Tom Tomorrow

It's important to understand the status quo establishment worldview


| January/February 2001 Issue



Think "political cartoon" and the op-ed page of your local newspaper comes to mind. But think again: There’s also Dan Perkins, a.k.a Tom Tomorrow, author of the alternative political comic This Modern World. Perkins, 39, began his career in the pages of alternative publications such as Processed World—a zine dedicated to chronicling the temp-job world, a world Perkins had his fair share of before This Modern World grew to its current popularity. Perkins’ fans are drawn to his work by its harshness and honesty—rare qualities in the American press.
This Modern World runs in alternative weeklies nationwide, and has also made an appearance in the pages of The New York Times. Big newspapers run the strip when they’re looking for something "edgy," Perkins says. To people who aren’t acquainted with the alternative press, the strip is "bizarre" and "a little more hard-hitting than they’re used to," he says. "The other side of that coin is, of course, that they quickly start asking me to not be so ‘edgy’ and it tends not to work out well."
Perkins, whose latest collection, When Penguins Attack!, was recently published by St. Martin’s Griffin, has also released an online animated short featuring his Modern World protagonist Sparky the Penguin. Fittingly, it premiered at the Ralph Nader rally in Madison Square Garden last fall.

What sources fuel your work?
I read a lot of mainstream sources: The New York Times, Time, Newsweek. I met a guy once at a political conference who said, "I can’t even stand to pick up the mainstream media." Shutting yourself off from the world like that is absolutely the wrong thing to do. I compare reading The New York Times to reading Pravda in the former Soviet Union: It’s important to read it; you just have to understand the status quo establishment worldview. I spend a lot of time watching the talking heads on CNN and Fox News and NBC, if only to make fun of them.
I also read all kinds of alternative newspapers: The Nation, Mother Jones, In These Times, anything that Alexander Cockburn has written for.

Why Alexander Cockburn?
He’s brilliantly vitriolic.

How would you define "alternative media"?

The definition is changing. Rush Limbaugh defines himself as "alternative media," perversely enough, and I suppose he is an alternative to actual information. The most important role of the alternative press—the traditional alternative press, the free weekly papers—is to present, within the confines of their limited resources, the information that the Powers That Be in their cities don’t want known.

Besides the talking heads, what television programs do you watch?

I try to watch The Simpsons when it’s a new episode, and The Daily Show on Comedy Central, but not much else. This whole "reality programming" thing is getting really strange. Big Brother was a flop because the only interesting people were quickly voted off. One of the new shows is going to bring together five couples in which the man has been recalcitrant to propose marriage. The producers scheme with the girlfriends to get them all to Las Vegas, and then the guys are told they have tickets to a free show or something, and they go through a door and suddenly they’re on stage. That has the fascination of a car wreck, but of course people will watch it because it’s brilliant in its own way.
Forty or fifty years ago, this sort of thing would have been addressed in the better science fiction novels, which were parables or satires of their time. The yearning for public spectacle—for seeing Christians thrown to the lions—eventually reaches this point. The line between satirizing society’s obsessions and playing them out has disappeared. These shows comment on society’s baser impulses and simultaneously feed those impulses.

How about movies?
I haven’t actually seen any movies lately. Movies are almost always shallow and painful compared to novels.

Can you name just one movie that you enjoyed?
There are many. I recently saw Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and loved it. It’s brilliantly bizarre, a complete time capsule and wholly surreal. The assumptions made in that movie no longer exist; they show how much time has passed. Both The Player and Bob Roberts were quite brilliant. And, okay, I loved Casablanca and 2001. I’m just not impressed with a lot of current cinema, which tends to keep me away, so I also miss the good ones.

Have any novels influenced you?
I enjoy the evocative quality of the writing of Milan Kundera, Gabriel García Márquez, and Raymond Chandler. The mystery writer James Lee Burke has a compelling control of the language. And Kurt Vonnegut’s cynical view of the world has always struck a chord with me. Tom De Haven’s Funny Papers and Derby Dugan’s Depression Funnies are wonderfully written novels set in the early days of the history of American comics; you don’t have to be a comics fan to enjoy them any more than you need to be an alienated high schooler to enjoy The Catcher in the Rye.

Discuss in the Media conference in Cafe Utne: cafe.utne.com