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Seeing the Future Through the Lens of the Past: A Conversation with Brian Fies (Part 1)

Next month I’ll be running a post on “Recommended Graphic Titles for Schools,” but please let me cheat a little by saying that Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? belongs near the top of any such list. It’s a cheat because the hardcover version was first published back in 2009, so it’s not really a new, or even new-ish, title. On the other hand, one could argue that that’s not really a cheat because, starting today, this artful mix of graphic fiction and nonfiction is available in paperback. Seek it out.

That imperative holds especially true if you’re looking for engaging reads that are well-suited for a “literacy across the disciplines” approach that encompasses both science/technology and history/social studies. (I might go as far as saying that in terms of “science in human affairs,” you simply wont find a better title at the secondary level.) Still, while large sections of the book definitely qualify as “informational texts” à la the Common Core State Standards, graphic novelist Brian Fies presents them in the service of a moving father-and-son narrative. Oh, and there are also fun, retro-style comics throughout, their inclusion suggesting even more teachable moments in terms of comparing related texts and audience-and-purpose. In any case, I’m grateful that the talented Mr. Fies could take the time to chat with me…

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I love that the paperback preserves the look and feel of those “vintage comics” inserts. What’s lost—aesthetically, culturally—with the passing of the mass production of comics with that somewhat crude four-color process, those cheesy ads, and that cheap paper? I’d like to think there was something magical about them, but is it really just a matter of simple nostalgia?

Probably the most important quality lost as comics evolved from a cheap, crude, mass-produced medium was exactly that: their cheapness. Older folks often say they can remember when comics cost a nickel; in fact, they never did, but they did cost a dime for decades, and then 12 to 15 cents for decades more. An average kid could take his (usually “his”) lawn-mowing money, buy three comic books and a candy bar at the corner store, and swap them with his friends until the covers fell off.

As gratified as I was that comics began to be taken seriously as an artistic and literary form, the accompanying improvement in paper quality and printing techniques raised their cost beyond the reach of many children. Even with inflation, today’s young reader paying four or five bucks for 20 pages of story doesn’t get nearly the value their parents and grandparents did, and heaven forbid you roll up the latest “collectable edition” and tuck it into your back pocket. They’re not sold at the corner store anymore. Comic books are really a different product now, less intended for kids than the adults they grew into. There are exceptions—fun, entertaining books aimed at children and young adults—but they’re rare. Combine that lack of interest in nurturing new readers with the many competing diversions that exist today, and I fear that comic book publishers have really shot themselves in the foot.

That’s an interesting “media history” or “media ecology” take on things…

There are also comics fans and scholars who value the look and feel of vintage comics precisely for their limitations, in the same way you might appreciate silent film or 78 rpm records. Constraints such as the resolution of line art that could be reproduced, the tiny palette of available colors, and the length and format of stories forced writers and artists to be creative and do their best with what they had. As a result, they created work that became visually and thematically iconic, and was appropriated by artists and filmmakers such as Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Quentin Tarantino and many others.

To be honest, I never really liked Lichtenstein because, despite his work’s cleverness, I always felt he was being condescending to comics. Tarantino, in contrast, actually seems to value older forms of storytelling and marginalized story-types. Where else do we see that?

Well, it’s telling that the medium continues to use many of the old tools that are no longer technically necessary. For example, many young artists, particularly in manga, still render shades of gray as large patterns of black dots (called screening, halftone, Zip-A-Tone or Ben Day dots). They don’t care that the technique was developed a hundred years ago to reproduce grays with metal plates on crummy pulp paper; all they know is that it looks cool. And they’re right.

That said, nostalgia is incredibly powerful. Part of what I appealed to in Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow was the memory impressed into my DNA of what those comic books looked, smelled and felt like. My editor Charlie Kochman and I had a bit of a challenge convincing Abrams’s production people that we wanted to print those comic book inserts on genuine low-quality pulp paper. Charlie actually had to bring in a comic from his own collection to show them what we were aiming for. And in truth the paper we used isn’t all that poor, I applied some artificial pulp color and texture to make it look worse than it really is (and if you’ll notice, my ersatz paper and print quality improves as the decades in the book pass). Getting that right was important to me.

Okay, so let’s expand the conversation to go beyond comics alone. Your narrator references the dystopian works of the early ’70s as a pop culture turning point from optimistic to pessimistic. But where are we nowadays in that respect? There’s obviously a ton of apocalyptic/post-apocalyptic stories out there yet strangely they often feel less dark than a lot of pop culture from when we were kids.

I agree that the pendulum of dystopianism seems to be swinging back just a bit these days, and welcome it. Partly, I’m sure it’s a natural reactionary cycle: after you’ve destroyed civilization 387 ways, what’s a new and interesting twist? Hey, how about saving it! I also think modern storytellers often wink and nod to the audience, which adds a lighter touch. Anybody creating a bleak zombie, horror, or science-fiction story today almost has to acknowledge their more serious and sincere predecessors. You can’t make a zombie movie without addressing Dawn of the Dead, either by comparison or contrast (“Hey, these zombies move a lot faster than George Romero’s!”).

One of my one-sentence summaries of Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow is that it explores how we went from Flash Gordon and Star Trek to Blade Runner and The Matrix. Of course that’s not an absolute—one of the seminal science fiction films is Fritz Lang’s dystopian Metropolis from 1927—but I think it’s fair to say 20th Century art mirrored a transition in society from optimism to pessimism, resulting in a sort of gloomy mood that we’re all doomed. I disagree, and wrote my book as a partial antidote to modern nihilism and cynicism. If that fever is breaking a bit—if people maybe feel there’s a chance tomorrow can be better than today and is worth working toward, perhaps tempered with some skepticism because we’ve been burned before—I think that’s a very positive development. People only try to fix problems when they believe they can be fixed.

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Comments

  1. Great interview, Peter and Brian! As a “process” person myself, I enjoyed how you discussed the physical nature of the book, i.e. the different paper stock for the comic-book inserts. I imagine this must have been a logistical nightmare: Brian, did you have to place these “comic book” sections so as to show up in certain spaces with regard to the signatures in the book? If so, that’s almost an Oubapian constraint! :-)

    But beyond that, I appreciate how this conversation – and indeed, this book – moves into ideas of media history and media literacy (above and beyond the obvious, and important, ideas of scientific history and literacy). WHTTWOT reads to me like an exercise not in just what we know and what we did, but how we KNOW what we did, and who we are. Popular media like comic books(*) can reflect but also can *shape* what and how we know the world around us – their influence is, naturally widespread and profound. I can see discussions about the book with school-age children yielding lots of good historical information just in talking about why these old comics look the way they do, and about the differing “kinds* of stories they include.

    Looking forward to Part 2!

    (*) I wouldn’t say that comic books themselves actually constitute a “popular medium” anymore, sadly, although graphic novels might, given how popular they seem to be in the public library where I work.

  2. Gene, thanks. All credit goes to Peter for asking good, original questions. Yes, the pulp paper comics had to be spaced between either 16-page signatures or 8-page half-signatures, and themselves be either 8 or 16 pages long. We drew a map. I wouldn’t call it a “nightmare” to make it work but it was a big structural and storytelling challenge.

    I appreciate your second paragraph very much, that was precisely one of my book’s points: science and tech obviously shaped pop culture, but pop culture also shaped science and tech in terms of what we wanted and expected of them. Von Braun could build rockets, but Walt Disney and Chesley Bonestell made us yearn to ride them.

  3. Thanks for the reply, Brian! I still remember those moon landings, and the attendant media and pop-cult hype and tie-ins. In fact, I can’t shake the memory of a rubber-band-powered moon buggy that I got out of a cereal box (possibly Cheerios), though Google isn’t helping me out with an image. Needless to say, I was a perfect target audience for your book :-)