At least far from the reality that many Americans recognized before recent months and years of unrest and protest, of a presidential impeachment and a pandemic — the hyperdrive, Trump-era shift that has left many satirists struggling to keep up.
The two books of collected strips are “Life in the Stupidverse,” by “This Modern World” creator Tom Tomorrow, and “Into the Trumpverse: The Complete Tom the Dancing Bug, 2016-2019,” by Ruben Bolling. As the titles suggest, the two humorists (Pulitzer Prize finalists both) build cohesive worldviews with their weekly comics — twisted takes best viewed through the bent lens of irony.
Tomorrow (the nom de toon of Dan Perkins) began lampooning politics three decades ago, right before the rise of the Internet, when news cycles had a much slower circadian rhythm. It can seem like a distant time when a sharp alt-weekly comic felt daring and rare set against a landscape free of social media, “The Daily Show” and Fox News.
“This Modern World” rose nearly simultaneously with the Onion in the 1990s, both parodying the official-sounding language of authority as wielded by news outlets and politicians. But Tomorrow added a visual wink with characters that resembled stylish Cold War clip art — the kind of unflappable talking heads who could make wild science fiction sound coolly plausible.
But does such a Rod Serling delivery ring quite as ironic when the real world feels like a “Twilight Zone” episode? The challenges are many. As Tomorrow says in his foreword, “Satire in the age of Trump is exhausting.”
“Satire is the art of taking something to an absurd extreme in order to highlight the problems of the current movement,” writes Tomorrow, emphasizing the humorist’s tool of hyperbole. “The thing is, we are living in the absurd extreme. I try my best, but it’s impossible to come up with something so ludicrous that Trump won’t actually end up doing it in reality, often before anyone reads the cartoon.”
So what’s a liberal cartoonist to do? To send up Trump, Tomorrow pulls from a pretty adaptable tool kit, but one of his most consistent approaches is to deploy the president’s own words, sometimes verbatim. That can have the effect of Trump impersonator Sarah Cooper delivering a cartoon TikTok; the humor largely comes from attaching Trump’s utterances to wry new visuals.
Another go-to Tomorrow move is to portray the president as silly metaphoric characters, including the Unbelievable Trump (a raging, Incredible Hulk-like leader with a short fuse and a tangerine torso); Donald J. Trump, Detective-in-Chief (lackeys kiss up to his deductive logic); and the Unbelievable Baby-Man (a diapered Trump, bitten “by a radioactive toddler,” who has the temperament of a 2-year-old).
Tomorrow’s other targets include MAGA fans, Justice Brett Kavanaugh apologists and mealy-mouthed members of the press, as well as news anchors who spout that “coronavirus is no worse than the flu.” But perhaps his most nakedly despairing strip is one in which his mock Action McNews Network anchor, noting caged immigrants and Trump’s view of North Korea, finally says: “This just in: Satire is officially pointless.”
Like Tomorrow, Bolling (the nom de toon of Ken Fisher) can mine laughs from creating bizarro parallel universes that highlight real-world cons and conflicts. Bolling can be as pointedly deadpan as Tomorrow, but often his “Tom the Dancing Bug” strips rely on spoofs of pop-culture works. The trick is not only in choosing the apt vehicle to deliver commentary but also in deftly building up the MAD-esque sendup to a satisfying payoff.
“Tom the Dancing Bug” has grown markedly more political in the Trump era, with such spoofs as “Finding Dory: The Republican Story” (the Great Coral Reef is bleached by global warming); “Angrier Things” (Fox News is the Upside Down a la “Stranger Things”); and “Donald J. Trump: The Manchurian Candidate” (the president agreeably becomes a Russian agent). But Bolling’s breakout running sendup has been the popular “Donald and John” (nodding to “Calvin and Hobbes”), in which a boy presidential candidate has an imaginary friend, John Miller, who acts as his publicist.
In contrast to Tomorrow, Bolling draws in a more whimsical style, giving his strips a certain playfulness — like a warm pet that leaps and rolls over before delivering a satiric bite.
Trump supporters might not find any lines that punch here. But that’s not the point. Tomorrow and Bolling are clearly playing to the other side of the aisle.