- Posted by Johanna on February 20, 2006 at 5:39 pm
- Category: Graphic Novel Reviews
- CREDITS: by Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)
- PUBLISHER: St. Martin's Griffin; $9.95 US
These strips parody consumerism, politics, and media in an insightful, funny way. Even when the events in the older ones are dated, the point behind them still rings true. Although a corporation’s economic strategies for pretending there’s no recession might change, for example, the fact that they attempt to manipulate the public and the government doesn’t.
This Modern World starts off satirizing our love of technology, even when it becomes ridiculous or incredibly intrusive, then quickly moves into taking on consumerism, the military, and the media, especially the ridiculousness of taking advice from famous people simply because they’re famous. As time went on, the cannon becomes a bullet as points become more subtle and more based in specific situations. (In an early piece, the joke is simply George Bush saying “Lies, lies, lies.”)
Although overtly political, Perkins takes on targets regardless of their affiliations; his reactions are based on actions, not labels. The names may change but the same interests are behind the scenes, and he points them out no matter if the President is Bush or Clinton. One of his main themes is class warfare, whether it’s the rise of temp jobs while corporations downsize, the unbalanced taxing of the rich and the poor, or generous corporate welfare in contrast to restrictive welfare reform policies.
He’s fond of letting politicians and political commentators hang themselves on their own quotes and of pointing out manipulation and misuse of statistics. He presents the bizarre behavior of crowds in fresh ways, whether they’re Rush Limbaugh dittoheads (remember them?), WIRED’s target audience, OJ Simpson watchers, or stock market investors.
The reader moving through the volumes gets an overview of politics over the last decade, including the Gulf War, George Bush, health care reform, Bill Clinton, the rise of information technology, Newt Gingrich, the booming stock market, Monica Lewinsky, and school shootings. Plus there’s the ever-popular government hypocrisy, lazy journalists, overwhelming consumerism, uninformed non-voters, and racism.
The look of the strip is based on Fifties-style character clip art assembled in a collage effect. Clipped heads of suburbanites appear against patterned backgrounds, and at times images are used just because they’re odd. Originally a single panel, the comic now most often appears as a rectangular grid, usually made up of four panels.
Newer cartoons involve more action; a greater variety of images, including more caricatures of real-life figures; and more textures and background shades. There’s also more use of media parodies, including Star Trek, Twilight Zone, Dr. Seuss, and The Mask. He also does the occasional “homage” in the style of Dilbert, Little Nemo, Family Circus, or the Fantastic Four.
It’s wordy, presenting lots of information, and the pictures are there to support and enhance the ideas. Still, the art is needed. Most of the human characters are relentlessly cheerful regardless of what they’re saying, which backs up the idea that the general public is manipulated and rather brainless. The chirpy characters make the reader more inclined to question what they’re reading, which teaches people to think, not just accept, what they’re presented with.
The closest thing to a continuing character is Sparky, the sarcastic penguin wearing visor shades. At first he was there to parody lovable talking merchandised animal mascots, but he became the voice of reason — and the author.
The art gives the comic a unique look, but fundamentally the appeal is the ideas. Perkins covers stories that don’t get enough attention elsewhere and provides a valuable alternative perspective on familar stories. You can’t solve problems until you recognize them, and he’s trying to get our focus enough to point them out. The cartoon is educational, full of justified righteous anger at our cultural hypocrisy and greed. He deals with the difficulty of how to satirize what’s already unbelievable with talent and creativity, so the cartoons are humorous even if it’s your ox getting gored.
The Great Big Book of Tomorrow is a retrospective volume covering the entire strip run to 2003 (its publication date). It begins with a short biography of Perkins and includes a color reprint section. I found the author’s comments on the development of his style and the various phases of his work fascinating. The strips are divided by Presidential reign, which makes perfect sense, given how often that’s the subject matter. This is the ideal volume for readers to start with or as a summation of Perkins’ career to date.
The latest book, Hell in a Handbasket, is subtitled “Dispatches from the Country Formerly Known as America”, which should do a good job of sorting out which readers should stay away from the book for blood pressure reasons. The strips included were originally published from 2002-2005, so there’s lots of coverage of the Bush Administration’s extremism, media manipulation, unwarranted secrecy, racism, and hypocrisy, especially as it relates to the Iraq War. Another favorite topic is the weakness of the Democratic party, a less frequently seen subject and one that’s thus fresher and more potent to me.
Now that most Americans have come to realize just how poor a Presidency we’ve had for the past few years, some of these strips appear almost quaint. That’s an unfortunate side effect of reprinting political cartoons; they often age quickly, although they can also serve as reminders of events we might prefer to forget. (For example, why didn’t they ever find who was sending anthrax through the mail?) The art has also become increasingly repetitive, with the same panel used over and over with different screeds as dialogue. Every once in a while, there’s a clever artistic concept, as when Dick Cheney is drawn as the Batman villain The Penguin or when a Republican congresswoman’s racist comment is illustrated with little pictures of a Simpsons character or when the Iraqi war rationales are symbolized by a Moebius strip, but they’re relatively few.
Sample comic strips can be read at Salon.com or at the artist’s website. He is interviewed in Attitude: The New Subversive Political Cartoonists.