DAN PERKINS, like his friend Eddie Vedder, has been practicing his brand of “alternative” craft in a certain spotlight since the early ‘90s. Which means that when the awards come around now at midcareer — be they a Herblock Prize or a Grammy — the acknowledgement is especially sweet.
“This is a pretty good moment for something like this to come along — for me personally, and I hope for alt-weekly cartoons in general,” Perkins — who goes by the nom-de-toon Tom Tomorrow as creator of the alt-comic “This Modern World” — says of the Herblock. “Recognition like this has been a long time coming.”
Tonight at 7 at the Library of Congress’s Jefferson Building, Perkins will pick up his Prize as part of a ceremony that will include a lecture by newswoman Gwen Ifill.
In his Herblock Prize & Lecture speech tonight, Perkins says he plans to talk about “the somewhat different tradition of alt-weekly cartooning, and some of the challenges political cartoonists are facing in the digital era.”
Unlike the Pulitzers, which haven’t bestowed a Prize to an alt-cartoonist since the ‘80s (Jules Feiffer), the Herblock is honoring an “altie” for the second straight year — after Bors last year.
Comic Riffs caught up with Perkins to talk about the politics of awards; the rewards of satirizing politics — and whether his talk tonight should include a prop like, say, an empty chair:
MC: Congrats on the Herblock Prize. Any new thoughts on the win, now that you’ve had time to reflect on it? Do you see it as affirmation for your decades of devotion and brilliance?
TT: You don’t enter the various contests every year without some small hope that you might actually win sometime — but it’s an overwhelming moment when you really do. I’ve gotten a little more accustomed to the idea now, but it still feels kind of surreal. And while I’m gonna modestly slide by the bit about my alleged brilliance, I will say this is a pretty good moment for something like this to come along — for me personally, and I hope for alt-weekly cartoons in general. Recognition like this has been a long time coming.
[SEE: You can view Perkins’s winning portfolio right HERE.]
MC: So have you written your Herblock speech yet? I know at this time last year, Matt Bors was trying to zero on certain themes and [thoughts on] the industry. What things you might emphasize?
TT: I was thinking I’d just ad-lib it. I’ve got this idea for a routine where I yell at an empty chair. But I don’t want to plan it out too much ahead of time. You lose the spontaneity, you know?
Okay, that’s a joke, in case anybody at the Herblock Foundation is reading this, and wondering if it’s too late to rescind the prize. Yes, actually I’ve been working on the speech off and on for the past month or so. Fortunately, the winner’s speech is not expected to carry the evening — there’s a keynote address, which this year will be given by Gwen Ifill. I’ve got 10 minutes or so; I plan to talk a bit about Herblock’s legacy, and the somewhat different tradition of alt-weekly cartooning, and some of the challenges political cartoonists are facing in the digital era. And then I’m gonna yell at a chair.
[2012 HERBLOCK PRIZE CEREMONY: Garry Trudeau and Matt Bors, masters of poignant comic timing]
MC: Speaking of alties and cartooning prizes, the Pulitzers went more traditional [and not with alt-weekly cartooning] with its [finalist and winner] picks this month. Any reactions?
TT: Well first and foremost, I congratulate the honorees, of course. But beyond that, I do hope that one year the Pulitizer committee will see fit to award the prize to somebody from the alt-weekly world. Bors and [Ted] Rall have been finalists, but the prize hasn’t gone to an altweekly cartoonist since Jules Feiffer won in 1986. I suspect there’s a sense that this kind of cartooning somehow isn’t legitimate, because it doesn’t follow the standard template. But alt-weekly cartooning has been around a long time — 50 years, if you date it back to Feiffer. I’ve been making a living as a cartoonist since 1991. We’re a little past the point of being crazy young upstarts. It’s an established genre. And this brings us back to the Herblock. It’s such a huge deal for an established prize like this to acknowledge the “alts” two years running. I hope that opens up possibilities for everybody.
MC: Do you see your Herblock honor as rewarding solely your work in 2012, or also as recognition for your entire career? And do you view your career as having a certain arc or through-line?
TT: Well, I did think my 2012 portfolio was pretty strong, and from what I’ve heard, the judges agreed. Beyond that, I couldn’t really say. As for the career arc, I rarely get enough breathing room to think about the larger picture — I’m usually just focused on meeting the next deadline. To paraphrase John Lennon, the career is what happened while I was making other plans.
MC: The world for altie cartoonists has, as we’ve touched on before, changed so profoundly over the past couple of decades — both for good and ill. What has most struck you about these changes — and what aspects are you hopeful about?
TT: Well, let’s just say that if a high-school student were to come to me, seeking advice about a career in the exciting field of alternative political cartooning, I might gently suggest that they explore other life options. Dressing up as Sesame Street characters in Times Square, maybe.
Jen Sorensen [the 2012 Herblock Prize finalist] likens us to bamboo-eating pandas, who need a specific ecosystem to thrive. The alt-weeklies provided that ecosystem for a long time, and while reports of that industry’s death are greatly exaggerated, it’s a less hospitable environment than it once was.
And unfortunately, the big online news and opinion sites have not been tripping over one another in their haste to fill the void, with a few exceptions — Daily Kos, in particular. The good news about the Internet is, you can reach out to the audience directly — for instance, Ruben Bolling and I have both had some success with the paid subscriber lists we each started up in the past year. The bad news is that everyone else is reaching out directly, as well — writers, artists, filmmakers, musicians. I’m not sure how sustainable that is. Sooner or later, people are going to get Kickstarter fatigue.
MC: Things has changed so much over that time, of course, in publishing, too. Can you speak to your biggest publishing challenges past and present? And what, for you, is particularly good about working with TopatoCo?
TT: I’ve been publishing collections of my weekly strip every couple of years since 1991, but I’m starting to think that the Web may have killed the traditional cartoon compilation, or at least severely wounded it. It was always a challenge to convince people to buy something they’ve already read, but that’s an especially hard sell when they can just
go click through your archive. But I still like publishing books. It was never really about the money — my advances were always laughably paltry. I just like having the physical record of my work as a thing that exists in the world.
But I had some bad experiences with publishers over the past couple years, and was interested in exploring a different model. So I approached TopatoCo, which is this company founded by webcartoonists who were trying to figure out their own ways to support themselves as artists. I published my newest book through them, and they’ve been open to all kinds of other ridiculous ideas — we even put out a plush Sparky last year, which is something I’ve joked about many times, but never expected to actually do.
MC: Quite a few of the latest generation of alt cartoonists cite you as an influence and early source of hope. How does that feel, and what cartoonists especially perhaps make you hopeful about the altie future?
TT: Well, I can only offer my most heartfelt apologies for leading them astray. No, of course, it’s flattering to think that you might have had some impact on people’s lives and art. As for the younger group, clearly Bors, Sorensen and [Brian] McFadden are all brilliant cartoonists, at the top of their game. Apart from the economic questions, this is a golden age for people who love these kind of cartoons. There are amazing people working very hard each week to bring you your weekly dose of text-heavy cartooning. Which reminds me of something I was talking about with Bors recently, and which ties into one of your earlier questions — part of the reason none of us have won the Pulitzer probably has something to do with the fact that we use words and pictures in sequential panels, which is not what the Pulitzer judges have been trained to expect from an editorial cartoon. But mainstream editorial cartooning is actually the outlier — words and pictures combined in sequential form is pretty much the definition of any other genre of printed comics.
MC: Related to that: Were you inspired early in your career or life by any particular cartoonists?
TT: Of course! Comics have been a lifelong passion. When I was a kid, “Peanuts” was culturally ubiquitous and [Charles] Schulz was at his creative peak, and I think probably inspired my love affair with the art form.
I grew up on Mad magazine, which in retrospect had exactly the impact on my impressionable young mind that adults worried it would. I was the living cliche of the kid sitting in the back of the classroom drawing, except what I was drawing — and writing — were these long, involved, Mad magazine-style movie satires. Garry Trudeau was a huge influence, as was Bill Griffith, and the underground comix of the ‘60s — which I discovered a decade or so after the fact. And then as a young adult, there were the alt-weekly cartoonists who trailblazed that path ahead of me — Feiffer, and Stamaty and especially Matt Groening. Even now, when every human being on the planet can quote some line or another from “The Simpsons,” I still think of Matt first and foremost as the genius artist behind “Life in Hell.”
MC: Working as an editor has its own challenges. What is particularly gratifying or aggravating about editing for the Daily Kos?
TT: Well, “editor” suggests that I’m actually, you know, “editing”, which is really not the case. “Curator” is probably more accurate, or maybe these days, just “coordinator.” I helped Markos Moulitsas develop the comics section, but it’s fairly self-regulating these days. Everybody’s got their regular time slot, and my job is mostly making sure they remember to post their cartoons.
The most gratifying thing was to create an entirely new space for comics online, and to give a bunch of amazing artists a new platform and a new audience. There’s nothing too aggravating about it, except when somebody forgets to post on time and I can’t get ahold of them. Cartoonists! it’s like herding cats sometimes.
MC: Anything I should have asked that I haven’t?
TT: Look, those rumors about the accounts in the Cayman Islands are lies spread by my detractors, and you should be ashamed of yourself for even bringing them up. Wait, what?
[The ‘Riffs Interview: Tom Tomorrow Is High on Drawing for Kids & Rock Stars. The Future of Alt-Cartoons, Not So Much.]