Reading every This Modern World comic strip from the 1990s in 2016 is like looking back on political and pop culture history from the viewpoint of a dystopian future. That’s not entirely inaccurate. We have made tremendous strides, socially and politically, over the past 26 years, from the recent Supreme Court decision making gay marriage the law of the land to multiple states legalizing marijuana to Obamacare, yet in so many ways our culture seems to be devolving at a terrifying clip.
When I was an earnest, passionate young man, I wanted the world to be kinder and more merciful. As an adult perpetually fearing that each day will be grimmer than the last, I just want the world to stop from continually descending into an unlivable hellscape where cannibalism is widespread, martial law is enforced, and society has devolved to the point where the living envy the dead.
From the perspective of today, the political and social landscape that This Modern World cartoonist Dan Perkins (also known as Tom Tomorrow) and his surrogate Sparky the Penguin surveyed with such finely wrought cynicism and principled disdain looks like a veritable paradise.
Perkins/Tomorrow worried about the unfairness and iniquity of a world where the Democrats didn’t stand up for the poor and progressive values the way he felt they should. He similarly worried that the press was too corrupted by corporate money to fulfill its role of serving the public and holding the powerful accountable. He was disgusted that pop culture was vacuous and mercenary and that the Republican party did a terrible job of concealing their greed and cynicism. Astonishingly, Perkins actually seemed to think that the world should be, if not quite fair (nobody is that Pollyanna-ish), then at least not egregiously unfair and gratuitously cruel.
Like so many principled satirists of the 1990s, Perkins was an idealist masquerading as a cynic. He has somehow managed to hold on to that idealism through the years, that sense of how the world should be, and a concomitant sense of disappointment at the myriad places it falls short, even as he seems to have lost all faith in humanity. Perkins is angry because he cares, not because he’s a sneering nihilist.
In creating This Modern World, Perkins took inspiration from the blandly positive advertising and PSA iconography of the 1940s and 1950s, embracing a cut and paste, tracing-heavy, post-modern aesthetic more rooted in the aesthetics and politics of pop art than in conventional political cartoons. Like the pop-art provocations of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein and the sneakily subversive consumer and ad-world parody of Wacky Packages and Mad Magazine, the strip appropriates the cornball imagery of the past as a way of commenting on it, as a way of satirizing it but also as a way of plugging into and harnessing its iconic cultural power.
Like so many principled satirists of the 1990s, Perkins was an idealist masquerading as a cynic.
Visually, at least, the aesthetic is aggressively non-modern, though its embrace of a hokey style of retro-futurism gives it an interesting time-warp quality, especially when you’re reading about the 1990s, as represented in the style of the 1950s, in the mid-teens. This Modern World takes as its central satirical theme the contrast between how the world actually works and how it is sold by corporations, governments, the military, and everyone else with a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and keeping the masses oblivious and distracted.
In that respect, the comic strip frequently juxtaposes the “official version” of an event with what actually happened. The “official version” emerges out of the mouths of interchangeable characters who represent cozily familiar cultural stereotypes: cigar-smoking, suit-wearing titans of industry, vacuous newscasters who are all smiles and big hair, pod-person housewives crowing about the life-changing magic of the latest wonder product, and blankly wholesome, freshly scrubbed tykes straight out of the Norman Rockwell imagination of the Eisenhower generation.
If these visions of our cornball past represent the comforting lies at the core of so much American life, then Sparky the Penguin delights in exposing ugly truths: he discusses life as it really is, and he’s consequently held in suspicion by nearly everyone else. Like his creator, Sparky wields sarcasm like a sword of satirical truth, but because he represents and conveys the cartoonist’s viewpoint so directly, there’s a bluntness and a directness to the character that is completely missing from the rest of the strip, and the rest of the strip’s universe.
Perkins’ use of this anachronistic iconography lends a sort of double sarcasm that’s visual as well as verbal. The characters other than Sparky are almost invariably saying the antithesis of what Perkins means, but on a stylistic level, they hearken back to an Eisenhower aesthetic where bland conformity somehow began to feel like mankind’s highest aspiration.
Like The Daily Show later in the decade, This Modern World began as a very political cartoon that regularly addressed the ways the media failed readers, the truth, society, and themselves, but as the decade progressed and Perkins found his voice and his point of view, it increasingly focused on the media and the way the press — particularly the right wing press — distorts the truth for the sake of their corporate masters.
It’s striking how much smaller and more manageable the press was 26 years ago, when This Modern World entered the pop-culture landscape and made a formidable impression on folks like Eddie Vedder, who tapped Perkins to create imagery for Pearl Jam, and the folks behind Saturday Night Live, who flirted with featuring it on the show. There were the nightly news network anchors, the face and sonorous-voiced of the news establishment, and the less serious and respected local news, as well as the alternative press, magazines and newspapers. The tabloid press was certainly a factor, and This Modern World took satirical potshots at the low-hanging fruit that is the National Enquirer and even went so far as to make a space alien from Weekly World News (which looked like a particularly shameless tabloid but actually had more in common with the Onion, which also makes a point of looking exactly like what it’s spoofing) a character in the strip. But when the strip started, tabloids were a nuisance largely confined to supermarket shelves, not a multi-tentacled, insidious cultural force with its slithering arms around every aspect of society.
Sparky the Penguin delights in exposing ugly truths: he discusses life as it really is, and he’s consequently held in suspicion by nearly everyone else.
Perkins seems annoyed that the O.J. Simpson trial received a level of press attention wildly disproportionate to its cultural and political significance. That seems quaint in a universe where a goodly percentage of people with the audacity to describe themselves as journalists spend their days frantically refreshing the Instagram accounts of people associated with the Kardashian family in the hopes of seeing something that might fit our progressively, perversely lenient, all-inclusive conception of “news.”
In the 1990s of This Modern World, the internet is first just a big, strange, crazily hyperbolic and overhyped ball of potential, a cultural force that a silly army of self-styled “futurists” promised would change everything but at the time seemed too silly, clunky and insular to have the massive cultural impact everyone assumed. The strip sneered satirically at the big talk and silly acronyms of early web evangelizing but if it understandably seemed to underestimate the web, its creator knew enough about history to understand that the it, like television and the radio, newspapers, and magazines before them, promised to make our lives better — to be an incredible tool for education and compassion and charity. And while it has made our lives better in some ways, it’s also played a big role in making society stupider, and sillier, more vulgar and less kind.
Political cartoons thrive on timeliness, so there’s something a little perverse about going back and reading 440 pages or so of wildly out-of-date examples from the medium. Yet This Modern World is more than just the sum of its parts. Individually and collectively, it tells the story of an arrogant culture and nation that continually chooses to be misled, lied to, and manipulated because the alternative — actively questioning the powers that be as an essential function of being a good citizen — is just too goddamned time- and labor-intensive. And it’s just so damned easy to accept the official version, no matter how transparently false and wrong it might seem.
So it falls upon Perkins/Tomorrow/Sparky to be an agitated, questioning good citizen on our collective behalf. This Modern World’s challenge is formidable. It didn’t just need to produce a chuckle-worthy gag once a week; no, it had to impart what sometimes felt like an awful lot of information — some of it decidedly on the wonky and non-sexy side — and then advance an argument in connection with this opening spurt of education. Last but not least, it had to be what is known in comedy circles as “funny.” That’s no small feat in itself, but it becomes exponentially harder when your goal is to make people laugh (or chuckle, or smile gently) while engendering a righteous dissent within an apathetic populace.
This Modern World shouldn’t work anywhere near as well as it does, in part because the average strip contains so many words and so much information that it can seem less like a conventional comic strip than a fun-sized newspaper op-ed with funny pictures. Didacticism is often the enemy of art. If a movie or TV show or song struggles too hard to make a point, we have a tendency to tune them out. The same is not true of political cartoons. If we can’t figure out the point quickly and easily, it’s a failure.
At its heart, it’s a deeply sincere and earnest endeavor, the work of a liberal true believer who actually wants our nation to live up to its ideals.
It would be inaccurate to say that This Modern World is never preachy, or that it doesn’t preach to the converted. Yet it manages to be consistently entertaining despite the tremendous burden it places upon itself to educate, agitate and provoke, to be about something much more than producing laughter.
In true 1990s comedy form, the strip uses sarcasm and irony as a means of engaging with the world, not out of opting out. At its heart, it’s a deeply sincere and earnest endeavor, the work of a liberal true believer who actually wants our nation to live up to its ideals, and not just blather about its incontrovertible greatness and superiority.
That same combination of genuine progressive outrage and smartass sarcasm would power The Daily Show as it shifted from the smug, relatively nihilistic comedy of its Craig Kilborn years, when its primary target was television, to the more politically engaged satire of its Jon Stewart era, when it took on both politics and the role television plays in further degrading the political process while pretending to educate the public on its inner workings.
The 1990s of This Modern World feels like an eternity ago — to be fair, a quarter century is an awfully long time — and its epic compilation serves as kind of a funhouse-mirror history of the Simpsons Decade, an alternative press crank’s enraged exploration of an era that only seems like a haven of peace and prosperity from the vantage point of today.
This Modern World makes a running joke of Sparky’s supposed marketability, although he has a tendency to undercut his potential as a merchandising money machine through the hectoring, angry nature of his rhetoric. He’s supposed to look like Garfield or Snoopy, all cute and cuddly and anthropomorphic, and to sound like a(n even more) comedic version of Noam Chomsky.
Yet when the cartoonist went to the public — his public — to very successfully crowd-source the production of a massive, two-volume, thousand-page collection of his life’s work, one of the awards offered was a stuffed Sparky. Possibly out of a sense of irony, or possibly because penguins are cute, I scored one and gave it to my 19-month-old son Declan.
Declan loves his little Sparky the same way he loves his Snoopy and Elmo dolls. Does Sparky’s status as a leftist parody of merchandising-friendly animal cartoon characters render that love ironic? Is a stuffed Sparky ironic? To paraphrase a key line from the “Homerpalooza” episode of The Simpsons we’ll be covering later in this column, I don’t even know anymore. The mere fact that it can be difficult to know where the irony ends and the sincerity begins, or whether the irony even ends at all, attests to the fundamentally 1990s nature of This Modern World’s satire and sensibility.
Nathan Rabin if a freelance writer, columnist, the first head writer of The A.V. Club and the author of four books, most recently Weird Al: The Book (with “Weird Al” Yankovic) and You Don’t Know Me But You Don’t Like Me.
Follow Nathan on Twitter: @NathanRabin