Tomorrowland, the new film directed by Brad Bird of The Incredibles and The Iron Giant fame, hits theaters today – and there’s a lot of anticipation about its hush-hush storyline involving a girl (Brit Robertson) who teams with a mysterious figure (George Clooney) to journey to an incredible retro-future world.
But if you want to know some of the backstory of Tomorrowland, there’s a prequel novel/graphic novel that tells you some of its secrets – Before Tomorrowland, co-written by Bird and screenwriters Jeff Jensen and Damon Lindelof (Lost). In addition to the prose section, Before Tomorrowland features a 20-page comic book section by artist Jonathan Case (Batman ’66, Dear Creature), who previously worked with Jensen on the acclaimed graphic novel The Green River Killer.
The new story features cyborgs, alternate past history, mysterious secret organizations…and a whole lot more. We interrogated Case to find out how this was created, and what he knows about Tomorrowland. We also got some exclusive behind-the-scenes art and discussion of his process for creating the book’s cover.
Newsarama: Jonathan, tell us about Before Tomorrowland.
Jonathan Case: It's a Young Adult novel that expands the world of the new Disney movie, Tomorrowland, and it's one of those books that has a bit of everything: prose, illustrations, comics. It takes place in New York, 1939, with its own set of characters (many drawn from history- Albert Einstein, Nikola Tesla, Amelia Earhart) and a narrative that's largely separate from the film. It draws from the same pool of inspiration, though: Fantastic technology, retro futurism, adventure, what ifs, etc.
Nrama: What all did you contribute to the book?
Case: I produced the art for it (cover, logo design, illustrations, and comics), and wrote the first draft of the novel based on fantastic outlines from Jeff Jensen. Then I worked on future drafts with Jeff. They even used my working title (okay, I'll stop)! So, a lot.
Nrama: What were the unique challenges in creating this type of retro...future...past...thing?
Case: I had an interesting predicament in my writing role; Jeff, Brad, and Damon are all in California, all worked on the movie and its lore in close quarters, but the only knowledge I had of their movie was the little snippets I got from Jeff.
Essentially, when the movie comes out, there will be plenty of surprises left for me. Because I never saw a script or a rough cut for Tomorrowland, I wasn't beholden to their characters, their tone, their aesthetics. I had a ton of freedom (and some terror) because I was up in Portland working out this story with Jeff through emails and phone calls.
Beyond those creative challenges, though, my experience of diving into the '30s period and thinking about 'future' technology was a blast. 'Future' in quotes because some of the tech we wrote into our world of the '30s exists today as this familiar device or that system (and of course we have stuff that's still sci-fi, like robot-men and invisible zeppelins).
Playing with those things we take for granted as a part of life today and imagining our grandparents' response to them if they'd encountered, say, something like a smartphone in 1939, can be enjoyable- you don't want to be too on the nose, of course, but yeah. It's a fun mix.
Nrama: Obviously, you worked with Jeff before -- what do you enjoy about your collaboration?
Case: His sense of humor and infectious enthusiasm. He's also a walking, talking knowledge-bank when it comes to historical details. He's able to flesh out all these interesting pieces of our fictional lore by weaving them into real, historic events, large and small.
Nrama: How much did you work with the design elements of this? It's a very specifically designed book.
Case: I think Jeff and Disney always had a vision for the book as an object rooted to a specific era. That may be why I got the gig. I like working in retro mode, and I've done a good bit of it.
Funny enough, when they offered me this project, I was already at work on my next graphic novel, also set in New York in the '30s. Weird, right? So I'm living and breathing art deco this year.
Nrama: What was the hardest scene/character to depict, and why?
Case: I think our first big action scene, where a lot of the characters connect for the first time, proved challenging. It's not a long book, but there's plenty of your requisite complicated-sci-fi-business, and a more intimate, emotional story of a mother and her son swept up into all that. We just had to work at finding balance there.
Nrama: What was the most interesting/coolest part of working on this project?
Case: I'd never written straight prose before, and found out I like the process! All my previous books have ended up as a bunch of drawings, so it was a thrill to be able to develop a story from start to finish at a faster pace.
I probably had more enjoyable days of work during that first draft than I have on most projects. And, hey, Brad Bird.
Nrama: What's your favorite type of retro-future steampunk-y World's Fair type technology? I'm personally fond of steampunk goggles.
Case: Hah. I like robots. Robots that want love.
Nrama: Give us the hard sell on this.
Case: I'll tell you what Disney seemed most excited about, and the reason I wanted to keep the project alive when we nearly had to jump ship (that's another long story): It's a book written to be accessable to young readers, of course, but it comes with some grown-up themes.
Along with the thrills and adventure, the heart of the book is a story of people struggling with loss- something Jeff and I (especially Jeff) have both faced in the last couple years. It asks whether or not you can move through the pain and disillusionment to pursue a brighter future. And it has awesome robots.
Nrama: What's next for you?
Case: That graphic novel I mentioned, The New Deal, comes out this fall from Dark Horse. I'm just finishing up.
It's also YA-friendly, a little comedy/caper set in depression-era New York. It follows a bellhop and maid at the Waldorf Astoria hotel through the glitz and glamour, the class and race barriers, the seductive opportunities... it's going to look gorgeous (if I say so myself, but Dark Horse does great production these days), and take you to a few unfamiliar corners of a period that's just full of interest for me.
Nrama: And tell us a bit about the process for creating the art you included with this interview.
Case: For the cover, we went back and forth a bit deciding between a full-color, character-oriented painting (similar to a movie poster, perhaps) or something more design-based. You can see a couple of the other options here in rough layout.
I'm really pleased that Disney went for the design-forward look. I've always wanted to do a hardcover book that emulates old productions, like this example from our editorial - From Earth to the Moon.
There's not much else to say about this cover than what the images can tell. It came together very quickly. I did all the art for the book in Manga Studio on a Cintiq Companion (wrote my drafts on it too, which was sort of funny- this bleeding edge graphic art machine being used as a word processor).
With logo and all I think the cover came out in less than a day... which was good, because at that point I was driving hard to get the first draft in. In June of last year, when I started writing (first draft deadline was August), we'd just had a baby, my wife finished grad school, and we moved. It was all rich, but sort of like a buried-under-Scrooge-McDuck's-coin-pile rich.
This year, after I finish The New Deal, my goal is to do as little as possible for at least a month. No more milestones needed, world.