Past Forward: Three Comics That Remember the Future Like It Was Yesterday

The future isn’t what it was supposed to be—but on comic books’ infinite tablet the present can be anything we feel like. Three new comics projects—one newly created yet a century old, one from a rich canon of vintage superheroes that has yet to be produced, and one that is the biggest news of what hasn’t happened yet—make the immediate future bright and give time new meaning.

Rocket Science

Taking those three in reverse order, ’cuz there’s no direction in spacetime, the buzz that’s overpowering mainstream comics is the incoming engines of Rocket Girl, by writer Brandon Montclare and artist Amy Reeder, debuting from Image Comics in October.

With a new altitude of elegant and energized art by Reeder, and a high level of lean poetry and quick wit from Montclare, Rocket Girl follows 15-year-old police officer DaYoung Johannson as she jetpacks back in time to the mid-1980s from the utopian society of…2013. She got the Jetsons future we thought we would, and is traveling to 1986 to stop an experiment that went wrong back then—but which may have created her own world.

I spoke with Reeder to find out more of what we should know and what we can expect from Rocket Girl.

ADAM McGOVERN: You’ve done a lot of traveling through space and time in your stylistic progression—from the centuries and cultures in Madame Xanadu to the sleek futurism and recent-retro of Rocket Girl, and from the fine-line detail and contour of Xanadu to the painterly shadings and volume of Batwoman. Is that mobility through genre and style part of what inspired you to do this comic (and any of your comics)?

AMY REEDER: In a sense, yes! Particularly when it comes to the time element—I’d had some interest in historical settings before Xanadu, but working on that book brought out a real passion in me for times past. Rebuilding the history like that—and as an artist, this means dedicating all your time toward it—has made me nostalgic and I feel a strange bond with people who have experienced times that I haven’t.

I will say, though, that my writer Brandon Montclare came up with the story idea. So there was no intention on my part to do a period piece again, even for recent history. But that’s one of Brandon’s talents; he plays to his artists’ strengths very well. This story has become everything I love and more!

As for style, I tend to believe mine doesn’t vary too much. I made a point to try different rendering techniques for Batwoman because I felt it was very in keeping with the character. Besides that, I tend to think any changes in my style are actually just improving and understanding art better. This probably isn’t true—it’s likely that style-changes for me are sort of unconscious. Or, that I’m separating “tone” and “style” when they’re really the same thing.

AM: This book returns to the 1980s that actually happened and the future we believed in back then. Some stories can capture an era more clearly looking back at it than stuff that was created at the time, before we recognize everything that made it unique (or have less embarrassing hairstyles to compare it to). Is defining a time (and designing a future) part of the fun of this book?

Rocket GirlAR: Most definitely! It’s a lot of work, too… this is specifically 1980s New York, and since so many remember what that was like, I just don’t want to get it wrong. It is so cool to learn about, though. I was young in the ’80s, but I was really into the style and culture of the time. So it is great that I get to capture my ’80s upbringing.

The future scenes add their own exciting element. As you said, this isn’t just any future—it’s the future we envisioned in the ’80s. So I basically have to understand that era well enough to get in the mindset to create an ’80s future. Yet I still have to make it feel outstanding in our day and age. So it’s a fine balance… although it’s still easier than re-creating 1980s New York.

The most “fun” for me in any of this is the clothing. Clothing + history has always been an obsession of mine.

AM: Time travel isn’t what it used to be—heroes used to go far enough back to fight Nazis or run from dinosaurs, but Rocket Girl is set in a decade that barely even feels like the past to us yet, and futurist writers like William Gibson don’t even set their books in the future anymore. Is Rocket Girl in part a story of that future that now comes at us so fast we literally crash into it?

AR: You’re right that the ’80s is a really recent history—it’s probably the most recent we can go while still having it recognizable. That said, when you really look back, that era was incredibly distinct and really very different from how we live life today. It’s something I’m realizing increasingly as I bring it all back to life. We think things haven’t changed much—but we’re also too lost in our technology to notice.

Still, it’s true that in our story, the past and the future are slamming into each other. Not only do we have this recent past, but our “future” is actually an alternate 2013—the kind we expected to happen by this decade, back in the ’80s. This is where Brandon and I feel it really gets relevant to our time, beyond what a period piece or a futuristic story could do. Because we’re looking into what sort of “present” could have (should have?) been, and what that says about us and human nature. Rocket Girl/DaYoung is from a utopian, beautiful city but it’s run on corporate corruption. And how come she’s a teen cop, anyway? Where did her childhood go? Is it possible we as human beings, at our core, don’t actually want what we had originally dreamed of—is that why we don’t have flying cars, jet packs, a towering web of skyscrapers?

AM: There’s some humor in the way that DaYoung is frustrated by the things she can’t find in “the past,” while we all complain about what we don’t have in our present—like those jetpacks we didn’t get, even though we did get things like this magic screen that lets us read Rocket Girl on the subway. Is the book in one way a fable of how we’re never satisfied with our own time? (And will DaYoung ever get a look at “our” future?)

AR: [To the first question] I wish I could say “yes”—but it’s truthfully not where we’re going with the story. It’s closer to a traditional fable of the dangers of getting what we wished for, and the price that comes with that. And more than that, it’s about youth… what it means to be young and the beauty of seeing things in black and white, right and wrong…before we succumb to relativism. Though I really can’t take credit for this—again, this is all where Brandon is coming from!

If anything, DaYoung’s romanticization of the past is a bit of a play on New Yorkers, who tend to really miss pre-Disneyfied New York, in all its dirty and dangerous glory.

Whether DaYoung will ever see “our future” is the big question! Certainly, our present is as it is… so one would think she somehow succeeds? And if she does, will she cease to exist? Guess we’ll have to see where Brandon takes things.

Pulp Science Fiction

Available only online but broadcasting straight from 100 years ago are a set of new subscription-only comicstrips from Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc.—the living archive of the Tarzan and John Carter creator’s ideas.

Writer Martin Powell and a talented troupe of artistic adventurers are bringing many of ERB’s novels to new life in weekly strips that transport readers to the vintage pulp of ERB’s time and transplant his weird science and exotic worldview to a knowing modern context. These include Carson of Venus (with artist Tom Floyd and colorist Diana Leto), The Eternal Savage (with artist Steven E. Gordon), and The War Chief (with artist Nik Poliwko)—as well as The Cave Girl (debuting July 19, with Diana Leto as sole artist) and an as-yet unannounced epic with 1970s comic-art legend Pablo Marcos.

I spoke with Powell to find out more about the process of adapting the works of Burroughs.

ADAM McGOVERN: I was interested to learn that you are using the storylines from the source novels while originating your own dialogue and narration—did you propose this to ERB, Inc. or did they ask for it? Either way, was there a philosophy of reviving the stories through new perspective, keeping them varied and kind of reinhabiting them like still-living worlds so readers know these versions are worth exploring?


MARTIN POWELL: That’s precisely the reason. I’ve always used this same method when transforming an existing book by another author into comics. Mainly, it’s my way of getting to play with the language and to bring something of myself to the story, without deviating from its source. One-hundred-year-old dialogue and narration can seem somewhat stilted to modern readers, something I personally don’t agree with, mind you, but I’m aware of that perception from many of today’s readers. The trick is to give the illusion of Edgar Rice Burroughs, and his era, while also keeping the dialogue appealing and fun to a 21st Century audience. The folks at Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., who expertly know their properties, have been very enthusiastically supportive of this, I’m very happy to say.

AM: This approach also made me realize that we tend to expect adaptations to be further from the literary originals the more senses are involved—we tolerate major changes between a book and a movie, but less so between a comic and a movie or a book and a comic. Is your method one way of saying that every medium’s distinct perspective should just be taken advantage of?

MP: Absolutely. Movies, books, and comics are three very different story-telling mediums. While I’ve never believed it necessary to “re-boot” Burroughs, transcribing his novels word for word, cutting and pasting his dialogue, is not the best plan in bringing adventure epics like these to comics or to the big screen. However, the essence needs to remain intact, or otherwise there’s no point to it. Reducing the chapter of a book to a five-panel comic strip, with a beginning, middle, and an ending that urges the reader to want to turn the page is always a formidable challenge. Creative writing, like stage magic, is all about misdirection and surprise. Establishing and maintaining a sense of drama and rhythm is all-important, and deceptively more complicated to compose than a standard comic book script.

I’ll always remain as close to ERB’s ideas as comics will allow. It’s a genuine honor to be writing these strips, as he’s been my favorite writer since I was thirteen years old. Ray Bradbury and I used to gush over Burroughs for hours, which is a very surreal and wondrous memory for me. If all that wasn’t enough, the influence of Edgar Rice Burroughs has always been deeply rooted in the comic book industry. In fact, I would even go so far as to say that the industry probably wouldn’t exist without him.

AM: Do you write one episode at a time of each strip in rotation, or write blocks of each at once? I’m curious which technique you use for packing each single episode with no more or less than it needs, and keep yourself as much in suspense and anticipation as the reader should be (without either giving the reader and yourself too much to try and remember between weeks, or not enough to be satisfied each time).

MP: It’s something of a juggling act, that’s for sure. I’m currently writing four weekly comic strips for Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., with more to follow. In each case, I re-read the original novels, carefully pacing each, scene by scene, for their initial year’s storyline. After that, I’ve been writing the scripts in rotation, but I’m always aware of what will occur in the following episode. Sometimes it’s a bit of a tangle to unravel in my head. In the case of Carson of Venus, for example, I felt it was important not to show Venus immediately. We needed a bit of back-story, so we could get to know Carson first. He’s one of ERB’s most endearingly human heroes, and I wanted readers to like and empathize with him. We could portray that best, I thought, by showing him in a real-world setting first, which makes his eventual arrival in the alien environment of Venus all the more exotic, and much more of an “event,” since we are experiencing its awe with him. So, that’s the route we took and it appears to have been successful with readers.

In contrast, The Eternal Savage, The War Chief, and The Cave Girl all hit the ground running, mainly because Burroughs began those books already entrenched within the adventure on their first pages. My writing practice on all of these strips is sort of working backwards. I always need to choose a powerful first image to begin with, to grab the reader’s attention, but mainly I’m always directing the action toward the conclusion/cliffhanger, which is the first story element I conceive for each comic strip. Writing in classic comic strip form is much more challenging (and more creatively satisfying) than any other format I’ve ever written for, whether that be prose, graphic novels, or screenplays.

The economy of words is of paramount importance. In such a finite space, usually six panels or less, every single word must count. Luckily, I’m strongly supported by some phenomenally talented artists. Thanks to them, it looks like I know what I’m doing. Because of our creatively rewarding collaborations, and the futurist vision of Edgar Rice Burroughs, Inc., this is, without doubt, the happiest and most exciting writing experience of my career. And I think it shows.

Hooked on Classics

Not yet finished but feeling like it’s been stored up for decades is writer-artist Dean Haspiel’s The Red Hook, a short story available for free on the auteur’s Trip City cyber-salon site and awaiting funding for a graphic-novel’s worth of expansion into its own rich past and comics’ next advances. A romantic psychodrama of hearts-on-sleeves-of-spandex, with classic comics’ simplicity and modern graphic literature’s complications, Red Hook is part of the Emmy-winning Bored to Death designer’s personal epic quest to give the medium a future to be nostalgic about.

I interviewed Haspiel to get the scoop on the project.

ADAM McGOVERN: There’s a particularly tricky form of time-travel going on in Red Hook—it actually feels more like classic pop-art comics than those comics themselves seem when we look at them today rather than through childhood eyes. It really is as good as we sometimes only remember the stuff that inspired it being. What’s the secret to locking that feeling in forever rather than it just depending on what age or in what decade you first read it?


DEAN HASPIEL: I feel that storytellers spend their lifetime chasing the things that attracted them and dramatically altered their DNA. For me it was comic books, movies, and television that took my life hostage. Only, rather than clone something from the past, I became obsessed with identifying and investigating the stuff that informed my heart and mind and figuring out how to express that into an entertaining communication between my family, friends, and strangers.

There’s a certain romantic latitude that nostalgia affords, and The Red Hook is my homage to the truncated storytelling and limited color palette of superhero pulp noir. A 21st Century wink to the 1960s imagination and economy of Alex Toth, Will Eisner, C.C. Beck, and Jack Kirby. Impossible to truly repeat any era, I can only aim to exploit the memories and feelings of what drew me into those first comic books I read in the 1970s & 1980s and identify what I loved when superheroes became more complex and more vulnerable, and became less iconic for their powers and more classic for their humanity.

Like how The Walking Dead isn’t really about zombies, superheroes aren’t really about superpowers. Good genre puts normal people into extraordinary situations, makes men into monsters or gods, and comments on how we might react given those circumstances. So, it’s not about aping what’s been archived but, rather, re-creating those first impressions no matter how absurd. I try to excavate the esthetic values of the comic books that knocked me out in hopes of developing my own sensibilities into something that leaves a lasting impression for someone else to enjoy and interpret.

AM: All your stories about heroes and deities slide back toward the post-WWII rom-comics about tragic or ideal love that in fact marked the best-selling period the medium ever had—and which of course constitute the oldest story everyone cares about. Is the key to doing a lasting comic to pick themes that are so retro they’re eternal?

DH: As much as I liked Man of Steel (which surprised me and polarized me from most of my peers), George Reeves will always be my Superman and the threat of a burglar or a psycho will always trump the fear of an alien invasion. See, “the end of the world” is when the person you fell madly in love with falls out of love with you, or dies. I’ve experienced that type of apocalypse. I don’t know what’s it’s like to break the world in half unless the world is a metaphor for the heart. And, like how old, black & white television shows blew their special effects budget on bending a bank robber’s rubber gun into a black pretzel, I cherish the economy of comic book line art and color and the contraction of storytelling that asks you, the reader, to co-author the tale, to fill in the spaces between the panels, and insert yourself, hook, line and sinker.

I can’t get enough science fiction, crime, romance and horror to fit into my daily diet but when I sit down to write and draw a story, I try to distill what I love about the kinds of stories those genres can tell and add a good sprinkle of memoir to make it personal and pulpy. The trick to keeping a story universal and timeless is to make it emotionally true.

AM: The characters in Red Hook seem not just to typify certain period archetypes of superbeings, but to embody trends of the eras in which Silver Age comics were being made—like the flower-power bee-woman The Sting. The extra dimension, even in a comic that’s intentionally an homage to the simplicity of 1960s story-structures and production values, is the element of time-period as character (which we get filling in the texture and realness of shows like Mad Men too)—do you always go for that palette of context to convey an era’s (even our own era’s) full life?

DH: If I had to pick an era that esthetically pleases me on a purely visual level and just live there for the rest of my life, I think it would be the 1960s. I was born in 1967 so I don’t have any memory of living in that era but I am a product of those values. I love the psychedelic colors, music, hair and attire, and the decade of change that occurred. Marvel Comics was born in 1961, helping inaugurate the “Silver Age” of comic books and, along with DC Comics, gave America its modern icons and mythology, the very stuff I’m riffing off in the last 15-20 years of my work.

Adam McGovern’s dad taught comics to college classes and served as a project manager in the U.S. government’s UFO-investigating operation in the 1950s; the rest is made up. There is material proof, however, that Adam has written comic books for Image (The Next issue Project), Trip, the acclaimed indie broadsheets POOD and Magic Bullet, and GG Studios, blogs regularly for and ComicCritique and posts at his own risk on the recently launched Fanchild. He lectures on pop culture in forums like The NY Comics & Picture-story Symposium and interviewed time-traveling author Glen Gold at the back of his novel Sunnyside (and at this link). Adam proofreads graphic novels for First Second, has official dabblings in produced plays, recorded songs and published poetry, and is available for commitment ceremonies and intergalactic resistance movements. His future self will be back to correct egregious typos and word substitutions in this bio any minute now. And then he’ll kill Hitler, he promises.


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