You’ve seen this future before. Lucas Varela’s new comic The Longest Day of the Future is stuffed full of familiar sci-fi tropes: future humans walk around their future cities wearing sexless jumpsuits, unless they’re mad scientists in white lab coats and goggles. Aliens have giant skulls and fly around in saucers. Robots are comical figures with telescoping arms. Fleshy pink tentacles leap out at you when you least expect them. Portals enable instantaneous travel anywhere on Earth, and even into other dimensions. If it existed on a pulp paperback cover in the 1950s, you’ll probably find some representation of it in Future: every version of the future that we conceived of in the last century is crammed into just over a hundred pages.
Future is made up of interconnected short stories about different characters: the alien, the robot, a lonely button-pusher for a giant corporation. They all tumble together by the end of the book into one screwball explosion of violence and heartbreak. Characters who literally would not hurt a fly have, by the end of the book, seem themselves transformed into something much crueler. Dreams are abandoned. It’s a rough day for everyone.
Like the future-tropes in the book, Varela’s art, too, feels like a jumble of familiarity. The first and foremost visual influence, of course, is Chris Ware’s bleak sci-fi cartoons, which imagine humans living solitary lives in pods as they’re fed relentless video feeds promising a better life. Both the flat colors and the slumped, cleanly drawn figures in Future give the book a sense of kinship with Ware’s strips. But there’s more to it than that: Varela’s wordless stories carry some of that slapstick, silent-movie vibrancy that the cartoonist known as Jason trades in. And there’s a lurid energy to the strip that evokes Roger Langridge’s Fred the Clown.
Langridge, Ware, and Jason are huge names to invoke — curiously, all three have been published, like Future, by Fantagraphics — and Varela matches them in terms of sheer cartooning artistry. One page early in the book, in which a misfired laser beam bounces around a room, violating panel borders as it goes, actually caused me to drop my jaw when I first saw it. Varela’s pages are finely detailed and exquisitely rendered. With very few lines and only a few words, he creates an entire world.
But what is he trying to tell us with this world? Authors often use the future in fiction to tell unpleasant truths about the present. That’s certainly the case with Ware’s comics, which were all about the paradoxical alienation of an increasingly more connected world. The future in Future doesn’t feel as simply allegorical as all that — or if it is, I don’t understand what Varela’s message is. There’s some ribbing of corporate life that feels a little lackluster, and some questioning of class that starts to go somewhere, but soon enough Varela returns to a robot fight or a good fart joke before things get too preachy.
But perhaps it’s not a message book. Which in itself is kind of a message: we’re so used to finding obvious messages buried just under the surface of our science fiction that the lack of an allegory somehow feels misleading, like a word search in which one of the words was purposefully left out of the puzzle to frustrate readers. Maybe the future, like the present, is just a bunch of stuff that happens, in slightly different clothes and with slightly different skyscrapers in the background? Is that a comforting thought or not? Is "same shit, different day" enough of a reason for science fiction to exist?
It took three readings of Future for me to come to peace with it as a work of art. Varela’s panels feel incredibly intentional: often, he stacks them eight to a page, two crisp columns of four sharp rectangles. Sometimes when you look at a page you’ll see the shapes of the panels before you can even take in what’s inside of them. The rhythms and cadences of the panels feel almost like a kind of sheet music, a very intentional, percussional, rhythm pushing the story along.
If the driving beat of panels are the framework for a piece of music, then, the characters and images of Future are instruments and themes. I imagine a recurring flurry of crows as a clatter of woodwinds. The smarmy tentacles are a bombastic diva. Each character is a soloist. Everything comes together when you imagine the book that way, a succession of themes and tones and concepts harmonizing and growing discordant and resonating with each other until finally the whole, greater theme of the piece is revealed in a thrilling crescendo. Sometimes the point of art is to be art. Occasionally, the point of a comic is to just be swept up in the music of it all.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the Los Angeles Times, the Seattle Times, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant