I walk this strange line between being a satirist and being a proponent of certain ideas, such as campaign finance reform or health care reform or what have you. It was one of those moments where you have to either put up or shut up, so I felt like I didn’t have a choice. But I admit that it was a bit of an uncomfortable role, because I’m used to sitting on the sidelines, and with Nader I was an active participant, going out and speaking at these super-rallies…”
interviewed by marc covert
The year was 1991: America had recently vanquished the assuredly evil empire of Saddam Hussein and was busily showering her returning heroes with parades, accolades, and endless, adoring media coverage. A San Francisco-based alternative cartoonist named Dan Perkins, who kept himself out of trouble with his temp-agency bosses by using the pseudonym Tom Tomorrow, was outraged over the scant media coverage given to anti-Gulf War protesters. Since 1984, his photocopy collage-style cartoon This Modern World had focused on the world of working stiffs and the consumer culture in which they toiled. Perkins says it was then that he realized he had a public forum, and switched his focus to the strange bedfellows of mass media and politics.
Three presidential administrations later, Tom Tomorrow is one of the most readily recognized political cartoonists in the nation, with his work appearing in over 120 newspapers; This Modern World also graces the pages of online magazine Salon.com. Although he is not a member of any political party, he claims to be of a “lefty” bent; his animated cartoons featuring Ralph Nader were shown at Green Party rallies in the 2000 presidential race, and he appeared in person at many of those rallies. His determination to lampoon any political party or personage whom he deems to be deserving of his ire has landed him in hot water with both Republican and Democratic supporters, who he sees as increasingly becoming one and the same. He has won numerous awards in his field, including the 1998 first place Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for Cartooning. His new animated cartoon and his five books can be accessed at his website, www.thismodernworld.com. It would be hard to find higher praise than that accorded him by Kurt Vonnegut: “Tom Tomorrow is the wry voice of American common sense, humor and decency which has been scorned or ignored by big-time journalists.”
Tom Tomorrow took time recently to speak with Smokebox writer Marc Covert.
Smokebox: You’re known as a steadfast Ralph Nader supporter; he had one of his first rallies here in Portland, Oregon. He had over 10,000 people show up at seven dollars a pop, which really said something about his popular appeal. I think they showed your animated cartoon at that rally, didn’t they?
Tomorrow: They showed it at some of the rallies I spoke at, but I’m not sure about Portland. If they showed it in Portland I didn’t hear about it, but it’s entirely possible.
Smokebox: Some folks have reacted rather badly to This Modern World; I know that Matt Drudge, did, for one; and a group called Oklahomans for Children and Family didn’t take too kindly to your infamous campaign finance reform/orgy scene cartoon.
Tomorrow: Yeah, they weren’t really happy about that.
Smokebox: So I’m wondering, who have you managed to get into trouble with lately?
Tomorrow: Lately I guess I got into trouble with the Democrats, because I didn’t support Al Gore, and because I didn’t use my cartoon as an extension of the Gore campaign. That was another thing that attracted me to the Nader campaign. Obviously I never thought Ralph Nader was going to become president, but a presidential campaign like that is a vehicle for conveying a message; the message in that case being that both candidates are equally controlled by corporate power. So which corporate special interests are running the show? It may vary from administration to administration, but it’s an equally corrupt, bought-and-paid-for system, and that was Nader’s message.
If you go back through the archives I’ve always been an equal-opportunity critic; I’ve always equally criticized whoever’s in power, Democrat or Republican, so it was a bit shocking to me that people were so upset, claiming that Nader was just a monkey wrench in the works. And I’m still trying to decide; Nader came along and he basically stood for everything I stood for over the course of my career, and I’m just not sure…it was admittedly an awkward role for me, to be an advocate. I walk this strange line between being a satirist and being a proponent of certain ideas, such as campaign finance reform or health care reform or what have you. It was one of those moments where you have to either put up or shut up, so I felt like I didn’t have a choice. But I admit that it was a bit of an uncomfortable role, because I’m used to sitting on the sidelines, and with Nader I was an active participant, going out and speaking at these super-rallies.
Smokebox: Wasn’t Nader a little uncomfortable himself, appearing in your animated cartoons?
Tomorrow: I don’t actually know Ralph Nader very well, but my sense of him is he’s just one of those people who is always a little uncomfortable [laughs], so I couldn’t really tell you. There was a funny moment, when we first went down; we did a bit with him in the animated cartoon at the point when he was not being allowed in the presidential debates–which was really outrageous–so we did an animated cartoon about that. We got him to contribute his own voice; we went down to record him in D.C., my animation partner Harold Moss and I. Harold had already sent down the script, and they read the script and didn’t have any problems with it that we knew about.
So the whole point of the cartoon was, Nader and Sparky are trying to fight their way into the debates, past these ninja Secret Service guys; it was a take-off on the old Hong Kong action movies and the Batman TV series, with that whole Whap-Pow-Zap sort of fight. So we got down there and we were setting up to record this scene and Nader says, “Well, they told you we have to take out the violence, right?” And we just kind of looked at each other. One of the precepts of the Green Party is that you can’t have any violence at all. So Harold, thinking quickly, said “Oh, it’s okay, you guys won’t be doing anything violent, you’ll just outwit the Secret Service guys,” and we got him to go ahead and record the script, and we went ahead and did what we wanted to do in the cartoon.
But that sort of thing…if you say you can’t have any hint of violence in an animated cartoon–I mean, everyone always goes too far. That would eliminate The Sopranos; that would eliminate most of Shakespeare, and that sort of absolutist thinking is why I’m not a member of the Green Party. I’m not a member of any party, because there’s always something where it just goes too far, and it just makes my head hurt. Which is not to say I’m not very sympathetic to the Greens; I do in fact support them in most of their goals, but I am still an outsider. I am still an observer; I just can’t shut that part of my brain off.
Smokebox: You mention being in trouble with the Democrats, and it seems like a no-win situation, and I’ve noticed that with Derf too [John Backderf, The City by Derf], now that there is a Republican in the White House, and he’s poking fun at George Bush and that whole gang, he’s getting all this hate mail saying, “Why are you a shill for the Democrats?”
Tomorrow: Yeah, people are really stupid. Those are the people who only ever see one cartoon. I was as harshly critical of Clinton for the past eight years as any Republican partisan, for my own reasons: because I thought he was a conservative sell-out; because I thought he screwed up health care reform; because I thought that welfare reform was one of the most evil things that any president could have done; and then of course we got into the whole sex scandal. And even at that, even in those times, when the 104th Congress was a particularly juicy target, even then whenever I’d do a cartoon about Republicans I’d get all this hate mail from Republicans accusing me of being a Democratic shill.
There’s a really strange little weekly paper here in town, called the New York Press, and the politics are all over the place, but the editor has these very Republican, Libertarian leanings, and they kept making all these references to me as a “Democratic apologist,” even in the last campaign. After I had come out publicly endorsing Ralph Nader, they ran this long bit about me in their paper about what a Clinton apologist I was. It’s just very aggravating. I mean, maybe you don’t agree with me about my lefty take on health care reform, or welfare reform, or whatever, that’s one thing. But this binary, either-or view of politics, “if you don’t agree with us, and we’re Republican partisans, and you don’t agree with us, you must be a Democratic partisan, and shame on you for being so partisan,” I mean, no no no! That’s just so wrong!
Smokebox: What’s the state of political satire in 2001? It goes without saying that political reality has gotten to be more odd, more weird than many writers or cartoonists could ever come up with. How do you top eight years of Clinton, and the crazy, insane things that kept happening there?
Tomorrow: You top it by getting a president in who lost the popular vote, and then is ruling as if he has a mandate. I have a lot of problems with the Democratic party, and I still suspect that they are going to confirm every Supreme Court nominee Bush throws at them, but I was really delighted to see Jim Jeffords switch parties, just because it fouls things up for Bush. The Democrats can no longer say, “Well, he controls everything, there’s nothing we can do.” And I think that’s a good thing. I think Bush really, by all rights, had no other option but to come in and govern as a moderate, as he promised he would. But he came in with this incredible arrogance, and brought in this whole hard-right coalition with him.
There’s just something that happens with new administrations, they always stumble at first. There is this psychology at work–you’ve been begging and fighting for this job for a year and suddenly you’ve got it–you’re the man, you’ve got the power, you’ve got your finger on the button–and I think that a certain arrogance sets in, until our system of checks and balances catches up with the person and they suddenly realize that they may be the world’s most powerful person, but they are not in an absolute dictatorship, and there are still many, many battles to fight. Ultimately, I think that’s a good thing. It means that some good things don’t get done, but it also limits the damage that anyone can do. I just wish that there were more of a balance between extreme right and extreme left, rather than this current balance between extreme right and wishy-washy moderate.
Smokebox: It seems that the left is swinging to the right, and the extreme right has no intention of getting anywhere near the middle.
Tomorrow: Yeah, and that’s my problem with the Democratic Party, and that’s why I get so much hate mail from Democrats.
Smokebox: Things got so weird and outrageous during the Clinton years, it turned me into a “former ” political junkie who just can’t stand to watch the news any more. But I decided recently, “Well, I’m going to be talking to Tom Tomorrow, I’d better see what’s on the news,” so I turned on the Jim Lehrer News Hour, and they were doing a piece on the Bush energy plan. It was just unbelievable–they had this PR woman from the nuclear industry and an executive from a nuclear utility, and she was just cooing gently about how safe nuclear power is now, and he was drawling on about how we want progress, and how we don’t want “a nation of Californias,” and it was enough to have me still foaming at the mouth now.
Tomorrow: Unfortunately, you rarely get the anti-corporate perspective on a show like that, so it will make you foam at the mouth. I’m just lucky that I have a cartoon, so that when I’m foaming at the mouth, it channels out into my work.
Smokebox: For a while there, it seemed that I couldn’t go anywhere without encountering a stuffed Dilbert doll, or a Dogbert doll…so far I haven’t noticed that sort of marketing thing with Sparky, or Blinky the Extremely Nice Dog, or, God help me, Manny the Millipede. Have you been approached—
Tomorrow: [roaring with laughter] Manny the Millipede? I forgot about him! He was just in that one cartoon!
Smokebox: Well, I didn’t forget!
Tomorrow: [still laughing] I completely forgot about Manny the Millipede…you have to understand, with the hard drive of my brain, I pretty much purge these things as soon as I do them and I’m immediately on to the next one; I just don’t have the storage space!
Smokebox: Have you been approached by marketers who would love to see a Sparky in every household?
Tomorrow: Of course not, my stuff is in no way marketable. I’ve got a partnership with the guy who does my animation [Harold Moss], and we’ve talked periodically about doing that stuff ourselves, because I think it would be really funny. The problem is, I would do it because I would be so amused by a Sparky action figure; there would be no way that we would do anything more than barely break even. But no one would understand that; everyone would think that I’d sold out or something. Unfortunately that’s just the type of response that you get from that sort of thing. But I think it would be great fun to have a Sparky action figure; you know, it could come with a little Blinky or God-knows-what accessories. We’ve got a few t-shirts and things because people ask for that stuff—
Smokebox: Crass commercialism?
Tomorrow: Yeah, the “Crass Commercialism” section of the website. But the way I make my living is by drawing cartoons and selling them to newspapers. I make maybe a couple of hundred dollars a year on top of that from the t-shirts and what have you; it’s something that I do for fun. I enjoy designing the product and seeing it printed, and some people ask for it and some people want it, but it’s not something that I make a lot of money on, and it’s not a big priority for me.
Smokebox: I checked out the animated stuff on the web for the first time this week, and it’s always kind of disconcerting for me to actually hear the characters’ voices; I’m used to providing my own voices in my head as I read the strip. Is that an agonizing decision? Do you have to sit there listening to hundreds of voices before you get it right?
Tomorrow: Some of them…there’s a whole team working on the animation, I’m overseeing it, but you have to understand that the focus of my daily life is the print cartoon that I’m doing; that’s what I’m putting most of my energy into, so what’s hard for me is when something slips by–some design element that’s not something I would have chosen, or a voice that I don’t think is right–but I simply don’t have time to sit in on every recording session, or to oversee every aspect. I look at character design, and I co-write the scripts, although Harold Moss does a great deal of this. I’d say he does the majority of it right now; it’s a lot of back-and-forth, but he’s usually the one who sits down and pounds out the final script, and then I go over that. So it’s probably about a 60/40 kind of thing. He’s taking this thing and bringing a lot of his own input to it, which is fine; we’re very much in line in terms of what direction this thing should go, so that part’s usually okay. But then there will always be somebody’s voice that just makes me cringe; I think “No, no, they just did that all wrong, don’t you get it? Don’t you hear that? Don’t you hear how wrong that is?” But because it’s an internet thing and there’s no budget and we’re working on a tight deadline, a lot of the time I have to let it go anyway.
I’m a control freak and it’s been a hard transition for me to be involved in such a heavily collaborative process, but I can’t emphasize strongly enough that I’m very, very happy with the work we’re doing. Harold’s animation team deserves all the praise I can heap upon them. We are very fortunate to have some really great people working on this. The voice of Sparky is done by my friend Bob Harris, who used to have a radio show on Working Assets Radio, and he just has the right voice for Sparky; he just captured what I wanted to capture with Sparky. And the actress who does Blinky’s voice, she just steals the show, and I’m very happy with that. The main characters I’m very happy with, but a lot of the extras that they cycle through I’m not always thrilled with.
Smokebox: How has your technique evolved over the years? I notice that now your color work is just incredibly sharp and precise, and the backgrounds are different; the black-and-white work that you started out with in the eighties and nineties really set you apart. Exactly how do you produce the strip?
Tomorrow: When I started out, and for most of the time I’ve been doing this, I worked with a combination of Xerox collage and pen and ink; I was working on a drawing board, I was copying images and repainting them and redrawing them and drawing in backgrounds and what have you. How it changed was, I went over to the dark side and I finally made the move to Photoshop; I waited a very very long time to do this. But I finally decided I had better enter the 20th century, even though it was the 21st before I was doing it [laughs]. It just really changed everything, it really opened up all kinds of possibilities for me. Before, when I did color work, I usually had to spec out colors and just pray that whoever was doing the colors on their own computer system got it right. Now I’m able to do it myself. I’m not a terrific artist by any means, but I think I have a pretty good color sense, and the fact that I can see it on the screen and play with it and not have to guess at it really made all the difference.
Smokebox: What type of art background do you have? Any formal training?
Tomorrow: Not really. Just a little bit of fairly useless liberal arts art training, but for the most part, I guess I’m just self-taught.
Smokebox: You said in an interview in the San Francisco Bay Guardian that you consider the death penalty to be “one of the basic moral questions of our age”; now we have the execution of Tim McVeigh delayed for a month due to the FBI bungling, losing over 3,000 pages of documents that should have been used in his trial. What does that say about these dozens of executions that we do carry out every year?
Tomorrow: More to the point–in the past month there have been three well-publicized cases of innocent people being released because they were wrongly convicted. One of them was a man in Boston who spent 30 years in prison because he was set up by the FBI; they knew he was innocent, but if they came forth with proof that he was innocent it would blow the cover of an informant or something, so they just let the guy go to jail. Then there were a couple of other cases, very serious crimes–one man convicted of rape, I don’t recall the conviction in the other case–but people who were convicted of very serious crimes, who were sent to prison for ten or fifteen years, until DNA technology came along and they were able to prove their innocence.
The really extraordinary case, I believe was here in New York; two men had been convicted on the word of a crack whore, who was given a thousand bucks to lie, so these guys were sent to jail for fifteen years. They get out, they’re totally proven innocent, DNA testing, the whole thing; the guy who really did it has confessed; the crack whore has confessed; everybody has confessed. These guys get out and they have a hearing with the judge, and they have to spend an hour in this hearing with this judge who tried them, because this absolute motherfucker is sitting up there on the bench saying, “Well, you know, I thought you guys were guilty, and the evidence seemed pretty strong to me, so why should I let you out?” And they had to spend another hour wondering if they actually were going to be released, at the very end, because of this son-of-a-bitch of a judge…which I just thought was astonishing, and says a lot about the judicial system right there.
But, the fact that all of these innocent people are being released, clearly says there are some innocent people being given the death penalty, and I think that’s the only argument you need to make. If any innocent person in this entire society is executed wrongly, convicted wrongly–I mean, what can I say? That should speak for itself. It’s a terrible thing when a man spends twenty years in prison and then gets out because it turns out he was innocent; at least he has some of his life left. But when you take a man’s life and he’s innocent, that’s it.
Smokebox: Which you pointed out in pretty startling detail in one of your better known cartoons.
Tomorrow: Unless we have Almighty God himself judging people; unless we have someone who is absolutely omniscient and there is no possibility of making a mistake; I just don’t think the state should be in the business of executing human beings.
Smokebox: So what kind of mail response did you get for that one?
Tomorrow: Well, I did that one, and I got–a lot of people agree with me, and a lot of people think I’m wrong, although there is absolutely no evidence that the death penalty is a deterrent, people continue to believe that. I guess it’s like religious faith; there’s absolutely no evidence for the proof of Heaven and Hell and an afterlife, but people still believe in these things. The difference being, in the case of the death penalty, there is a great deal of evidence that we get it wrong sometimes. One woman wrote–since I said that if we’ve executed anyone wrongly, then all of us, as a society, we are all accessories to murder–she wrote and asked, “If we imprison somebody, then are we all accessories to kidnapping?” [laughs] In a sense I suppose we are, but of course there is a very large difference, as I say, because that person who was wrongly imprisoned still has a chance of living out some of their life. As you know, a person’s life is not over at the age of forty [laughs].
Smokebox: I certainly hope not…popular opinion to the contrary. And now I’m going to ask the impossible: Tell us where you think we’re headed, for the next four years at least.
Tomorrow: [pained] Oh, I hate making predictions! Well, there are any number of scenarios that can play out; a lot of them depend on whether the Democrats find their balls or not; if the Democrats actually start fulfilling their ostensible purpose as the opposition party. It’s going to be a very interesting four years if the Democrats continue to roll over. And the problem is, when you say “the Democrats,” they have a very slim majority right now and you’re including the likes of Zell Miller, John Breaux, and Robert Byrd, all of whom might as well be Republicans.
So, it’s going to be a very interesting time politically. I think–I will predict, because I’m doing it on a somewhat obscure website, with all due respects [laughs], and not in Time Magazine, I will make a prediction that Bush is a one-term president. I keep making references to his obvious incompetence and stupidity, and people write me saying, “Oh no, this is just a trick, a way of lulling us into a false sense of complacency; he’s actually very smart.” So I actually just did a cartoon about that for the American Prospect, where I have a cartoon every issue, in which I examine this question. And Eric Alterman–oh God, Eric Alterman, the Nader-basher of all time–let me just interrupt myself here and say, Eric Alterman has really got to give up the Nader-bashing. In an election that came down to 150 votes in Florida, the Socialist Worker’s Party could have thrown this election. But I’ll even give him, let’s say he’s right, let’s say Ralph Nader threw the entire campaign, and it had nothing to do with Gore’s unpopularity, that it had nothing to do with anything else–you’ve just got to give it up, it’s over, and you need the Naderites. You need their energy; this squabbling at this point is completely worthless, because those are the people who are going to be out in the streets protesting, and to continue with this “I-told-you-so, I-told-you-so,” it just serves no purpose at all.
At any rate, Eric Alterman made reference in his column in The Nation to Bush not being so stupid, and really just pulling the wool over the eyes of liberals, and I started thinking about it, and I wrote this cartoon which asks, “How exactly is it that knowing the president is a complete moron and the government is actually being run by shadowy corporate interests, how exactly is it that that’s supposed to lull us into a false sense of complacency? Why are we supposed to be reassured by that again?” So I don’t see that exactly.
I don’t think Bush literally has the intelligence of a four-year-old; I think he’s probably a fine, competent person who would be capable of buying his own groceries and driving a car and so forth, but I don’t think he’s up to this job, this extraordinary job. So I think he’s a bit clueless and he’s surrounded by all these unrepentant Cold Warriors who are still seeing the world as it existed twenty or thirty years ago.
So I think that what you get here is this remarkably clueless administration which is going to be tripping over its own feet for the next four years. We’ve already seen that with the arsenic-in-the-water thing; it was actually complete nonsense. Arsenic standards have not changed in fifty years and would not have changed under Clinton’s order until the year 2004, so whether Bush had repealed that order or not, you would still be drinking the same arsenic in your water as you have all your life for the next four years. To hear the Democrats tell it, it was as if Bush was forcing arsenic down the throats of our children. They actually produced an ad in which this really irritating little girl asks in a plaintive voice, [falsetto] “Mommy, can I have some more arsenic in my water, please?” That’s all just propaganda, and I just did a cartoon this week pointing that out, and a lot of people were rather unhappy about it, but that’s just complete nonsense. I think it was probably a trap, you know, a land mine that Clinton set, and Bush was so clueless he walked right into it.
And that’s the thing–they have no sense of public relations; they have no sense of what the mood of the country is, and so they come in with their nuclear power and their oil drilling and their arsenic in the water and they’re behaving like the elephant in the china shop, and I just think it’s going to get worse and worse. I think they are going to make some really stupid mistakes, which is good for the country because it means that their agenda will be further hampered. And it’s good for cartoonists, because it means there’s plenty of material, so for once, what’s good for cartoonists is actually what’s good for the country as well. I’m actually fairly optimistic about it.
But that doesn’t mean people should be complacent; the reason I’m optimistic is because I believe there’s going to be so much public outrage over everything they do, because they are so out of step with the times.
The oil crisis is another interesting case, when you have all these people–I mean, the reason we have an oil crisis in this country is very ironic. The oil crisis is happening because of refinery capacity. The reason we don’t have enough refinery capacity, the reason they didn’t build any more refineries, is not because of environmentalists stopping them. It’s because up until a few years ago they didn’t need any more refineries. The refineries they had were not operating at full capacity. And you know what changed that, is this booming economy; this demand for SUVs and the amount of gas they were guzzling. This is Paul Krugman of the Times, this is his analysis of it, which is really wonderfully ironic if you think about it: the very people who are hit hardest by rising gas prices, the SUV owners, are in fact the ones who caused the entire problem.
Smokebox: And of course now the economy, at least the dot-com economy, has gone south. I can almost see it, I can see Sparky with his big bass drum and majorette hat—
Tomorrow: I actually did that once.
Smokebox: Right, the one I saw was about single-payer health care, but he could have been doing the same thing on the fact that booms don’t last forever.
Tomorrow: Well he was; go back and read all the cartoons about the economy that I did. It’s ludicrous to think of it now, but there were people claiming that this Internet boom was going to last forever; that gold would be spun out of straw; and I was one of the first people, honestly, to make the connection with the tulip mania . I don’t mean to pat myself on the back, but I’m one of the first people I saw in any capacity to liken the dot-com boom to a tulip mania. I’d been watching this thing happen so I went back and dug up some old reference material on previous booms, and researched it myself, and said, “Hey, that’s what’s happening here,” and of course now that’s conventional wisdom.
Smokebox: Well, we’re forty minutes into this interview, maybe I’ve taken up enough of your time…
Tomorrow: I probably should get some work done today.
Smokebox: Okay, I really would like to thank you again for talking with us, and good luck to you.
Tomorrow: Sure, thanks a lot.