A ‘Modern World’ Full of Controversy
If the job of a political cartoonist is to make enemies and provoke outrage, Dan Perkins had a banner year in ’98. In the space of four months, his comic strip “This Modern World” was dropped by two publications (including U.S. News & World Report) and passed over by another after ruffling the feathers of publishers and readers alike.
But don’t expect to see Perkins in the unemployment line any time soon. Despite his knack for biting the hand that feeds, he is doing just fine, thank you. His syndicated strip -- credited to his alter ego, Tom Tomorrow -- appears weekly in the Village Voice and more than 100 other alternative papers; he has a development deal with “Saturday Night Live” and the fourth collection of his work has hit the bookstores.
It may not reach the kind of mass audience enjoyed by other strips, but “This Modern World” (which appeared in the Los Angeles Reader for years until the paper was bought out by New Times in 1996) has gained a reputation as one of the most clever and incisive political cartoons in the country. With a novel ‘50s-style artistic conceit and an intrepid penguin named Sparky, Perkins gleefully skewers the hypocrisies of late 20th century society, attacking everything from corporate duplicity to political deception to media doublespeak.
“He is able to use the actual words and actions of people but show them for the complete absurdity that they are,” says Art Winslow, literary editor of the Nation, which has run many of Perkins’ strips over the years.
The cartoonist’s ironic deconstruction of American culture earned him the coveted Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award in ’98 and has drawn accolades from the likes of Art Spiegelman, Matt Groening and Kurt Vonnegut Jr., who has trumpeted Tom Tomorrow as “the wry voice of American common sense, humor and decency.” But despite his devoted following and well-credentialed fans, Perkins’ notoriety has left him wary.
“I have a deeply ambivalent relationship with mainstream ‘successes,’ ” he said recently, on the phone from San Francisco, where he was moderating a book festival panel on press censorship and promoting his latest volume, “Penguin Soup for the Soul” (St. Martin’s).
“They say they want something edgy, so they pluck me out and use me for a while, but then they say, ‘Oh, could you not be so edgy?’ and then we run into trouble and it all sort of falls apart.”
In the case of U.S. News & World Report, “edgy” included a strip--the very first one that Perkins delivered to the magazine--satirizing “The McLaughlin Group,” a current-affairs TV show that regularly features none other than U.S. News Publisher Mort Zuckerman. The end was in sight right from the start: The “McLaughlin” strip was bumped, and six months later so was “This Modern World.”
“It was decided that we wouldn’t run any more of [Perkins’] work because it wasn’t quite the right fit for the magazine,” said Lee Rainie, U.S. News’ managing editor at the time (who said he wasn’t involved in the decision).
“The readers of U.S. News are the sort of people who get confused by Publisher’s Clearinghouse sweepstakes letters, and they had no idea what to make of my cartoon,” Perkins remarked. “They wrote in all these letters complaining that I was biased, as if a political cartoon should be anything but one man’s biases and opinions. That’s the whole point of it.”
Around the same time as the U.S. News debacle, “This Modern World” was considered for Steven Brill’s new media watchdog publication, the much-ballyhooed Brill’s Content. It appeared that the unsparing critiques of “This Modern World” might have found a home in the mainstream after all. But according to Perkins, when he submitted a sample strip linking media ownership to journalistic bias, Brill balked.
"[An editor at the publication] called and said, ‘Steve doesn’t like it, and we’re just not going to run it,’ ” Perkins said. Brill denies that the content of Perkins’ cartoons had anything to do with the decision. “I looked at him and two or three others and just decided that at the start, we should not run cartoons,” Brill said.
In any case, these incidents pale in comparison with the firestorm of controversy Perkins ignited in Oklahoma City when one of his strips ran in an alternative weekly, the Oklahoma Gazette. The cartoon (which appeared in dozens of papers around the country) featured a gaggle of nude figures, reproduced from a 19th century drawing, engaging in an orgy while chastising the media for covering sex scandals at the expense of weightier issues.
Not surprisingly, the strip collided with Bible Belt sensibilities, raising the ire of many Oklahoma Gazette readers, including the leaders of a fundamentalist Christian group. Before long, an obscenity complaint had been filed with the police, and the paper’s publisher, who also runs a law firm, had lost a key contract with the local school district. Once again, “This Modern World” got the ax.
Spokesmen for the Gazette could not be reached for comment.
While acknowledging that the offending strip “pushed the envelope,” Perkins said he has had no regrets. For him, the lesson is clear.
“If you’re that vulnerable,” he said, “especially in a conservative town like Oklahoma City, you shouldn’t be publishing” an alternative weekly. “I just think you should be in another line of work, because it is the job of a weekly paper to stir up trouble.”
Over the last 15 years, Perkins, 37, has stirred up his share of trouble. When it began, “This Modern World” primarily lampooned the excesses and contradictions of American consumer culture. Eventually, the strip became more political, reflecting its creator’s concerns about corporate domination and the rightward drift of the nation.
Perkins, now based in New York after many years in San Francisco, traces his liberal world view to historical events in his youth, including Watergate and Vietnam and the antiwar protests and riots he witnessed in the Midwestern college town where he spent part of his childhood.
“I just assumed that everyone would have my politics,” he said. “I think that growing up and finding out that other people had lived through these events and come to different conclusions is what led to the cartoon.”
He added, with a laugh: “It’s kind of my ongoing therapy to deal with this disillusionment.”
While Perkins clearly falls on the left side of the political divide, he’s not an ideologue. Indeed, “we like the way he can swing both ways on a given issue,” said Doug Simmons, the Village Voice’s managing editor, citing Perkins’ recent strips on the Clinton scandal. “He throws his punches in both directions.”
Perkins’ equal-opportunity satire is heightened by his drawing style, which uses iconic images from a supposedly more innocent era in American life to underscore the rampant cynicism and manipulation that mark late-'90s politics and culture.
The dissonance between content and image in his work represents what the cartoonist calls a subversive attempt to lure unsuspecting viewers: “It’s a black widow spider dressed up as a cute little ladybug. It sort of sucks you in.”
“This Modern World” is further distinguished by the loquaciousness of its characters. Reading a Tom Tomorrow strip may not be the same as reading a novel, but it may be the closest thing the cartoon world has to offer. Clearly, Perkins is fond of language and is sensitive to any suggestion that he uses too much of it.
“When I go to these conferences of mainstream daily political cartoonists, they all want to give me fatherly advice, which is effectively that I use too many words in my cartoons. And it drives me nuts,” he said, “because they have this really myopic view of cartooning. Comic art is a very, very wide field of endeavor, and it has a very long and varied history, and they see their own sort of banal, single-image, single-word cartoon as being the only real and true political cartoon.”
He also is bothered by lightweight comic strips that parade as serious news analysis. A few years ago, he vented his displeasure by poking fun in “This Modern World” at one of the most popular of what he considers “gag cartoons”: “Dilbert.” Though fond of the strip’s absurdist humor, Perkins was irritated that “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams was being depicted as a champion of the working stiff.
“The critique of corporate culture in ‘Dilbert’ was essentially that bosses are stupid and cubicles are small, and that was about as far as it went,” Perkins said, adding with deadpan earnestness, “I’ve worked in cubicles, and he’s absolutely right: Cubicles are small, bosses are stupid.
“That’s fine,” he continued. “There’s nothing wrong with that. But it’s not a radical critique; it’s Dagwood Bumstead updated for the ‘90s. And the only reason I have a problem with that is if you allow Bill Clinton to be defined by the likes of Rush Limbaugh as the absolute radical far left, then anyone who actually is to the left of Bill Clinton is effectively marginalized and cut out of the debate entirely.”
Being part of the debate is clearly important to Perkins. Despite the dark humor and withering irony that characterize his work, he believes that the issues he takes on are no laughing matter.
“I think it’s important for any political cartoonist to want to change the world,” he said, “or else you should just be in another line of work. But at the same time that you want to change the world, you have to understand that there’s no way in hell that you’re going to, and somehow you have to be able to balance these two completely conflicting notions.”
The activist part of Perkins no doubt would like to reach a broader audience, on the off chance that his cartoon might, in fact, hasten the adoption of campaign finance reform or tilt the scales toward universal health coverage. But after his experiences last year, Perkins seems content to remain, as his PR people put it, the most famous cartoonist you’ve never heard of.
“To me, the big time is running in all these little weekly papers and slowly but surely building up a really steady and loyal audience.
“I’m not coming from the top down, I’m not in whatever big-time publication everyone reads and everyone sees. I sort of seep up from the underground like a polluted water table.”