Beautiful but Bland: Matthew Miller Reviews Brian Fies’s Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow

Posted by on December 21st, 2009 at 10:00 AM

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?; Brian Fies; Abrams ComicArt; 208 pp., $24.95; Color, Hardcover with die-cut jacket; ISBN:  9780810996366

Starting in 2004 via the Web, Brian Fies’ Mom’s Cancer was a revolutionary narrative about his mother’s metastatic lung and brain cancer.  The book garnered the first Eisner Award for a digital comic in 2005.  In 2006, it was published as a small hardcover book by Abrams Image publishing with lavish success, winning various awards in the industry and in the public at large.  Needless to say, when I discovered that Fies had a new graphic novel out, I was extremely excited.  Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow is an impressive book in its visual beauty and its historical scope.  The book, however, comes up a little short in its storyline.

The book covers the scientific history of 20th-century technology.  It is divided around the development of the United States aerospace program, starting with the futurist visions depicted and idolized by the 1939 World’s Fair (in the book’s first chapter “May 1939:  Pre-Flight”).  The rest of the book follows this “trajectory”:  “August 1945:  Countdown,” “March 1955:  Ignition,” “June 1965:  Lift-off,” “July 1975:  Separation” and “Tomorrow: Touchdown.”  This organization is very effective to develop the novel’s Shakespearean plot of rising and falling expectations of technology, ending with a hopeful denouement and promise for the future, perhaps through the colonization of the moon and neo-technologies.

In the opening author’s note, Fies explains how being “the youngest cohort [. . . to] know the Apollo lunar landings as personal memories rather than impersonal history” made his generation believe that they “would conquer the lands of the Earth, the floors of the oceans, the surfaces of the planets.”  Such a “utopian” idealism never fully materialized as Fies finds; if anything, Fies makes that point that dissolution and disappoint replace the fervor for their futuristic goals.  His project in this book is to reawaken our old desire for technological and scientific achievement:  “Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? is an appreciation of, and an argument for, an increasingly rare way of thinking, creating, working, and living that has value.  There was a time when building the future was inspirational.  Ambitious.  Romantic.  Even ennobling.  I think it can be again.”  In a way, this book successfully reifies Fies’ point.

tomorrow-cover

There is no doubt that this book is beautifully designed and visually stunning.  Indeed, the book’s jacket, a die-cut showing a father and son in a 1930’s New York neighborhood in the foreground and a futuristic city and rocket in the background, is amazing.  Remove the jacket and you see the same father and son, now wearing space suits, in a future society walking toward a monorail.  The jacket foreshadows the reading experience.  We are going on a journey from the past to an idealized future.  Similarly, Fies’ illustrations move from a bland brown (in 1939) with various scanned black-and-white photos to vivid, day-glo yellows, blues and purples, with scanned NASA photos of Mars, the Moon and stars (in “Tomorrow”).  Additionally, the book is interspersed with vintage editions of the comic Space Age Adventures.  The storyline of this comic mirrors the zeal and dissolution of between the father and son over the century.

It is this relationship between the father and son that is the most disappointing part of this novel.  These characters, always drawn in vivid colors throughout the novel, act more like tour guides than characters.  They are distinct between each other but indistinct to other people in the novel—except for their colored apparel.  I wanted this relationship to be stronger and more profound.  The real charm in Fies’ previous work, Mom’s Cancer, is the intricate development of characters.  We understand each character’s personalities and motivations.  The father and son in this new book are flat.  They both age and drift apart, but they do not grow very much.  There is a moment in the book where Fies introduces the separation of the two.  The father is waiting in the yard to see the orbits of satellites while the son overlooks him with skepticism from the house.  When he finally joins his father outside, the son rejoices upon seeing the Apollo-Soyuz space ships, bright lights connected in the stars, suddenly separate.  They exclaim simultaneously, “That’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen!”  This scene is followed by these statements:  “Apollo and Soyuz, Pop and me.  Often arguing, seeing the world in different ways, but sharing a dream . . . united by bonds deeper and stronger than we knew.   And now having had a great adventure together, drifting apart but still flying in formation, bound for different destinations.  Or maybe, ultimately, the same” (174).  Part of me wants to see this relationship developed more artistically.  For instance, in Mom’s Cancer, Fies uses an analogy of the tight-rope walker to symbolize his mother’s precarious excursion through chemotherapy.  While there is a bomb-shelter in his new book, Fies does not employ it to represent the character’s relationship. For me, the power of graphic novels is to use images to make ideas come alive and go places where the reader can make connections beyond the text.  Fies comes a little short in this regard.

tomorrow-apollo

Overall, this book is great for anyone wanting a beautifully drawn scientific history book.  This book is fantastic for fans of non-fiction graphic novels.  This book is not great for readers who want a deeply effective and symbolically represented relationship between a father and son.  Still, based upon Fies self-stated agenda for the book, I did find myself asking the overarching, central question of the entire book:  “What about my World of Tomorrow?”   As a child of the 1980s, I remember how excited I was when my family got its first VCR, how amazed I was when I got a CD for the first time, and how blown away I felt when I surfed the Web for the first time. I, like Fies, too wonder what will be my children’s future, what event or technology will captivate them, when will their “eagle” land.  If those questions are Fies’ ultimate aim to ask, then “mission accomplished” Mr. Fies.

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