Written and drawn by Brian Fies.
Abrams Comic Arts, 2009.
Growing up in Kansas we took several school field trips to the Kansas Cosmosphere, a science museum devoted to space exploration. The exhibits devoted to liquid rockets, Robert Goddard, the Space Race and the lunar landing were extremely fascinating. Brian Fies shares some of that fascination with space exploration (and the attendant futurism) and applying his talents of science writing toward those subjects created the graphic novel Whatever Happened To The World Of Tomorrow?
This book begins with a young boy and his father as they are spectators to the scientific advancements that progressed from the 1939 World’s Fair in New York, where the first glimpses of the future are laid out by the awe striking exhibits to a very young main character. The book is divided into decades after this and the events of progress in space exploration (as well as its effects on terrestrial technology) are described through the end of World War II in 1945, Cold War fears of mutually assured destruction in 1955, changing social norms in 1965 and disillusionment with the orbital based space program in 1975 (after the high water mark of the manned lunar landings).
The character interactions between the son and father serve to frame the dialect between an older and younger generations view points. The father’s fears of the world are often counterbalanced by the son’s wonder with the future. The son provides the main narrative voice, but his authoritative narration exposits historical information about the changing world, from the introduction of frozen TV dinners to transistors to the manned space program to integrated circuits and satellites.
An additional narrative device is the inclusion of facsimile comics (short stories of only a few pages) that mirror the ephemeral comics of the time periods not only in fake ads and covers but in the story contents themselves. These comic pieces also track how the zeitgeist changes in opinion about technology, its value and the social construction and understanding of concepts such as good and evil. I found these a really clever way to address how the changing decades reflected society’s relationship to technology through the popular culture it produced.
The art style is cartoonish in the depiction of characters, but the images of space exploration are actual photographs from NASA archives. The compositing of drawn images and real photographs is tastefully accomplished though, and the book avoids becoming a photoshopped version of “fumetti” (which it should be noted is often used in common English to refer to photocomics but in Italian is used to refer to all comics).
Two things I noted that were rather obvious conceits of the book. The age of the characters does not progress in real time though the events that are described do, often being couched in science writing describing specific dates. At the beginning of the book, the 1939 World’s Fair, I get the impression that the son is maybe 6 or 7 and the father is probably late 20s or early 30s. At the end of the book, which I took to be somewhere in the early 1980s the son is maybe early 20s and the father is in his 50s. I chalk this up to comic book time, which has always been an elastic quantity and a prerequisite is the suspension of disbelief in this regard if one is to enjoy the genre of superheroes. The incongruity of aging in this book allows that swath of decades to be experienced as the maturation of the narrator son character into adulthood, which makes sense for the presentation of the story but is noticeable to the reader due to the historical specifics and date facts that are in the text.
The boy’s mother is also inexplicably absent. It is not that this single parent family is somehow contra to imagined nuclear family ideals for that time, but there is never really any mention of the mother or her absence. That absence is made conspicuous by such complete omission, but I find this to be a wise decision of Fries’ part. A simple throwaway line at the beginning that explains the father is a widower would have been most writers’ solution to the absence of a mother. By never mentioning the mother and staying away from too much backstory building, the author makes the dialectic between the son and the father more symbolic, more iconic of the generational gap. That also aids in the reading of the aging of the characters not reflecting real time.
This is a well-written and enjoyable book. I would not hesitate to give this to an American History 1945-to-present high school class the first week of a semester and tell them “by next week I want you to have read this, then we will start the boring old textbook written in 1977 but in the 20th edition now”. Science writing and history that is appealing to a general audience is a great thing and this book achieves that end.