The 'Riffs Interview: Tom Tomorrow Is High on Drawing for Kids & Rock Stars. The Future of Alt-Cartoons, Not So Much.
TOM TOMORROW calls it his "up and down" year, and so far, has it ever been: At the beginning of '09, his alt-political cartoon feature "This Modern World" was bleeding newspaper clients; by summer, though, he was toasting his good fortune with a rock-star client and friend.
Tom Tomorrow is the nom-de-toon of 48-year-old bicoastal artist Dan Perkins, whose oft-controversial liberal comic has been a fixture in nearly 100 alt-weeklies -- from SF Weekly to the Village Voice to the L.A. Reader -- for nearly two decades. And for much of that time, Perkins says he did his best to put his income eggs in many baskets. But that was before Village Voice Media grew its chain of 16 alternative newspapers; when the publisher suspended all syndicated cartoons early this year, Perkins lost 12 newspaper clients.
Fortunately, that's when Pearl Jam frontman Eddie Vedder -- whom Perkins befriended at a Ralph Nader rally in 2000 -- came a-callin', asking the artist whether he'd work on album-cover ideas for the Seattle band's fall release. "Backspacer" was released last month, adorned by his art; the Village Voice restored his comic (even if a few clients haven't returned); and he published his five-year passion project of a children's book, "The Very Silly Mayor." We recently caught up with Perkins by phone.
MICHAEL CAVNA: How'd the Pearl Jam album cover come about?
TOM TOMORROW: I heard from Eddie after I lost the Village Voice Media papers. This very unmistakable baritone calls. ... He says: "Try your hand at a cover." By the way, a New York Times article said I called Eddie asking him for work. People said to me: "Big, brass [ones], balls, you've got -- calling Eddie for work." But to set the record straight: The only thing I ever asked him for is a couple of concert tickets.
MC: So were you a longtime Pearl Jam fan when you met Eddie?
TT: No, I just totally missed it, the whole Seattle scene. I knew it was out there, but I wasn't seeking out new music at that time.
MC: Were there any sticking points, creatively? How was the process?
TT: There was nothing but good things. There never were any real sticking points, Never a moment of conflict. ... And when I went out to Seattle for a week, I got a private Pearl Jam concert every day. ... Then, on the last night, Eddie invited me over to his house, we listened to the album and got [hammered].
MC: How's the alt-cartoon landscape look from your vantage point these days?
TT: There's way more competition for eyeballs. Now we're not just competing with other cartoonists -- we're competing with every single person who has one clever idea to put up in a YouTube video of a singing cat. Cartoonists are now competing with water-skiing squirrels.
MC: Do merchandising and book sales boost your bottom line much?
TT: Political cartoonists don't tend to have good merchandising. [Laughs] ..... If I had to live off even my books, I'd have to work at Wal-Mart.
MC: So the Internet: friend or foe?
TT: The rise of the left-wing blogosphere has basically rendered a lot of what I used to do completely irrelevant -- that whole facet of: "Look at this! Why isn't anyone in the media paying attention to this?!"
MC: You've had quite a long saga with your children's book. You say a big publisher backed out before you found a small publisher. Any lesson learned?
TT: It's been a very rewarding experience to work with people [at a small publisher]. who care about whether they sell books ..... My fundamental piece of advice for beginning cartoonists, about major publishers: The people that you're working with in publishing are not there to sell books; they're there to look like they're selling books-- so they appear to have tried to sell books.
MC: As a liberal cartoonist, do you miss Bush?
TT: No. Everyone was sick of Bush -- for the last year and a half, they just wanted to be done with it. ... I'm finding the current administration much more revitalizing, frankly, because ... we have this crazy conservative wing growing in prominence. I'm in disbelief at their sheer craziness.
MC: So do how do you feel at this point in your career?
TT: I've basically achieved everything I set out to achieve. Maybe it's just that I had too small a vision. ... In terms of verbose political cartoons, I've taken taken that ride about as far as I could [have planned]. I genuinely enjoy the process of seeing how it goes.
MC: And how's it look for the generation of cartoonists following you?
TT: I feel like, for the third generation -- for people like Jen Sorensen and Matt Bors -- I feel like they were born into a dying dystopian world of a science-fiction novel. I feel horrible for them. They're all incredibly talented. I worry that there may not be an outlet for their talent -- that they will have to sublimate it into other things.
| October 2, 2009; 10:10 AM ET
Categories: Interviews With Cartoonists
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