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

The Burden of Knowledge, The Burden of Dreams

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Of course, these architectural wonders make little sense without digging deeper into the social vision that shaped them. Howard Siegel has traced the ways that a certain ideology of technological utopianism shaped the iconography of early science fiction, starting as a form of social critique of dominant economic institutions, but being highjacked and reworked by the 1939 Fair’s corporate sponsors. As Siegel writes,

“Technological utopianism derived from the belief in technology — conceived as more than tools and machines alone — as the means of achieving a ‘perfect’ society in the near future. Such a society, moreover, would not only be the culmination of the introduction of new tools and machines; it would also be modeled on those tools and machines in its institutions, values and culture.”

Technological utopians believed a more perfect society would emerge from a series of breakthroughs in transportation and communication technologies. Siegel explains,

“Connecting all sectors of the technological utopia would be superbly efficient transportation and communication systems, powered almost exclusively by electricity….The specific means of transportation would include automobiles, trains, subways, ships, airplanes, even moving sidewalks. The means of communication would include pneumatic mail tubes, telephones, telegraphs, radios, and mechanically composed newspapers.”

Given this history, it is no accident that Motter refers to one of his cities as “Electropolis” and another as “Terminal City.” Both names suggest the centrality of these imagines of power, transportation, and communication to his vision of the failed utopia. As one comic critics writes, “Terminal City itself is named for the fact that it lies at the crossroads of a number of transport routes…But the city also earns the terminal appellation in another sense, in that becomes the end of the line for characters like Quinn, marooned there with his reputation in tatters, or BB, the construction work she’s seeking having long since dried up.” The books lovingly detail the various transportation options – showing us what it is like to take a joy ride in a flying car, to arrive in the city via airship, or to walk through the lobby of the futuristic railroad station. At the same time, the books are fascinated with the various systems of communication, depicting what were once seen as futuristic breakthroughs, such as television which was introduced to the public at the 1939 Fair, as now obsolete and malfunctioning (depicted here in grainy black and white images). Motter’s Terminal City still produces and consumes newsreel, Electropolis uses flouriscopes to search crime scenes, and Radian City uses a system of pneumatic tubes are used to deliver messages from building to building.

Presiding over Futurama, Democracy, Radiant City, and all of the other cities of the future were an army of engineers, city planners, architects, and designers. As Siegel explains,

“In utopia, efficiency would govern government as thoroughly as it would education and industry….Because technicians rather than politicians would run the utopian government, it would be technical rather than political in nature.”

This technocratic vision saw central planning and social engineering as new kinds of expertise which might perfect human nature. This same celebration of efficiency and rationalism ran through the discourse of the 1939 Worlds Fair. Here, again, is the narrator from The World of Tomorrow: “City planners and architects believed they knew what the future had to be like and what ordinary Americans needed to learn to be able to live successfully in it.”

This idea of the perfectability of human nature through the careful design of spaces and artifacts finds its expression through Motter’s protagonist, Mister X and his theory of psychetecture, which the book describes as “a unified theory of civilization.” The real power in Radiant City rest not with the political leaders, corporate executives, or crime bosses but with the seldom seen and cryptically described Consortium from the Ninth Academy, which Motter describes as “a roundtable of architects, engineers, photographers, chemists, and intellects. Big brains like Reinhardt, Eichmann, Von Stace, Riveuax, Rachmah Sheena, Templeton, Harbraun, Radiquiet….more of a cadre than a consortium.” Mister X’s new planned city embodied his belief that good design could enhance the mental health of its residents, but his designs were fatally compromised in their execution.

We first see Mister X upon his return to the city of his dreams, which he is experiencing as a physical space for the first time, despite having worked through every detail on paper. His fascination, however, soon gives way to horror as he realizes what they have done to his master plan: “They changed the original design! They cut down on the building materials, cut corners, used a lot of cheap substitutes! The psychetecture was ruined! God knows what effects the actual city is having on all our minds!” He is determined to either destroy the city or restore its balance.

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At times, the book portrays Mister X as an all-knowing figure, someone who moves through secret passageways and tunnels, allowing him to come and go everywhere without being detected.

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In a short piece contained in the back of one issue, Dave McKeen writes,

“He looked into each of the city’s eyes, each of its windows and seemed to understand. Where I could see only questions, he saw answers. With each spire and corner, each curve, each cornice he studied. His shoulders became heavier with the burden of knowledge. The burden of dreams.”

And in a dream sequence, Seth depicts Mister X as the very embodiment of the city he designed, his head a cluster of art deco skyscrapers. Read in that way, Mister X becomes a figure not unlike Howard Roark, the architect protagonist of Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead who similarly refuses to compromise on his vision even if it means standing up against unyielding public pressure or destroying his own creations.

But the more time we spend with Mister X, the less certain we become about the value of his theories or even about the stability of his mind. Perhaps he, like the other residents, has been driven insane by “the shortage of right angles or prime ciphers,” the imbalanced claustro/agoraphobic Ratio, or the distorted visual ambiguity quotient. Or perhaps it has been madness from the start. As the book continues, Seth’s drawings become looser, more distorted, depicting this world as seen by an unhinged mind. McKeen’s short story captures perfectly the disorienting qualities of the city and the impossibility of grasping it fully and completely within a single intellect:

“The city is one huge melting pot of time. During the day, a hazy structure that we must embrace in order to remain sane. But at night, in our sleep, we glimpse the randomness of it all. A city of pauses, fast forwards, stills, cues, and plays. Or is this again the abstract logic of my dreams.”

In the end, the city escapes human comprehension and drives all those who attempt to grasp its complexities over the precipice. The only way to survive may well be to sleep walk along the rooftops, never adopting a panoramic perspective on the whole.

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Showplace of the World

Read through a contemporary lens, the cities imagined by the technological utopians can seem bloodless and antiseptic. This is part of what generates such horror for the protagonist of Gibson’s “Gernsback Continuium:”

“They were both in white: loose clothing, bare legs, spotless white sun shoes… He was saying something wise and strong, and she was nodding, and suddenly I was frightened, frightened in an entirely different way….They were smug, happy, and utterly content with themselves and their world. And in the Dream, it was their world… It had all the sinister fruitiness of Hitler Youth propaganda.”

Motter stops short of equating technological utopianism with fascism in the way that Gibson does: there is a kind of pathos about the failure of the dream which suggests the fascination and affection that the collector often feels towards the objects of his collection.

A great deal of that affection gets directed towards the books’ nostalgic recreation of the stuff of early 20th century American popular entertainment. Images of spectacular night clubs and exotic eateries run through the series of books — Club Congo, The Jaded Dragon, The Zircon Club in Mister X, Rick’s Atomic Cafe, The Elbow Room, The Science Club in Terminal City and Flying Saucer Cocktails, The Color Bar, The Mermaid Lounge in Electropolis.

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Motter and his collaborators may be drawing inspiration from amusement area of the 1939 World’s Fair. For those who are interested in exploring the future orientation of the event, these sideshow attractions and carny rides have always been the subject of some degree of embarrassment. Motter makes fun of these mid-20th century performances in a scene late in Electropolis which shows a burnt out zeppelin pilot watching an aging and overweight mermaid swim around in her tank: The World of Tomorrow shows a much younger and more attractive “mermaid” swimming topless in a tank at an actual 1939 attraction.

There’s no question that these popular amusements have seen better days than the aged and creaky forms they take in Motter’s graphic novels. But, these show people – the stunt fliers, human flies, down and out boxers, entertainment entrepreneurs, escape artists, washed up movie stars, and jaded strippers – are the most human figures in the series. As Motter explained in our interview,

“That era of entertainment was rich with spectacle. Live public exhibition isn’t much these days- With TV and the internet now doing most of the work. …But in the early part of the 20th century, show business was big, clumsy and dangerous (in the pre-Disneyland era,) and pretty ‘rustic’ (in terms of finish.) It was exotic, and not always predictable. The industry simply makes it easier and safer today.”

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Cosmo, Terminal Island‘s human fly, describes the comradery he enjoyed with the other performers when the fair first opened: “The competition, while fierce, was usually friendly. There was a kind of bond between those of us in the daredevil trade. We were really competing against the NEW AGE itself. We were fighting against our own obsolescence.” Displaced as a performer by the Fair’s declining fortunes, Cosmo now works as a window washer but from time to time, the book calls him back into action and he emerges as the closest thing to a traditional superhero to be found in its pages. Through his eyes, we learn the fate of so many others of his breed, who one by one have met their deaths, often under mysterious circumstances: “Woody the Wingwalker’s plane temporarily lost control. Little Egypt was eaten alive during her Famous Aquarium Escape when the mummy case was dropped in the wrong tank. Tom McBomb’s cannon backfired.”

Cosmo is a human embodiment of the residual culture that engulfs the citizens of Terminal City, a hero who can be taken out of mothballs for one last adventure, because he still holds onto older values and virtues. We might contrast him with Menlo Park, the robot detective at the center of Electropolis: Menlo wants desperately to be the kind of tough guy detective that Bogart played in the cinema, but no one quite accepts him as a knight of the streets. He speaks in clichés and the others roll their eyes; he sputters and sparks, but he isn’t quite able to replace the human dick who was once his owner.

Then there’s show business entrepreneur Monty Vickery (a curious cross between Billy Rose, who helped to stage spectacles at the actual fair, Carl Denham the fictional adventurer who brought back King Kong to New York City to amaze the masses in the 1933 film, and , Merian Cooper and Ernest Schoedsack, the real world adventures and producers of the film). Vickery has traveled the globe to collect the inhabitants of his Evolutionary (including what he promises is the “missing link” in human evolution) and in a master stroke of showmanship, he stages a boxing match in which Kid Gloves fights his way up the evolutionary ladder from monkeys and apes to the first humans. Then, as a followup, Kid Gloves battles the machines which are replacing humanity (witness the figure of the robot who manages human laborers at the Herculean Arms). The series of events culminates when Gloves bests the machines and then his heart bursts, like some later day John Henry figure, signaling the last gasp of a raw humanity that has not been overcome by the mechanization of his society. Here, again, we see the showfolk “fighting against their own obsolescence.”

Professor Motter’s Hobbyhorses

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Motter surrounds his showmen protagonists with a colorful cast of secondary characters who seem to have been pulled from the panels of old Dick Tracy comics or the pages of long discarded pulp magazines. As Motter explains,

“These extraordinary environs needed to be populated by familiar, likeable characters. Archetypal, even cliché.”

Motter’s comics represent a world where larger than life characters like the mysterious Woman in Red, Li’L Big Lil (a cross between Batman‘s The Joker and Dick Tracey‘s Flat Top but in an plump and aging female body), the Killer Bs, Micassa and Sucassa the art thieves (who engage in constant comic patter inspired by Abbott and Costello), and a slew of other colorful characters are locked into a struggle to possess the Crowd Jewels of Alcazar, the Onyx Astrolab, a map buried beneath a cheap painting of horses playing cards, or some other high sounding gegaw. These figures, exaggerated and often comic versions of pop culture archtypes, become yet another form of the residual at work in the stories. Such figures seem to belong in this fallen utopia, even though such seedy lowlifes would have had no real place in the official representations of the World of Tomorrow which had promised that we would have overcome crime, eradicated greed, and otherwise perfected human nature.

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As the series moves forward, we see more and more such figures and we find more and more puns and inside jokes which reference early 20th century conceptions of technology and the future. So, we learn that the Mayors of Terminal City have included Orwell, Huxley, and Gernsback, or we meet characters with names like Tessla Coils, Menlo Park, Boris St. Elmo, Alfred MacGuffin, Johnny Picasso or Raymond Alexander. These jokes extend into the backgrounds of images as well, so that if you look closely at a page set at Ralph’s Used Robots, we will spot Maria from Metropolis, R2D2 and C3P0 from Star Wars, the Daleks from Doctor Who, Robbie the Robot from Lost in Space, Klatuu from Day the Earth Stood Still, and even what looks like one of the Rock’em Sock’em Robots from the 1960s children’s toy of that same name. These panels represent a mini-history of the place of the robot in the popular imagination across the past century. Or another panel from the same book shows Metropolis (Superman’s or Fritz Lang’s we don’t know), Gotham City, and Opal City as potential destinations, again linking Motter’s cities to the history of urban representation in comics.

We appreciate such jokes because Motter and his collaborators have taught us to scrutinize every frame for buried details and to search out further information on any elements we do not immediately recognize. We are operating in the space of what Umberto Eco called “the already said” or James Collins described as “the foregrounding of citations.” For Collins, this “hyperconsciousness” about past representations was a defining feature of American comics of the 1980s, suggesting the connection between Motter’s books and other contemporary works such as Watchman or Dark Knight Returns. Collins argues that this recognition of and appreciation of references to earlier texts reflects the expanded competency and the easy access to older materials through the informal archives that are growing up in and around popular culture.

Here’s Motter describing the expectations he places on his readers:

“Of course I hope my readers are hip to my world by now. Initially the approach was to put as many of my influences on the table without the stories becoming scrapbooks for ‘Professor Motter’s hobbyhorses.’ This was the way I gave a wink and a nod to those who were similarly inspired by the same subjects. It paid off, I think. I have met many like-minded creators as a result. But I was trained by looking at the masters. The McLuhans were Joyce freaks. Eliot masters. Pound scholars. Finnegan’s Wake was their Talmud. And it was (remains) FULL of treasures. I was convinced that I also had hidden treasures in my auxiliary ‘influences.’ ”

As a practical matter, each of these references offer a secret handshake to those already immersed in retro culture. For everyone else, it is easy enough to find a secret decoder ring somewhere on the web.

So we have come full circle, back to the relationship Straw has posited between digital media and residual culture. Motter’s works tap the residual at every possible level – from the broad outlines of his city to the smallest detail in the decore, from the names of characters to the archtypes and clichés through which those characters are constructed (One advertisement for Electropolis reduces the story to three genre icons –“The Femme Fatale, The Detective, The Architect”). It is clear that Motter and his collaborators are themselves fans and collectors of this retro culture and at the same time, they are using these images to pose a mild critique of the ideologies that shaped these earlier images of the future. Throughout all of this, we feel a certain melancholy in our recognition that the imagined world of tomorrow never came or more accurately, in these stories, it came and never left. Either way, the result is a set of shattered dreams and broken promises.

Next Monday, I will be back with a postscript about the ways that retrofuturism operates in a post-9/11 environment, focusing primarily upon Sky Captain and The World of Tomorrow. By the way, today, June 20, marks the one year anniversary of the launch of this blog. Thanks to my loyal readers who have provided the encouragement to produce so much stuff this year. As of last week, we had passed the 1000th link mark, so thanks also to all of you who have helped spread the word about some of the discussions we’ve been having here. I am looking forward to continuing to keep this going as we move into year two.