Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?
Abrams Comicarts, 2009
“. . . and then, without even meaning to, they built it.”
Full disclosure: I know Brian Fies and I consider him a friend. My copy of this book is already personalized and has a sketch of the Cosmic Kid at the bottom of the page.
Having said that, I still think that Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow is a winner, a deep, sweet meditation on America’s conflicted loved affair with science and space.
The book begins with the 1939 World’s Fair, and each subsequent chapter covers a decade. We meet Buddy and his Pop on their way to the fair, and see the vast, optimistic, post-Depression worlds of the future through Buddy’s eyes. Buddy and Pop do not age in real time, and the phases of human development match the phases of technological advancement as the book progresses.
While Fies tells us the smaller, personal story of Buddy’s growing up, he uses Buddy’s favorite comic book, Amazing Space Adventures, to show us what is happening in society. The escapades of Commander Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid parallel Buddy’s relationship with his father, and it is in these pages the Fies lets his subversive sense of humor roam. Crater faces giant robots, mutated prairie dogs, and a shrinking-ray in his quests to save the world, while the arch-villain spouts the purplest of comic-book prose. I don’t know if Fies read comics as a kid, but that is the most reasonable explanation for his loving detail in these pages, and his firm grasp of the stylistic changes through the decades.
We see Buddy waiting through World War II for his dad’s return; confronting the H-bomb paranoia of the fifties; the sporting-event competition of the sixties space race and the disillusionment of the seventies. The book could have ended there; Buddy, a young adult, still loving science, but feeling cynical and betrayed. This isn’t Fies’s style. He makes a quantum leap at the ending of the book, pointing out that tiny, everyday choices build the world of tomorrow, in ways the pioneers and visionaries of the fifties and sixties would never have imagined. The world of tomorrow didn’t abandon or betray us. It just doesn’t look exactly like we expected it to.
Fies weaves together every narrative element of a graphic novel in service to his parable. His color palette is deliberately chosen to create a sense of each decade. The depiction of Buddy and Pop is deceptively simple and you might not realize on first read just how fine an artist he is. Once you’ve read it, go back through and linger on the images and the composition.
Since this is, ultimately, a book about a boy and his dad, I shouldn’t be too surprised that Buddy’s mother appears nowhere on these pages. Still, it left me with that feeling you have when you’re walking down a flight of stairs and you step out, thinking you’ve reached the last step—only you hadn’t. The feminine principle is represented, and quite ably, by a character in Amazing Space Adventures, named Mooney. “Policewoman Mooney,” as she is introduced to us, functions somewhat as a mother-figure for Buddy’s alter-ego Cosmic Kid, and more as the voice of practicality and reason. Mooney points out that the giant robot, which runs on treads, could probably be quite easily tripped, only to be pooh-poohed by her clueless male boss. When the heroes go to confront an unknown danger in the mountains, she is the only one who thinks to bring a firearm.
The feminine is also acknowledged in the last chapter of the book, with Buddy’s daughter.
As an object, the book itself is beautiful. It’s hardback, with a die-cut wrap-around dust-over that I can’t describe adequately. Suffice it to say that the neighborhood of the past embraces the world of tomorrow. Inside, the pages of Buddy’s story are on glossy paper, while his comic is printed on a high-quality paper that has the look and feel of newsprint. It recreates that sense memory of the old, cheap comics some of us grew up with, without leaving ink on your fingers.
Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow is thoughtful, touching, sad, hopeful, funny, deeply personal and universal. It could be translated into any language and still resonate with those audiences, because at its heart it’s about a father and son. There are some emotions that are difficult to depict in art. Surprisingly, they tend to be the good ones; love, joy enthusiasm. Clearly almost anyone can depict terror or rage in prose or pictures. Fies manages, at several points in this book, to capture enthusiasm. I’m impressed by that. (I mean, it’s hard enough to maintain in real life, let alone in a book).
This may not be the summer beach-book you’re looking for. It’s a great book to share with your dad, or you kids, or your astronomy-geek friends. It’s a book to go back to, dip into, and ponder. It’s a book to treasure.