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Flashing Forward is a team sport

illustration by Aude White, who spent the weekend painting her dream dining room table (it’s not finished yet).

Even if it’s been years since you were in a class, the term “group project” may still send shivers down your spine. I’d say that’s for good reason: It’s uncomfortable to work with others on something you know will reflect on your ability, especially if it’s something you care about.

Perhaps, then, you’ll feel better knowing that even established creators aren’t immune to this feeling.

Rose Eveleth, the host and creator of the acclaimed Flash Forward, recently released a book adaptation of her show. In the podcast, each hour-longish episode takes on one hypothetical future scenario — an underwater volcano erupts and creates a new island, housing is guaranteed for everyone in the U.S., and so on — for which Eveleth synthesizes the perspective of experts to assess how possible that future actually is. The book, in turn, transforms 12 such futures into visual experiences, each chapter an original comic that’s set within a given world, which is then accompanied by an essay by Eveleth.

The structure of the book, titled Flash Forward: An Illustrated Guide To Possible (And Not So Possible) Tomorrows, takes the form of an ambitious anthology corralling a dozen visual artists of different styles. It’s inherently collaborative, and if you listen to the show, you’d likely detect similar collaborativeness in Eveleth’s approach to audio. For example, in the aforementioned episode about guaranteed housing, she brings on six different expert sources and utilizes three voice actors to bring the idea to life.

However, Eveleth says, the book marked the first time she’d ever actually, formally collaborated with anyone on Flash Forward. And, honestly, it kind of freaked her out. It was only last year, after all, that she expanded the podcast production team beyond just herself and Matt Lubchansky, who for years has created original illustrations for the show. And that expansion was modest, adding just one producer to the team.

Creating a book project filled with stories told by someone other than herself would require some level of agreement about the unifying ethos of the project. Having already produced Flash Forward for three years by the time planning for the book began, Eveleth wasn’t worried about that. However, she was worried about what came next: maintaining the ethos of the project throughout a bunch of individual, unique, artistic processes while also convincing potential readers that the end result would somehow be different enough from the show to warrant spending money on.

But consider that this book wouldn’t have even happened had it not been for the input of other people. It was illustrator Sophie Goldstein, an eventual co-editor and contributor for the book, who reached out with the very idea of a comic anthology in the first place, Eveleth says. This was after numerous agents had contacted Eveleth in the past proposing that she write a book; she ended up partnering with one back when she was toying with a “half-baked book idea,” she says, but that was years ago, and the book didn’t come to fruition. She didn’t quite know where to go from there, especially in response to recommendations that any book she write specifically be an adaptation of Flash Forward. Then came Goldstein, an artist with an idea.

A graphic anthology, says Eveleth, “was the only version that made sense to me, but I never would’ve come up with that on my own.”

Though she was initially uneasy about bringing so many individuals into her work, when she looks back now, Eveleth says that the unpredictability throughout the process “was, in some ways, the best part of it.” This rang especially true at times when she had doubts about the appeal of the book, as noted before. Why would people buy the book, she thought, if it was “the same thing as the free podcast”?

It turned out that, with a different individual at the helm of each story, it basically wasn’t possible — let alone commonplace — to rehash what the episodes had already done. When other people brought their artistic styles to the stories, they also brought with them their lives, memories, and opinions. This made the book a whole different animal than the show, quelling her fear that readers might be bored or unimpressed.

“Box” Brown, for example, took a future where people are strapped with lie detectors and turned it into something Eveleth didn’t see coming. Instead of emphasizing the implications such technology would have on making small talk or negotiations, as Eveleth did in the original episode, the artist imagined a use case where a lie detector called out negative self-talk, correcting the wearer when they unfairly criticized themselves.

New takes on the stories didn’t dilute Flash Forward’s brand, either, which was Eveleth’s other fear. There’s a unity among the art, which likely has to do with how intentional the process of assigning the stories was.

From a list, each artist picked the three episodes they would most like to adapt, with Eveleth deciding the final lineup after weighing those preferences alongside her desire to maintain some variety throughout the book. Ultimately, what Eveleth wanted most was for the artists “to be working on a chapter that they cared about,” she says. Take Julia Gfrörer, who creates horror comics — “I didn’t want to just assign her something and have her be like, ‘I don’t care about this,’” Eveleth recalls.

At the same time, once the topics were confirmed, Eveleth stood her ground. She gave each artist all the research she’d done on the story when she originally reported it, including complete interview transcripts, after which the artist would pitch her several story lines. She also created and shared an in-depth document, solely to detail the “vibe” of Flash Forward.

While the podcast hasn’t historically depended on so many people in such an intimate manner, Eveleth was perhaps always destined to make a book project in exactly this collaborative way, since she’s known to take on work that pushes her out of her comfort zone: Of any given endeavor, she says, “if I don’t think it sounds hard and fun, I don’t really want to work on it.”

Publishing a 266-page, multi-authored book could certainly be described as hard, at the very least, requiring consistent and detailed input from people from different niches. What’s more, the realm of art is completely out of Eveleth’s wheelhouse, and she knows it. “I can’t draw at all,” she says. “I’m a terrible drawer.”

Over time, Eveleth knew that embracing such an unfamiliar format, which spoke so strongly to her when Goldstein first suggested it, was — perhaps ironically — exactly how she could finally publish a book that felt honest and fitting for her work. What’s more, in writing the essays that she contributed to each chapter, she had an opportunity to revisit ideas and concepts that both she and the larger culture have shifted on since their corresponding episodes were released. And those changes of heart, too, have been the product of other people.

In an episode from 2015 — back when Flash Forward was published by Gizmodo under a different name, Meanwhile In the Future (she now owns the show) — Eveleth explores a future where no one really cares what your gender is. At the time, her default assumption was that lots of people had a desire for this, that the binary of “man” and “woman” was limiting and undesirable, and that it would be revolutionary for lots of people if those labels, and their associated identities, didn’t exist. Now, particularly after spending time listening to the podcast Gender Reveal, Eveleth acknowledges that she didn’t previously see the whole picture.

“Many people do in fact deeply identify with that identity,” Eveleth says, even though she herself is “slowly sliding more and more toward non-binary land.”

“That’s not in the chapter or anything,” she adds, “but my thinking has changed around what the options even are.”

In some day-to-day situations, it’s best when there are fewer options, which is easy to see at this current moment: It’s safer to wear a mask, but, technically, many people now have the choice not to. Disagreement in that context can endanger the group; disagreement in other contexts, however, may improve it. It isn’t so bad. In fact, it’s good. And if, in that context, it still scares you, that’s exactly the point. That’s where possibility hides.