“The Tomorrow That Never Was”: Retrofuturism in the Comics of Dean Motter (Part Two)

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We can see this focus on historic “stuff” at certain points in Dean Motter’s comics as well. There are some detailed frames created by Seth for some of the Mister X comics which include representations of a whole array of art deco bric-a-brac. Yet, more often, Motter and the artists who illustrate his stories, tap into iconography from older science fiction works as a kind of image bank from which to design their urban landscape. In an interview with the author, Motter commented that he was lucky to have identified artistic collaborators who were themselves fascinated with older images of the future and who therefore could work from specific reference points to older magazine covers or etchings of New York landmarks.

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Where Tomorrow Is Today…

One recent book, Daniel H. Wilson’s Where’s My Jetpack: A guide to the Amazing Science Fiction Future that Never Arrived, might well serve as a guidebook or catalog for the cities depicted across Motter’s books, given this shared pool of retrofuturist icons. Wilson shares with Motter the same disappointment that the future promised by General Electric and Westinghouse never quite came to be:

“The future is now, and we are not impressed. The future was supposed to be a fully automated, atomic-powered, germ-free Utopia – a place where a grown man could wear a velvet spandex unitard and not be laughed at. Our beloved scientists may be building the future, but some key pieces are missing. Where are the ray guns, the flying cars, and the hoverboards that we expected? We can’t wait another minute for the future to arrive. The time has come to hold the golden age of science fiction accountable for its fantastic promises…Today zeppelins the size of ocean liners do not hover over fully enclosed skyscraper cities.. Shiny robot servents do not cook breakfast for colonists on the moon. Worst of all, sleek titanium jetpacks are not ready and waiting on showroom floors …Despite every World’s Fair prediction, every futuristic ride at Disneyland, and the advertisements on the last page of every comic book ever written, we are not living in a techno-utopia.”

Wilson returns to the discourse of popular science, investigating how close we have come to these predictions and what has derailed them along the way, while Motter turns towards science fiction, examining what it might have been like to live in the city of the future and why such a future might have disappointed, even if we had achieved everything Futurama had predicted.

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Motter’s books move back and forth between technologies actually achieved in the mid-twentieth century and those only imagined. Consider, for example, this passage from an issue of Electropolis:

“Electra City was built at the very beginning of the Electric Age. It was an exciting, sparkling jewell that symbolized a nation’s dreams of the future. ‘Where Tomorrow is Today and Today’s yesterday.’ That’s how they used to describe it. Sounds goofy now but I would envision its scintillating skyline — shimmering the arcs of the colossal Van Der Graff Towers and gigantic Strickfadden machines, the air traffic flitting about like moths around a streetlight. I still get that impression from time to time but when folks began abandoning the city core, the underworld moved in and that image became obscured by grandiose, short-lived, and usually catastrophic ambitions. It would never be the same.”

Motter wallows in what some have called the electrical sublime but in doing so, he blurs the lines between Van Der Graff generators of the sort one can see today if you visit the Boston Museum of Science and the mocked up mad scientist apparatus, often informed by a similar aesthetic, Kenneth Strickfadden developed for the Universal horror films of the 1930s. These books blur the line between what was, what might have been, and what were simply the figments of some pulp writer’s hyperbolic imagination.

Regardless of the reality behind them, these images of the future all fit together to form a coherent, consistent, and compelling construction of the city; we recognize buildings from one issue to the next, even from one comic series to the next, and each new element introduced adds to the integrity of the whole. These elements may be represented with varying degrees of stylization and abstraction as they pass through the pens of artists with such different styles as Paul Rivoche, Jaime Hernandez, Ty Templeton, Dave McKean, and Seth (just to mention those who contributed to Mister X) but we still feel that they belong in the same fictional universe because so many of these elements can be rooted back in the same historical moment in the evolution of the utopian imagination. Many can be traced back specifically to the 1939 World’s Fair, which was that shining moment when so many of these archtypes stepped off the printed page and gained a material reality: the fair promised its depression era patrons that they would be able to see, hear, taste, and smell the future. As the narrator of The World of Tomorrow explains,

“I think that there are moments where you can see the world turning from what it is into what it will be. For me, the New York World’s Fair is such a moment. It is a compass rose pointing in all directions, toward imaginary future and real past, false future and immutable present, a world of tomorrow contained in the lost American yesterday.”

The Fair itself represented a strategic blurring of temporal relations.


Building on a description from the Fireside Theater’s Peter Bergman, Motter describes Mister X‘s Radiant City as “a city being imagined in the 30s, built in the 40s and stalled somewhere in the 50s. I’d add that it was forlornly recalled in the 80s.” Each of those temporal markers sums up a shift in the conception of the future and of the experience of the city, shifts that are recognized by readers who have immersed themselves in the literature of retrofuturism. The idea of the “end of history” has long been part of the utopian imagination but there is something suffocating or claustrophobic about a city which has been locked down by a single vision and has been unable or unwilling to adapt to changed circumstances.

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If Sterling once wanted to displace the old “steam-snorting wonders” from the heart of science fiction, Motter wants to revisit them as the residue of a bygone era. Here, for example, is the way Electropolis describes one of the architectural wonders of Electra City:

“When erected, the Diogenes Tower was the tallest building on earth atop which was mounted the world’s most powerful ozone vapor beacon. The beams from the lighthouse would be visible from hundreds of miles away, even on the foggiest night. Built as the center piece of the Brave New World’s Fair, it was probably the most ambitious engineering construction effort of the century.”

The Tower was designed to be suicide proof, anticipating its attractiveness to jumpers, but in a fate as ironic as the sinking of the unsinkable Titanic, a detective is found hanging from the tower in what police have written off as a suicide before the building even opens.

Or consider the way Mister X characterizes its primary location:

“Radiant City was built to be the Dream City, a vast and beautiful Metropolis, designed to fulfill the grandest aesthetic, and architectural ideals, it now moulders in dilapidation. Its citizens are afflicted with sleep disorders, opium addiction, and a surfeit of perversions. It is a place as corrupt as the decadent upper class that rules it, and the human parasites that prey upon them.”

Or consider the haunting presence in panel after panel of Terminal City of the head and shoulders of the Collosus of Roads, a massive statue which went unfinished when the Fair came to an unanticipated closure.

Where Do You Fit In?

The narrator of The World of Tomorrow describes his experiences of being mystified by the1939 Fair:

“Actually tomorrow scared me a little. Could I grasp the immense plan expressed in occult symbols all over the Fair? Would I be up to tomorrow?”

Or as a sign in the background of a Terminal City panel asks us, “Where Do You Fit In?”

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Motter’s comics are similarly fascinated by cryptic scenes of technological and scientific mastery – as represented through the images carved onto the side of key landmarks such as the Modern Times newspaper office (which echoes Chaplin’s film of the same title) or the Herculean Arms apartment building. The offices Mister X visits have the look and feel of vast control rooms, communication centers where powerful men sat to control vast empires; the scale of these spaces are not human as suggested by the huge mausoleums depicted in the Duncan Cemetery, the Great Mall where robots perform theater, the vast aviary or the huge lobbies depicted in the various hotels and apartment buildings. The inhuman quality of such spaces is indeed part of the point: these buildings were designed on the basis of economic and technological imperatives that had little to do with human nature. No actual human being would be adequate to the demands this future placed upon them.What has led these cities into decline is precisely the inability of their inhabitants to live up to those over-inflated expectations.

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More simply, though, these buildings have ceased to generate and sustain their inhabitant’s interests, have failed to capture their imagination or inspire their ambitions. The future has simply run out of steam. Writing about earlier Fairs and Expositions, Tom Gunning has argued that their buildings were memorable precisely because they were designed to be remembered, because they sought to astonish us upon first impression and because they embodied as fully as possible the particular hopes, dreams, and fantasies of the era that produced them. Gunning goes on, however, to describe the process of disenchantment that necessarily follows from this push to produce wonders: “Astonishment is inherently an unstable and temporary experience. One finds it difficult to be continually astonished by the same thing. Astonishment gives way to familiarity.” Astonishment gives way to habituation; we stop seeing our environments when they become simply the backdrop for more mundane activities: “What happens in modernity to the initial wonder at a new technology or device when the novelty has faded into the banality of the everyday?”

Here, we might think about Motter’s recurring images of somnamulists, sleep walking along the roofs of skyscrapers, oblivious to their engineering accomplishments or to the vistas that open out before them. Those who suffered from Escher Syndrome (named after graphic artist M..C. Escher) are benumbed by the banality of everyday life. As a psychiatrist being interviewed on television in Terminal City explains,

“The condition really defies any satisfactory explanation. There have been a growing number of cases of somnambulism wherein the subjects are found in strange and precarious situations. They awaken on ledges or rooftops, often hundreds of stories above the street. In many cases there is no physical access to those places. Their means of getting there are completely without explanation and they seem to have no memory of…”

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These sleepwalkers, though, are simply one of many unsettling elements that suggests the psychological imbalances experienced by those forced to inhabit this utopian society. Look closely and one will start to notice images in the background of people jumping off the rooftops, of flying cars crashing into buildings, or of crimes occurring in the back allies, all suggesting a city which is mentally unbalanced and socially out of sync. Indeed, once Motter left the book, such images – especially those of desperate and eccentric members of various cults and subcultures – moved into the forefront of the series, looking more like the cyberpunk society depicted in Warren Ellis’s Transmetropolitan than like the utopian architecture associated with Democracity.

The Hernandez Brothers vividly capture this movement from astonishment to disenchantment in a “Tales from Somnopolis” extra in the back of one of the first issues of Mister X: across three pages of wordless panels, we move from spectacular images of skyscrapers, zeplins, and caretaking robots, through increasingly darker images of social decay and urban blight, ending up an appoclyptic image of a flood which washes the city clean again. The series of panels ends with the text, “We hope this tour of our fair and radiant city answers any questions that you may have been too shy to ask. Thank You.”

A Tale of Three Cities

Mister X, Terminal City, and Electropolis can be read collectively as the Tale of Three Cities, each designed with the best of hopes, each destined to achieve the worst possible results. As Motter explains near the end of Electropolis,

“We built the three cities – Radiant, Terminal and Electra – they all fell like Babel – each in its own terrible way. One drove its citizens insane. The population went from suffering from disorders like simple kinephilia and luxophrenia to full-blown omniphobia within a single year. Another succumbed to a titanic social depression caused by the termination of the fair it had been built to celebrate. And this township became overpowered by the very industry that had created it, paralyzed by electromagnetism and avarice.”

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The Cast Iron Beach offers perhaps the most vivid encapsulation of the move from idealized to blighted urban landscapes. One character describes to attraction at its conception:

“It was a magical place back then. It was designed to be the amusement section of the fair. It actually opened two years early. Folks came from all over to see it. To enjoy it. It attracted all kinds. From carnival types and exhibitors to tourists and locals.”

But in an economy which has lost its way, the attraction falls into disrepair, the sands are washed aside, leaving only the metal shelfing underneath:

“Electra City must have been a lot nicer before they started calling it Electropolis. I figure that was around the time the sand washed way, leaving only the rusting steel plates…One can almost hear the ghosts of the midway echoing off the metal scaffolding that once supported a wonderland more fantastic than Alice ever encounters.”

Or consider the case of Slant Town, an upper-class neighborhood built upon an unstable hillside property, which is reduced to a slum when the bedrock collapsed, leaving the whole neighborhood dangling at a nine degree angle:

“These days, it’s a run-down bit of bohemian refuge. Smoky nightclubs, junk shops, soup kitchens, art studios, small galleries and all. But I’m always amazed that the whole shebang didn’t come tumbling down long ago.”

The inhabitants of this city now must live in and around the abandoned facilities created for the Brave New World’s Fair much as residents of Queens may drive past the rusting remains of the Unisphere from the 1964 New York Worlds Fair on their way to low-paying, nowhere jobs. As Motter explains,

“It’s a symbolic thing I suppose. The idea of a huge city that has seen better days isn’t very ‘realistic.’ Except in antiquity. Modern cities are organic, evolving and constantly being re-invented….The same can’t be said for the physical world we have constructed to live in. It remains, even if its inspirations fade from memory. “Look upon my works, ye mighty, and despair…” quotes Shelley in Ozymandias.”

Things aren’t going to get any better from here. The construction companies where B.B. seeks work have closed. Nothing new will be built. Christian Thorne argues that the nostalgia provoked by the retro and the dread sparked by images of post-appocalyptic societies are complexly intertwined in contemporary science fiction, our desire for one fueling our despair over the other. Thorne sees the recycling of the residual as a central aspect of the apocalyptic imagination with old junk re-evaluated once it accrues scarcity. Motter’s comics, thus, play on this line – inciting our pleasure at seeing these old conceptions of the future realized and our fear that no matter how utopian our aspirations, human societies collapse in upon themselves in the end.

TO BE CONTINUED….

Comments

  1. robin reid says:

    Fascinating to see these images as part of your text–I enjoy how you’re able to use the blog technology to present text and image (I know we can do this at conferences as well but so often the tech goes bad!).

    I am reminded of Joanna Russ’ comment about Golden Age sf, I think it was, that the authors could envision a fantastic technological future (the images and your analysis of the future in these comics reminds me very much of that classic sf) but no social differences, so despite the jetpacks and spacetravel, married couples still lived in what was essentially middle class suburbia (I notice in the one close-up front view of a single female figure, she’s wearing what I’d think of as a very fifties outfit–rather pink!–and high heels!).

    I’d be interested to hear what you have to say (may be in future sections!) about the gender roles in this retrofuturism!

  2. Larry Steckler says:

    I’ve just published an un-attributed autobiography of Hugo Gernsback. It is available at Amazon.com and you can take a look inside and see a bit of what the text holds.The book runs some 690 odd pages and is available in hardcover and paperback. Here is a link:

    http://www.amazon.com/Hugo-Gernsback-Well-Ahead-Time/dp/1419658573/ref=sr_1_4/002-4886670-9411251?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1178130215&sr=1-4

    All Hugo fans should find it of great interest.

  3. Scott Ellington says:

    This comment may be a little more off-the-wall than usual, but I think Kurt Wimmer’s film Equilibrium can be seen as an illustrated dystopic future in which normal human emotional lability has been defined as a threat to the survival of the species. The cultural evolution of Vulcan-like emotional equilibrium has been accelerated by the mandatory use of a levelling drug, and a kind of priesthood is empowered to seek and reprogram/destroy all citizens who exhibit any of the “symptoms” of fan-like behavior; amassing collectibles, obsession/attention to works of art and illegal assembly to celebrate them.

    I think all cultures are post-apocalyptic since August 1945.

    SereniFly (Serenity and Firefly) seems to retrospeculate about the relatively recent past and future simultaneously, while the expansive “future of television” is shrinking into increasingly numerous aborted seasons.