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Seeing the Future Through the Lens of the Past: A Conversation with Brian Fies (Part 2)

…and so graphic novelist Brian Fies and I pick up right where we left off in the first part of the interview, which is occasioned by the paperback publication this week of his Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?

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This less expensive edition of your book should make it more accessible in terms of course adoptions and libraries, and, therefore, to more young readers. How would you like to see librarians and teachers use the book with kids?

First, I’m thrilled that the paperback has the potential to put my book into more young readers’ hands. Ecstatic! Winning the American Astronautical Society’s Emme Award for Best Young Adult Literature was a terrific acknowledgement that Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? offers something of value to kids.

I think each chapter of the book cracks a little window into a different pivotal time that an interested educator could swing open as widely as they wanted. The futurism of the World’s Fair, the hardships of World War II, the Cold War, the Space Race: they’re all there. For space and storytelling reasons, I could only touch on each. It’s not a history or science book. But I made it as rock-solid factually accurate as I could, worked hard to capture a sense of the times, and tried to weave a thread through history, technology, futurism and pop culture in a way I hadn’t seen done before.

I’m very proud of the enormous amount of research I did for Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?, collecting three thick binders of background material comprising a couple thousand pages. If I drew a lamp post in 1945 or a bomb shelter in 1955, a teacher can be confident I had a reference for it. I explain how geostationary satellites work, with math that I worked out on a slide rule (after teaching myself to use a slide rule) to reassure myself it could be done. Immodestly, I think you could build an entire course on mid-century America on the foundation of this book.

One thing that’s really striking about it is all of the visual quotes from other media—magazine covers, black-and-white photos, that gorgeous Chesley Bonestell artwork, and so on. What advice might you give to young cartoonists who want to use that approach, and how might librarians and media or tech teachers help them?

Well, thank goodness for the Internet. Pulling together so much material in this fashion would have been impossible even 10 years ago. Google Image Search is extremely helpful. If someone were researching a historical period, I’d suggest they bypass magazine and fashion ads, and try to find pictures of real people living real lives. Don’t just Google “cars in 1965” and copy the first five pictures that pop up. You want your world to look real and lived in, and nobody buys a new car every year. When I drew my characters in 1965, I put them in a 1957 Chevy to imply they couldn’t afford a newer model.

Wow, had no idea. Neat. But that’s the visual research piece—what comes after that stage, in terms of actual production?

It’s very tricky to incorporate disparate media such as photos, artwork, blueprints and other “mash-up” fuel into a story like Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? The great challenge is to make them all look like they belong in the same universe. The seams shouldn’t show. I value restraint in the sense that the best “special effect” is one that the audience never notices.

One of the strengths of comics is that you can repurpose images to impart different levels of meaning without explicitly saying so. For example, when my characters see their first television set at the 1939 World’s Fair, the background of that page is a circuit diagram that to the casual reader might just look like a neat design element. But it adds something to the scene to know that it’s the actual circuit diagram of the very TV the characters just marveled at.

Some of my solutions just came down to Photoshop technique. For example, when I drew my characters posing in actual photos from the World’s Fair, I made sure that the range of black-and-white tones in the characters matched those of the backgrounds, and then after compositing the images I gave them a subtle blur to make them look as if they were shot with the same camera.

Of course, it depends what you’re going for. A collage-like approach in which the seams do show—and indeed are meant to show—could be a very valid style for an art or writing project. Whatever serves the story.

I think it’s important to stress that I have great respect for creators’ rights. I’m very much against the attitude that “if it’s on the Internet that means I can use it” so common, and I’m sure so frustrating to teachers, today. I think students, and the teachers and librarians who work with them, should have a grasp of plagiarism, copyright and Fair Use. For my book I was careful to only publish source material that was either in the public domain (that is, copyright-free) or that I got permission, and in some cases paid a fee, to use. I also scrupulously documented my sources in the book’s endnotes.

I feel very strongly that kids should understand that somebody created those words, pictures or music they want to use, and I hope they’d be taught to respect the value of a creator’s work and intent. Stealing my work is not doing me a favor or paying me a compliment.

Your author’s note ends on an upbeat note, saying that the idea of “building the future” once again might be “inspirational.” Do you think that’s possible in part because today’s youngest generations no longer feel that hint of a broken promise from the twentieth century, i.e., “Hey, where’s my jet pack?” That is, they don’t necessarily feel the burden of past expectations about science/technology but rather see the both the positives and negatives a bit more realistically?

Our 21st Century future can certainly be inspirational but it will be so in different ways than the 20th Century’s. The old “World of Tomorrow” meant giant cities, 20-lane freeways, industrial robots, instant food! Well, we got some of those things and found out they weren’t so great. Every time I see a vehicle broken down on the side of the road, I reflect on what a truly terrible idea flying cars would be. That’s not a promise I seriously want kept.

In other ways we actually achieved the “World of Tomorrow,” and I’m always impressed by how quickly we took it for granted. Cell phones, children’s toys with a million times the memory and speed of an Apollo computer, the libraries of the world at our fingertips. When I was a kid, those were science fiction—literally. My phone and iPad look just like those Captain Kirk used on the starship Enterprise. Everything has changed, but so gradually and incrementally that you really have to make an effort to realize it.

So, there’s a trade-off in some sense…

Yes, the old promise was broken in some ways and kept in others, but in any case is obsolete. What replaced it? I don’t know. If you polled young people about the future I’m sure they’d mention global warming, terrorism, environmental disaster, nuclear war. Big challenges confront every generation, including some that managed to muddle through two World Wars and a Great Depression.

That’s a point I tried to make and a gap I hoped to fill in my own small way with Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? It’s tough today but it’s always been tough. Science and technology have created some problems but they’ve solved many others, and on balance I think have done more good than harm. There’s reason to hope. Sincerely striving for an ambitious goal doesn’t make you uncool or naïve, it makes you someone who might accomplish something great. Ad astra per aspera.

Indeed. But speaking of lofty goals, what else have you been busy with?

Through my first graphic novel, Mom’s Cancer, I’ve become something of a “pioneer” in the field of Graphic Medicine, which involves the use of comics in a healthcare context. It sounds strange, but it’s a neat melding of science and art that works wonderfully. In fact, we just concluded the Third International Graphic Medicine Conference in Toronto (previous conferences were in London and Chicago), uniting about 140 professors, physicians, nurses, students, writers, artists and others for a two-day academic conference about comics and healthcare. [Some information about the Toronto event is available here.]

I am also currently working on what I hope will be my third graphic novel and first work of full fiction (Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow had both fictional and historical elements). Graphic novels take a long time to write and draw, and this one is proceeding satisfyingly but slowly.

If it’s anything like your previous work, it’ll be well worth the wait.

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Brian Fies will be speaking and signing books at the Sonoma County Book Festival in Santa Rosa, California on September 22. Other appearances in the Santa Rosa and San Francisco areas are currently being planned.

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