“There was a time when building the future was inspirational,” Brian Fies writes in his new graphic novel, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? “Ambitious. Romantic. Even enobling. I think it can again.” Fies, award-winning artist and author of Mom’s Cancer, turns back the clock to the optimistic days of the 1939 New York World’s Fair and traces how that optimism faded over the years, both in the father-son relationship at the heart of his story and in the relationship America itself had with the vision of the future it dangled tantalizingly out of its own reach. In a world seemingly hell bent on self-destruction, Fies offers a glimmer of old-fashioned hope based in the determination to keep on believing in the future, no matter what.
Young Buddy and his Pop share a common language of the future in all its gleaming, rocket-powered, utopian glory. Fies recreates the sense of unabashed wonder in technology that young people once allowed themselves to feel, and older people could still buy into as well. Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? teaches in great detail what happened to yesterday’s world of tomorrow, paralleling the personal life of the boy becoming a teen becoming a man with the public life of machines becoming hope becoming just machines again, with the resulting disappointment. Along the way, scientist Wernher von Braun, visionary Walt Disney, astronaut Ed White, and other historic figures stand as touchstones for the human element caught up in the politically influenced drive to the future. The lyrical way that Fies makes use of White’s spacewalk, the first by an American astronaut, will give your heart wings, too.
Fies takes history and science and weaves in words and pictures wide-ranging metaphors the way that novelist Richard Powers does solely in words. We’re so inundated with dystopian visions of technology that a hopeful future actually can make us uneasy. Fies recognizes that reticence and addresses those doubts before offering a convincing vision of a better tomorrow. This old-fashioned romanticism will draw snide comments from jaded readers, but those who allow themselves to enter Fies’ world will accept the need for a hope in the future if not its probability of happening.
One of the more entertaining aspects of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? is the recurring comic-within-the-comic device of Captain Crater and the Cosmic Kid—doppelgangers for the father and son who express openly the feelings that hang silently between the “real” duo, who are more comfortably in sharing a love of science fiction than the love they have for one another. Fies rewards lovers of comic book history through thinly veiled homages to the comic creators of the past in these interludes. The visual quotations in these insider comics will send you scouring your collection to reread the originals.
“Ad astra per aspera,” shout the dynamic duo over and over. “Through hardships to the stars.” Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? calls us to keep reaching for the stars despite the hardships of the past and the present. As Robert Browning once wrote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp. Or what’s a heaven for?” Fies echoes Browning in extolling the value of the reach, for heaven awaits those who dare to believe. Fies’ comic is a book to share with your children and your children’s children, for it is a document of faith lost and faith restored—something that we need more of every day.