Monday, December 7, 2009

ComicArts Book Club Q&A

WHTTWOT was the topic of discussion at last Thursday's meeting of the Abrams ComicArts Book Club, hosted by my publisher Abrams and Bergen Street Comics. If I could've dropped into Ozzie's Coffee Shop in Brooklyn for the evening I would've, but the best I could do from a continent away was agree to answer any questions that came up. The organizers said they had a good turnout. I think a book club dedicated to graphic novels is a great idea, and I wish them much good luck.
Here are their fine questions and my questionable answers:

Q. Mom’s Cancer is very different from Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow. How did you transition from a personal narrative about a mother/son relationship to a fictional father/son tale? Are parts of Whatever Happened similar to your experiences growing up?

BF: The recognition and modest success of Mom’s Cancer opened doors to the possibility of building a writing/cartooning career I’ve wanted my whole life. So: What next? I’d done a book about my family and had no interest in a sequel or anything else autobiographical. I think everyone has one good story to tell about their lives but almost no one has two. I’m not that interesting, and neither are you. I told my story.

Here’s my philosophy of trying to make a living at creative pursuits: no matter how good you are or how hard you work, there’ll always be a million people who draw and write (or sculpt or paint or sing or play piano) better than you. The only thing you really have to offer is your own unique perspective, that little island of things you care passionately about that only you can stand on. I'm pretty sure that's true.
So just talking with my editor Charlie Kochman, trying to answer the “What next?” question, I decided that my island was the central theme of WHTTWOT: What happened to that can-do optimism I grew up with as a child of the Space Age, the sense that tomorrow could be better than today and science could help make it happen? I still feel that way, but it seems no one else does. I thought I had something to say about that. Beating my island analogy to death, I think once you figure out what your message is, you put it in a bottle, throw it into the waves, and hope enough other people find it and relate to it to make it worth doing.

Bits of the book are drawn from personal memories and experience. There are many nods to my family history, which no one else would get. Although I never saw a rocket launch in person and didn’t have that kind of relationship with my dad, the core of the story—that disappointment that I’m never going to live on the Moon or get my flying car and jetpack, as well as the love of comics and futuristic pop culture—is very much me.

Q. Despite it being a novel, a large portion of the book is composed of historical and scientific facts. Did you ever consider a non-fiction format instead?

BF: No. But the characters of Pop, Buddy, Cap Crater and the Cosmic Kid did emerge surprisingly late in the writing process. I’m not sure, but it’s possible my first proposal to my editor didn’t mention them at all.

Whatever Happened to the World of Tomorrow? attacks the question posed by its title from three different directions: a recap of technological and historical developments from 1939 to 1975; how those developments affected people’s lives; and the important influence pop culture had on shaping the expectations and realization of the future. The non-fiction historical stuff is only one-third of the tale, and I didn’t think was enough to support a book. Pop and Buddy are my window into the lives of people living through those times, and the “Space Age Adventure” comics-within-the-comic speak for the pop culture influences. Each thread covers ground and says things the other two couldn't. If the reader focuses on just one thread, they’re only getting a third of the story.

One reason Pop and Buddy age abnormally slowly is that their relationship mirrors the arc that (I argue) society followed between 1939 to 1975, from optimistic technological utopianism to pessimistic, cynical dystopianism. The reason the characters are in the book at all is that I thought those social changes sounded very much like a father-son relationship evolving from unquestioning worship to snide disillusion. So I wanted to say something about this 36-year period of history by reflecting it in about 10 years of a kid growing up, then bring the three threads together in a speculative, hopeful, sci-fi future at the end.

Having said that, in retrospect I kind of regret that WHTTWOT is called a “graphic novel,” although that’s the generic term for this sort of big comic book, because I think it led some people to expect something it was never intended to be. If you’re expecting an apple but bite into a peach, you might not like it even if it’s a pretty good peach. WHTTWOT has gotten some great reviews, but a couple of reviewers mentioned that they might have appreciated it more as an essay. To which I’d answer, “Who says it isn’t? Why can’t it be a graphic essay?” It poses a question, makes an argument, offers evidence, reaches conclusions. When I build a time machine, I might go back and put “A Graphic Polemic” on the cover. Let ‘em figure that one out.

Q. Who do you see as the ideal audience for the book? Did you intend this for younger readers as well as adults?

BF: It’s certainly written to be accessible to young readers, as was Mom’s Cancer. I’m very proud that Mom’s Cancer won the top award in Germany for children’s non-fiction literature, and that the Texas Library Association recently recommended WHTTWOT for students in grades 6 through 12, even though I didn’t intend either to be a children’s book.

However, I honestly wouldn’t expect a young reader to be interested in WHTTWOT’s subject matter. Maybe a bright 10 year old. As I hinted in a previous answer, I basically wrote it for me, and hoped there were enough people out there like me to justify my publisher’s investment. My goal was to write a book that I would not be able to put down if I saw it in a bookstore. I’m not surprised that the people who seem to be responding most positively are those who grew up through some of the same times and ask themselves the same questions I did. Or, as my wife says, boomer nerds.

Q. The omission of a mother figure stirred up some debate. Why did you make this choice? Did you anticipate strong reactions?

BF: Ah yes, whatever happened to Mom? I didn't anticipate strong reactions or any reactions at all, which was foolish of me because it was the first question my wife asked. I should’ve known.

There was a Mom in an early draft of the book. I drew exactly one panel with her. Mom’s role in the story was basically to provide exposition and ask questions. When I decided that Buddy would narrate the book in captions, Mom suddenly had a lot less to do. As I worked, putting words into the mouths of Pop and Buddy was fun and easy, while thinking of things for Mom to say and do was very hard, and always seemed to detour from the story I wanted to tell. In keeping with my notion that cartooning is about distilling things to their essence, I finally decided that Mom wasn’t essential to the story and cut her. Since my first book was all about a Mom and other strong women, I didn't feel like I particularly owed the universe a Mom in my second book as well.

The only remaining evidence of Buddy's Mom.
I suspect she would've resembled Officer Mooney.

I really didn’t expect anyone to notice or care, any more than someone watching “The Wizard of Oz” wonders what happened to Dorothy’s parents. I didn’t see any point in having Pop and Buddy explain what happened to Mom because they both already knew, and any exposition about it would’ve been unnaturally forced (“Say, do you remember that time when Mom and I . . . ?”). Mom might be dead, divorced, separated, or otherwise out of Pop’s and Buddy’s lives. My theory is that she’s still around, just upstairs, at work, or out of the house when we happen to look in on her fellas. Buddy has to be living with someone while Pop’s away during World War II. And when Pop and Buddy are building their little construction project in 1955, there are three cots in the basement, not two.

Q. You’ve obviously done a ton of research. What were your best/most interesting/most surprising sources?

BF: Both the beauty and curse of doing a graphic novel is that nothing goes on the page unless you mean to put it there. I took my research very seriously and filled up three thick binders, probably a couple thousand pages in all, with references for everything. If I drew a cola bottle or street light, I wanted it to be right for the time and place. For later decades, I was able to draw on my own family photos and personal memories. A lot of the furniture and such from the 1950s on were things my family had.

I especially loved finding material and learning more about the 1939 World’s Fair. As I mentioned in the Endnotes, I watched hours of public-domain home movies shot at the fair, and bought ephemera like maps, pins, and a little felt pennant that I put to good use. I can’t describe how happy I was to stumble across the actual circuit diagram for the RCA television that debuted at the fair, which I used as a graphic backdrop for the two-page spread on Pages 14 and 15.

In general, I experienced this weird phenomenon in which information and resources emerged exactly when I needed them. For example, just when I started to color the “Space Age Adventure” comic books, a veteran comic book pro posted on his blog a very detailed description of how the old comics were colored that was enormously useful to me. There were the home movies and circuit diagram. World War II propaganda posters. Some of the space photos in later chapters. Whenever I needed something, the universe seemed to drop it in my lap. It was almost eerie.

Since the book came out, I’ve been gratified to hear from a few folks who were first-hand witnesses to events I depicted and told me I got it right. MAD Magazine’s Al Jaffee attended the World’s Fair as a young man getting ready to go to war, and wrote to tell me I made him feel as if he were right there again. Imagine what it means as a cartoonist to have Al Jaffee say you did good.

Thanks for reading my book and engaging it enough to ask thoughtful questions. Much appreciated! I’ll be happy to follow up here, elsewhere, or privately.


Anonymous said...

So what *did* happen to Dorothy's parents?

(Great article, as usual, Brian. And you can tell your wife I empathize with her and that whole being involved with a Boomer Nerd thing.)

nancy g.

Randy said...

Enjoyed "World of Tomorrow"very much. I got my first libr. card at 11 (1954) .Read every thing I could find from Robert Heinlen, Issac Asimov, and Arthur C.Clark to SiFi comics.As a lifelong artist, Walt Disney was one of my heros."Man in Space" just added to my facination . While winding motors & generators for Westinghouse (42 yrs.) I never missed a launch from the first feeble efforts to get a sat. up to watching Neil Armstrong ( via a Westinghouse camera)step of the bottom rung of the ladder onto the moons' surface. I kept a detailed scrapbook in a large Blackburn ledger from Oct.4th, 1957 until the completion of the Apollo project. "Thanks for the Memories", Randy Welborn.
P.S. I was just as facinated with "cars of the future" while living thru the "Golden Age" and depicting that era in my paintings. Check it out at

Brian Fies said...

Fantastic, Randy. Thanks so much for visiting and commenting, I appreciate it.