Whatever Happened To The World Of Tomorrow – we don’t need a jetpack after all….
by Brian Fies
(The beautiful overlay to the hardcover of World Of Tomorrow – perfectly done.)
Whatever Happened To The World Of Tomorrow is Brian Fies’ reaction to the oft quoted cry of “where’s my flying car and jetpack?” that we’re all familiar with. But Fies just doesn’t agree with the idea that we’ve somehow lost the ideals and dreams of earlier generations. He believes, as his book goes on to show, that our collective future is still something bursting with potential, albeit considerably different from the one imagined in the technological fires of the last century. And Fies makes a sweet, nostalgic and heartfelt case for it in his book that’s all about not just the development of technology in new and unexpected directions but the ever so predictable growth and eventual separation between fathers and sons. Technology marches on and children grow older and leave. And both are handled perfectly in this book.
We join a father and his very young son at the 1939 New York World’s Fair and follow the pair through time, touching on key technological advances and historical events along the way; World War II, The Cold War, The Space Program, Man on the Moon and a far flung future. How can one boy manage to be around from 1939 to somewhere obviously decades or more into the 21st Century? Like Flies says in his introduction to the book:
“Comic time is a kind of magical realism unique to the realm of graphical fiction. It begins on the next page with a boy and his father, for whom time passes at a pace that serves the story.”
And this minor cheat, allowing Fies to encapsulate all of the key moments in the book and end with Father, Son and Granddaughter looking back from the future, is just something we can easily accept, thanks to Fies very naturalistic, sentimental and emotive storytelling.
(The 1939 New York World’s Fair sets up the key relationships of the story: between father and son and between son and the technology of his own future. From Brian Fies’ Whatever Happened To The World Of Tomorrow)
Fies uses the boy, Buddy, as his wide-eyed innocent, detailing with wonder and awe all the amazing things that are going on in the world. The New York World’s Fair is a perfect place to start; America in 1939 was so full of the possibilities of a utopian future, as yet untouched by the horrors of war, an relative innocent in the world. We walk through the fair, looking through Buddy’s eyes at the technological marvels on show in a future theme-park as big as a city; communication, transportation, production and food areas all pointed towards a utopian future free from war, disease, famine and toil. We may think differently now, but using Buddy’s literally wide-eyed innocence to convey the scene, we, the reader are swept up in the potential of this miraculous wonder.
(I Have Seen The Future – “Until a few hours ago, I hadn’t though about the future much. After today, I would think of little else. I was ready now.” And in Buddy’s words are the world’s hopes of the time.)
At the end of the World’s Fair chapter, Fies brings us back down to earth with a bump; Buddy’s pop sits him down and shows probably the first moment of uncertainty or fear his child has ever seen:
“All this science and engineering and machinery. This figuring how people can best work and live. I don’t know what to make of it, nor how to be a part of it.”
“But you can, Buddy. You’re a smart boy. That’s what the world’s going to need to make this happen. To change things.”
“And things, need to change, because the way I grew up doesn’t work anymore.”
“It’ll take brains and hard work, and plenty of both!”
“You think you can do that?”
“I will, Pop.”
It’s a downbeat moment that will recur throughout the book, carefully and poignantly done, looking at this new world of technological marvels through older, less innocent eyes. And in many ways it’s actually terribly sad, particularly after spending so much time looking at the new world through Buddy’s young eyes.
Time passes, Pop goes to war and returns, the world moves on again; 1955 and everything seems fresh and exciting to the young Buddy, even the prospect of having to hump concrete blocks down to the basement for Dad to build what is obviously a fallout shelter, whilst the reader can only see the threat and the very real tension of Buddy’s father:
(The Cold War: fallout shelter building and globalk tensions reflected closer to home.)
But young Buddy is unaware of the very real threat of the time and loses himself again and again in the rush for space and a future in the stars, something that carries him forward to the 60s and the incredible rush of technology that surrounded the US space program.
Of course, following the white heat rush of technological advancement in the 50s and 60s we come crashing into the 70s. Buddy is older, finding himself at odds with his father, losing the adoration of his youth and realising that, like the promise of technology, his father isn’t perfect either. The Apollo moon landings led to the twilight of the space program, where routine space travel not only never materialised but actually became dull and uninspiring for a nation so proud of it’s pioneering spirit. And there’s a realisation on Buddy’s part that the world he’d grown up in may not be the wonderful place he’d always imagined. His disappointment with the world shows in his deteriorating relationship with Pop:
“When did this man I grew up idolizing turn into such an irritating, embarassing square?”
“Pop and I agreed on the miracle of the ’69 Mets. Otherwise, we could hardly speak without arguing about something: Little liberties like music, curfew, housekeeping, or borrowing the car.”
“Sparked by Pop when I was a child and fuelled by the high-octane promise of the times, a passion for bettering the world through science burned in my bones. Science was powerful, beautiful, elegant, and real. Now, the future we yearned for – the utopian world of tomorrow Pop and I wanted so much and I’d spent my life preparing for – hadn’t happened.”
“The rug had been pulled out from under us, and we had little left but empty cynicism and nihilism to take it’s place.”
As Buddy lies on his bed, wanting out of his life as he knows it, waiting for the Apollo-Soyuz link up that effectively ended the most exciting period in space exploration, we’re mourning the loss of innocence and hope. Yet even then, Buddy reflects on the future, just a different future from the one he and Pop had imagined together. There’s mention of Richard Feynman, the potential of nanotechnology, the incredible potential of the small. So there’s still hope in Buddy’s world – touchingly evoked by one last scene of wonder between Pop and Buddy as they glimpse the Apollo-Soyuz undocking in the night sky
(It never happened this way – Fies freely admits to this is his endnotes: “The sequence of Apollo and Soyuz undocking at night is the only deliberate artistic license taken. It was actually midday in the US on July 19th, 1975. I can live with it.” And so can I.)
From this final joyous moment we, along with Buddy and Pop, venture into the unknown future, in an unmarked time (this is where Fies decision to use comic book time to age his characters to fit his story works at it’s best). Buddy, Pop and Buddy’s daughter are in space, part of the future that Buddy and Pop always dreamed of. Gone are the problem of today, this is the World of Tomorrow, this is the way we always dreamed it would be. We got there. Eventually. It’s sweet, tender and moving. I dare you to get through that last chapter without a tear. It’s also incredibly hopeful and is practically Fies challenging us to do better, to do everything we can to make the future a better place.
All the way through Whatever Happened To The World Of Tomorrow the actual technological wonders of the age are mirrored in the pop culture of the times, specifically comic books. At regular intervals in the book we’re treated to beautifully realistic comic inserts on good old fashioned newsprint paper, suitably yellowed and drawn by Fies with more than a nod to the artists of the time. Captain Crater’s adventures mirror the times, forward looking, revelling in the new technological age, playing with the nuclear threat, meeting the 60s head-on and exploring space Crater style and finally, in a nod to the darker times in comics and the world of the 70s, giving us the last issue where Crater finds himself lost in a time he doesn’t recognise, attempting to fit his ideals onto a world he doesn’t fit into anymore. It’s a clever way to be able to look at some extra aspects of the times that didn’t necessarily fit into Buddy’s story and an equally clever way to reinforce the themes of the main story.
(Fies’ loving tribute to the comics of the times with Captain Crater, even down to dodgy printing and mock ink stains)
Anyone, like me, who spent any of their childhood reading up about space and the astonishing courage and amazing technological advances that led to the space race, will be engrossed with the themes of Whatever Happened To The World Of Tomorrow. It’s a story almost written for the 10 year old boy that I was and it’s a book that speaks to the 38 year old me, who can look back at this golden age of exploration and endeavour and question why it never carried on, why we aren’t living in the world of the future we were always promised.
But Fies mirrors some of my own thinking, with his closing two chapters, that perhaps we are already living the magical future world we always dreamed of, just not in precisely the ways we thought. I’m sat here typing this out and I’m surrounded by technological marvels that have become everyday items – just the way Buddy and Pop were promised they would in New York in 1939. Man may not have been back to the moon, but developments here on Earth have been staggering and inspiring. We’re curing diseases everyday, we’re living incredible lives, seeing more and more wonders of our planet, our children will live longer, experience more and marvel more than we can possibly dream of. Isn’t this the future we were promised? There may not be jetpacks yet. We may not be living in splendid 2001-style spacecraft circling Mars. But the world is an amazing place right now… and it’s getting more amazing everyday.
A note about the design: From the intricate multi-layered cover with it’s retro overlay on it’s futuristic hardback cover, through to the carefully authentic newsprint comics included at regular intervals throughout this book is a real treat. The book’s colour scheme is a similar triumph. Buddy and Pop walk through pages of subtle colours, with only themselves and the representations of the future in full colour – toy rockets, comic book pages, magazines, cinema posters – all of the things that fill Buddy’s world with promise for a better tomorrow. Each section has a different base / background tone, perfectly chosen for the times; a subtle brown for 1939, a drab gray for wartime, a cold blue for the start of the space age and so on. It’s clever and it’s subtle and it’s beautifully done. Flies and the book’s designer Neil Egan have made this book something very special, in content and in form.
It’s a book that I found really inspiring, sentimental and in many ways, profoundly sad. It’s also a book that demands multiple readings. The simplicity of the artwork plays upon the ideas of innocence and of hope for the future and it’s a delight to experience the many varied ways that Fies gets his points across; the inclusion of photographs, the reproduction of classic movie and magazine images, the blueprints, the maps; it all adds up to a wonderful book. Even more so on subsequent readings, where I found myself tearing up at times, overwhelmed by the inspirational moments, mourning for the loss of innocence and rejoicing, along with Fies, at the future we’ve shaped for ourselves.
Whatever Happened To The World Of Tomorrow is a very special book that will speak to you on so many levels. And at the end of it, when you sit there and think on what you’ve just read, it may even make you, like it did me, realise that Fies’ vision of our past and his hope for the future is something we can all share in. Quite brilliant.