25 Years of This Modern World: An Interview with Tom Tomorrow

Jul 29, 2015 at 4:16 pm
25 Years of This Modern World: An Interview with Tom Tomorrow

Dan Perkins, probably best known for his pseudonym Tom Tomorrow, has been drawing the political satire cartoon This Modern World (a LEO Weekly staple) for a quarter of a century, and he had a fairly simple goal — to collect his cartooning and other visual work in a retrospective anthology.

Having written more than 1,500 cartoons, published 10 anthologies, not to mention a children’s book, having comics published in publications ranging from The New York Times to Esquire — and even having been nominated for a Pulitzer Prize — such an anthology to celebrate 25 years seemed like a no-brainer. (Heck, the guy is even friends with Pearl Jam, and designed the artwork for their 2009 album, Backspacer.)

So, he did what everyone is doing these days: He launched a Kickstarter campaign. But unlike some garage band trying to get their fans to fund a debut album or a home brewer trying to launch an ill-conceived brewery called “Hop in the Name of Love,” Perkins had years of cred on his resume.

And here’s proof: The campaign met its initial funding goal of $87,000 (publishing a hardback, two-volume tome that weighs 15 pounds ain’t cheap) within 24 hours. The fundraiser kept on raising, enabling him to add a 3-D lenticular cover, to bring all the work up to date into 2015 and even include a DIY model of Sparky the Penguin (This Modern World’s main recurring character) and a die-cut Sparky sticker with every pre-order. Even the aforementioned children’s book is now part of the anthology.

If you’re a loyal reader, you have until August 5 to get in on this deal — and if you help propel the total past $250,000, well, there’s a special treat in store. (Visit kickstarter.com/projects/tomorrow/25-years-of-tomorrow to pledge.)

Anyway, we got Tomorrow, er, Perkins, to take some time out of his busy schedule to talk with LEO about his 25-year career, what makes This Modern World go, and the Kickstarter campaign that has exceeded his dreams.

LEO: When did the concept for This Modern World come to you?

Tom Tomorrow: I reprinted a bunch of old collages I was doing, this weird experimental stuff. I was [also] trying to come up with a comic strip I could sell to a syndicate; I was working on a gag cartoon like “The Far Side.” What I eventually ended up doing was combining these things. I took the collage thing, which I really enjoyed, but put it into a more palatable format to connect with readers.

LEO: How many had you created before you started publishing in 1990?

TT: It was a weirder cartoon in those days. I had a little bit of a backlog before I got syndicated. Going back over it that very first year or two, that work is a little wobbly. It gets better.

LEO: I love the clip art-esque style of the artwork. What inspired that look?

TT: As an artist I was interested in both cartooning and collage. The collages I was doing got me interested in these old advertising images from the mid-century — from the ’40s and ’50s, when you had all the happy consumers talking about how great a specific product was. It was all great stuff to appropriate and use for your own purposes.

LEO: And where did the pseudonym Tom Tomorrow come from?

TT: Well, there were a couple of different reasons for it. One, I just sort of underestimated myself and didn’t think anyone was going to pay attention, so I didn’t think it would matter. I thought it might help people remember the name of the cartoon a little. [This Modern World] started as a take on consumerism and technology … my work first started running in San Francisco in a little ’zine called Processed World, which was put out by radical office workers — people who were in the underbelly of the information economy at that moment. It was a pretty harsh critique of office culture, the conformity of office clutter. If you’re actually making a living doing this, you want to take a low profile. I also had a couple of cartoonist friends who used pen names, so it seemed like the thing to do.

LEO: How do you come up with ideas The Modern World? Turn on Fox News and just sit back and watch?

TT: You know I used to do a lot of that. I literally don’t even have to anymore. I know what the take on something is going to be. I scan Twitter a lot, which is its own kind of aggravation. If I follow enough journalists and activists, there is always something coming across my screen there — not only the topics, but the insane right wing response to the topics. I’ve also been doing this a long time, and it’s not hard to figure out what people are going to be saying about something.

LEO: Did you have any notion when you started it all those years ago that it would still be going strong in 25 years?

TT: No, I really … when I started doing this, I wasn’t really looking that far ahead into the future. When I first started doing the strip, I was pushing it for a few years before [1990]. I loved cartooning and wanted to put my own spin on it. I was hoping for supplemental income. I didn’t imagine I was about to lock into a 25-year career. It became kind of a self-perpetuating machine at a certain point. It got rolling pretty quickly in the early ’90s. Even at that point, if I thought, ‘I wonder what happens 20 years from now?’ I would quickly think of something else. I just hoped it would work out somehow and it did.

LEO: To what do you owe its longevity?

TT: ’Cause I’m not really qualified to do anything else at this point and because [magazines] kept running it. It gives me something to do and keeps me out of trouble. (Laughs.)

LEO: Do you have any favorite single entries or story lines over the years?

TT: Yeah, there’s a few. One I did at the very start of first Gulf War — it was like 1991, and [This Modern World] was newly running. I had just picked up a paper, so it was the first time I was regularly seeing my own stuff in print. I wasn’t even really at that point consciously thinking of myself as a political cartoonist. … I had been out protesting the war with whole lot of people and when I got home, the protest was really downplayed on TV news and I was feeling really down about it. A little cartoon light bulb went off in my head; it was kind of a revelation that I had this public forum. One time at height of the Monica Lewinsky scandal … it was just overloaded [with sexual focus]. I did a cartoon about campaign finance reform; I found an old book that was a compilation of erotic images through the ages, and I cut them out. What I was trying to do with that was imply sexual overload without being explicit. I was living in New York, and as it turns out it didn’t really play well in Oklahoma City. I lost a paper. They tried to get me prosecuted for obscenity, which would have not been very much fun. The DA took a look at it and said, ‘We would not win this case.’ Apparently I was the lead story on the news in Oklahoma City that day. There’s probably still video of it. I’d pay money to see it.

LEO: Any favorite recurring characters?

TT: Oh sure. Obviously Sparky the Penguin is my alter ego in the cartoon, so he is the one who can be more direct. He serves a very good function for me so I can rant some weeks when I need to rant. I have to say, the thing with Biff and a lot of my right-wing characters and when I have them saying something, it’s almost always based on an argument that I’ve seen someone making in real life. It kind of makes my head explode to hear, ‘Oh, you’re just dealing in right-wing stereotypes.’ How is it a stereotype when it’s a comment someone literally made in the real world?

LEO: What is it about This Modern World do you think makes it attractive to readers?

TT: I don’t know. I’ve been on this Kickstarter thing this month and its going very well, and I’ve been trying to figure that out myself. I think it has something to do with the particular political outlook, of course. It’s clear I care about the things I’m writing about. I’m not a detached observer and I think that connects with people. I think I’ve noticed over the years that sometimes cartoonists and writers can be more interested in displays of their own cleverness than in connecting with the audience. … I’ve always felt what I’m trying to do, I’m not trying to stand up and say look how funny I am, I’m trying to say, “look how funny this is” and “let’s all share a laugh together.” I’ve always tried to have that connection with the reader. I hoped it was happening, but I was beginning to wonder. I’ve had a pretty solid confirmation [with the Kickstarter campaign], so that’s been pretty gratifying.

LEO: So you’ve started a Kickstarter campaign to help fund the publication of your 25th anniversary anthology, and things have gone well. What do you think has driven the response?

TT: It is gratifying just to learn I have an audience. I didn’t consider it a foregone conclusion that this was going to happen; the cost of the thing is enormous. I’m working with people who have not made a dime and I’ve been working on it more than a year. My reason for the initial goal was there was no profit for me at that moment, and I was trying to get my partners paid a little bit and trying to get the book published. I was even wondering if I could get a relative to pull some money out of the bank to get me over the edge. Going past the goal in the first day, I still cannot even really express how strange and amazing that was to watch.

LEO: You’re syndicated in nearly 90 publications, you’ve won numerous awards and were nominated for a Pulitzer Prize — it seems like publishers would be in a bidding war to publish this anthology. Why did you decide to go the Kickstarter route?

TT: What I used to put out were these paperback compilations every couple of years. Those used to do pretty well. I’m not sure if I should blame the Internet people not wanting to buy compilations or publishers thinking people don’t want to buy compilations anymore, but I had a run of bad luck with a couple publishers. An imprint went out of business the same day my book was published; [the book] withered on the vine and died. I had a couple publishers who really should not have published my books, because they had no interest in getting behind them. I was having trouble even getting anyone to publish those kinds of compilations. I talked to a couple [publishers] informally, and I didn’t think there was any chance. I pretty much always envisioned it as a Kickstarter project.

LEO: From what I’ve read, this two-volume collection literally will have everything you’ve done up to this point, from a complete, up-to-date collection of The Modern World to one-offs, collages and illustrations. Will we see any doodles you did on airport cocktail napkins?

TT: (Laughs.) I think we’re not going in that deep, but it’s going to be a lot of stuff.

LEO: In all seriousness, what inspired you to create this collection? Was it simply the anniversary or something more?

TT: The anniversary gives me the excuse to do it, but it’s also a moment to think about, ‘What does it mean?’ It’s my accidental life’s work. The alt-weekly industry — there’s this whole art form of alt-weekly cartooning that grew up around the alt-weekly papers. The alt-weeklies were stewards of the weekly cartoon art form. [LEO Weekly] being one of the exceptions, of course, a lot of papers just pissed on that and threw it to the curb. In terms of the papers, that’s still the core of my business. That’s been harder to hold onto. There’s been this incredible dark cloud, this increasing sense that there’s no future for it. I was beginning to wonder if I should bother with it or figure out something else to do with the time I have left on this earth. I was having a bit of a career crisis — I felt like it’s either a mile marker or a capstone, and I wasn’t sure which. I was kind of putting it out there to see how it went. If it had been greeted with widespread indifference, I might have started thinking I had a good run, but it might be time to start figuring something else out. It’s been kind of life-changing in that sense.

LEO: What has been the most popular pledge level, and what do people get for that level of pledge?

TT: Just glancing over it, basically it looks to me the popular levels are either the book or the book with the signed bookplate in it. Basically, what’s been very gratifying — my friends in Pearl Jam donated a lot of stuff. I was very grateful for that. I wasn’t sure I would make my goal and that got the Kickstarter off to a good start. As much as I’m appreciative of those contributing, the thing that’s been very gratifying is most of it has been me. I’m the horse pulling this cart. Some people contributed early on to get some Pearl Jam swag, but 90 percent of the contributions have been on me. I’ve been enormously grateful to learn I’ve been carrying that.

LEO:You note on your Kickstarter page that each anthology set will weigh about 15 pounds. Did you ever consider making them in the shape of dumbbells so people can work out with them when they’re not reading them?

TT: (Laughs.) Yeah, we could drill a hole and run a bar between them.

LEO: You also stated on you Kickstarter page that if you reach the $250,000 mark, you’ll post a video of you getting a tattoo of Sparky the Penguin, one of the recurring characters in The Modern World, on your left bicep. You’re close to $220,000 as we have this conversation, so my question is this: Any regrets at this point now that it looks quite possible you’ll be going under the needle?

TT: No, the reason I’m so specific about my left bicep is I have a tattoo of [This Modern World character] Tin Tin’s rocket on my right arm. I got that tattoo kind of at the beginning of this journey. I’ve kind of been thinking for a couple years about getting something else, so I tossed in the Sparky thing as kind of a joke. I didn’t actually imagine we would hit this quarter of a million that it looks like we’re going to hit. But I thought, “If we do, you’d better believe I’ll be happy to have that happen.” It’s always going to symbolize this intense support the audience has shown. For me, that’s no small thing.