Dan Perkins, a.k.a. Tom Tomorrow, first unleashed his political cartoon “This Modern World” in 1980, and he has been at it ever since, creating weekly commentary on the topics of the times. With a new collection of his cartoons, Crazy Is the New Normal, coming out this week from IDW, Perkins was at New York Comic Con to talk about the cartooning life—and the surprising frustrations of this election year.
To put things into perspective, we spoke with Perkins on the Sunday of New York Comic Con, two days after the Washington Post ran an article about an “Access Hollywood” tape on which Trump bragged about forcibly kissing and grabbing women, and shortly before the second presidential debate. Perkins explained how this year is different from all other years, and he also talked about the risks and rewards of being a political cartoonist in these uncertain times.
CBR News: For a political cartoonist, is Donald Trump the gift that keeps on giving?
Dan Perkins: People say that a lot, but you can have too much of a bad thing. I had a really good cartoon written and done on Thursday, and then on Friday the news breaks of this terrible thing he said. Even though that’s an old tape, that’s what this campaign has been like for the past two months: You do something on a Tuesday, and it’s out of date by Wednesday. I’m a weekly cartoonist and I’m on a weekly schedule. And I have a family. I don’t want to work all weekend. I have other things to do on Sundays. I have felt shackled to my computer for the last couple of months.
Is this the hardest campaign you have ever covered?
I believe it is, and it’s also the most exhausting in the relentlessness of the news cycle, and the most anxiety inducing. [Trump] is the most terrible person up for this job since I have been covering politics. The idea that he could actually — it’s looking less likely now, knock on wood — but the idea that he could actually be in charge of America’s nuclear arsenal scares the hell out of me.
It seems like no matter what Trump does, his supporters find a way to justify it.
Up until [the release of the “Access Hollywood” tape] this weekend I thought that, but there is something apparently particularly horrifying to people about this brutal demeaning of women, this brutal objectification. I think because we are human beings, it’s having the audience, hearing this thing in his own voice, hearing the expression, the tone of voice in which he says it, people react to this on a human, visceral level, and it is just not acceptable to most people.
Do you see your job as trying to change people’s minds, or are you preaching to the converted?
You know, there’s that old Mother Jones quote, preaching to the converted is a fine and noble thing. There are churches across America that are full every Sunday morning. There is nothing wrong with shoring up people’s beliefs and then putting them into some sort of context or articulating them in a way that resonates.
I have had people, especially younger people, talk about how growing up on my comics actually changed their world view, so it does happen, but I think for the most part I do it as a conversation that I am having with my friends. We are discussing these things, and I am just kind of good at making them concise and funny.
I can remember a time when that tape would not have elicited such a visceral response.
I’m about the same age, and I’m not sure I agree. Yes, people will comment on the appearance of women, but not like this. I think it repulses people. I think it repulses women, who are half the population. It’s not the women saying, “Boys will be boys.”
Whatever it is, I think it is a cumulative effect of him being this awful, terrible person, and if this is the straw that breaks the camel’s back — I would have thought that straw would have been a year and two months ago, when he said that all Mexicans were rapists, so it takes everyone else a little while longer to catch up to the fact that there is not going to be a Trump pivot. He is not going to become a different person. I’m here until 2 PM, I live in New Haven and I have to book it to the Metro North to rewrite the cartoon for tomorrow morning. I have to watch the debate tonight, and I’m not entirely sure that I’m not going to have to rewrite the cartoon again, after the debate, because I think this is going to be one of the weirdest moments that we’ve seen.
So your schedule is you turn in the cartoon on Monday morning and it runs on Wednesdays?
It runs on Monday morning on Daily Kos, it runs on Tuesday on The Nation, and most of the alternative weeklies are distributed on Wednesdays, so depending on where it’s running, it kind of rolls out through the week.
How long does it take you to pull it together?
I’m my own researcher, I’m my own accountant and businessman and everything. I have to spend a day or two just reading everything and trying to think about what’s the angle, what’s the angle of attack that I want to write about, how do I make it funny, how do I make it interesting. Do I want to go high concept, like “The Incredible Trump,” or do I just want to do a straightforward, snarky complaining-about-things cartoon. I find writing a very painful experience, and I will wander around my studio and cleaning it up and doing the dishes, anything I can to avoid it. So there’s the procrastination element.
So it takes me a couple of days to write it, and then another day for the artwork. Let’s say two days, I can book it out in one day if I’m on a tight deadline. I prefer two days, but sometimes it stretches to three. In a normal political cycle, I’ll start working at the beginning of the week and take my time, hopefully have something by Thursday, kind of wrap it up, take the weekend off. This political cycle, I have tried to do that and then I wrap it up by Thursday and on Friday night something new happens, and I spend the weekend rewriting it or writing an entirely new cartoon.
It’s not like I’m tossing out single-image work. I’m doing these things that are sort of complicated and have a lot of moving parts, and making a lot of references within the panels. The panels will connect to each other to hopefully make a larger whole, but they will be making individual points within them, so it’s kind of like one of those puzzles where you move things around and there’s just one open square—that’s what writing is like for me. Getting everything in place.
This is one I’m rewriting now. It’s the Bizarro universe version of Trump, so it’s going over his tax problems — in the Bizarro universe he pays all his taxes. I already had a panel in place about his treatment of women, because of the Miss Universe thing, but I have to move that one so it is the punch, it is the kicker, it’s the most important panel. I have to rewrite it to be above this. The final closing panel is about Bizarro Hillary Clinton, but when I moved things around it sounded like I was calling Hillary Clinton an abuser of women, because of the way the captions were. So I have to rewrite that. This is all the craft of it, but the craft of it takes an enormous amount of thought to get right. I could probably spend less time doing it and nobody would notice, but I’m kind of a borderline OCD perfectionist about these things.
Do you make your living from this?
I do, and I have been for a very long time.
Because of syndication and sales?
Because of syndication. I adapt. The world keeps changing and I keep adapting. I used to run in a lot more newspapers and they started going out of business and dropping comics, and there was a time when no one online wanted to pay for cartoons. That hopefully is changing, and I’ve got several clients online that are paying me. I have a direct-mail subscription e-mail list, and that brings in money. So I’m actually making a very healthy living right now, but my tongue-in-cheek advice to young cartoonists is marry someone with a steady job. My wife is an academic; she has tenure. I would be able to support myself no matter what at this point, but there was a period in the late aughts when I was losing a lot of papers, and every paper I lost hit me like some cold intimation of mortality. It was completely brutal. And at a certain point, my wife got tenure and I came to terms with the fact that I had a safety net that people would kill for, and I need to not be so anxious all the time and give myself the freedom to not worry about the future as much as I was doing. Because if you choose to be a freelance alt-weekly left-wing cartoonist, I think you can’t complain if you don’t have job security. I’ve done this [for] 26 years and I’ve managed to have a decent middle-class life, so I can’t complain.
You’ve seen a lot of social change over the years.
I was saying yesterday on the one hand, it will crush your spirit, the things that don’t seem to change. I grew up in the South and the Midwest, and the new megaphone that all the racists have on Twitter, the seeming resurgence of something that’s probably actually been there all along, that is exhausting. You grow up on science fiction and whatever, and you have this general feeling that you are going to make it to the 21st century and people are going to be enlightened and advanced.
Growing up in the ’60s, too, we just thought things were getting better.
I was a kid in the ’60s, but yeah. I grew up in a college town in those days so it was certainly in the air. So there’s something really thoroughly demoralizing about all this Pepe the Frog crap happening on Twitter. On the other hand, if you had told me when I was starting out that marriage equality would happen within my lifetime—because when the dominoes started falling it was amazing how quickly this happened—I would not have believed this. It would not have seemed possible to me that people’s attitudes would have changed so quickly. Or even the fact that marijuana decriminalization and marijuana legalization—way too many lives have been ruined in the drug war for no good reason. If you had told me 25 years ago that we would have gay marriage and legal weed, I’d be like, “What are you smoking?”
So things do change, and I’m like a drop of water in the torrent that is trying to push that change. Some people are very important—Martin Luther King, someone like that—and then the rest of us are just doing our little tiny thing that we’ve got, sort of helping to push in a joint effort, and I feel like that’s what I’m doing. I’m there working on my own, but I feel like I’m part of everyone that is trying to push society along. That is my small but I think not insignificant contribution to things.
Are you worried about what happens after the election?
Well, if Trump wins, it will be horrifying. I think he’ll probably lose, and there’s a lot of talk about upheaval and violence. There was also a lot of talk about the RNC being a free fire zone with all the open-carry people in Cleveland, and none of that happened. A lot of people talk big and don’t necessarily [do anything]. I don’t think society is going to collapse.
And then Hillary Clinton will be president. I haven’t really had time to write about Hillary Clinton because the Trump thing, the Trump monster, has been so overwhelming, but I have many areas of disagreement with Hillary Clinton, just as I have many areas of disagreement with Barack Obama. And then I move into a different phase of this cycle where I’m writing about those things.
When I move into that phase, people are going to be mad at me because I’m not being a team player, but it’s what I write about, it’s what I do. I am opposed to the surveillance state, I am opposed to the drone wars. I write about these things, and people don’t like the implicit criticism of Obama, but I think he’s wrong about these things. I think Edward Snowden is a hero who deserves a full pardon.
I agree. Actually, you and I think very much alike.
You are who my cartoons are for. I started out writing these things because there weren’t a lot of things that spoke to me exactly in the way that you are talking about, so I started writing the cartoons I wanted to read. So you’re my audience.
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