"Ephemera vs. The Apocalypse": Retrofuturism After 9/11

The following was written as a postscript to my essay on Retrofuturism and the work of Dean Motter, which was serialized in my blog last week. Some of this material originally appeared in Technology Review but it has been revisited in light of the more recent essay. motter27.png

A poster for Art Spiegelman's In the Shadow of the No Towers describes the book as "Ephemera vs. the Apocalypse," and that's as good a description as any of the functions retrofuturism and residual culture have played in the aftermath of 9/11. As Spiegelman writes in the book's introduction,

"The only cultural artifacts that could get past my defenses to flood my eyes and brain with something other than images of burning towers were old comic strips; vital, unpretentious ephemera from the optimistic dawn of the twentieth century. That they were made with so much skill and verve but never intended to last past the day they appeared in the newspaper gave them poignancy; they were just right for an end-of-the-world moment."

Comics entered American newspapers at a moment of rapid, profound, and prolonged change: the dawn of the twentieth century was met with an explosion of new technologies, not to mention significant dislocations of the population from the farms to the cities, from the south to the north, and from Europe to America. Comics spoke for the lower classes who had not yet reaped the benefits of those changes and for a middle class that felt disoriented by them. Characters like the Katzenjammer Kids, Happy Hooligan and Krazy Kat with their perpetual energy and eternally elastic bodies could neither be contained nor destroyed; their misadventures were being read alongside news reports of people suffering electric shocks from faulty wiring, dying in tenement fires, blown up at moving picture shows, or getting run over by streetcars. These comics helped turn-of-the century Americans laugh at things that otherwise felt hopelessly out of control.

Spiegelman reproduces a selection of early comic strips, including a remarkable Winsor McCay strip, published in September 1907, in which his protagonists are depicted as giants, trampling over buildings in Lower Manhattan, not far from where the twin towers were later built and then destroyed. The McCay cartoon is striking because of the contrast between the artist's detailed representation of New Yorks architectural wonders and his surrealistic images of giant cigar-chomping clowns climbing skyscrapers. Similarly, the cover of No Towers uses a realistic but shadowy rendering of the World Trade Center as the disturbing backdrop for cartoonish figures raining from the sky.

Spiegelman wants us to read these vintage images of toppling skyscrapers and falling people against the reality of what happened on September 11, transforming slapstick fantasies into chilling prophecy. He has explored this terrain before, depicting the horrors of the Holocaust through images from funny animal comics in Maus. No Towers is not as good as Maus but these images hit such a raw nerve at the time he created them in the immediate aftermath of 9/11 that he had trouble finding a U.S. publisher.

If Motter's books can be seen as offering at least a critique of older imaginings of technological utopianism, more recent works have turned to retrofuturism as a means of healing wounds and restoring a world -- and a world view -- that was shattered when the Twin Towers fell. We see this project of restoration, for example, in the beautiful sequence at the end of Martin Scorsese's Gangs of New York which uses digital effects to take us through a series of detailed simulations of the skyline of Manhattan as it evolves across the late 19th and 20th century, culminating in a shot which shows the World Trade Center towering over the island once again. When I saw this sequence in the theaters, audiences cheered to see this digital recreation of these national landmarks.

Something similar underlies the project Grant Morrison undertook in the Manhattan Shield segments of his Seven Soldiers books. Morrison's book depicts a version of Manhattan that never quite existed, full of buildings that were conceived by the likes of Robert Moses or Frank Lloyd Wright, but never built. Lest anyone doubt the motivation behind this particular act of retrofuturist imaginings, check out Morrison's interview about these comics in the New York Times:

"I want it to be a more exalted New York, where things that were dreamed of were finally brought into reality....[These architectural wonders] are the kind of thing that would become a tourist haunt or a terrorist target. All of the buildings I've included are. They would have been icons of the city."

If Scorsese's Gangs of New York has the alibi of historical reconstruction, Morrison's project is retrofuturist to its core, revisiting the imagined city of the future as a source of historical consciousness through which we can understand our current moment. His monuments are completed so that they can serve as targets for imagined future terrorist attacks

Kerry Conran, the director of Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, was also haunted by ghosts of tomorrows that never were. He told Entertainment Weekly that the film took shape around a haunting mental image of a Zeppelin descending through snow and searchlights toward its moorings in Manhattan. Conran spent years recreating these images on his home computer before getting independent funding to finish the film. The result is gee whiz technological magic with most of the sets created digitally as actors performed in front of blue screen and with Lawrence Olivier, who died in 1989, restored to life and playing a new character, thanks to digital sampling.

The Making Of features on the dvd of the film make it clear that these images drew on appropriated and transformed iconography from the mid-20th century popular imagination. Conran describes the project as a "comic book brought to life":

"One of the first things we started with was...attacking New York City. Before we started, we sat down, almost for my own benefit more than anything else, wrote a handful of pages and some little thumbnail sketches suggesting how we should approach what New York should look like in the film. In large part, it was always based on these beautiful charcoal renderings by Hugh Ferris, this architect/illustrators from the thirties who did the most amazing and beautiful renderings of New York City that I have ever seen. That became our New York City....In terms of the Flying Fortress, I actually looked at [Norman] Bel Geddes's ocean-liner that he had imagined. It was of course never built but it was a thing of beauty."

The film's zeppelin is identified as the Hindenburg III, suggesting a world where the deadly explosion of the original Hindenburg never took place or where the culture chose not to let the tragedy reshape their lives. If Spiegelman wants us to reconnect his slapstick images with the pain and suffering of 9/11's real world victims, Conran imagines a world where many of the traumatic events that would shape twentieth and twenty-first century history have not and may never occur. His World of Tomorrow is a place where things not only went on as before but where people were able to realize their highest hopes for the city. As Christian Thorne has suggested, retro "is an unabashedly nationalist project: it sets out to create a distinctly U.S. idiom, one redolent of Fordist prosperity, an American aesthetic culled from the American century, a version of Yankee high design able to compete, at last, with its vaunted European counterparts." Not surprisingly, American artists have responded to 9/11 with a style of retrofuturism that celebrates the ideals and icons of mid-20th century American culture; it also exorcises some of the traumas which have swept aside the last vestiges of those ideals in our own time.

An army of giant robots -- inspired by the Superman cartoon, "Mechanical Monsters" -- march down Broadway. Airships barely avoid colliding with skyscrapers. A mysterious mad scientist, with a quasi-religious vision of purification and redemption, threatens to destroy the world from his hiding place in some uncharted spot. Just as we can now go back and read the popular culture of the late 1930s for its traces of an America on the eve of a world war, future historians will be able to read these images as early twenty-first century concerns mapped onto an imaginary world where gum-chewing boy geniuses, dapper young pilots, plucky "female reporters," and dashing British commanders can overpower anything the terrorists throw at us.

The images of technological destruction in Sky Captain are comfortingly far-fetched. The threats are larger than life but so are the resources with which we combat them. The movie flirts with global destruction, only to end on a much more reassuring note. This is the kind of movie that studio era Hollywood would have made if it had access to today's digital special effects. Set in 1939, once again the year of the Fair, Sky Captain is full of the gizmos and gadgets that filled the pages of Tom Swift novels, pulp magazines, and Buck Rogers comic books: flying fortresses, ray guns that melt solid steel, airplanes that can fly under water, robot armies, shrunken animals, and vast underground kingdoms. And alongside these imagined technical wonders, there are also loving reconstructions of residual media - the graphically rendered radio waves that bring Sky Captain into the film, the detailed simulation of a 1930s movie palace which is screening The Wizard of Oz, the comic books that Dex the boyish inventor reads for inspiration. Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow closes the circle, linking its borrowed images of the future with the popular culture artifacts that draw collectors back to this era in the first place. The film celebrates the "sense of wonder" and the "can do" spirit of an America that was, in the language of the time, constantly striving to reach "new horizons." One running gag in the film concerns the reporters agony over having only two shots left in her camera as she encounters one spectacular experience after another, always convinced that what comes next will be even more wondrous.

Sky Captain doesn't just bring old images of technological wonders to life; it also captures the technophilia that shaped those glistening images. Go back and watch a movie like Things to Come (1940). The film stops dead for five minutes or more so we can take pleasure in showering sparks, pounding pistons, and spinning gears. This contemporary film seeks to reclaim that fascination with massive and streamlined machines that was so much a part of that earlier science fiction - and it does so by tapping our contemporary astonishment about its digital special effects.

Sky Captain also reminds us of a parallel history of popular fictions that challenged the quiet desperation which motivated mankind's hurried progress. Frank Capras 1937 classic Lost Horizon depicts Shangri La as a haven of peace in a world on the eve of war, a refuge from the relentless demands of modern civilization. Capra's film can be read as a poignant reminder that even then, not everyone wanted to live in the World of Tomorrow. Sky Captain depicts Shangri La as the site of atrocity and suffering: its residents have been enslaved by the evil scientists, forced to work in his toxic mines to generate the raw materials needed to fuel his war machines. We cannot escape the forces of change, the film seems to suggest, but we can survive and master them.

Gibson read these 1930s images of the future as having all of the hallmarks of fascism; Motter depicts what happens when Democracity and Futurama becomes a reality which drives people insane; but Conran wants to live in the World of Tomorrow. This form of retrofuturism is highly seductive, especially for those of us who check eBey regularly to barter over souvenirs and trinkets from the World's Fair or pour over old issues of Popular Science and Amazing Stories. At the end of the day, this form of retrofuturism is deeply conservative in its desire to restore a lost world. It wants to hold onto the fantasy of an American Century as long as possible, even as we see the dangers of that inflated national fantasy every night on the news. If, as Charles R. Acland suggests, the residual represents a kind of historical consciousness whereby shadows of the past challenge the myth of inevitable progress, we need to recognize that it can also function as a fantasy about returning to the womb. In the end, I love Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow but I fear what it tells us about the conservative impulses of own times.