Review: Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow?A comic review article by: Logan Beaver
Despite the book's flaws, I can't help but be charmed by Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? Brian Fies' compositions are dynamic and engrossing, and his characters are lively and sympathetic (though it bothers me that they only occasionally have teeth). Brian Fies mixes photographs, different paper stock, different art styles, and different artist's work seamlessly, and in a way that serves the story. The old-timey comics sections had pages that not only looked like but felt like they were printed in the different time periods Whatever Happened takes place in. The pictures of Chesney Bonestell's artwork and the photographs of astronauts convey some sense of the wonder that must have come with seeing them for the first time. Brian Fies' skill as a visual storyteller is unquestionably solid, it's his failure to construct an interesting story that sinks this book.
What should have been a story about a father and son living in the early 20th century ends up being a first-person essay about what the future looked like from the 1950s tied together with the occasional reference to the protagonist's relationship with his dad. The story takes a backseat to the loads of documentary-like information Fies wants to show you. His compositions are great, when we aren't getting bombarded with walls of text, and we get those more often than than we do those excellent two page spreads like when Buddy's dad sees Buddy on TV at the World's Fair.
This book is tied, inextricably, to its characters and plot. It relies on them for it's momentum; if you're going to care about the book at all, you need to care about them. In order for this book to succeed, you need to like these characters; we need to see them change and make decisions, thus providing said momentum. Caring about them is easy -- Buddy and his dad are drawn with a bright expressiveness and have within them this nostalgic, quaint sense of inherent good. But they don't do anything! Nothing happens to them worth caring about. And if you dig deeper into the characters, you see that they aren't even really characters as much as symbols. If you pay attention to the dates presented in the book, you'll notice Buddy graduates high school in his late 40s, and you don't have to be paying too much attention to notice that his dad doesn't visibly age until the very end (and even then, he doesn't look older so much as more like Race Bannon). It's blatantly intentional, and this isn't necessarily bad, but Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? needs more than that. Buddy and his dad need to be characters struggling against the story's questions. At their best they're symbols of the passing of generations, and at worst they're mouthpieces for Fies' nostalgic comic essay.
If Whatever Happened was intended to be a comic essay, it lacks the necessary intellectual rigor and cogency to make that work. The creator's intention, as stated in the Author's Note, is to assert the primacy of the mid-20th century's progressive optimism, but it does so at the expense of the truth. The amount of gloss applied to the '40s, '50s and '60s here could turn an entire Southeast Asian country into a series of amusingly slippery pratfalls. This treatment of this time in American history is both cliché and unhelpful. Who needs an intentionally simplified version of history? What does glossing over our history teach us that will help us change our present for the better?
I don't mean to criticize Brian Fies for not being a brilliant essayist. What I mean to say is that Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? doesn't hold up as an essay; it needed to be a story. A story could have explored the differences between the spirit of the post-WW2 generation and the modern day without being declarative. With fully realized characters we could have experienced the wonder of the prototypical television and the moon landing, and felt that hope for the future ourselves, instead of having the experience explained to readers and expecting them not to question it.
Since moving to South Korea, Logan Beaver has written plays, comics, and flash fiction (he did a lot of that before, mind you), gone on adventures and drank more on a Tuesday than is socially acceptable outside of college. He lives there with his girlfriend Collette, and his laptop Pornbot 5000. He is trying to learn how to speak Korean and draw, both of which are very hard. He thinks that, by learning and doing new things, people become something better than they once were, like Pokemon. If he were a Pokemon, he would be Snorlax, though he is generally unfamiliar with Pokemon beyond the original 151.