I’m the only person in my family who’s not a comic book/graphic novel geek. But when graphic novels are used to illuminate history (as with Maus, Persepolis, or Larry Gonik’s Cartoon History of the World series), I can be lured in. When Brian Fies offered GeekDad a review copy of his second work, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? , I responded both because I thought my GeekTeen would enjoy it (he did) and because it opened with a visit to the 1939 World’s Fair. I remember old home movies of my dad visiting that fair as a little boy. As a little girl, I got to miss a day of school to see the 1967 World’s Fair, on the same spot. And about a year ago, I took my kids to the site – now run down and abandoned, except for foreign tourists, and the occasional repurposed exhibit like the Hall of Science. So I was curious to see what Fies would do with the theme.
Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? is a reflection on futures past. Fies follows a boy named Buddy and his Pop from 1939 to the present. But the story moves in what Fies calls “Comics Time,” so that Buddy is still a young teenager in 1965 when he and Pop drive down to Cape Canaveral for the launch of Gemini 4, and isn’t ready to leave for college until 1975. Actually, “story” is too strong a word. Fies uses his characters as a way to present American history during the Space Age through human eyes. Buddy and Pop’s visit to the World’s Fair is presented in as much starry-eyed detail as a Saturday matinee travelogue. We not only watch 1960s American kitsch pass by on the trip to Florida, we see how “typical” Americans fit into the landscape. And we experience the weird disconnect as Buddy helps his ever-optimistic Pop build a basement fallout shelter.
Fies is constantly slipping in cultural touchstones – the first TV broadcast (FDR opening the World’s Fair), Disney expansion from movie company to theme park to television show to empire, transistor radios. And comics! In each era, there’s an “actual” issue of Fies’ homage to classic comics. The series, “Commander Cap Crater and The Cosmic Kid,” is printed on yellowing rough paper bound into the rest of the book, with highly noticeable Benday dots and inky splotches. While the comics comment on the rest of the story, by themselves they’re also the most fun part of the book.
As my GeekTeen noted, Fies’ drawing is superb – low-key but effective. He makes good use of photos, and even introduces us to the man behind some of the iconic “artist’s conception” space vehicle paintings seen so often in 1960s magazines, Chesley Bonestell. (Although the cutaway dust jacket juxtaposing 1930s reality with the future is a clever idea, it does require more care in handling than my family usually gives to books.) As for the writing, it neatly captures Buddy’s tone of amazed wonder at the beginning and its shift into thoughtful reflection and near-disillusionment. But Fies never totally strips away his characters’ sense of wonder, as the book’s ending reveals. Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? deftly sums up America’s Space Age as experienced by its most enthusiastic (that is to say, geekiest) followers.