Brian Fies Gives Us a Vision of the Future Past In ‘Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?’

[3 September 2012]

By Zachary Houle

Illustrator and author Brian Fies was a bit of a pioneer when, in 2004, he launched his autobiographical and very personal graphic novel Mom’s Cancer to the Web. While certainly other comic book artists were making comics for the Web well before that time, Fies arrived right at the cusp of when major awards-giving bodies started recognizing the artistic and literary potential of online comics.

To that end, Fies became the inaugural recipient of the Eisner Award for Best Digital Comic in 2005, and began to pick up other accolades as well once Mom’s Cancer left the Web for the seemingly more hallowed ground of permanency in the print world by 2006. (It should be noted that Mom’s Cancer is no longer available online.) As such, Mom’s Cancer, a serious but sometimes funny and overall poignant tale of the author’s travails dealing with the fact his mother was diagnosed with terminal cancer, overshadows the impact of its creator. There is a Wikipedia entry for Mom’s Cancer. There is no Wikipedia page for Brian Fies as an individual.

However, Fies’ oeuvre certain runs beyond Mom’s Cancer. He is also the author of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, a 2009 graphic novel which is now making its paperback appearance for the first time. If Mom’s Cancer was about the relationship between mothers and sons (and daughters, too, as Fies’ sisters played a role in that comic), then Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? is about the special bond between fathers and sons.

Spanning a timeline between the 1939 World’s Fair in New York City and the final Apollo mission in 1975, Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? is a baffling, puzzling story that plays fast and loose with temporality. In his author’s note, Fies says that this story is of a boy and his father “for whom time passes at a pace that serves their story” in the best tradition of comics where Batman never ages a day and neither does Dennis the Menace. This effectively means that the boy of the story is perhaps no older than eight or nine years old when Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? begins in 1939, but is on the cusp of his college years when the story nearly draws to a close in the mid-‘70s!

There’s a method to this madness: Fies is interested in using his characters ages unrealistically to show how attitudes about the future were naïve and innocent back at the dawn of the Second World War, but had virtually lost their lustre and had become cranky and rebellious as dystopian nightmares about what lay before mankind took hold by 1975. If you need any further proof of that, perhaps compare the quaint and fluffy Flash Gordon serials of the late ‘30s and early ‘40s with the pessimistic Planet of the Apes movies of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s.

With that, you may be asking yourself: Is that it? Is that all there is to Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? That Fies argues in his work that the utopian visions of the future have all but vanished, and it’s in humanity’s best interest to somehow get those ideals back? That we should be looking beyond our current frontiers and be actively exploring – if not colonizing – space? More or less, in a word, yes. That makes Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? a rather long soapbox rant for some seemingly relatively compact 200 pages, and maybe something that would have been better served as three part mini-series as opposed to a graphic novel.

However, that would be overlooking one of the finer aspects of Fies’ work: the guy has certainly done his research in making his case. If you ever wondered what the 1939 World’s Fair had to offer, you’ll get a pretty good taste of it by wandering through the opening section of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, where even a map of the grounds is faithfully reproduced for us to longingly gaze at this vision of the future past. And you’ll get a historical lesson in what role everyone from Walt Disney to Werner von Braun played in the development of the space race, as well.

However, the main relationship between the unnamed father and son is one that doesn’t contain much soul. Fies is too much in love with his notetaking abilities when it comes to factual dissemination, that there isn’t a great deal of meat to gnaw on when it comes to actual emotional content. In fact, it isn’t until Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?’s final pages that it turns a bit maudlin and a certain pang of sorrow enters the comic’s dynamic. It seems that much of the graphic novel is taken up by the retro golly-gee-whiz Tom Swift-esque tone and moralizing on the state of our collective ambition to make a better world, that there isn’t much room for any sort of colouring or much dynamism between the two main characters.

This may be as good as place as any to mention that the world of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? is one that isn’t populated by anyone belonging to a visible minority or even females, though both are given token mentions and appearances in the plot. Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? is so in love with the ideals of the past, that it fails to look at the past’s fundamental flaw: that if you were black, or if you had a vagina, you didn’t really count much in the new world order being touted by scientists and engineers of the period Fies glorifies. Fies does allude to this in his text at times, particularly by noting that the late Sally Ride was only 12 years old when the Russians launched a female astronaut (Valentina Tereshkova) into space in 1963, but overall, Fies’ view seems to be fairly whitewashed by the predominantly white and male thinking of the period.

That isn’t to say that Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? isn’t a fun and nostalgic look back at the world of yesterday. What’s particularly enjoyable are the Commander Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid comics within a comic, which are printed on yellowed, coarser paper than the rest of the graphic novel, giving them an authentic, pulp-like feel. These mini-comics are silly and off-the-cuff, but they do add to the overall retro tone of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, and might be the very best thing about the graphic novel. In fact, had Fies just given us those stories, and left the expository main father-son dynamic out of the narrative, he would have been perhaps just as successful in showcasing his ideas for a return to simpler, wistful attitudes in pursuing the dreams of yore.

As it stands, though, as a half-history lesson and half-polemic on the state of the world and universe, Whatever is only a lukewarm piece of entertainment that largely fails to actually entertain. This is unfortunate, for I’m writing this review on the very day that it was announced that Neil Armstrong had passed away, and the world could perhaps use a little bit of that space-aged, old fashioned idealism and begin reaching for the stars again. Alas, for all the accolades Fies might have won on the smaller, more personal canvass of Mom’s Cancer, this time out readers might do little more than shrug their shoulders and say, well, whatever.

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