REVIEW: Join the Future #1

Join the Future #1
Written by Zack Kaplan
Illustrated by Piotr Kowalski
Colors by Brad Simpson
Letters by Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou

Join the Future is a big, ambitious title for a book. And I’m here to say that much like the title of the book itself, the debut issue of Join the Future is bold, ambitious, and feels very much like a statement of purpose. You’re going to want to be on the ground floor of this book, as it feels like something exciting, and a great example of using science fiction set in the future (along with western themes) to explore issues that are very right now.

The future is here! And it's as big, bright, and exciting as we'd all hoped. The City of the Future is waiting for you. It's full of gleaming towers, flying cars, beautiful gardens and more.  Not to mention, hunger and poverty are no longer an issue. There's universal basic income for everyone in the City, so you are able to pursue whatever your true calling in life is. Health care, education, social and cultural opportunities, they all await you in the City, you just need to...join the future!

So, that's a hell of a pitch (I myself am ready to pack my bags and move there right now). However, not everyone wants to be part of the giant machinery of the City.  This is includes William, who's the mayor of the small (and shrinking) town of Franklin (current population, under 300). We meet him and his two children, older Clementine and younger Owen.  We met them as they're hunting on the outskirts of the City; William tells them to never join the City, as they'd be forsaking their freedom and independence.  When they return to their town, they find representatives of the City making their sales pitch and offering free food, which the Mayor violently rejects.  We see the town in celebration that night, but unfortunately it seems like the City doesn't like to take no for an answer, and things take a turn for the tragic.

I thought this was a terrific debut issue. There's a lot of setup in Join the Future. But if the purpose of a first issue is to set the stage for a series and get the reader to want to read the second issue, then mission accomplished. And a huge part of that is the stunning art from Piotr Kowalski, with colors by Brad Simpson. These two work magic in the opening pages of Join the Future.  When I think of the beautiful, gleaming, exciting cityscapes that symbolize the future to me, this is exactly what I'm picturing.  Kowalski has a fantastically detailed line, and provides an air of realism to something that could simply look fantastical.  He's clearly a skilled designer of architecture, urban planning, and more. The art feels like it goes beyond just "let's draw some cool buildings" and into the realm of "what might a remarkable city decades from now actually look like?."  I looked up Kowalski's prior comics work and saw that he'd previously worked with Joe Casey on Sex.  One thing I strongly remember from Sex was that Saturn City, the location for the story, was an incredible metropolis of one stunning building after another. I know it sounds funny to say "I read Sex for the buildings" (a variant on the I just read Playboy for the articles!") but I swear it's stunning work.

And Simpson provides spectacular colors that work perfectly with these amazing illustrations of a high-tech utopia (and not surprisingly, he was part of the team that brought Sex to life). It really feels like a sunny, gorgeous day. And the colors are bright, but not so bright that they leave the realm of realism. This fees like a future that you could attain, which perfectly suits the message the storytellers are trying to convey. You can have this future, there it is, in gleaming, vivid color.  Simpson does some remarkable work in this issue - once we leave the City and move out to Franklin and the people that live there, the color palate completely changes. We're now in a world dominated by earth tones which, apart from the clothing, could be the present day over even the 19th century - it definitely has an authentically "western" feel. The people living in Franklin live much closer to nature, so their town is dominated by browns and greens; not just the woods and mountains that surround them, but the buildings, and the clothing. Everything about the coloring used to illustrate this part of the story tells us that while these people may not live too far away from the City, they might as well be living in another world.  

Working with Simpson, Kowalski is equally adept at bringing the small-town and woodsy world to life, from the plants to the animals to the people. Kowalski does terrific character work, from the genial Owen, to the smart, inquisitive Clementine, to the caring but stern, grizzled William, Kowalski and Simpson bring all of these characters to life with great details and terific facial and body language acting. The contempt of the townsfolk for the representatives of the City, and the salesmanship masking disdain coming through on the other side, those are strong emotions that clearly come across.  I also want to mention the excellent (not surprisingly) lettering from Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou; Otsmane-Elhaou's work is consistently excellent and flows with the storytelling. Also, if he's involved in a book, I take that as as a very positive indicator of the book's overall quality.

I've enjoyed Zack Kaplan's comic writing for a while now (and not just because he's a fellow Kaplan).  I really appreciate that he's very much a "big ideas" kind of comic writer, and they're the sort of ideas that are engaging and accessible.  But Kaplan isn't just interested in big ideas themselves, he's interested in how those big ideas would impact ordinary people people in a meaningful way. Like in Eclipse, which is a story about how a change in the sun causes the surface of the Earth to become uninhabitable for almost everyone (and what happens to those who manage to survive). Or in Port of Earth, where an alien confederation makes contact with Earth and says they'd like to basically use Earth as a filling station (their ships mostly run on water). In that story, Kaplan explores the disruptive impact of aliens basically using Earth as a rest stop. and what happens when the introduction of new technology makes entire industries obsolete overnight. 

These are fantastic ideas, and what resonates with me is not only the broad conceptual strokes, but the way that Kaplan explores the real-life impact of those macro changes on a micro scale.  And while we're only one issue in, it feels like Join the Future is going to similarly really big concepts and explore them, while very much maintaining a ground-level view of those concepts and their consequences. To start, this is a story about the idea of the continuing urbanization of America (and the world). In 1920, approximately 50% of Americans lived in cities. A century later, that number is over 80%.  So, cities keep growing and growing, at the cost of sprawl, the environment, and other damaging results, in addition to the slow disappearance of rural and small-town America. What's being lost there?  Older smaller cities have become shells of themselves, and more rural areas have seen higher rates of drug addiction and other difficult issues.  This debut also draws to mind even older struggles, such as the loss of the "old west" (and its attendant feeling of freedom and open space) and the advance of big cities, along with the taming of that wild, frontier spirit (beautifully evoked in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance).

In our real world, it's not like cities don't have their own significant problems. So moving to a magical, high-tech, city of the future isn't really an option.  But what if was? What if we could really get the gleaming, self-sustaining cities of the future, like The Jetsons come to life? Who wouldn't want to join?  And why not?  What we've seen of the City of the future, it has everything a person could possibly want. Life seems better, richer, more fun - all you need to do is move there! It would be inevitable that not everyone would want to opt in.  In the case of William, his kids and townsfolk, they value their independence. They don't want to be swallowed up by a giant megalopolis, and just be one of the many millions. They want to live closer to the natural world - growing and hunting their own food.  Giving these things up to be taken care of by others, by smart robots - this might feel like they're giving up a piece of themselves, a piece of their souls. We don't spend a ton of time with William and his fellow townsfolk, but we can understand that they like their way of life, and they don't want to join the future. Not at the price of their independence.

In addition to being a literal story about some of the possible future consequences of continued urbanization, Join the Future also functions more broadly as allegory. There's so much of our lives that happens online.  What if you're not on social media?  Honestly, you might be happier, but you're also going to miss a lot of the societal conversation. What if you don't get all the various streaming services?  What if you decide not to even have a cell phone?  Much like the appeal of the City. But like William tells his children, the appeal of the City is inviting and addictive. And the appeal of online life is inviting and addictive; there are a lot of ways to spend lots and lots of time that are totally free.  But with regard to all of those social media sites (and every other way that peope find ways to spend lots of time online), the saying "you're not the customer, you're the product" feels more apt than ever. It's hard to extricate yourself from the pull of these things, and cell phone addiction is very much a real thing. So when William says "the moment you settle or bargain away your values, you're not free anymore. They own you", that applies to the City of the future, but it could equally apply to our modern technological-social-economic situation.

Like any good debut issue, Join the Future raises more questions than it answers. Based on the ending of the first issue, I'm extremely curious to see where the story goes. I would expect that some of the non-joiners might want to leave their small-town life and head into the safety and security of the City. So hopefully we'll get their perspective on life in the City, as well as other people who've chosen to live there.  It's an interesting choice that the creative team makes in this first issue. The only thing we've seen of the City is a promotional video. So, we've gotten a view of the advertising (propaganda) for the City, but we haven't yet actually seen for ourselves what it's like. Are there meaningful ways in which actual life in the City differs from the vision that's sold to prospective residents? And why is the City so keen to get so many people to join?  How and why does the very existence of small towns like Franklin threaten the City? 

I want to know the answers to all of these questions. More than that, I'm excited to see the creative team here explore these questions and interesting ideas through the perspective of outsiders entering this gleaming world.  I strongly recommend that you Join the Future, as I think this is a terrific series not to be missed.