Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?

Brian Fies' autobiographical webcomic "Mom's Cancer" won the first Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic in 2005 and was collected in print the following year by publisher Harry N. Abrams. The author returns with "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?", an original graphic novel which explores the relationship between a father and son against the backdrop of American progress from the 1939 Wold's Fair to the final Apollo space mission in 1975. The book is now available from Abrams ComicArts. CBR News spoke with Fies about the World of Tomorrow, changing American attitudes, and fun facts about paper.

Fies's previous book, "Mom's Cancer," was based on his own experiences coping with his mother's illness. With "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow," the inspiration is less obvious. "The story that became 'WHTTWOT' evolved over time, through informal discussions with my editor Charlie Kochman," Fies told CBR. "As a child of the Space Age, I've always had a deep passion for the space program and science in general, and often reflect on what happened to the sense of can-do optimism I remember people having when I was a kid. I wanted to write about that: how the mood of society changed from optimistic and a bit naïve to pessimistic and cynical. I grew up in a time when people thought science and technology could make tomorrow better than today. These days, all the cool people seem to believe the opposite. I wanted to make the argument that even though we don't have Moon colonies and flying cars--and maybe in our maturity realize we shouldn't have expected or even sought them--there is still value in believing in and working toward a better future. Sure, we've got problems, but people have always had problems. I think there's at least a decent chance that tomorrow actually could be better than today, and science and technology could still help it along."

Fies continued, "That idea's not really a book. 'WHTTWOT' became a book when I realized that society's shift from optimism to cynicism was a lot like a character arc in a story. In particular, it sounded to me like the arc of a parent-child relationship. Young children idolize their parents as the infallible centers of their universe. Later, as teens, they realize their parents are ordinary flawed people and the relationship can turn dark and angry. So I created these characters of Pop and his little Buddy as a metaphor for, and reflection of, similar changes in society."

To this end, Fies sought to capture not only the significant events of each era, such as the advent of the atomic bomb and the first Apollo missions into space, but also the attitudes of ordinary Americans, which sees Pop preparing a bomb shelter and distrusting publicly reformed German scientists -- not to mention Buddy's growing cynicism in the '70s when Utopia fails to materialize. "The relationship is a metaphor for those periods in history," Fies said.

"Space Age Adventures" is a comic-within-a-comic starring a hero and his young sidekick who closely resemble Buddy and Pop. "That helped me make one of my key points, which is that popular culture--not just comics but movies, television, magazines, books--were important influences on how the World of Tomorrow actually developed," Fies said. "When 40 million people rode the Futurama exhibition at the 1939 World's Fair or watched Walt Disney's 'Man in Space' programs, their expectations drove the direction that real politicians, scientists, and engineers took.

"Also, the comic books provide a Greek Chorus that let me comment on both the eras and characters in ways they couldn't themselves."

The first thing readers will notice about the "Space Age Adventures" comics, though, is that they are printed on different paper than the rest of "Whatever Happened To The World of Tomorrow?", with art, story, and even indicia mimicking the comics of different eras. "One of my favorite stories about publishing 'WHTTWOT' concerns getting that paper," Fies said. "Historically, Abrams is a publisher of very classy, exquisitely produced fine-art books. So when my editor Charlie Kochman was selecting paper for our comic books, Abrams' paper people kept bringing him this really nice stuff. He kept telling them it was too thick, too glossy, too white. Finally, he brought in an old cheap comic book reprint to show them. The light bulb ignited over their heads. 'Oh, you want bad paper!' Yes, we want bad paper."

Fies also added a newsprint overlay texture to his art that artificially yellowed the paper's cream color. "In fact, the paper in [the 1975 'Space Age Adventures'] is a little less yellow that that in 1939. The blotches and off-register printing were done on purpose, and also improve between 1939 and 1975 to suggest improving print technology. We ran some tests to see how the paper and ink would work together. But the bottom line was that the worse the artwork printed on those pages, the better it was for my purposes."

Before springing into action, "Space Age Adventures" hero Cap Crater shouts his catchphrase, "Ad astra per aspera," which translates to "To the stars through difficulties" -- a somewhat unusual call to action for a four-color hero. Fies noted that this is the state motto of Kansas and has also been used in other relevant contexts. "In 'Star Trek,' it's the pre-Federation motto of Starfleet. The reverse, 'Per aspera ad astra,' goes back to ancient Greece and has been used by NASA. It means the same thing but I don't think rolls off the tongue as easily," he said. "It's just one of those bits of data I came across many years ago that seemed to sum up what the whole enterprise of working toward a better future is about. It'll be hard but we'll get it done. 'To the stars through difficulties.' As I worked on the book that thought emerged as a motif, and making it Cap Crater's battle cry brought it home.

"And it's really no worse than 'Avengers Assemble.'"

Buddy and Pop, the real heroes of the book, also display the superpower to age very slowly, such that Buddy is a young boy at the 1939 World's Fair and is college-age in 1975. It's a storytelling device Fies found served the themes of his graphic novel. "My editor and I thought hard about that, and a few early readers of the manuscript had a problem with it. But I decided that's what I had to do to tell the story I wanted to tell," Fies said. "The point was to map society's evolution over 36 years onto approximately 10 years of a father-son relationship evolving similarly. The metronome that beats throughout the book is the comic book's Cosmic Kid, who follows a path similar to the one Dick Grayson's Robin did in the comics between the 1940s and '70s, aging from a little kid to a college student. The fact that time passes at the same rate for my book's 'real' characters is kind of a metatextual commentary: they don't age as fast as you or I do because they're in a comic book too, just like Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid, just as real or imaginary as they are. It also lets me leave the reader with a question: who are the two men in the last chapter of the book?

"In the end, we tried to acknowledge and address the issue in the Author's Note at the start, and hope that readers are willing to roll with it. Most seem to accept it without much angst."

Just a quick glance at "Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?" reveals it to be research-heavy project, with captions full of historical information, photographs of world events incorporated into the artwork, and the attention to detail necessary to illustrate four distinct decades of American culture. "I researched the heck out of everything, and live in terror of someone pointing out mistakes," Fies confirmed. "I compiled four thick binders of research, a couple thousand pages worth, and watched hours and hours of film to try to get it right. I bought model cars and made model spaceships. I went into the project thinking I had a pretty good handle on these events and discovered how ignorant I was as I went.

"Both the beauty and curse of doing a graphic novel is that nothing goes on the page unless I decide to put it there," Fies continued. "If I was drawing a cola bottle in 1939 or a street light in 1945, I tried to find a reference for it. I found blueprints for old subway cars and made sure every rivet was right. Some bits of research were really happy accidents, like the old television circuit diagram that provides the background for the scene of the dad and son seeing their first TV. That just fell into my lap.

"As the book moves into the 1960s and '70s, I was able to draw on my own memories and family photos more and more. A lot of those furnishings and such were things my parents or grandparents had in their homes."

Because of the complex nature of "Whatever Happened To The World of Tomorrow?", some scenes proved particularly difficult, while others felt remarkably rewarding to Fies. "The phony comic book pages were time-consuming and tough. What I particularly enjoyed about the early chapters was the challenge of putting the research I'd done to use, tracking their route through the World's Fair and so on. I had a lot of fun making the movie serial poster on page 49, which I described in my blog. I got great pleasure adding little details like faint 'stains' around the comic book 'staples' from their oil film leaching into the cheap newsprint.

"There are sequences that I just feel really worked and accomplished exactly what I wanted, which I found creatively satisfying even though the reader might not notice anything special about them. Especially spots where I felt the words and pictures really worked together, because that's my ideal. I had fun leaving Easter eggs and in-jokes for readers or my family to get. I was thrilled when Chesley Bonestell's estate gave me permission to reproduce some of his artwork. And to top it off, designer Neil Egan and the Abrams production people pulled it all together into a book I think is just beautifully conceived and printed. Just as a physical object, I think it's pretty cool."

"Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?" debuted at New York's Museum of Comic and Cartoon Art Fetival earlier this month. Though Brian Fies was not able to attend, Abrams sold out its stock on hand. "I read a few bloggers who mentioned it as a highlight of the con, so I'm happy to take that as a good early indicator," Fies said. "My goal was to write a book that I, myself, would not be able to put down if I saw it in a bookstore. I know I accomplished that. I hope a lot of other people feel the same way. We'll see."

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