I’ve grown up dreaming about space. Like many others born in the last third of the 20th century, space has been simultaneously a distant dream and a humdrum reality. Man has floated in space and walked on the surface of the moon during my lifetime. He has slipped “the surly bonds of bonds of earth” time and time again. Space launches were once something we scheduled our days around just to be sure we were huddled around the tv at the right time. Now CNN has to remind us that we’re still maintaining an international space lab. But when you think about it, even the small accomplishments that mankind has made during the last 50-60 years in the science of rocketry and space exploration is mind boggling. Our dreams of space though have always been larger than what reality was able to keep up with. Jules Verne wrote about traveling to the moon in 1865 and the movie A Trip to the Moon was made in 1902. It would take 67 years of science and progress before our reality would be able to catch up to our fiction. Even before we reached the moon, we were dreaming farther out than that; to Mars, to the rings of Saturn, to Perelandra, to Alpha Centauri and to Tatooine. Neil Armstrong was our hero but Han Solo was our dream.
Brian Fies’ graphic novel Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow allows us to look back at that dream, starting with the 1939 World’s Fair, all the way through to the historical 1975 Apollo/Soyuz space dock and even beyond. Fies’s two main characters are Pop and Buddy, a father/son pairing that are more a symbol of youth and age in the 20th century than an actual father and son. From 1939 to 1975, Buddy appears to age at most 8-10 years as his age is more tied into the newness of space exploration. At the World’s Fair, Buddy is just a boy, discovering the future, possibly for the first time. Even as Germany was invading other countries, the World’s Fair offered the dream of a unified world and, better yet, a technological world. The hum of vacuum tubes, the live transmission of television images, the idea of “futuristic” cities with buildings that would reach up to the skies and even beyond into the heavens– this was the future that was dreamt of and promised to everyone who attended the Fair. The fair opens up new worlds to Buddy and Pop. For Pop, he sees the future and how unprepared for it he is. He’s a man who grew up before the dream of space. His life was about the earth and our time and work on it. But he sees the future for his son; a future of transistors and rockets and he quickly encourages Buddy to be a part of the future. “… things need to change, because the way I grew up doesn’t work anymore,” Pops tells Buddy.
The marvelous thing about Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? is that through the century of war, of killing and of tragedy, Buddy never loses his wide-eyed innocence. He takes his father’s dream for him and makes it his dream. Buddy is us, the person who read comics, saw all the movies and is young enough to think that he too would one day walk in space and on the moon. Fies keeps Buddy and Pop’s story fairly simple; it’s not like we’re following Buddy to MIT and then onto a job at NASA where he eventually designs propulsion systems for the space shuttle. Fies has Buddy and Pop being our eyes and ears in the 20th century, observing it and allowing us to remember it.
Fies breaks up Buddy and Pop’s story with his own comic book within the graphic novel- The Adventures of Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid. At various intervals in the book, Fies throw in a story of Cap Crater and Cosmic Kid, mimicing the comic book storytelling during different parts of the last century. The heroes and villains in the comic mirror the society of the times that Pop and Buddy are in, often emphasizing the same fears that exist in the real world. The stories also show how our fears of war, of communism and even of the 60s may have been exagerated. The villain in those comics starts out as a typical mastermind but by the end, his ideas have merit and even a tinge of honest compassion to them even as Cap Crater is too stuck in the past to see beyond the whole dynamic of the hero and villain dynamic. Cosmic Kid tries to be true to his mentor but, as we all do, loses a bit of his confidence in his father figure as he grows up.
Through the tale of Buddy and Pop and through the tales of Cosmic Kid and Cap Crater, Fies reminds us of our dreams and how they failed us or maybe it’s how we failed them. He shows us the imagination and courage it took just to have the dreams but in the end, we fell short of achieving them in the 20th century. Fies does comfort us though, showing that even as the century is over and our hopes are unfufilled at this time, it doesn’t mean we are through dreaming or are done reaching for the stars. Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? reminds us how to dream by showing us what we were able to once accomplish. Buddy and Cosmic Kid may have grown up but that doesn’t mean that they’ve lost their hope for the future.
Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? is available on Amazon.com.
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