Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? Brian Fies. Abrams ComicArts. New York. 2009. 208pp. $24.95 hardcover.
We are constantly documenting…from the most ephemeral to the everlasting. Much of art is one form of documentation or another. Most graphic novels are some form of a document, some more specific than others. That brings me to a work in comics that does a wonderful job of collecting a lifetime’s worth of observations into a cohesive whole. Brian Fies is an excellent cartoonist in every sense of the term: an auteur creator who dives in and makes sense of the world with crisp and concise combinations of words and pictures. Brian Fies is someone that I look up to as an example of the cartoonist-explorer or cartoonist-journalist. One of his landmark works is A Fire Story which chronicles the devastating California fires from both a personal perspective and a collection of profiles. You can find one of my reviews here as well as one of my interviews. For the book I’m talking about with you now, Fies explores the futuristic dreams promised Americans at the end of World War II and what has actually resulted. That book is Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?
Fies takes the reader to the New York World’s Fair of 1939 and shares a boy’s excitement and idealism on a visit with his father. Buddy is a boy with big dreams fueled by pop culture, government propaganda, along with the inevitable conclusion that humanity is indeed destined for the stars one way or another. Human progress could not be denied, despite a few setbacks, right? Alternating between inspiring entertainment (Chesley Bonestell’s space age paintings in Collier’s magazine) to bona fide advancements (universal electrical wiring, trans-atlantic telephone cables, high-speed motorways), Fies paints a picture of a future that seemed to only be getting brighter. However, there were still those bumps in the road as well as bumps to pave over in the name of progress.
A cold war was to trigger a space race and propel the space age into high gear. Fies dutifully recounts the back and forth rivalry between the Soviets and the Americans. And then it all seems to come to a head in one transcendent moment. During the two-man U.S. Gemini mission in 1965, two astronauts engage in some playful bickering. Jim McDivitt must coax his fellow astronaut, Ed White, to cut short his spacewalk and return to the ship. This less than by-the-book behavior revealed humanity. And it laid to rest Wernher Von Braun’s concern over whether humans could tolerate the free-falling sensation of being in a weightless environment.
The reality that Buddy, our main character, must face is that the idealism of the space age is not just about idealism but also tied to politics and the military industrial complex. Over the decades, our perpetually boyish Buddy and his remarkably youthful father, get to see the full arc of the space age, from its inception to its dwindling popularity. Fies has a lot of fun extending the life of his comics characters in order for them to get the full picture. The era of the big swagger gave way to a new era of smaller, faster and leaner. But this was hardly a step backward and, truth be told, we were inevitably heading in that direction. That’s what Buddy figures out. Tomorrow maybe be late but tomorrow will inevitably come. And what about those jetpacks we were promised? Well, at the time of this book’s release in 2009, that was still a promise. Today, we’re on our way to keeping it. A jetpack currently goes for around $400,000 but they’ll become common someday, within the reach of anyone, and that’s worth the wait.