Cartoonist Dan Perkins (a.k.a. “Tom Tomorrow”) has been heckling the powerful every week for the last decade, in outlets as diverse as the Village Voice and TV Guide. With its retro stylings and cast of inane, squeaky-clean optimists, Perkins’ cartoon, This Modern World, looks a lot like the ’50s. And for Perkins, our modern world does resemble that decade: self-satisfied, conservative, consumerist—in short, crying out for the satirist and his ironic penguin to crack through the chipper veneer.
Perkins has just released a collection of his work, When Penguins Attack!, covering his past two years of outrage and incredulity, from the Blue Dress through Campaign 2000. He spoke with Mother Jones from his home in Brooklyn, New York.
Mother Jones: Why did you choose the ’50s motif?
Dan Perkins: My cartoon started out as a satire on consumerism and technology, so a lot of the characters are based on old advertising images. I gradually segued into political cartooning and found that the style was still appropriate: Politics, like advertising, is about people selling you things you didn’t really want or need.
MJ: Does an election year pose particular challenges for a political cartoonist?
DP: It’s a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, it’s the one time every four years when everyone is paying attention to politics. But it’s also tedious. It should be wrapped up in about a month, not dragged out over the course of a year.
MJ: Your critics say you’re too wordy—that you might be better off as a columnist.
DP: It’s a funny thing. My cartoons appear in newspapers, which are full of words, but there’s something about having it in this little box that confounds people’s expectations. My biggest influence growing up was Mad magazine, which is a very text-heavy form of visual satire. I didn’t grow up wanting to draw donkeys and elephants with the names of politicians written across them.
MJ: From purely a cartoonist’s point of view, which candidate would you have rather been given to draw for four years?
DP: Bush is just like shooting fish in a barrel. It’s the Cartoonist Full Employment Act under Bush. I’d have chosen Gore, frankly—if only to spend the next four years pointing out his inevitable corporate and environmental sellouts to his inevitably disappointed supporters. That’s a bit more of a challenge.
MJ: Are you more cynical now than you were in ’92, the first race you covered?
DP: I was pretty cynical in ’92. Although I don’t think being a cynic is necessarily a negative thing. It’s a matter of seeing the world with clear and open eyes.
MJ: But you do get indignant.
DP: Yeah, there’s a lot of outrage. The expression of that outrage is good for my mental health. To keep doing this job week after week, I think you have to want to change the world, while understanding that you can’t. You have to hold both of those contradictory ideas simultaneously.
MJ: What’s the most controversial cartoon you’ve drawn?
DP: The one I did about the Lewinsky scandal that actually got me banned in Oklahoma City. I took a 17th century woodcut with these characters in an orgy, and I had them talking about campaign finance reform. The point was how the media wouldn’t pay attention unless news involved sex. But it was the sex part that almost got me prosecuted for obscenity. Honestly, if that cartoon was the most shocking thing you run across, then you don’t live in the same world I do. But I suppose they don’t in Oklahoma.
MJ: Do you have a double standard, attacking the right, but staying away from the left?
DP: I don’t think that what I’m doing is necessarily left versus right. What I’m addressing is top versus bottom. If I’m not spending a lot of time making fun of the more extreme elements of the Green Party, it’s because what I do is to critique power.
MJ: Do you agree that the left has a better sense of humor than the right?
DP: Good satire is about attacking the powerful, and that tends to be more the purview of the left. But I think maybe I’m being too kind here. Clinton has been in power and plenty of right-wingers have been attacking him—they’re just not funny. Maybe there’s something about the conservative mindset that confuses mean-spirited name-calling and insults with actual humor.