October 20, 2003
Tom Tomorrow, Author of "This Modern World"
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
If you are a fan of "This Modern World," you will love this BuzzFlash interview with Tom Tomorrow (if you want to know Tom's real name, you'll have to buy the book, as they say). BuzzFlash chats with Tom about politics, the art of composing cartoons, FOX News, the endless "material provided" by George W. Bush, and coming up with creative ideas in the shower.
Tom has a new collection of cartoons out called "The Great Big Book of Tomorrow: A Treasury of Cartoons." The Forward to the book answers the question, "Who is Tom Tomorrow," in more ways than one. Anyone living in "This Modern [Absurd] World" knows that you can't get enough of Tom Tomorrow.
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BUZZFLASH: What attracts you to your cartoon topics that are political in nature and tend to be quite acerbic?
TOM TOMORROW: I honestly do see the cartoon as a political cartoon. Itís evolved in that direction over the past decade or so, but I would say that it is almost entirely a political cartoon at this point. And what attracts me to that is just thatís what Iím interested in as a human being. Itís what Iím interested in thinking about and writing about. And, of course, especially under this administration, it is certainly at the forefront of everyoneís thoughts right now. You wake up every day wondering what travesty these people will commit next.
BUZZFLASH: How does that translate itself into a cartoon? At BuzzFlash, we translate our dismay and outrage into editorials, into commentary, news analyses, into the articles we post, and into the headlines we write. But how does the transformation of your outrages evolve into a cartoon or comic strip?
TOMORROW: The cartoons are a way of -- how can I put this? -- allowing people to laugh at things rather than just get so angry that their heads explode. Itís admittedly bleak humor right now. Thatís a hard question to answer because itís just what I do, and itís what Iíve been doing for so long that itís almost like asking me about why I decide to breathe or something. Itís just second nature. We are so engulfed by absurdity I think at most times, but so much so right now. Itís just not a hard thing for me to do, to find humor in these situations.
BUZZFLASH: But itís a bitter sort of humor often in your cartoons.
TOMORROW: People say that. I actually think itís more optimistic, although not optimistic in a way that, ha-ha, Iím talking about how wonderful things are. But if I didnít have this underlying sense that things can be better, I donít think I could do this work that I do. I think itís why you do what you do. I think itís why any of us do what we do.
People like Ann Coulter, for instance, would say that we hate America. We donít hate America. We want America to live up to its potential. We want this to be a better place than it is. And when you have, especially as you do right now, a gang of cutthroats and thieves running everything, then the only way this countryís going to be a better place and live up to its potential is if we are out there, jumping up and down and shouting and screaming and pointing out -- and this is a cliché -- that the Emperor has no damn clothes on.
BUZZFLASH: Most of the cartoons featured in your book, "The Great Big Book of Tomorrow," are usually use four or six frames, although you have some in there that are actually just one frame. Thatís quite a challenge to those of us who donít know the art of cartooning. You only have four to six panels to keep heads from bursting.
TOMORROW: [laughter] Even within those four to six panels, I am, of course, the wordiest cartoonist alive. So I really do cram it in there. But I have to constantly watch that myself, because thereís always so much that I want to say and so much that I want to put in there. Itís really just a matter of trying to focus in on what the point is that I want to make, and how I want to present it in a cartoon so that itís hopefully entertaining and funny to people. Honestly, I could just fill up the entire panel with rants, just unedited rants every week, but I donít think people would really be all that into it -- though I suppose there are probably some people who think thatís exactly what I do. But I donít think people would be all that interested in reading that week after week. So itís like a juggling act. And itís also a matter of keeping in mind that I have a weekly cartoon, so if I donít get it exactly right this week, thereís always next week.
BUZZFLASH: For a writer, itís often said that good writing is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent editing. It seems to me in a cartoon itís even more of a challenge to distill that thought, that concept, into a four-to-six frame panel. However wordy you may be, itís still not as wordy as an editorial.
TOMORROW: Oh, sure, but Iím also not anyoneís primary news source, so what Iím trying to do is get enough information in there so that someone thatís not familiar with the story can still understand what Iím talking about. And someone who is familiar with the story is not bored to tears by my exposition. Iím trying to walk a fine line between those two. But Iím not covering every topic. Thereís no possible way that I could. And Iím not covering every facet of every topic. Iím just trying to pick out those little shiny jewels out of the mountain of dung, and trying to narrow it down to the specific point that I think is salient.
BUZZFLASH: With so much hypocrisy, absurdity and lying, and such an Orwellian world thatís almost cartoonish in and of itself -- if it werenít so threatening and tragic and menacing -- how do you settle on one idea? Itís hard for us to write an editorial because just when we think itís gotten as bad as it can get, or as absurd as it can get, thereís something within the next hour that beats it.
TOMORROW: [laughter] Yeah, it is an embarrassment of riches right now for a cartoonist. And honestly, I would be happy to go back to a time when maybe the subject of my cartoons was not so immediately obvious. I would rather have to work a little harder. Having said that, there are times when thereís so much that I have a hard time. I think it sounds a little counter-intuitive, but it can actually be more difficult at times, because, as you say, reality has become satire.
In fact, when I was upstate giving one of these talks that I occasionally give to colleges, I have a visual presentation I give off my computer, and I usually open it up with that clip that was going around a few months ago of Bush saying, "Thereís an old saying in Texas: you fool me once" -- and then heíd stumble over the rest. He had this astonishing blank look on his face. And the reason I open with that is precisely for this reason -- to discuss how difficult it is to be a satirist when real life has become satire, when that guy with that deer-in-the-headlights look on his face is the most powerful man in the world.
BUZZFLASH: Do you watch cable news or regular television news?
TOMORROW: Yes, incessantly, Iím afraid. And speaking of which, have you seen this new survey that just came out which confirms that people who get all their information from Fox News are the most ignorant?
BUZZFLASH: I would use a different word, the most spun, which is to say --
BUZZFLASH: I donít blame them, but Fox is serving its purpose of spinning reality into the fantasy world of the Bush administration.
TOMORROW: Well, they choose to watch Fox as their primary news source because they believe that the other sources of news are too biased. And so they go and watch the only news source thatís set out deliberately to be biased from the outset.
BUZZFLASH: Given that, as a cartoonist, you look at things obviously through a different lens. One of the treasures of cartoonists that do a good job, like yourself or Garry Trudeau's, is your cartoon version of reality seems more real than reality sometimes.
TOMORROW: Thatís a scary thought.
BUZZFLASH: But you seem closer to the truth. When you have, say, Cheney and Bush talking, what you have them saying is what we often think is what theyíre really thinking, as opposed to what theyíre saying.
TOMORROW: Right. I think what Iím doing is sitting out here just trying to figure out whatís really going on behind the scenes. Obviously everything Scott McClellan says, and Ari Fleischer before him, is not the entire story. If you believe that the White House press secretary comes out and tells you everything you need to know, then you are extraordinarily naïve. Obviously thereís more going on behind the scenes. So youíre reading up on the backgrounds of the people involved, and looking at their possible motivations and their possible conflicts of interest. And this holds true for any administration. Itís just that in this case when you have Vice President Cheney and his ties to Halliburton, and then miraculously Halliburton gets all these huge sweetheart deals in Iraq, itís really out there in the forefront. Itís not that hard to make an educated guess as to what you think might really be going on behind the scenes.
This story thatís been dominating the news this week about the leak of the CIA operativeís identity has been a really interesting case in point. And this also ties back to Fox News. I read David Cornís story when it first came out, and then no one ever really followed up on it. But when the mainstream media finally did pick up on this because of the investigation request, it really hit me on Sunday when I read this that this could very likely be a very big deal. Maybe this is vindictiveness, or maybe this just had something to do with the internecine warfare between the White House and the CIA thatís been going on over the politicization of intelligence for the last couple of years. But it seemed pretty undeniable that something pretty big had happened here.
All the right wingers were trying to spin it at first saying -- and this was really pathetic -- saying, "Oh, sheís just an analyst. This was no big deal." Which was a really pathetic attempt because it was quickly revealed that she was, in fact, an undercover operative. So it was just like they were just desperately grasping at straws. But for the first couple of days, Fox, Hannity and Colmes and OíReilly pretty much ignored the story. They had to report it on their news because it was big news, but they were sort of downplaying it, with the anchor saying, "Well, isnít she just an analyst? Isnít this not a big deal?"
The first night it even got mentioned on Hannity and Colmes, that I saw -- and I always like to interject that I am not sitting here monitoring all media at all times, and itís always possible I missed something -- but the first mention of it I saw came up in Hannity and Colmes halfway through the show. Theyíre interviewing Dick Morris, and Hannity says, "Ah, so, the CIA story. Sheís just an analyst, right? This isnít a big deal." And then Dick Morris goes off on some weird tangent about how theyíre having a similar scandal in Britain, and isnít that ironic? Then you turn to Colmes, the liberal, the guy whoís supposed to be arguing our side of the topic. And Colmes changes the subject. He says, "OK, let me ask you about Iran." It was just so obvious that the word had gone out -- or maybe the word doesnít even need to go out. Maybe itís just intuitively understood that if you work at Fox, you do your best to downplay stories that might be damaging to the President.
BUZZFLASH: And do you get ideas from watching the news?
TOMORROW: I find it very informative to see what the blatant right-wing spin is on any given story. Fox is certainly good for that. Itís all grist for the mill. But thatís definitely a very helpful thing for me to keep an eye on.
BUZZFLASH: Moving away from politics a little bit, in terms of the creative process, do you get ideas in the shower? In the car? While youíre sleeping? Or do you just sit down to a board? Writers always talk of writersí block. Is there a cartoonistsí block?
TOMORROW: Yes, there absolutely is. And yes, sometimes the ideas do come to me in the shower, or when Iím walking the dog or whatever. Thatís ideal, because sometimes itís just like being hit by lightning. I see the whole thing. I see all four or six panels. I see exactly how itís going to go. Itís almost like a flash. Boom -- right there -- got it. But I wish that happened more often, because my life would be considerably easier if it did. More often than not, I sit down on Monday morning and I read through the newspapers and I read through the news sites online. And I look at the blogs. And I just try to find that intersection between whatís going on and what I can do with it and make it interesting and funny. Itís the diagram where you have the overlapping circles. I try to find that space in the middle that leads to a cartoon. Frankly, sometimes it can take a long time. Sometimes I can have bad Mondays where I sit there for eight hours and Iíve got nothing. And those are bad days.
BUZZFLASH: Then how do you work yourself out of that?
TOMORROW: I eventually come up with something. Iíve been doing this for a very long time, and I have learned that if I put in enough time, I will eventually come up with something. So I just keep at it. When Iím in that situation, my wife is actually incredibly helpful at talking through ideas and pointing out things that sheís read that I might have missed. So I give her no small amount of credit, frankly, for helping me out of those cartoonist block days.
BUZZFLASH: In the introduction to "The Great Big Book of Tom Tomorrow," you offer a little biographical voyage into your past. You were one of those people who always wanted to be a cartoonist, and in the samples that you provide of your earlier work, your original style seems sort of collage-like.
TOMORROW: The collage thing came later. What I donít have in that book -- and it really pains me -- I drew cartoons all through grade school and high school, and none of it survived. We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and all of that stuff just got thrown away over the years, which is really a shame, given how it turned out how I ended up making a living. It would be, I think, interesting for people to see. It would be fun for me to see it myself, but I have literally none of it. I did draw cartoons, very "Mad Magazine"-influenced cartoons, in high school especially. I was very influenced by the artist Don Martin and the look of his characters, but also very text-heavy as well. And then I sort of gradually moved into this collage phase that I went through. And I reproduce some of that in the new book.
BUZZFLASH: So you took to cartooning and just found it was you.
TOMORROW: Yes, absolutely. Well, when you want to be a cartoonist, thereís not always a clear career path as to how to get there, because there are maybe a couple hundred people in this country who make a living at it. So itís sort of like saying: I want to win the lottery. Itís just been that in my case, I actually get lucky and won the lottery.
BUZZFLASH: Do you also do other graphic work? Or just cartoons?
TOMORROW: I do the occasional illustration. But at this point, I am fortunate that I am able to focus mainly on the cartoons. And thatís what I prefer to do. Thatís what interests me the most.
BUZZFLASH: I know itís hard for writers to talk sometimes about this sort of thing, but again, as a non-cartoonist, it fascinates me. I could never conceive of being able to create this -- that sort of rhythm that comes with four or six frames.
TOMORROW: You would be able to do it if it was the format in which you had worked for the past decade. It just becomes second nature after awhile. There was a cartoon that just ran a couple of weeks ago, a conversation between Donald Rumsfeld and Sparky. And that one almost appeared in my head fully formed.
BUZZFLASH: Itís kind of like a comedian who knows a certain pace with his comedy -- you have to have timing, as they say. It seems that cartoon work is in a way like comedic timing, the way itís split up into a given number of frames.
TOMORROW: Absolutely. Thatís why you often see cartoonists using the reaction panel, where the characters just kind of stare at each other and donít say anything. Thatís what a comedian would call a beat. Because what youíre trying to do is entice the reader as an active participant. I think in cartooning the reader is a far more active participant than they realize. And youíre trying to entice them so that they hear this in their head, and they read it in their head as if they were watching a comedy sketch on television. And there are various ways of conveying this -- by using boldface type, and pauses, and by having that reaction panel where characters just stare at each other and donít say anything.
BUZZFLASH: Do you get feedback? How do you know the impact of your cartoon, or if a specific cartoon is kind of really getting a response?
TOMORROW: A lot of the time, honestly I donít. Being a cartoonist is not like being a comedian, where you go up on a stage and you have applause. The cartoonistís version of applause was that people cut it out and stick it on their refrigerator, and you donít tend to hear about that. People will write in. But Iíll do cartoons that are sort of very high concept -- theyíll be movie parodies or whatever -- and then Iíll do something thatís very simple, like two talking heads. Iíll do a cartoon thatís almost way too much information, thatís just much more focused on the idea, and it can be almost like an essay at times. And so I go back and forth between different sorts of, not styles really, but the tone of the cartoon can change from week to week. And any given week there will be people who like this particular tone more than they liked last weekís. So each cartoon will always have people who like it, or people who prefer the more wacky humor, or whatever it may be.
Feedback -- and Iíve said this before in other interviews, and I apologize for repeating myself -- but feedback can be a very mixed blessing in the online age. It used to be that in order to contact someone, people really needed to want to say what they had to say, because they had to write it out on a piece of paper, and fold it up, and put it in an envelope, and walk down to the mailbox or the post office. With e-mail, people can send you their most fleeting thoughts. That can be good, and that can be bad, because when youíre the recipient of that on a daily basis, it can really frankly be sort of exhausting. And that doesnít even begin to address the hate mail, the negative mail, which can also be exhausting. So at a certain point you kind of have to just tune it out and just trust your own instincts, honestly.
BUZZFLASH: Like many of the best cartoonists, you have a very particular style that -- and I hope Iím not offending you -- but from my perspective, is sort of campy, a little bit retro.
BUZZFLASH: Certainly itís wordy. Youíve got to be someone whoís into reading to enjoy your cartoons.
BUZZFLASH: As the visual impact just is not going to carry the cartoon. You have to read all of it.
TOMORROW: Yes, but I think thatís a fine thing. I think youíre seeing my cartoon on a website like Salon or Working for Change, or youíre reading it in a newspaper, and these are mediums devoted to the printed or the pixilated word. These are mediums devoted to reading. And so I donít know why anyone would have a problem with that, when they shift from the article theyíve just read to the cartoon theyíre about to read. We are, I hope, still a literate society. I think if people think itís too much work, theyíre probably not the readers that Iím hoping to address in any case. And as for the style, it very much takes its look from old advertising imagery --
BUZZFLASH: Which was in your collages --
TOMORROW: -- and itís a fairly deliberate choice because advertising has grown somewhat more sophisticated since the middle of the last century, but advertising is about selling you things that you donít really need. And itís full of people who are very happy because theyíve bought these products they donít really need. And I think thatís really what politics is about -- politicians are selling us things we donít need.
BUZZFLASH: We repeatedly say on BuzzFlash that the Democrats donít understand that while they often want to fight the battle on issues, the Bush cartel, as we call it, would rather bypass the issues and instead focus on branding Bush as a certain type of person. And that that type of person supercedes any issue. The image is that he is someone to be trusted, which is ironic, given whatís happened or has been revealed in the past two years. But thatís his branding identity. Advertising depends on branding, and selling things to people that they donít need.
TOMORROW: Thatís exactly it. Youíre absolutely making my point for me. Itís just one element of the cartoon, but it is a way of trying to make people think about the bill of goods theyíre being sold.
BUZZFLASH: In your books forward, you had an advertising slogan that I just fell out of bed laughing when I read it, and it was one of the things that had inspired you. But I canít find it right now.
TOMORROW: There was one that showed a woman coughing, and the slogan was: "He wonít love you if you cough." That was a real advertisement.
BUZZFLASH: I just wanted to write that on my wall. "He wonít love you if you cough."
TOMORROW: Iím sorry to say that Iíve lost the original for that. If anyone else has ever run across that, Iíd love to have another copy. It shows the woman coughing, and in the background thereís a man recoiling in horror. And you just canít believe that itís real, that someone actually used this as an advertisement.
BUZZFLASH: The slogan that the Bush administration uses when they say, "If you criticize the President, you are aiding terrorists."
TOMORROW: I just saw him on TV a couple of seconds ago. They have those backgrounds with all the slogans on them, and this was a background with Jobs and Growth. And Iím thinking: Yes, and you have provided neither.
BUZZFLASH: Right. Losing jobs and sinking the economy is what it should say behind him.
TOMORROW: He also just said the most extraordinary thing. Heís talking about Iraq being a free nation, and he said, "Free nations donít attack each other, and they donít develop weapons of mass destruction." And this is where it gets difficult for me as a cartoonist, because thatís just funny on its own.
BUZZFLASH: You canít beat that.
TOMORROW: You either understand why itís funny or you donít. But I canít do better than that.
BUZZFLASH: Thatís the final frame, right? He gave you the final frame in a four-frame panel; itís like the punch line.
The final thing I want to ask you is about your website. You have a blog at Thismodernworld.com. Tell us about that. What will people find on it?
TOMORROW: I started doing this not too long after 9/11, like a lot of people did. At that point, in the world of the blogs -- and this is apart from sites like BuzzFlash -- there werenít that many left, liberal voices out there. So for a while I kind of felt like I was filling that void. But now there are a lot of them, and theyíre really good. Atrios is the king. I canít even keep up with everything. I have no idea how he finds the time.
BUZZFLASH: Do you know who he is?
TOMORROW: No, I donít. I suspect that he is someone who doesnít want the sort of ongoing ideological debate to affect his own life. I respect that. This is a tough thing. There are honestly days when I just wish I drew a nice happy cartoon about an adorable cat that everyone loved.
BUZZFLASH: Those cartoonists are out there.
TOMORROW: Yes, but thatís not my personality. I would never have actually been that person. There are days when this sort of ongoing battle that begins the moment I turn on my computer in the morning seems pretty exhausting. I think you do need a separation. I try to keep my personal life separate from my public life to the extent that itís possible, and I think heís just taken that a step further. I really have no idea -- I could be making all of this up. Atrios could be a CIA operative for all I know. But I think whatís important is the information that he gets out there. Heís a clearinghouse for things that people really need to know.
Getting back to my own blog, the point is that I donít have the time to do that, what Atrios and other bloggers do. And I canít be that all-encompassing. So the blog, I think, is a lot like the cartoon. I just try to pick out shiny nuggets that I think are really interesting. But more and more, there are a whole lot of people paying attention to those shiny nuggets. Any story breaks and there are dozens and dozens of people writing about them online. So Iím not really sure what the future holds for my own site. I donít know what I want to do with it. I go through phases where I donít do much with it at all. And then Iíll maybe post a long essay or something. And then Iíll go through a phase where Iím kind of being a mini-Atrios, and it just goes back and forth. It kind of depends on my mood really. Itís not as clearly defined a thing as a site like BuzzFlash.
BUZZFLASH: Where can people find your cartoons -- in addition to purchasing "The Great Big Book of Tom Tomorrow," of course.
TOMORROW: Which of course we want to encourage everyone to do. The cartoons appear online on Salon, and on Workingforchange.com. And in many cities, they appear in your local alternative weekly. And in some other publications.
BUZZFLASH: And who syndicates it?
TOMORROW: I do all that work myself. A cartoon syndicate is aptly named, if you think of syndicate in the Mafia sense of the word. Whereas a literary agent will take 10 or 15 percent, a cartoon syndicate takes half of your income. Unfortunately they are also a sort of gatekeeper, because there are more people, I think, who want to be cartoonists than there are, well, spaces to run them. Also, a lot of people who want to be cartoonists may not necessarily be as good at it as they need to be Ė- howís that for a diplomatic way of phrasing it? So I think the syndicates traditionally have served as gatekeepers between the wannabe cartoonists and the newspaper editors. And thatís probably a necessary function for the editors to some degree. The editors are probably not going to take the time to sift through cartoon submissions if they had to. I just got lucky because the alternative press did not have that tradition, so I was able to approach these papers directly and build it up to a point that I have a pretty nice client base without giving a syndicate half of my income.
BUZZFLASH: Well, good for you. And thanks so much for your time.
A BUZZFLASH INTERVIEW
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Get your copy of "The Great Big Book of Tomorrow" from BuzzFlash.com
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