Fishiness as usual

Dan Perkins stirs up a bouillabaisse of unsavory suspects.

Dec 9, 1998 at 12:00 am

"This Modern World" comic strip appears in more than 100 newspapers, mostly in so-called alternative publications such as this one, but even a few dailies. Inked weekly by Dan Perkins under the pen name Tom Tomorrow, it features a host of supporting characters right out of clip-art books and 1950s advertisements, cheerfully mouthing the official platitudes of politicians and media pundits. They act as foils for the clear-headed but caustic Sparky, the snarky penguin wearing red wrap-around sunglasses, Blinky, "America's favorite very nice dog," and a host of other improbable characters including a talking stomach.

Editorial cartoons skewering the powerful comprise an old art form in American newspapers. This volume of 119 cartoons, Tomorrow's fourth collection, has a direct lineage to a tradition that began early in the 19th century. Although Perkins-Tomorrow scoffs at the adage that the pen is mightier than the sword -- saying that in other eras "someone like me would have been hauled off to the camps very quickly" -- he views his barbs as presenting information not available in a mainstream daily while being humorous at the same time.

Perkins expresses dismay when his type-heavy cartoons are attacked as "biased" or "partisan," particularly when they find their way into mainstream publications. "This Modern World" recently had a five-month trial run in U.S. News and World Report, before conservative publisher Mort Zuckerman canceled it following numerous letters of complaint about the strip. "The readers of the magazine," Perkins laughs, "are the type that are confused by Readers' Digest Clearinghouse Sweepstakes mailings. They just didn't get the concept."

Perkins' strip spends most of its energy eviscerating the Republicans and the far right, but his depictions of President Clinton as everything from a spineless worm to, most recently, an amorphous lava-lamp head, have some liberals shaking their heads. Perkins argues that he's doing the left a favor by identifying the president's politics as those of a moderate Republican. Still, sometime Metro Times columnist Norman Solomon described Perkins as "prematurely anti-Clinton."

Also, Perkins took major flak when Sparky opened up on Dilbert, the beloved symbol of beleaguered office workers in the strip drawn by Scott Adams. "I'm beginning to think you're providing a valuable service for all those idiotic bosses you parody," the penguin yells at Dilbert in the offending episode, "by giving their employees a safety valve that's just edgy enough to ring true, without inspiring anyone to actually question the fundamental assumptions of corporate America."

"This Modern World" is rarely censored, but ran into trouble after one strip lampooning media fascination with the presidential sex scandal used an 18th century engraving of an orgy as its graphics. The Oklahoma City Gazette crumpled before right-wing pressure and canceled the comic.

Perkins is currently working on a series of animated spots for "Saturday Night Live," the first of which is scheduled to appear Saturday (Dec. 12). However, he fears he may be in over his head. "Drawing an endless succession of panels for animation is tough," he laments. "I'm not used to spending three weeks thinking about how one character moves his mouth."

Despite a high level of activity, Perkins sees a long future ahead for Sparky and the gang. "You have to want to change the world," he says. "You have to have the idealism to stay engaged with the process while understanding that it's utterly corrupt."

Sparky couldn't have said it better.