Brian Fies's 2012 graphic novel Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? expresses a beautiful, melancholic and hopeful longing for (and suspicion of) the futuristic optimism of America's 20th century, starting with the 1939 World's Fair. Cory Doctorow finally got caught up with the future and read it.

Whatever Happened? uses a wonderful collage technique to tell its story, including doctored photos, TV scans, paper souvenirs and newspaper scans from the 1939 World's Fair, Disneyland's early years, the Apollo Program and science pulps. It's told as a series of contrasting vignettes that come in pairs.

The first half of each of these sets up the relationship between a young boy and his father, who start off with a shared, optimistic sense of the future, but whose feelings diverge as the father's view of the future becomes increasingly dark and alienated, between fear of nuclear annihilation and technical obsolescence, while the boy (who is a man by the end of the book) experiences his own break with technological optimism through a disillusionment with the military-industrial complex and corporatism.

The second half of each pair is a standalone four-color old-fashioned comic, bound right into the book as a separate signature, presenting the adventures of Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid, a stand-in for every science hero of the golden pulp age. Like the boy and his father, Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid are changed by the ages, enlisted to fight Nazis and the Red Menace, to shill for the Marshall Plan and, eventually, to be phased out as no longer with the times.

In setting up this one-two rhythm, Fies creates a beautiful zoom-in/zoom-out effect, going from a very arch and funny and broad commentary on society (the comic books) and its individuals (the boy and his father). We've all heard the old "where is my jetpack? where is my flying car?" schtick, but Fies is going further and longer here, taking a core sample of the Gernsback Conitnuaa, the futures that shaped our past.

Fies perfectly captures my own ambivalence about the future, the sense that we tremble on the verge of an age of miracles and an age of disasters. Or both. He plumps for a happier ending that I generally do, but that's OK, as I'm delighted to discover people who aren't as pessimistic as I am about these things.


(Scans ganked from RobertDay)