Elayne Riggs' Journal (for Leah)

Sunday, August 10, 2003

Pen-Elayne For Your Thoughts -
The Great Big Book of Tomorrow: A Treasury of Cartoons

Writer/Artist: Dan Perkins aka Tom Tomorrow (link at sidebar)
Design by Dan Perkins and Kevin Pyle
Production by Kevin Pyle
Editor: Keith Kahla
Published by St. Martin's Press

Here's what I thought:

Back on September 15 of last year, I mentioned how excited I was to have gotten my first plug and welcome from Dan's blog.
So we got up early this morning in anticipation of my friend Leah's arrival to drive us to the Renaissance Faire, and I immediately go check my list of must-read blogs - and Tom Tomorrow (see link at left) mentioned me! I've followed Tom's work since I was doing INSIDE JOKE and he was (to all intents and purposes) one of the "house cartoonists" of a great zine called Processed World with which I was utterly enthralled. So even though he now lives in NYC too and, both being involved in comics, we probably know a lot of the same people (although to my recollection we've never met), I still feel, like, "ohmiGOD!" Which doesn't come at all as a surprise to me, I get that way over a lot of people whose work I admire, friend and acquaintance and stranger alike. I kind of live by the adage that just about everyone in this world is more interesting than me, so I'm afraid anyone who reads this blog will be subject to occasional bouts of gushy-fangirl.
So you see I'm not exactly unbiased here. I've followed Dan's work for =gasp= a couple decades now, and have two previous collections (Greetings From This Modern World [intro by Bill Griffith] and Tune in Tomorrow [very funny Clinton blurb quote on the back cover]) although, for whatever reason, my collection seems to stop there.

Which is of no consequence now, because The Great Big Book of Tomorrow reprints all the material from those two books and probably a few others as well (like The Wrath of Sparky, When Penguins Attack! and Penguin Soup for the Soul), which is not only convenient but an amazing trip through recent political history. Dan has taken the national pulse so steadily through the years that rereading his 4-panel strips is a great way to remind yourself, in this info-saturated world, of the items that caught progressives' attention over the past dozen years.

The thing that struck me about this memory jogger was how, more often than I expected, "everything old is new again." So often we think that one national crisis or another is happening for the first time, and it's helpful to recall the cyclical nature of many of these problems. Gives me hope that we'll work through them as we've done in the past. Nor are they always tied to Republican administrations; many of these strips were done during the Clinton era, and are just as hard-hitting and incisive as the ones skewering the more radical right-wing politicos. Dan has a wonderful way of getting to the heart of what's bothering him right off the bat - critical when you only have four panels to get your point across while entertaining your readers, a Herculean task for even the best cartoonists. His ability to zero in on the absurdities we encounter as participating citizens of This Modern World is a gift that keeps on giving. It was great to read so much stuff for the first time ever, including Tom's old collage work in the original TWM long-form story and the special "reporting" strips he did for the SF Chronicle, Village Voice (in color!) and other papers during Republican and Democratic conventions. And even the sillier stuff is done well, like the saga of TMW mascot Sparky's brief unemployment during the time he was replaced by a talking stomach.

Dan's winks to other cartoonists are likewise inclusive rather than obscure and in-jokey. And his own art style has remained remarkably consistent throughout his career. Only wonks like me would notice things like how his reversal of captions from black-on-white to white-on-black in the past couple years has punched up his readability as much as the 3-D shadowing on about 80% of his word ballons. Which is great - the point of design is (or should be) not to call attention to itself, but to serve the narrative. And every design element in Dan's panels, from the zipatones to the easily-recognizable caricatures to the background "Easter eggs," serves the points Dan succeeds in getting across.

The book itself is designed quite well, with some great little side remarks here and there about incidents that led to strips being dropped by one outfit or another (most having to do with people not getting or being able to deal with Dan's skewed humor). Dan's forwards are always great to read - he may not be comfortable talking about himself but he still does it wonderfully - and the photographs (here's Dan with Marilyn Quayle! There he is with Ollie North!) are a hoot. I could wish for some sort of reference help when looking up specific strips for review purposes, but I don't see how Dan and Kevin and Keith could have pulled that off; a table of contents would be rather a waste since there are only a few "chapters," and what would you put in an index? Best to keep flipping back and forth, pausing - as I inevitably do - to reread something that strikes my fancy. I'm completely bowled over by how a work can be so specific to a time (in terms of content) and so timeless (in terms of form and accessibility) simultaneously. I can't thank Dan and Keith enough for sending this to me, I think I'll be flipping through it for a long time to come.

Oh, and by the way, Dan is not only responsible for putting me on the blogosphere roadmap, but for my single largest one-day page viewing, which occurred just this past Friday thanks to him mentioning my BloggerCon post below. He may downplay his influence in this ephemeral venue and the admiration fellow writers and artists have for him and his work, but many of us know better. Thanks again, Dan, for your continued curmudgeonly presence as well as a hell of a lot of great comic strip commentaries.

So, what did y'all think?