Originally released as a hardcover collection in England via Knockabout Publishing in 2007, Yesterday's Tomorrows, despite some delays in 2010, has finally made it to the United States in softcover trade format from Image Comics. Amassing a varied sampling of graphic designer Rian Hughes' illustrations from the 1980s and 1990s, the book reprints two classic tales from Grant Morrison's early career as well as sequential explorations in the detective, noir, and science fiction genres.
For audiences unfamiliar with Hughes, his art combines retro or vintage stylings and atmospheres akin to AMC's Mad Men with a decisively romantic futurism reminiscent of 1950s era American advertising. Utilizing flat and bold color schemes, there is both a nostalgia and optimism in Hughes' work that betrays neither a simplistic pastiche of the past or wide-eyed, candy-coated hope for the future. Yet, Hughes does not fall into the trap of overt cynicism bred by post-apocalyptic, dystopian nightmares of science gone awry or fear that fed just below the surface at the dawn of the Atomic age and encapsulated the Space Race of the postwar decade. From the lifestyle portrait cover alone, readers will be transported into a world that is all too familiar from the line work and color palettes of contemporary artists such as Darwyn Cooke, Mike Allred, or Cameron Stewart's more cartoon-esque renditions, or Cooke and Gabriel Bá's distinctive use of pastel colors to establish mood; however, Hughes is the early forerunner of this style, harkening back to the European tradition of ligne claire blended with Jack Kirby inks. Even more fascinating is that Hughes controls all aspects and stages of his own art and design, including layouts, lettering, and font or typeface, in the process creating a signature form that has been aped by numerous artists.
Following a foreword by British music journalist David Quantick and introduction by critic and commentator Paul Gravett, Yesterday's Tomorrowscollects five strips in addition to a sketchbook of conceptual drawings, roughs, and other Hughes projects. Although neither the Chris Reynolds penned "The Lighted Cities" or the Tom DeHaven scribed "Goldfish"—a story adapted from a Raymond Chandler original—are particularly strong in narrative abilities, Hughes more than makes up for these deficiencies in his visual storytelling. Uninhibited by the confines of the detective or noir genres of heavy chiaroscuro black and white line art, which have become overtly abused in recent years and are perhaps the most iconic tropes associated with the literary field, Hughes instead shows his diversity in these two strips. Casting "Lighted Cities" in an off-mustard, distressing tone which makes the black linework much more evocative, while crafting a palette rooted firmly in cooler greys and its associated shades for "Goldfish," Hughes, like Kirby's exaggerated perspectives or Richard Corben's distorted anatomies, finds comfort similar to contemporary artist Frazer Irving in selecting the "wrong" colors for a sequence. As a result, Irving, like Hughes before him, produces technically inaccurate or unrealistic colorings that defy observable reality, but in essence stand out the most and reinforce the character and identity of the story. For fans of Ba's original Casanova work in blacks and greens or Cooke's recent tones in Parker: The Outfit, Hughes' work on "Goldfish" and John Freeman's "The Science Service" are required reading.
The strongest stories both visually and in terms of plotting are "Dare" and "Really & Truly" by Grant Morrison, and "Science Service" by Freeman. While the Freeman strip is well-written and serves as a nice precursor for the motifs and form explored in "Dare," it can, at times, feel like a middle installment in an ongoing story where the reader has missed the preceding chapters. Although possessing perhaps a much higher visibility in England than the United States, Dan Dare has a lengthy publication history for audiences familiar with his futurist adventures. Dare is a perfect vehicle for Hughes, as he universally epitomized the aesthetic foundations found in most of the artist's graphic design and illustration canon. Yet, when combined with the prose of Morrison, Dare is truly modernized not so much in terms of character content, but rather within cultural context, specifically the neo-conservative regime of Margaret Thatcher's England which held power for eleven years, eighteen if John Major is seen as an heir to her policy agenda.
Originally written and published in Revolver and Crisis magazines in England between 1990 and 1991, "Dare" finds the hero now suffering from the ravages of age and physical degeneration. Opening as Dare attends the funeral of Jocelyn Peabody, the intellectual architect of his past adventures, the story inverts the hope and idealism embodied within 1950's futurism and illustrates the degrading social, economical, and political conditions of London as an aftermath or even consequence of Dare's evangelizing space travel and exploration. Incorporated as a symbol of aspiration by the current administration to wield against the strife and unrest plaguing England, Dare soon learns the horrible truths connecting Peabody's death with Albert Digby, Sir Hubert Guest, and Mekon. Spoilers aside, the conclusion reflects the nihilism inherent in post-Alan Moore comics of the era mixed with the optimism Morrison's writings usually reflect, and which sets Morrison apart from his British counterpart.
Moving completely away from flat pastel colors and totalitarian, dystopian science fiction, Morrison and Hughes segue into a sensationalized, pop sensibility with "Really & Truly." Readers familiar with Morrison from The Invisibles or The Filth and who appreciated both books will find "Really & Truly" a fascinating window into Morrison's development as a writer, especially in his experiments with non-traditional and often bizarre characters and story formulas. Others, however, who see him as a solid idea man but question his execution of such esoteric concepts within sequential art may find little value in this early Morrison tale. Either way, it should be mandatory reading for both audiences who recognize his stature within the medium.
Rounded out by an "Additional Material" section of covers, sketches, and concepts, Yesterday's Tomorrows is a welcome introduction for new readers unaccustomed to Hughes, as well as ongoing fans who champion his talent and innovative illustrations.
Reviewed by Nathan Wilson on February 15, 2008