which was a misremembered version of an old cartoon character. I didn't quite realize that I was going to have this 25-year career, and would be stuck with this thing!"
He chuckles before adding, "I would also say, even more than the anonymity in the early days, I thought it would be a mnemonic [device]. The cartoon was called This Modern World. It wasn't about politics so much in those days, it was riffing on technology and consumerism, and 'Tom Tomorrow' seemed appropriate to this kind of retro-futurist thing I was doing."
Longtime Guardian readers need no introduction to Perkins' work. This Modern World — which satirizes current events with wry humor and laser-sharp intelligence — has appeared weekly in these pages for nearly 20 years; it's also syndicated in other papers across America. In addition, he's authored a children's book and several cartoon anthologies, including 2012's The World of Tomorrow, which features an introduction by rocker Eddie Vedder (Perkins drew the album art for Pearl Jam's 2009 Backspacer, which elevated him to a level of fame he never expected: "There are people who have tattooed [my art] on their flesh!") Last year, he added the prestigious Herblock Prize to his list of cartooning and journalistic accolades. Though he's East Coast-based these days, he'll be heading to California next week for events at the Cartoon Art Museum in San Francisco and the Charles M. Schulz Museum in Santa Rosa.
Long before he made his name with This Modern World, Perkins says he was "always drawing little comics and cartoons, as far back as I can remember. I've been putting together a new PowerPoint show for this Cartoon Art Museum event, and I've actually dug up some of these old cartoons. I have this political cartoon that I drew at the age of 14! It's terrible [laughs], but it's kind of funny to show it. It's about Jimmy Carter! Because when I was 14, Jimmy Carter had just given an interview to Playboy magazine, and was being widely mocked for saying that he had lusted after women in his heart. So here I am at 14, drawing a cartoon about that, which is very funny to me in retrospect."
As he got older ("like every young cartoonist in the 1980s, I went through a phase of trying to do a Gary Larson rip-off, because The Far Side was at the height of its popularity"), he began combining collage with cartooning "in order to riff on advertising culture and technology and so on," before circling back to politics.
"I'm just doing this one cartoon — it's not a comprehensive news source — so each week has to be some mixture of something I'm really interested in; something that maybe, hopefully has a news hook; and something that I have something interesting to say about," he says. "Something that I can be funny about. It may not always show, but I really don't want to waste the reader's time."
Though he admits George W. Bush was an easier politician to make fun of, the Obama administration has also supplied him with plenty of material. "I have a recurring character named 'Droney' — the friendly surveillance drone. I do a lot of stuff on the NSA, and the fact that Guantanamo has not been closed, and so on."
A veteran of the alt-weekly publishing world, Perkins has a unique perspective on how the industry has changed over the years. "I think the short answer is, alt-weekly cartoonists — and there's maybe a dozen of us working right now — are truly an endangered species. We came into a certain ecosystem and set our own rhythms around that ecosystem," he says. "Obviously, between the financial crash in 2008, and the ongoing influence of the Internet, that's been a more tenuous ground. I'm profoundly grateful to the papers that still run cartoons like mine, but it's an era of entropy. We're all kind of just hanging on. I'm not the only content creator ever to point out the fact that it's tricky to figure out how to make a living online. It's ironic, because [thanks to the Internet], my reach as a cartoonist has never been greater." (His semi-joking advice to young cartoonists: "Marry someone with tenure.")
For his Cartoon Art Museum gig, he'll be sharing the spotlight with a special guest: one of San Francisco's famed Doggie Diner heads. "To me, the Doggie Diner heads represent my San Francisco. They represent the San Francisco of artists and pranksters. I have a real affection for them. Sometimes, when I have a dream sequence and I need to convey something strange and surreal, I'll have a Doggie Diner head say a few words, floating in the background." *
THE WORLD OF TOMORROW: AN EVENING WITH TOM TOMORROW
Tue/11, 7-9pm, $5
Cartoon Art Museum
655 Mission, SF
March 15, 2pm, free with admission ($5-$10)
Charles M. Schulz Museum
2301 Hardies, Santa Rosa
www.schulzmuseum.org