Jen Sorensen speaks with preeminent political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow about the past, the present, and the precarious future.
Tom Tomorrow’s cover art for Eric Alterman’s latest book, Why We’re Liberals. (Viking Adult)
Like many readers of alternative comics, I first discovered This Modern World as a college student. I was working a summer job at the library, earning minimum wage and vacuuming dust bunnies, when my boss showed me a strip by some guy calling himself Tom Tomorrow. As a fan of both irreverent humor and politics, I was immediately hooked.
Fast forward to earlier this month, when Tomorrow, now one of alternative political cartooning’s biggest successes, said to the Washington Post about the next wave of cartoonists: "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." While flattered to be mentioned, I sadly had to admit he was right. Being a professional cartoonist is hard enough in a good economy, not to mention one that’s struggling as much as newspapers.
With Tomorrow’s not-so-encouraging statement in mind, I sought him out for an interview about how he was dealing with the downturn, and how his work has been affected by recent changes in the political landscape.
Jen Sorensen: For my generation of cartoonists, the 2000 election dispute, which saw George W. Bush handed the presidency, was a transformative event that made a lot of us focus more on politics. Was there a similar galvanizing moment for you?
Tom Tomorrow: I’ve been politically active, to one degree or another, my entire life. I actually did door-to-door voter canvassing for McGovern in 1972, at the ripe old age of 11. But it was not always obvious to me that my cartoon should be so explicitly political. The big moment for me was during the first Gulf War, coming home after marching in the streets and being very angry at the lack of media coverage—and then having the "aha" moment: I had a media platform myself. And that’s when this journey really began.
In today’s economy, it seems like drawing a comic is becoming just one aspect of what we do to make a living. For instance, you’ve done artwork for the new Pearl Jam album, Backspacer, and a children’s book called The Very Silly Mayor (Ig Publishing). Do you find the extra work makes it harder for you to keep up with your cartoon?
Yes, absolutely. I feel that I worked really hard to get to this point where I can make a living off of my weekly cartoon, and for me that should be the pinnacle, not the launching-off point. Any extra work will cut into your cartooning and writing time. Some people are better at juggling all of that. I find it a constant struggle. But both of the projects you mention were very important to me, each in their own way, and in retrospect worth every moment.
What’s more difficult is when you find yourself turning into a shipping department, which is how the gurus of online cartooning tell us we will have to earn our money in the future. I’m sure you’ve read that stuff too—we’re all going to give our cartoons away for free and make our money selling t-shirts and so on. I just sold a signed and numbered edition of a poster I did for [Pearl Jam], and it was an epic struggle. I have a profound new respect for mailroom employees, and I mean that in all sincerity. But it’s a full time job, and I already have a full time job: writing my cartoon. Merchandise sales will suck your time and creativity right out the door, and in the end you’re no longer a cartoonist, you’re a t-shirt salesman who draws on the side—if you have any damn time left.
Like me, you blogged the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver for an alt-weekly. When you were sitting in the stadium watching Obama’s acceptance speech, did it ever occur to you that things might get so contentious so quickly if he won? Many readers thought we’d have nothing to cartoon about after Bush.
I had already been through this cycle once before, when Bill Clinton was elected and readers wondered what I would possibly write about without the first George Bush in office. It’s charming and naïve that anyone ever expects that the election of a single individual will make our work obsolete. It’s just a matter of adapting to a new cast of characters.
Are you feeling more inspired these days?
My sense is that, for the last two years of the Bush administration, everyone was sick of politics. But yeah, there was this weird transition—for me, we seemed to go from "You’re a traitor for saying such things" to "Why are you constantly pointing out the obvious," without much of a stop at "How right you were about everything!" But that’s life in the Internet age. I used to say you’re only as good as your last cartoon—now I think you’re only as good as the last word balloon in the panel your reader just finished.
Are you getting more hate mail as the Right becomes increasingly unhinged about Obama?
Hate mail seems to be cyclical. The immediate post-9/11 era was the worst I’ve ever been through. Every bloodthirsty moron who ever disagreed with me about anything suddenly felt empowered and angry. I was living in New York City at the time, and the threat of terrorism was constant and pervasive, but these people frightened me almost as much, at least on a personal level. That all faded away as the Glorious Victories they kept predicting failed to materialize; you could almost chart the disenchantment with George W. Bush by the decline in hate mail I was getting. These days, they’re starting up again, but I can’t say I pay a lot of attention anymore. The problem is, e-mail flattens everything. In the old days, people had to care enough about whatever they wanted to send you to find a stamp and an envelope and track down an address. With e-mail, you’re subject to any random brain fart someone might feel like sending. I tend to filter a lot, just to not let it eat up too much of my time.
Okay, here’s a random one: I find cartooning makes me hungry. Do you eat a lot while you’re working, or is that just me?
Everyone has some sort of procrastination ritual. I tend to make coffee about seven times a day, not because I’m drinking that much coffee, but because I really like those first few sips of a fresh brewed cup. And because it gives me an excuse to get away from the work for a few minutes.