Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?

Brian Fies wrote and drew Mom’s Cancer, one of my Best Graphic Novels of 2006, so I was greatly anticipating his followup, especially once I heard that he was tackling the question of technological progress.

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? cover
Whatever Happened to
the World of Tomorrow?
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Unfortunately, while I appreciated all the themes and concepts of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, together, they didn’t gel the way I hoped. I was left thinking that I might have enjoyed the material more as an essay than a graphic novel.

The main content is a set of stories of a boy and his dad, set in five eras roughly 10 years apart, plus “tomorrow”. This part of the book has caused confusion, as the characters don’t age fast enough to match the labeled decades, although Fies does try to explain his intent in an introductory author’s note. The pair do such period-representative things as attend the 1939 World’s Fair, build a fallout shelter in 1955, or watch a 1965 rocket launch. By 1975, the growing generation gap parallels the U.S. backing off from space exploration.

Much of this material is captioned illustrations, full of text which demonstrates Fies’ excellent research. However, that’s a big part of why I found myself wishing for a different format for this work. His word pictures are so well-done that the images pale in comparison, seeming rather generic. I found myself paying close attention to them only when Fies included photo reproductions, showing what a particular era truly looked like.

There is the occasional illustrated piece that transcends the reporting approach. The two-page spread from the 1939 chapter where the child has his greeting to his dad broadcast over early television stands out, for example. Four quarter-page panels move diagonally over a background of faded circuit diagram, combining human emotion with technological wonder. The spaceflight section also takes advantage of the comic medium. Many more of the layouts are staid, though, page after page of one to four rectangular images where the pictures don’t tell us much beyond setting.

The chapters are separated by faux comic books telling the adventures of Commander Cap Crater and his sidekick the Cosmic Kid. They’re meant to show how the general public thought about science in each era, but read closely, they’re also cautionary tales. The villain, “the mad Dr. Xandra”, is always defeated, even though his actions are the most realistic to today’s reader. His sterile cities cause ecological damage, or his drive for atomic power causes radioactive fallout, although he makes a good point about the hypocrisy of those who want to control science to political ends.

Although Fies expresses a hopeful note, the parts of his book that ring most true are those that aren’t so positive. The boy tosses his comics in favor of moving pictures. Dad expresses fear that he wasn’t prepared for the new world, obsolete while he’s still a healthy adult. Later, his reactions to the way his kid’s school is dealing with the possibility of nuclear destruction range from foolhardy to heart-breaking. In the comic book sections, the female character has the best suggestions but is always brushed off because she’s female.

The best thing about this book is its design. The partial dust jacket shows the nostalgic olden days, with the gleaming spires of yesterday’s vision of the future in the background. Under the jacket is the same scene, set in tomorrow. The bright white paper shows off future visions, image reproductions, and the simple art style well. The comic book inserts are, in contrast, on yellowed newsprint, adding to the feel of reading something from a past era. A short endnote section credits image sources and inspirations, a nice touch, especially when it came to those who influenced the look of the comics in different decades.

Fies, in his introductory author’s note, expresses his hope for the future, his dismay over lost optimism, and his wish that his attitude was once again popular. So it’s a book with a clear point of view, and one I would have liked to have seen expressed more directly with more clarity. I also thought some connections were missed. For instance, after reading about the layout and purpose of the World’s Fair, and then about Walt Disney, who’s mentioned in a couple of places, I was surprised to see no mention of EPCOT carrying on the same vision, technological promotion combined with glimpses into other world cultures. It may not be as great or gee-whiz as it was in the 30s, but at least it’s trying.

An online preview is available, and the publisher has a website. Find out more about Fies at his blog. (The publisher provided a review copy.)

2 Responses to “Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?”

  1. Journalista – the news weblog of The Comics Journal » Blog Archive » Nov. 24, 2009: Torn on this Says:

    […] [Review] Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? Link: Johanna Draper Carlson […]

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