The Future Isn't What It Used to Be: An Interview with Comics Creator Dean Motter

Later today, I am flying to Berlin where I will be speaking at a conference on "Comics and the City: Urban Space in Print, Picture, and Sequence." The conference will include talks on comics creators from around the world whose work has been particularly shaped by their conception of the city. My talk will center on the concept of retrofuturism and the works of Dean Motter (Mister X, Terminal City, Electropolis). I hope to be reporting on the conference in the blog next week but for those of you who are interested in what I mean by retrofuturism, you should check out this column I wrote for Technology Review a few years back, discussing the topic in relation to Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow and Art Spigelman's In the Shadow of No Towers. Basically, Retrofuturism refers to a subgenre of science fiction which seeks to revisit older imaginings of the future. It is particularly fascinated with the iconography of the future city as seen, say, at the 1939 New York Worlds Fair, on the cover of old science fiction and popular science magazines, in Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon, and so forth.

As I was getting ready to write my talk, I reached out to Dean Motter to see if he would be open to being interviewed (as part of my research and for the blog). What follows is the exchange, conducted over the past week or so, via e-mail. I have long been a fan of Motter's comics, which manage to be forward-thinking in their use of the comics medium and retro-thinking in their visual style, narrative elements, and themes. Mister X, which featured early artwork from the Hernandez Brothers and Seth, among many other collaborators, became one of the most influential American comics of the 1980s. His subsequent work has continued to explore the themes of that earlier work, pushing them in new directions, and personally, I think his exploration of what he prefers to call "antique futurism" reaches its peak in Terminal City, my favorite of the three series he has developed around this theme.

All three books, though, deal with the idea of a fallen utopia -- a great city, built with futurist intentions, which has stiffled in the face of social and cultural change, never achieving its full potential, and in fact, becoming deeply destructive to the people who live there. In this way, he is able to read the iconography of the technological utopians, which shaped early science fiction, through the lens of its critics, who have been influential in more recent work within the genre.

As I have dug more deeply into Motter's background, I quickly became interested in the fact that he was a student and intellectual ally of Marshall McLuhan, a connection which I still hope to explore more deeply when I turn my conference talk into a published essay. Motter has also worked extensively in publishing (where he helped to protect the literary legacy of some of science fiction's early masters) and in the design of record covers. In the following interview, I focus primarily on his images of the city but it also provides a good introduction to some of the central concerns in his comics career.

I was intrigued to read in the bio at the back of Terminal City that you "studied at Marshall McLuhan's Institute for Culture and Technology." Did you work directly with McLuhan or was this after his death? What drew you there to study in the first place?

I studied MEDIA under his son (and ghost-writer) Eric, while enrolled in a progressive art and media course at Fanshawe College in London. After I graduated I moved to Toronto and did continue to work with Eric, as well as his father. I was considered the resident expert on comics art the institute, consulted in a modest way on his final book The Laws of the Media, and was an invited participant in many, many seminars. McLuhan loved talking about comic art and its relation to iconics. (He loved Pogo, L'il Abner, Superman and always compared them to the Altamira Cave drawings, the stained-glass designs of St, George & the Dragon, and the illuminated manuscripts of medieval monks. It always made some kind of sense to those of us who listened. And still does.) He was a wonderful avuncular acquaintance and mentor of enormous influence.

What influence do you think McLuhan's ideas have had on your later work?

At his most popular, McLuhan's detractors (and they were everywhere- from faux-intellectuals like Walter Cronkite to his fellow Canuck Pierre Berton) were many and obstreperous--and all proven wrong today. They scoffed at his ideas as 'bad science-fiction.' His ideas simply could NOT be credible! (hhmph.) Imagine a world of electronic interactive media, where phones and television had merged into a seamless media, where every household had a terminal that connected them to some kind of 'world wide network.' Crackpot ideas. Could his critics have been more unimaginative? Marshall represented the worst low-brow 'Buck Rogers' stuff to the effetes who were thinking so last-century. Imagine! An electronic society where any citizen could one day broadcast their own videos to nearly anywhere in the world in some kind of crazy 'You-Tube 'venue.'. Where the printed version of the W.R. Hearst-style newspaper would shrivel into near impotence. Where the 'Global Village' (Marshall's own term!) was considered frivolous. Cronkite and Berton have been proven the gigantic ignoramae, Simply because they were supercilious stuffed -shirts. Not because they weren't informed.

I digress. I try to recast some of his notions in the vernacular of the technology- or the imagined technology of the 50s- when he first wrote The Mechanical Bride and Understanding Media. In the prescient words of Tom Wolfe back in the 70s - "What if he's Right?"

Oh, Tom....

Vintage science fiction authors and works have been a recurring theme across your work in a number of media -- going back to the comics you helped to produce for Andromeda comics, which adapted the works of Arthur C. Clarke and A.E. van Vogt. and continuing through your role as Editorial Art Director at Byron Preiss Visual Publications where you worked with Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke and Ray Bradbury. What connections do you see between this work with classic science fiction authors and texts and the themes that emerged through Mister X, Terminal City, and Electropolis?

Working 0n Andromeda and more importantly at Byron Preiss Visual Publications with so many great authors, especially Asimov, Bradbury and Ellison gave me a deep appreciation of how well-written science fiction could be 'exploited' by the then largely adolescent-male oriented media. At Byron's I also art-directed many great artists (Wayne Barlowe, Ralph McQuarrie, Matt Wagner, Dave Gibbons, Rian Hughes, David Lloyd, the list is almost endless, and I even had the chance to work with Eisner and Kurtzman. It was akin, it its own way, to sitting at McLuhan's feet and learning from true visionaries. )

You have coined the phrase, "antique futurism" to refer to the ways you base your fictional worlds on the utopian visions of the future from the mid-twentieth century American imagination. Can you explain what you mean by this phrase and how it relates to your work?

Since the advent of the industrial revolution, our society has been predicting the cultural future via the machine. Whether in gigantic architectural visions such as the World Fairs, or the near-whimsical Popular Science covers, dreams of flying cars, household robotic servants, or jet packs. These visions, while engineering achievements of varying degrees of success and accuracy, were often oblivious as to how the culture would change. McLuhan (as well as the fictions of Orwell, Huxley and H.G. Wells) considered what would happen to humanity itself, not simply the evolution or devolution of our artifacts. The same kind of mystery that the ancient Egyptians pose for us would certainly puzzle our descendants if civilization came to a sudden stop as it seems to have done for eons. So 'antique futurism' became my way of having some fun, while raising the questions.

What is it about these particular visions of the future which have so captured your imagination? What relevance do you see these visions having for our present society?

It's a kind of funhouse mirror of our persistent state of naivete when it comes to technology. Our blind faith in the idea that technology can act as a cure-all? I love how that concept is reflected the impossible Rube Goldberg contraptions and hallucinogenic reversals that have bent the standard laws of physics. Be it Gates & Jobs or Nikola Tesla.

How would you characterize the attitude your works take to those earlier visions of tomorrow -- nostalgic, ironic, campy, or some combination of all three?

Definitely the combination. Each approach has different nuances- different modes of entertainment. Some dramatically different from the others. German expressionist film, the 50's version of the 'house of tomorrow combined with a hard-boiled gumshoe pastiche-VERY different genres, but very compatible. In my mind, anyway. While exploring 'vintage sources' I have begun to think anything is game. Peter Bergman of the Firesign Theatre had the best take on it; in his introduction to Terminal City -- A city being imagined in the 30s, built in the 40s and stalled somewhere in the 50s. I'd add that is was forlornly recalled in the 80s ('dreamed in other men's bodies, I think he said'.)

Mister X (1984) appears at about the same time as Mirrorshades:The Cyberpunk Anthology (1986) which included William Gibsons' "The Gernsback Continuium" and Rudy Rucker's "Tales of Houdini," both of which evoke themes I associate

with your comics. It is also telling that the phrase, "retro-futurism" that is often used to describe your work was coined by art critic Lloyd Dunn in 1983. Was there something in the air at the time which was leading to this reconsideration of "yesterday's tomorrows"? Is all this just a product of the anticipation that surrounded the year, 1984?

Of course, for me, there was approach of 1984, also the millennium looming on the horizon. But also it was the rise of Punk Rock and New Wave pop culture, the sudden ubiquity of synthesizers in music, 'theoretically' giving a single musician or two the power of an orchestra, the artistic mastery of technology and a non-chaotic, almost 'Aryan' control over their art (as opposed to the found art of Warhol, or action paintings of Pollock a few years earlier.) Very 'futuristic'-- combined with the Orwellian proletariat underpinnings of Punk Rock. It was an exciting time. Certainly Gibson and Rucker were operating in a milieu I was reading (Gibson's. The Differential Engine is one of my very favorite novels of all time. But J.G. Ballard, Thomas Berger and Harlan Ellison remain my literary patron saints. )

Some critics have linked your particular brand of "antique futurism" to the images of futuristic cities found in François Schuiten's Les Cités Obscures. What relationship, if any, do you see between Schuiten's future cities and your own work?

We both share a vision of gigantic, somehow old-fashioned urban landscapes populated by cold-hearted antagonists/protagonists- many 'temporally' disadvantaged'. That's obvious- we both derive it, I believe from Metropolis, and Hugh Ferris's drawings as well as newsreels of New York's golden age of skyscraper construction in the early part of the 20th century. I wasn't familiar with Schuiten's work until I was well into the creation of Mister X. His exposure at that time was minimal, maybe in the pages of Heavy Metal (Metal Hurlant) meaning his work was eclipsed at the time by their superstar, Moebius.

The visual style of Mister X becomes increasing abstract, stylized, and disorienting as the series continued. Is this growing abstraction a reflection of the mental state of the characters? Of the increased sophistication of readers now trained to read your book? Of the differences between the succession of the artists you were working with?

Again it was that combination of factors. Once Mister X went from being primarily a burlesque of a 'gangster crime story'- to a tale about existential madness, we could get away with more abstractions- It hit its peak with Seth's final issue (my penultimate issue- no. 13) where he had refined his style into a very elegant 'retro' look. The issue 14 finale was concocted with lackluster fill-in art (and my admittedly uninspired script.)- but it was SO unsatisfying I went back and did REDUX version myself a couple years back for the ibooks anthology - cribbing shamelessly from the Hernandez Bros, Rivoche, and Seth (as well as adding as much of my personal style I could fit)-- just to wrap it up properly- mind you some decades late - (but it is also available in a solo edition at

There are some very consistent elements in your conception of the city that run across the books, despite or perhaps because of the shifts in the visual styles with which these cities get represented. You have worked with artists who have their own distinctive approaches, many of whom share your interests with earlier graphic styles and conventions. How were you able to maintain such a consistent set of images across all of these collaborations? Can you describe something of the design process that went into the development of these cities?

Well, this is largely a question of 'chemistry' I have been lucky to have found simpatico collaborators. But I have always been careful to supply reference and inspiration when I had a particular vision in mind. As you can imagine I have a substantial library of such imagery, But usually my friends were already in possession of the source material and we enjoyed 'fanboy' discussions of Loewy, Hood, Corrbussier, Tesla, etc.

What similarities and differences do you see in the key cities that run through your works -- Radiant City, Electra City and Terminal City? You portray each of them as cities that have fallen short of their utopian beginnings, yet they seem to have fallen for somewhat different reasons. What draws you to this image of the fallen utopia?

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. But often we can't say the same thing about the artistic culture.

Aesthetic values wax and wane. There are obvious peaks and valleys, and sometimes complete expirations. 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.

In one panel of Terminal City, you jokingly success that these cities co-exist in the same reality as Metropolis or Gotham City. What similarities or differences do you see in these different conceptions of cities in comics?

Very little can be said about cities in comics that I read in my youth.. There were a few exceptions. McKay, Williamson, Wood, Kirby, Eisner...until recently. It was all pretty generic, and illustrators rarely did more than draw boxes with windows. Architecture was boring to draw when compared to super-heroes, villains and monsters. Anatomy was a difficult enough to master- but perspective! That involved math, geometry. Schoolroom stuff, So only those with a native talent made a mark. Even Gotham City's architectural characteristics didn't take on any personality until after Mister Xcame out.

Tim Burton and art director Anton Furst told me that there were Mister X comics scattered all over the art department when I visited the set of the first Batman film. And I have to confess that as I wandered the studio with DC staff, the sets looked AWFULLY familiar. And I did get some furtive glances from my tour-mates.

When you draw on the iconography of the 1939 World's Fair, of Just Imagine and Things to Come, of Alex Raymond, you also evoke the social vision behind those design principles which often had to do with central planning, social engineering, and technocratic policies. I see your idea of "psychetecture" and its corruptions as a kind of critique of some of those earlier ideas that cities could be designed and human beings engineered. I also see Mister X as in some ways a response to Ayn Rand's own critique of those ideas in The Fountainhead. To what degree are you using the collapse of these utopian cities as a critique of the political, economic, and social philosophies which informed the works of the 1930s and 1940s that inspired them?

The great dream between the wars that mechanization could solve society's ills. War machines had after all won us the Great War. But I suppose it was the image of Hindenburg, and The War of the Worlds broadcast that caused the modern American culture to begin to lose their optimism --and then there was the Great Depression- We have never completely abandoned the central planning model. A concept our enemy in the following war championed to the extreme.

McLuhan CONSTANTLY warned that de-centralization was inevitable in the electric age. (Rhetorical question-- just where is the server for the site this interview is posted on? I'd be surprised if its downtown ANYWHERE. USA.)

Social historians have noted that at the 1939 Worlds Fair, the utopian images of Futurama and of the experimental architecture co-existed with a series of sideshow attractions which could not have been more earthy in their inspirations. Throughout your books, you seem as fascinated with those side show entrepreneurs and the night clubs of the era as you are with the utopian visionaries. Can you speak to the role that carnival showman, daredevils, boxers, and nightclub performers play in your stories?

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. Arena shows and NASCAR are commonplace. 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 (Chris Angel notwithstanding.) The industry simply makes it easier and safer today.

There is a lesser parallel in my own business- when I was doing album cover design the craftsmanship was at once delicate and brutal. Emulsion stripping, airbrushing with toxic pigments, dye-transfer prints with the masking, burning, dodging, press-type (Letraset)- it was all about illusion, -creating the impression of masterful printmakers. It was simulation- ledger-main. All of that technology- now primitive and quaint- obsolete! It was replaced, just as McLuhan had predicted 30 years back. To pure scorn! It was all replaced with desktop publishing technology- accessible to amateurs and experts alike. The day of the self-trained, dedicated artisan had passed in a mere couple decades. A tiny bit earlier than McLuhan had forecasted.

If you draw on visual references to earlier constructions of the world of tomorrow, you also borrow stock characters and plots from pulp fiction and early comics across your books. Can you speak about the ways your characters and plots rework elements from the pulps or from Dick Tracy?

This was often more for my own amusement. These extraordinary environs needed to be populated by familiar, likeable characters. Archetypal, even cliché. This also kept the stories from becoming too grim. Strictly fun. McLuhan had something to say on such matters. From Cliche to Archtype remains one of the most useful reference books in my library.

Your books also make extensive use of verbal puns or visual in-jokes that make playful references to iconic figures of the utopian visions that shaped yesterday's tommorrows -- for example, your references to Edison, Tesla, Gernsback, Huxley, or Orwell, across the various books in the Terminal City series. The result is a layering of references and allusions which shape reader's expectations about your stories. How might you describe the expectations you place on the readers of your work? Do you expect them to know about all of these references coming into the book? Do you see the book as opening them up to a larger library of stories of which your tales are simply the most recent installment?

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.' Maybe not so profound but I was optimistic-though not overly so. The comic book arts are iconographic- as McLuhan ALWAYS insisted. R. CRUMB, Maus, Dark Knight, Watchmen proved that point in the 80's. In this millennium, the mixture of comic book media, the motion picture and the internet makes it a bit harder to distinguish the watersheds. So what? We comic-book folks have been laboring on that for years.

What did you think of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow? Did you see this as a kindred project or do you see them as using retro-futurism in a different way?

A favorite film. I was asked to be involved in the project very early on, But I was more concerned with getting my (never-quite-viable) Terminal City film into the works- plus I didn't see how a film with THAT title would ever make it to the theaters. See? Predicting the future isn't as easy as it looks....

What are you working on now? Have we seen the last of Electropolis?

At the moment I have finished Unique, with Platinum, (a bit of a change pace- as it takes place in modern day Chicago and its counterpart nocturnal dimension), I am also well into writing and drawing next year's re-boot Mister X series for Dark Horse.

I am also at work on a children's fantasy book about houses around the world with long-time friend, collaborator and ex-sweetheart Judith Dupré,. She's written definitive titles on skyscrapers, bridges, churches and other icons of the built world. She uses the archetypal forms of architecture to comment on the book itself as an object to be revered or a vestigial cultural artifact to be mourned. Her commentaries more eloquently parallel many of my own.

Electropolis - It will be collected soon. And maybe another series down the road. As the omnipresent TV narrator reminded us way back when: 'there's a million stories in 'The Naked City'- this is just one of them..."