Monday, April 18, 2016

25 Years of Tom Tomorrow

Just received my copy of Tom Tomorrow's massive two-tome 25 Years of Tomorrow. This is the project funded by an epically successful Kickstarter that raided $300,000 in like 48 hours. This is admittedly a crappy review, because I haven't read the book completely, mainly because it will take months to get through several thousand cartoons!

It's an impressive piece of work. Two massive volumes containing almost everything the irascible Tom Tomorrow did, including early work before the launch of This Modern World. What's just as impressive as the work documented here is Tom's kajones in reprinting EVERYthing. I'm in the process of posting my old City strips on and collecting my True Stories from that strip in a series of comics with the same name, and let me tell you, there are cartoons that will NEVER see the light of day again!

This isn't an impartial review, since Tom and I go way back.

Tom was one of the first weekly cartoonists I met. Well, if you can term phone calls a "meeting." We both began our strips in 1990. My debut paper was my hometown 
Cleveland Edition, which had also picked up This Modern World around the same time. It was a great paper, one of my favorites out of the 140 or so that ran my strip over its 24-year history. It was only 40-50 pages a week, but ran seven or eight cartoons, two of which were local ones. This was the norm then. Weeklies, scrambling for content and for readers, filled their papers with cartoons. They were cheap content, since these rags only paid $20-25 a strip (and would eventually pay far less) and the readers indeed loved them. It was the comics, as much as anything, that put those rags on the map and made them such an integral part of the Gen X era. It was a great time, for the weeklies and for weekly cartoons. It's a rush to be in on something that's just taking off, as the weeklies were in 1990. The future looked bright, especially for weekly comics.

So one day Tom calls me at my studio, just to say hi. This is long before the Electric Intertube and email. Back then weekly papers sent out comp subscriptions, so he must have seen my strip in The Edition. I used to get 20 papers a week this way (I tipped my mailman generously at Christmas). Funny thing... at the end of the Nineties when papers stopped giving away comp subscriptions, that was the canary in the coal mine. Their ad revenue was drying up and they needed to pinch pennies! It was all over at that point.  Anyways, we had a nice chat and we became cartoon pals. There weren't a lot of us doing this weekly thing, so we all paled around with each other when we could.

What this handsome collection showcases is a guy who had his vision, right from the start. I flipped through both volumes, but was immediately drawn to the early years.  It's impressive to see how quickly that vision coalesced. The infamously wordy cartoon began as a single-panel one, but it's still recognizable as Tom Tomorrow. I just didn't have that vision when I did a comic strip. I did for awhile, in the first five or so years of The City in the early Nineties, but I lost it, then regained it for a couple more after 9-11, when it morphed into a political strip, then lost it again. I wouldn't really find my vision until I started making books 20 years later. Tom had his vision, maybe he was born with it, and it was a great one. I always envied him in that.

This is not a book that can be read in one sitting. A Tom Tomorrow cartoon is dense and 1,000 of them in a row is a "hard slog," to quote Donald Rumsfeld, one of Tom's favorite targets. I'll be reading this book for a good, long while. I greatly enjoyed seeing again the  strips that were hand made, not done in Photoshop, which is roughly the first decade of the strip. Tom has always been criticized by people who mistakenly think he doesn't draw, just uses found images over and over. He does use found images, true, but trust me, the guy draws his ass off. The original that I possess is a puzzle of inked images, Zip-a-tone and pasted pieces of type. It's an incredibly complex construction. Just eyeballing it, I can tell you he spent more time meticulously piecing together these cartoons than most of the "real" cartoonists did drawing theirs with pen and ink.

What I like about these handmade cartoons is it takes me back to a time when weekly papers were put together with whatever materials were at hand. Daily papers were corporate monoliths, with money flowing in. They had top-of-the-line technology: expensive drum scanners and typesetters, pagination systems that allowed a designer to build a page on a computer screen (yeah, this was cutting edge at the time), and they had large staffs of artists and photogs at their disposal. Weeklies were made with laserjet printers, a waxer and a xerox machine, and the passion and ingenuity to make something worth reading on a shoestring.

In my opinion, Tom is the dominant political cartoonist of his era. Sadly, it was also the era when the genre died. They call his strip a post-modern political cartoon. Post apocalyptic is more accurate. Corporate media conglomerates first emasculated political cartoonists, then downsized them. Tom will be one of the last ones standing. He already is! He would have never been hired at a daily newspaper, and he certainly wouldn't have lasted long working for some square in a corner office. Self-syndication gave him the freedom he needed.

Twenty-five years and still going strong.