It was September 2002, and the American body politic seemed gripped by a kind of madness. Even as workers still struggled to clear the remaining rubble from the World Trade Center, the Bush administration -- aided and abetted by a compliant news media and Beltway establishment -- seemed determined to invade a country that had nothing to do with 9/11: Iraq.
That only amplified the few remaining voices of reason -- including one that dropped on the streets of Philadelphia every Thursday, a cartoonist known as Tom Tomorrow.
"Whatever happened to Osama bin Laden, anyway?" asked a befuddled moderate citizen in Tomorrow's strip of "This Modern World" for 9/11/02, the one year anniversary of the attack. "Oh, never mind him -- haven't you heard that Iraq might have weapons of mass destruction?" replies a typically self-assured conservative.
The comi-tragical foreshadowing of a failed war in Iraq was just one example of how the Connecticut-based cartoonist -- 53-year-old Dan Perkins in real life -- used the panels of "This Modern World," and a cast of characters from Sparky, a perpetually sunglassed wisecracking penguin, to his proto-"Stephen Colbert"-like clueless conservative Biff, to crusade for his interpretation of truth, justice and the American way.
But Tomorrow won't be coming for Philadelphia print readers in 2015. The Philadelphia City Paper, which has faithfully carried "This Modern World" for roughly 20 years, has informed Perkins that it's dumping the strip to run a series of local Philadelphia cartoonists instead.
Although the parting was amicable and local fans can still track down Tom Tomorrow in places like Daily Kos and TheNation.com, Perkins expressed disappointment and some frustration in a phone conversation earlier today. He said he's found there's no closer bond than with his regular print readers, and he's troubled by dwindling opportunities for editorial cartoonists to get published.
"I still believe that print makes a difference," said Perkins, who lost several other ink-based clients this year, including the San Francisco Bay Guardian, which ceased publication. He noted that his occasional talks always draw a much bigger crowd in cities where he's published in print.
Indeed, he said one of his most memorable signings took place in Robin's Books in Center City -- attended by his future in-laws, who then lived in the Philadelphia suburbs. There was a strange rattling coming from the ceiling...until a rat jumped down and landed right on the foot of his soon-to-be mother-in-law, before it was chased away by the store cat.
In spite of that, there would be a tomorrow for the looming Tom Tomorrow family. But Robin's Books closed in 2012 -- victim to the changing media landscape -- and the City Paper was sold in August to the publisher of the free newspaper The Metro. The editor of the City Paper, veteran local journalist Lil Swanson, confirmed in an email that it's dropping "This Modern World."
"It's because we're planning to start publishing a full-page, color comic in the new year that will give a different Philly comic artist each week a chance to tell a Philly story and showcase his/her work," she wrote. "We have a thriving comic artists community here, with not much of an outlet for them."
She said spiking Tom Tomorrow was "a hard choice," lamenting that "I only have so much money and so much newshole." It's a decision that dozens of other editors have made in recent decades. Ironically, the Internet has probably expanded overall readership for the handful who still wield a pen, but their earning opportunities are diminished.
In addition to the online sites that carry "This Modern World," hardcore fans of Tom Tomorrow can join what he calls Sparky's List and get his comics emailed, a day before their publication, for $20 a year. It's a variation of the subscription-driven, reader-funded model that may, or may not, help save journalism in 2015. Perkins said he's looking forward to taking on the recent policing controversies and the looming 2016 race for the White House.
Perkins, who won the prestigious Herblock Award for editorial cartooning just last year, would also love to be picked up in Philadelphia by another print outlet. In the meantime, he will ponder a strange new world of more readers yet fewer opportunities. "The economics of it doesn't make any sense," he said. "I'm hardly the first person to have noticed it."