Tom Tomorrow’s Twitter profile gives some clues as to what an interviewer will be getting themselves into when they talk to him. His avatar is Sparky, the mouthy, red-visor-wearing penguin who acts as foil – and the world-weary voice of consciousness – to the often idiotic humans who populate Tomorrow’s long-running cartoon, This Modern World. The profile lists Tomorrow’s location as “Godforsaken postindustrial NE.” And he has an astounding 44,500 Twitter followers who read his feed as he riffs on everything from the recent East Coast snowmageddon (“My yard is full of special snowflakes”) to his plans to burn furniture to stay warm (“Except most of my furniture is from Ikea. How well does pressboard burn, anyway?”)
SATIRE IS NOT A CRIME:
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As a follow-up, he throws down this bit of snark for good measure: “True fact – Cheetos and Ikea furniture factories are side by side. Same raw material – one gets some upholstery, one gets cheese flavoring.”
But go back, back, back, through a few hundred tweets and retweets – for he is a prolific tweeter – all the way to Jan. 7, and you’ll find the sorrow, then the rage and then the biting satirical wit that has driven Tomorrow, the alter-ego of political cartoonist Dan Perkins, to spend three decades living with The Modern World in his head.
First this: “Stunned by the news from Paris. Deep condolences to the families and friends of the murdered satirists.”
Later that day: “Just another day on a planet full of mortal beings with finite lifespans doing their best to make life miserable for each other.”
Then, zing: “All you murderous psychopaths, I want you to look at your intended victims and then think, ‘Fuck it, cancer will get them soon enough.’”
And then, sorrow: “Want to kick at the darkness till it bleeds daylight,” a line from the Bruce Cockburn song “Lovers in a Dangerous Time.”
Jan. 7 was the day a pair of murderous psychopaths claiming allegiance to Allah forced their way into the Paris offices of the satirical French newspaper Charlie Hebdo and slaughtered 10 staff members, a French Muslim police officer on patrol, and a police officer who was stationed at the paper to guard against such attacks. The perceived crime of the artists and writers: mocking the prophet Muhammad, in the same way Charlie Hebdo mocked everything. Over the next few days, as worldwide sorrow turned to action – marches, vigils and the rallying cry Je Suis Charlieplastered on buttons and signs and T-shirts – Perkins drew his heart out, producing drawings of every murdered Hebdo staffer and the police officers, and then skewering those who would make political hay out of the event. The gun nuts, the jingoists, the apologists, the torture proponents, they are all there. In the final panel, Perkins had placed a photo of himself holding a giant pencil, with this “Bonus fun fact: All those cartoons you’ve seen with the giant pens and pencil are not visual metaphors for the power of satire – but rather literal representations of standard cartooning tools.”
Perkins’ cartoons, back in the day, started out as satire on consumerism and technology. He based his characters – blustery, dim-witted conservatives – on old advertising images. It was natural, he said in an interview a few years back, to segue into political cartooning. “Politics, like advertising,” he said, “is about people selling you things you didn’t really want or need.”
The selling part of being a cartoonist is getting harder. During a half-hour phone interview from his home in the godforsaken postindustrial NE (really, it’s Connecticut), Perkins talks about watching his newspaper clients die off, one by one. He lost three major papers and a few smaller ones in 2014; some went out of business and others dropped him and other cartoons to save money. In 2013, having already lost some newspaper clients, he created Sparky’s List – a direct-support mechanism – whereby fans and supporters can pay for a cartoon delivered directly to their inboxes the week before it publishes elsewhere.
Any paper’s demise, he writes on his website, is a small reminder of the fragility of the ecosystem that sustains his work. And that work, week after week, year after year, is hard. “It feels like I’m reinventing the wheel every fucking week,” he says. “I’ve never gotten this down where it’s a routine.”
Perkins spoke to the Weekly in advance of his Feb. 12 appearance/live Q&A at The Press Club, where the walls will be covered with large-format versions of some of his greatest hits. He’ll also have posters and possibly books to sign and sell – and the weary wit and wisdom of a veteran satirist to dispense.
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Weekly: You’re now on your 25th year of drawing This Modern World. What does your work routine look like as you produce each week’s piece?
Dan Perkins: It’s not very exciting. My wife and I get up and get our kid to school – I guess everyone does this – and then I make coffee, check email and Twitter. There’s a shower in there somewhere and then I’m sitting at my computer. The constant challenge and the constant work is keeping up with the news, and yet finding the story or event you want to write about. The Internet is like this ocean, this endless source of information and inspiration, although those aren’t exactly the right words [laughs]. You have all this material and often too much, and sometimes it blends together and can be hard to find that bright shiny object, that nugget that will be the good cartoon.
I spend a lot of time reading. Sometimes I will go into a week and I know what I want to write about and sometimes I’m just there, surrounded by scraps and notes.
It’s interesting that you call it writing, because of course it is, but I think of it first as drawing. Why do you call it one thing and not the other?
I’ve always approached this as a writer. I grew up on satire where the art was important, but the writing was more important. I find the space for the words and shape the art around it.
What’s inspired you recently?
I did one a couple of months ago with the crew of the Starship Enterprise coming into contact with the Internet. This was the week a bunch of celebrity photos got hacked and I was just thinking about photo hacks. I had this idea for awhile that contrasts between the future as we imagined and then the one we ended up in. We have these amazing gadgets and we’re using them to steal naked pictures of each other. So I was using that and thinking about that. It’s mostly waiting for that weird little thing that kicks in your head and bam! – it falls into place.
This week I’m writing about the Republicans taking over the science chairs in the Senate, which is more straightforward. I have the character of the right-wing science dude. Most cartoonists have recurring characters you use for certain scenes. I have Sparky the Penguin, and Biff – he’s a walking distillation of the more absurd right-wing arguments I come across – and Conservative Jones, Boy Detective. There’s also the Invisible Hand of the Free Market – the joke there is that he’s not invisible at all.
You’ve said before, satire has been transformed into simple statement of fact, that as it turns out, there are a lot of people out there who don’t pay attention to anything unless it involves sex. What makes good satire now?
I think how it’s progressed for me over the years. In the early ’90s I was often writing about things I genuinely thought the audience might not have heard of, and I saw it as a vehicle for information. Now I don’t have to explain things quite as much, although it’s surprising how many people haven’t heard of Google. I’m freed up a little bit. The purpose of the cartoon started to diminish with the rise of blogs and when everyone is talking about something, it becomes a matter of trying to capture the right moment in a way that resonates more than standing on your soapbox and shouting.
You did that beautiful and painful piece after the Charlie Hebdo killings. Do you worry about your safety as a result of something you write?
No more than usual, I honestly don’t. In America we are at far more danger of a gun nut or mentally ill gun lunatic, and honestly, it’s not a thing you want to spend time talking about lest you inspire someone to do something crazy. It doesn’t make me feel unsafe, but it does remind you you’re broadcasting big these days and there are a lot of mentally ill people in the world.
I honestly felt more unsafe doing public appearances during the first few years of the Gulf War. That’s when I was getting a lot of hate mail and threatening mail and I didn’t know if I was taking it too far.
I live down the road from Newtown, Connecticut, and there’s no shortage – in the name of religion or whatever – there’s no shortage of crazy people with voices in their heads. I don’t have a good answer. It’s a horrible topic. I think everyone is a little crazy or a lot crazy and some people cross the line.
How do you maintain some measure of privacy in your line of work?
I try to maintain some semblance of control over my digital life. I interact a lot on Twitter, but I’m not shy about using the block button if someone is annoying. When everyone feels like they have a piece of everyone else, it feels like a connective nervous breakdown. You have to control it, it’s an important skill to learn. Someone once said, “You don’t have to accept every invitation to an argument.” I’m just one person, I can’t argue with the entire world.
Every cartoonist says something that gets misunderstood or people don’t like, and it’s rough to watch Twitter light up with condemnation and suddenly you’re arguing with people who’ve never seen your work.
You ever have an editor tell you, “We’re not running that?” or ask you to soft-peddle something? How do you respond to that?
Occasionally something will cross the line, but it’s just easier for people not to run it in that given week. That’s always been my approach for this work, to make a strong statement palatably and not run afoul of editors or standards. I’ve gotten it wrong. I’ve had big blowups. A few months back I did a gun control cartoon about a situation in Florida, a guy who was eventually convicted shot an unarmed black kid because he felt threatened. The real problem there is the guy had a gun, and the gun was telling him, be a man, don’t take that nonsense from the kid. In that situation, it’s a tragedy all around. His life is ruined, the kid is dead, and it wouldn’t have happened if he didn’t have a gun in his glove compartment. People would yell and move on with their day – we’ve all had that. One panel showed a dead hand and there were papers that wouldn’t run it.
After 25 years, what comes next? You ever think about a Plan B?
I kind of do. I wonder a lot. I’ve been a professional cartoonist for 25 years and I think about the weekly routine that I’m chained to. It’s deadlines. I’ve had the sword of Damocles hanging over my head for 25 years and I would like to enjoy a bit of my life without another deadline, but things are going well right now and I’m enjoying what I do. But maybe… I wonder if I want to keep doing this, or if it’s time.