Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow original hardcover graphic novel
Writer/Artist/Cover artist: Brian Fies
Editor: Charlie Kochman
Publisher: Abrams ComicArts/Harry N. Abrams, Inc.
Price: $24.95 US/$27.50 CAN
I don’t know what it is about Brian Fies’s projects, but I always seem to find out about them well after their release. I was late getting on the Mom’s Cancer bandwagon but was thrilled with what I found after I finally got my hands on a copy of the hardcover collected edition of his touching webcomic. And for some reason, this second project flew under my radar for a couple of months as well. As soon as I saw it, though, I grabbed a copy off the shelf at my local comic shop, eager to delve into what I expected was more personal storytelling. I did find that to a certain degree, but Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, while exploring emotional reactions to a history of 20th-century American technology and innovation, lacks a more resonant, personal tone. Helping to maintain that barrier between the reader and the main character is Fies’s meticulous detailing of the history he clearly wants to share with and impart upon his audience. It’s a shame that the execution here falls a bit short, as Fies experiments with content and even production values to great effect. This is an interesting book, but perhaps its biggest problem is that it gives away the entire premise and the moods to be found within with its very title.
A young boy named Buddy and his father head out to the World’s Fair in New York in 1939 where they discover the future. Pavilions, galleries and displays all spotlight the innovations that are just within mankind’s grasp, and Buddy and his dad dream of a life of technological marvels, easy living and peace on earth. In the wake of the Second World War and the birth of the space race, they look skyward with hope, even as the world changes in a manner they didn’t expect and don’t particularly welcome. As Buddy grows up, he keeps waiting and he begins to wonder whatever became of the future that was promised him.
Fies’s graphic novel is particularly topical today, as U.S. President Barack Obama seemed to back away from any notion of a more aggressive space-exploration program not long ago, which ran contrary to some people’s vision of him as being a JFK for the 21st century. His position is understandable; what politician tasked with guiding his constituents out of a recession would want to talk about spending billions on wonder and adventure? Still, the point Fies makes in this book resonates as strongly today as it would have in the 1970s and 1980s, when the U.S. space program shifted from exploration of faraway places to missions to the empty spaces in between. Fies ends his graphic novel on a hopeful note, suggesting that a renewed space age is just over the horizon. Personally, I preferred the cynical, disappointed tone that crept slowly but surely into the book, but the upbeat, speculative ending is definitely in keeping with what Fies sets out to say right from the start.
Just as Fies is about to sweep the reader away with the excitement of a pivotal moment in human achievement, he obstructs that hopeful feeling somewhat by trying to focus the audience’s attention on the facts and people that made up that moment. He diverts from the feeling to the footnotes. At times, Fies’s script reads more like a Wikipedia page than a component of a story.
The writer/artist breaks up Buddy’s slow, wide-eyed travels through history with “excerpts” from Space Age Adventures, his comic-within-the-comic featuring the adventures of Commander Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid (who bear striking resemblances to Buddy and his father). These pop-culture proxies serve to explore the science and politics of the various decades in which they’re set. What’s most striking and pleasing about the Space Age segments is how they’re printed on a rougher paper stock than the rest of the book that feels the newsprint comics of yesteryear. The colors for those segments are also done in a style reminiscent of the eras in which they’re set, adding to the kitsch. Going that extra mile really adds to the effectiveness of those sequences.
The simple style of Fies’s linework is quite attractive; it’s easy to see such influences as Charles (Peanuts) Schulz and Bill (Calvin and Hobbes) Watterson in his work. The cartoony approach is perfect for the comics-within-the-comic, and the simpler look of the characters makes it easier for the reader to identify with them. He also incorporates photographs and sleek digital art into the visuals, and they drive home the reality and history that are so vital to his story and his moral.
Perhaps what I found most distracting about the book was Buddy and his defiance of time. Buddy is clearly not meant to represent any one person. He’s a young boy in 1939, and he’s only reached his teen years by the mid-1970s. There is no Buddy. His name along is a cue. Fies is Buddy. I’m Buddy. You’re Buddy. Wouldn’t you like to be a Buddy too? I get where Fies is going with that approach. I think it undermines his storytelling, though. The reminders that Buddy is a stand-in make him less of a character. I didn’t want to be reminded that he was a device. I probably would have appreciated the story more and Buddy’s role in it if I could believe in him as an individual, as a person born of Fies’s imagination. 6/10
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