Retropolis - the Art of the Future That Never Was

What Future is This, Anyway?

There was a time when we excelled at dreaming
about the future. It was a time when I think we
simply needed the future very badly. But
there's more to it than that, of course.

During the years of the Great
Depression we had lately seen
great advances in technolo-
gies that affected our
everyday lives: the auto-
mobile, air travel, and
the radio, and then the
applications of those
basic technologies that
had begun to create a
world in which less and
less of our time had to
be spent on the basic
labor of keeping our lives
going. And it didn't take a
futurist to imagine that
trend continuing into what
seemed like its natural conclu-
sion: a human leisure class - a
leisure species! - freed from its daily
toil and now able to pursue whatever
intellectual or practical pursuits it pleased. We
pleased, I mean.

This idea, like everything else, was stood on its head when the Great Depression arrived. But we held onto it - maybe, as I said, because we needed it so much. And what always enchants me about the futurism of those days is its quality of universality. It was seldom about 'what would be better for me'. It was more likely to be about 'what would lead us to a better world'.

Being human, we seldom agreed about what that 'what' was, of course.

The Retropolis Courier Service

Moreover we still believed in the ability of technology to simplify our lives and enrich us. We dreamed up the Greenbelts, which were mixed urban and rural communities - and even built a few! - in the belief that they were the model for a better way to live. We extended electricity to rural areas that still didn't have it. We were paving the way for these futures that were worth believing in.

And the picture of that kind of future arrived. It seems to have come from every direction at once. In the 1930s we applied the Streamline Moderne style of Art Deco to anything that would hold still long enough - like appliances - and a lot of things that wouldn't - like trains, cars, and aeroplanes.

The same thing happened to our architecture, and to our entertainments. 1930's Just Imagine, and others that followed, showed us a future where many of these marvels had come to pass.

1929 is remembered as the year of the Wall Street crash, but it was also the year when Buck Rogers flew his rocket into our Sunday papers. Flash Gordon was quick to follow, and both of them ended up in the movie serials. Through these hard times the young science fiction magazines thrilled and amazed us with ideas of what the future really might hold.

World of Tomorrow

In looking back on how this vision of the future came together it's clear that all of these very different things fed on each other. They combined to form a futuristic vision that was propelled by need, and heightened by style. It had such a distinct character that it's instantly recognizable, even now - and it was accelerated by a feedback loop in which industrial design, the arts, and the sciences all led us to the image of one amazing World of Tomorrow that seemed so real that it just had to be inevitable.

The Future achieved its shape, finally, at the New York Worlds Fair of 1939. Two of the Fair's most popular attractions were (the original) Futurama and Democracity. Each was a multimedia tour through the Future.

Large parts of this were nothing but corporate propaganda: an effort to teach us to want the new (or newer) cars Detroit offered, and so to want the nationwide system of highways that those cars required. We were fooled into setting aside public transportation, to our great cost. These commercial visions for the Future led not to the universal good, but to what we each might get for ourselves.

In the end we built something sort of like The World of Tomorrow only because its materials and design made it cheap to build. We succeeded in many of the details... but we lost the whole picture. We lost that universal vision for how the world might actually be better, and not just for a few, but for everyone.

And eventually we also lost that hope that had made this most excellent future seem inevitable. We became disappointed with our institutions and with the benefits of technology. At about the time we actually landed on the Moon, we began to think that the future was something to be feared. It's probably no coincidence that in that year of Apollo 11 Buck Rogers parked his comic strip rocket for the last time.

These days our entertainments show us dark, dystopian futures in which the planet's destroyed, or conquered, or just runs out of steam. We don't even always see what caused these apocalypses: what the stories are actually about is the people who live in the wreckage and how that transforms them.

But as we dream these dreams... have a look at the world we're living in. It's nowhere near perfect. But we daily take for granted things that simply didn't exist a few decades ago. And many of those things are good, and have improved our lives. And for the rest....

Slaves of the Switchboard of Doom

The best thing about the Future is that we have so much of it. It's always there, just around the corner. It's never too late to try and shape it into something better - not for you and not for me, but for everyone.

If I have an agenda, it's this: I hope that by remembering and enjoying these vintage visions of the Future we'll consider the possibility that our own future might also be full of hope.

Why not? It's up to us. It always is.

How I Came to Retropolis, and What I Did There

I came to Retropolis honestly, but I got there by walking sideways.

It didn't have a thing to do with science fiction. Among the books I read as a whippersnapper there were many reprints of old pulp science fiction and fantasy stories. But that wasn't it.

Those early science fiction stories were way in the back of my head, and they weren't talking to me. No, my road to Retropolis started with music.

At some point in the late 1980s (thanks to Dennis Potter's Pennies from Heaven) I began to listen to popular music from the 1920s and 1930s. A lot of things about those songs captivated me. One was the way they often made light of their very hard times, and about the way they expressed hope for our future in spite of those times. I wanted to know more about that. So I started to read about the Great Depression.

I read about the social programs - both real and proposed - that were supposed to improve everyone's lives. I read about the things that were actually attempted, sometimes with success, and why they were tried and who made the effort. I read histories written quite recently, and I read firsthand accounts from the 1930s.

I'm practically an old codger, and I think that entitles me to tell you Something I've Learned:

Of all human conditions, the worst is the absence of hope.

The survival of hope in those dark times, and the way in which it was expressed and encouraged, has never ceased to affect me.

And finally I discovered the 1939 New York Worlds Fair - the "World of Tomorrow" Fair - and something inside me just fell into place. Behind the corporate ballyhoo this was the clearest expression of that optimistic view of the Future that had been building through the bad times.

And I guess I've never left.

It must have been around 1998 or 1999 that I started making Retropolis pictures. I'm not sure I was calling them that yet, but that's what they were.

For the first several years the work was really, directly, born out of that optimistic view of the future. I didn't want anything bad to happen in Retropolis.The World of Tomorrow So for quite a while the pictures all had a Utopian quality that was agreeable to me. But the problem with Utopias is that they're boring places.

I would likely have stayed in my Utopia, believe it or not, if it weren't for the T-shirts. Because when I started selling T-shirts... well, they had to be good T-shirts, didn't they? And I don't think many people want to wear Utopia on their chest. People tend to like witty things on their shirts: things that say something about themselves, which is often "Hey! I'm kind of smart, so I understand this!" And they like humor, and much of that humor goes at least a bit little dark. So I found myself creating Giant Robots and Mad Scientists and other things that you don't often find in Utopias.

And it's fun, isn't it? Those designs clicked with people and led them into my Retropolis, and my Retropolis was changed by their arrival. Utopias make for poor stories... but there was something here now that maybe I could work with. Someplace new to go.

So Retropolis, as I write this, is still a vision of that retro future in which our lives would be better and richer. But it's more interesting, now, because it's also a world in which mad scientists have nieces who worry about them; in which Giant Robots may, from time to time, stomp on the buidings in the Experimental Research District; in which Space Pirates are a thorn in the side of the Space Patrol, and it's possible that the Space Patrol deserves that, just a little bit.

Discussing the issues in the Retro Future

And it's also changed because of themes that have become important in my own lifetime. One of the Retropolitan themes that interests me these days is clean energy - a problem the Retropolitans certainly seem to have solved, and one that's tied to our own hopes for the Future.

So ten years after I entered Retropolis I think that it's a funnier, more likable, and more topical place than it was when I arrived. Which is a nice thing to hope for anyplace we may happen to be.

Some Things That Influence Me; Also, Some Things That Don't

If you've made it this far down the page, you already know that the ingredients for my Retropolis go something like this:

The futurism of the 1920s and 1930s
Industrial design from those same decades
Buck Rogers comic strips, and pulp science fiction magazines, from the period

As brief as those lines are, they contain so much! The industrial designers, for example, include wonderful designers like Henry Dreyfus, Norman bel Geddes, Brooks Stevens, and Raymond Loewy - gifted designers in an age when industrial designers were practically household names.

Where I stray from those two decades, it's mainly where I'm drawn by the work of comics artists and illustrators. In fact that's the one way I'm influenced by anything from the 1950s, because of comics artists like Al Williamson, Wally Wood, and Frank Frazetta, or illustrators like Hannes Bok and Virgil Finlay.

Apart from those artists and their co-conspirators, the 1950s are pretty much barren ground for me. It no longer surprises me when my work is likened to the science fiction of the 1950s. But it always disappoints me a little.

I guess the way I can explain this is that if there's a resemblance, it's because both my work and the science fiction of the 1950s are influenced by the same things.

About the Art of Retropolis

And then, I guess, there's me.

First off: I'm less interesting than the things I do. Get over it. I have.

I was born in Southern California in 1958. That made me too young to be a child of the sixties, which is something I resented in my teens. Missed it by that much.

I can't say that there was anything very remarkable about my childhood except that I learned to read so quickly, and so soon, that I can't remember not being able to read.

Oddly, though, I had been very slow to speak. The story is that the first thing I ever said was a complete sentence - and that, in the heat of the moment - so I think I was just making certain that I knew how it worked before I committed myself. I'm still like that.

It could be that I was always reading more than speaking, anyway. And I read a lot, continuously, pretty much anything I could lay my hands on.

This either delighted or alarmed librarians wherever I went.

So I was sure I'd be a writer. Convinced of it. It surprised no one more than me when I realized, in the middle seventies, that I was spending most of my time making pictures instead.

These were analog times and so the work I did was on paper or on canvas. I gravitated toward pen and ink work partly through the example of illustrators I admired, and partly through necessity, since color printing was far more expensive then than now. Few of my clients - and certainly, not I - could afford those costs.

In the late 1970s I did a lot of work for role playing game publishers, both small and large. By the early eighties, though, I was more interested in pictures that would stand alone, or in illustrations for stories.

Then, in the late eighties, computers started to get really interesting.

The possibility of creating interactive, animated work drew me into a new kind of image making. There wasn't any paper, this time around. I'd gone digital.

So I freelanced in the computer games business. This was the very end of those days (though we didn't know yet) when a couple of people could wander into a company like Electronic Arts, and walk out again with a publishing contract. A friend of mine and I did that very thing.

And I stayed in that hectic, crazy, self important - and yet trivial - business for far too many years. I refined my skills and I learned some new ones, but on the whole... I should have stayed at home.

When I finally understood that and found my way out, I decided that I'd spent too many of my years working on Other Peoples' Dreams.

Hello, It's Me 

So now I don't.

Oh, all right, every now and then I take on a freelance job. You caught me. But for the most part I try to work only on those things that wouldn't exist if I weren't around to help them.

Things, it seems to me, that want to exist. And that's how I got here.

- Bradley W. Schenck
November, 2009

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