The Terminal Side of Futurism: Getting Grungy Science Right

I know Mike Romo has written about the graphic novel Terminal City before and I believe his thesis was that the book is more about the city than the story. I think he’s totally right. So y’know, go read his piece for that take. My take is slightly different. I loved this book without being totally wowed by the story. The art took center stage as Michael Lark delivered some of his best work I’ve seen in his pre-big 2 days. The thing I love about Terminal City is its callous disregard for the sideways progress its world has made from our own. This is something we see a lot in “literature” such as Brave New World, 1984, and Farenheit 451, but rarely in comics. I’m not saying Terminal City is dystopian per se, although it certainly pays homage, but there is an element of rundown retrofuturism that is completely charming to a forward thinking science-type such as myself.

I say forward thinking and not “futurist” for a reason and the reason is this: I’m not sure what a futurist is, or at least what a futurist does. I’ve heard the term bandied about with authority but the whole concept seems fuzzy. So they think about the future harder than most? Ok, so smart dude with enough free time claims to see the scientific future and we’re all supposed to be impressed? Are they usually right? The short answer to the final question in the series seems to be a resounding no; at least no more right than one would expect from reasonable guesses. Futurists, and science fiction writers in general, often overestimate the immediate future and underestimate the distant future. It’s kind of human nature in that way; our generation will be great and accomplish a ton of stuff (when at the end of the day we generally don’t) but it’s hard to even imagine what future generations ages from now will have figured out. That’s why flying cars and jetpacks have been on the brain since the 50’s but almost no one figured there’d be a global network of linked computers sharing information at the speed of light all the damn time.

That’s what makes a book like Terminal City charming. The complete lack of flash, or if anything the anti-flash, used to portray fantastic technology in the style that would have come fresh off the sketchpad of a concept artist in the 1950’s. If you own a copy of the book (if not you can always buy it) go grab it and flip through it. The art is in the typical Michael Lark style, maybe with a bit lighter line than he uses now but the style itself is consistent. We around the iFanboy offices like Michael Lark because he uses a relatively few number of lines to say a whole helluva lot. Some call that cartooning, there probably should be a better word for it, but there ya have it. So as you flip through the book you’ll notice that while the style is never betrayed in every instance Lark goes out of his way to show you the grit, grime and dirt covering the city. It’s such a nice and subtle touch that emphasizes that this world is old and boring to those experiencing it no matter how cool it is to us just now reading it for the first time. It’d be like going from a comic shop that sold all Marvel to one that sold all DC. You’d still recognize the product but perhaps be enchanted by all the differences that the guys running the all DC shop would be very bored of by the time you moseyed along.

Terminal City is a world without a trace of magic, where creationists never showed up to the party and robots became sophisticated enough to run hotels but were never considered as window-washers. One of the main characters, Kid-Gloves, a boxer, fights his way up the evolutionary ladder, pummeling monkey after ape after Yeti until being thrown in the ring with a "The Missing Link." If that doesn’t make an evolutionary biologist laugh then that scientist has no heart, my friends.

I ache for the reality of Terminal City. I have as keen as understanding as I can of how the progress of science and technology shapes our world and I would love to see the alternatives had the Hindenburg not crashed, or had video phones never been more than just a fad, but never miniaturized enough that you didn’t have to step into a booth to use. The possibilities for these kinds of stories are endless and I wish comics did it more. James Robinson and Tony Harris designed their ideal city in Starman, and it worked great. The option exists and with the (theoretical) popularity of comic properties maybe we can get an Epcot-esque park full of realized snippets of our favorite fictional cities. Who wouldn’t love to go to a diner in Metropolis for lunch but go see the opera in Gotham that night? Be careful leaving that opera by the way, I hear it’s in a dicey part of town.

Steampunk is fun and all but it never really catches up. It’s inherit style necessitates that it remain stagnant but Terminal City actually takes place in modern day. I wish there were more comics in this tiny niche between straight sci-fi and alternate history. Some sort of alternate sci-present. I realize superhero comics arguably fit that niche but I like the grimy, non-fantastic take of Terminal City, one where the Human Fly is as heroic as it gets and boxers fight automatons. *Sigh* back to reality where all I have is a veritable Mother Box in my pocket. Thanks for visiting, now leaving Terminal City.

Ryan Haupt wishes he'd be around to go to the old-timey World's Fair cause Epcot really didn't cut the mustard. He complains less about the science we're stuck with outside comics on his podcast Science… sort of.


  1. every time i think of futureistic cities, Blade Runer always comes to mind, thanks to a university professor. I think though one of my favorite aspect of these Future cities is the aboundance of advertisments, and I always wonder will we see that level of advertising, either on blimps, or when you walk into the mall and you get the retinal scan and places you have shopped pop up, like in Minority Report.

  2. Walt Disney’s original plan for EPCOT was that it would be an inhabitable city and the Magic Kindgom would just be located in the community.

  3. Great article. Funny to see someone make the Motherbox comment. That’s actually the name of my Droid when I hook it up to my computer. Cool to know I’m not the only one to think of that.

  4. Good article. Most re-read the book, and the Aerial Graffiti follow up. follow up As to flying cars, I always remember Charles Stross’s response to why they have never appeared – the failure mode of a ground based car is that it stops moving, not a possibility you’d want in an aircraft.