Tomorrow Never Knows

by Steve Rhodes

Mediafile December/January 1992/1993

An October 25 New York Times article noted the caution blunting the pens of today's political cartoonists and described them as absurdly gentle, non-threatening, and even cute. Indeed the story's plug on the front of the Arts & Leisure section read "For political cartoonists, the point now is not to draw blood." Ironically, to find a truly controversial cartoon that same Sunday, Bay Area readers needed to look no further than theExaminer's Image magazine which featured This Modern World dissecting the relationship between corporate damage control and its media coverage. While caution may have blunted the pen of some cartoonists, it hasn't blunted the Toshiba photocopier wielded by Dan Perkins who creates This Modern World under the name Tom Tomorrow.

First published in Processed World, a magazine about the information age from the point of view of office workers (which has a tradition of contributors taking pen names to protect them from employer retribution), This Modern World was conceived as a photocopy collage tour through consumer culture and the drudgeries of work. Since then, Perkins has self syndicated his trip through the absurdities of modern day life to over 60 papers across the country in such publications as Z Magazine, Extra!, and Utne Reader. His early work is reprinted in Bad Attitude: The Processed Word Anthology and some of it is also in Perkins' first collection Greetings From This Modern World (St. Martin's Press, 1992 $7.95) Bay Area fans can find his strip on Tuesday's op-ed page in the Examiner (It now runs in the Bay Guardian).

Perkins, who lives in San Francisco's Sunset district said he "deliberately tried to avoid the comic book ghetto. I looked at what Matt Groening & Lynda Barry were doing [publishing their strips in alternative weeklies] and thought that's the way you do it." Soon after, This Modern World began appearing in the San Diego Reader and other alternative publications. It was only later that it was picked up locally by SF Weekly where it would run for a year before the Examiner offered Perkins a chance to run This Modern World in a major metro daily in the fall of 1991.

As the strip began to reach a wider audience, it shifted from a focus on consumerism to the media and politics. Perkins says this crystallized during the Gulf War. "This was about the time my strip began running in San Francisco," he says. "Up to then, readers were sort of an abstract concept. Suddenly, I realized that people were actually reading what I was doing." Angered by local coverage of a massive anti-war demonstration which was "balanced" by equal time for fifteen pro-war protestors, Perkins realized that he could do more than "yell at a voice mail machine" at the TV station: He could do a strip on the coverage (It is found on pg. 53 of Greetings From This Modern World).

Editorial page editor James Finefrock, explains that the Examiner decided to pick up the irreverant strip because "we thought it was different from anything being run in a major metropolitan paper." It was after the strip began appearing in the Examiner that Perkins introduced the "heartwarming and lovable" SparkyTM to his readers. The addition of this "cute" character was not done to "increase the extremely low merchandising potential of this strip," but rather to allow a more direct voice than those of Bob, Betty and the other clip art inhabitants of This Modern World. SparkyTM The Wonder Penguin made his debut in the Examiner (a paper owned by Bush supporter William Hearst) by proclaiming "George Bush is a wanker and should be impeached" at a time when Bush was still soaring high in public opinion surveys.

When Sparky's first appeared in Image, he noted that because so many "progressives" didn't bother to vote, "the Mayor of San Francisco was chosen by the kind of people who enjoy Parade magazine!" Parade had just been picked up by the Sunday paper. Perkins says, "I wanted to let them know what they were getting into."

Finefrock, for one, appreciate's the self-reflexive commentary This Modern World brings to the Examiner. "I think people are surprised to see it in the paper," he says. "And I think they are delighted, that it runs across the grain of institutions and sometimes even takes on the media." David Talbot, Perkins' editor at Image, says "people either love it or hate it, though the reaction tends to be more positive - after all, this is the Bay Area."

While cartoonist Pat Oliphant told theTimes, "We're slowed by the lack of insight of our readers," Perkins holds his audience in higher regard. To the editors who complain he uses too many words in his strip, he replies, "I assume people who read the newspaper are readers, and I don't want to insult their intelligence." NY Times readers were able to see Perkin's work when it appeared on the op-ed page along with Bill Griffith, Nicole Hollander and other cartoonists the day after the 1992 election. Using a fair number of words, he skewered the notion that politicians' appearances on Larry King Live enhanced our democratic debate.

Unfortunately, This Modern World doesn't have a regular home in New York City, the media capital of the world. Although Perkins says only about twenty percent of the strips focus on the media, the ones that do contain some of the most insightful and hilarious media criticism in the country. Perhaps when it gets the Pulitzer it deserves, it will find a place in the Big Apple and other media outlets that report on the events that inspire the extremely modern world of Dan Perkins.

[Photo of Dan Perkins in front of giant Tom Tomorrow strips at 1992 Lallaplaooza and two Tom Tomorrow cartoons not shown. When I get access to a scanner, they will be added]

Steve Rhodes is a member of the Paper Tiger TV West video collective and has been an intern at the Center For Investigative Reporting. His media criticism has appeared in Extra!, the Christian Science Monitor and other publications.

Copyright 1992 Steve Rhodes