PRINT Summer 2015


Richard McGuire’s Here

Spread from Richard McGuire’s Here (Pantheon, 2014).

Here, by Richard McGuire. New York: Pantheon, 2014. 304 pages.

ALL COMICS AND GRAPHIC NOVELS turn space into time, but no other graphic novel does it like Here: Its 150-odd two-page spreads depict the same place, from the same perspective, at moments that vary across hours and centuries. During the 1900s and early 2000s, when most of the graphic novel takes place, the site is a parlor, or a living room: We gather the scattered evidence and watch (it’s like collating out-of-order snapshots) as families come in, grow up, move out. Millions of years back, the place was a swamp; six hundred years back, Native Americans hunted there, and McGuire draws them too. Views from decades to come show the once and future home as a war zone, a flood zone, a hologram-filled tourist site. (Climate and foliage suggest present-day New Jersey, eastern Pennsylvania, or Long Island.)

To turn the pages of Here is to travel unpredictably in time, through spaces united by McGuire’s clean lines and solid-color planes: The spreads are consistently gorgeous, even when period decor means 1970s mustard tones or midcentury modern tan and brown. Yet McGuire’s most impressive time travel takes place not between but within pages. Inset panels show parts of the same room at different times; each page’s panels rhyme, so to speak, by depicting similar or related actions. In three panels labeled 1932, 2014, and 1993, three young dancers twirl or pose; the surrounding two-page spread shows a girl at a spinet in 1964. Other pages unite—across decades—people falling down; people losing their glasses; people paired off in a waltz, an embrace, a bear hug. In 1962, an old woman says on the verso, “I’m losing my hearing”; in 1994, a young woman says on the recto, “Shit, I lost an earring.”

“Life has a flair for rhyming events,” quips a man in a carriage in 1775 (he looks like, and might well be, Benjamin Franklin). Life may or may not, but McGuire sure does. Children follow one another, playing musical chairs, in 1993; in 1988, a senior citizen remembers how her husband once “followed me home!” Three pairs of kids play Twister, on the same page, in 1971, 1966, and 2015: Look closely to see the Twister mats’ differing colors (one of many “Easter eggs” that emerge on rereading). Some paired panels use purely visual rhymes, as when the head of a modern mop resembles the foot of a huge flightless bird. McGuire also uses thematic echoes to link his pages to one another. A man at a cocktail party begins to tell a joke in 1971: “A skeleton walks into a bar . . .” Two pages later, kids dress up for Halloween as a giraffe, a skeleton, and a bear, in 1931, 1990, and 1975.

Such rhyming actions and echoing images, often across generations, do the work that another book would assign to plot: They hold the volume together. There are repeating patterns in what McGuire’s people do. They are born; they toddle; they wrestle; they tumble; they play the piano; they hammer, paint, clean, and decorate. They celebrate birthdays; they nap; they have sex; they read books; they fall down; they kill, and they die. A kid builds a block tower that resembles a cairn; a woman in 1986 scrubs the floor on hands and knees and muses, “Eventually I’ll know nothing”; a wolf on the same page gnaws a bloodstained limb in 1430 CE. An indie-rock dude in 1986 wears a T-shirt that reads “FUTURE TRANSITIONAL FOSSIL”; a bald, sickly man in a hide-a-bed in 2005 warns, “You’re going to get old too some day,” while across the room—and forty years earlier—two couples play charades.

Every home, McGuire implies, is a burial place and a stage, as well as an archaeological site with layers (like Heinrich Schliemann’s Troy) and a time machine: To look at a place over time is to commemorate, to honor, and even to mourn. It is also to see rebirth, and to learn how generations repeat themselves: “It’s always like this. This is how it is,” one elderly lady exclaims in 1998.

Yet if people don’t change—or not as much as we think—our ways of seeing them certainly do: McGuire’s characters carry plein air easels, install TV screens, pose for photographs, view home movies, and stick their heads out windows whose squared-off panes resemble comics, shouting, “Shut up! I’m trying to read!” No creator this side of Chris Ware has so self-consciously made comics that reflect on the process of making comics. Clever framing, McGuire’s art implies, helps us to see what we otherwise overlook, and to feel less overwhelmed by the march of events. When a lady in 1870 asks her painter friend, “Why don’t you want to paint me?” she’s not only showing a wounded self-regard; she’s also asking why he prefers landscapes to portraits, and whether setting dominates character, as—in this volume—it usually does.

Yet this is not to call McGuire’s characters helpless: They build houses, after all, and the houses last for generations, though not for eternity. On one spread, overlapping panels, all labeled 1907, show the same man nine times, in nine positions, as he constructs the wood-frame home. His beams and planks arrange and enclose the air much as panels in comics seal the world onto a page. That 1907 scene is a tour de force, though it’s not exactly alone: McGuire uses the same stroboscope-like effect to show a woman (six times) as she runs away from a pigeon (six pigeons) trapped indoors.

Read in succession, McGuire’s “ordinary” pages are no less original: We move through the graphic novel in multiple time frames, discovering a kind of simultaneity that no other art form permits. Three successive page spreads show a man on a cell phone, describing his elderly father in 2005: “Once he’s discharged he won’t be able to go up and down stairs . . . he can sleep on the sofa bed.” (The father will be that bald guy who warns of old age.) Near the man on the phone we see a vase full of roses, shedding their petals, in 1989, and a dinosaur roaming a gray-green chaos of unchartable ground in 80,000,000 BCE.

That chaos—like McGuire’s other outdoor backgrounds—helps remove any risk of monotony from the repeated wallpaper and other decor: Washes, colored-in shapes with no ink outlines, thick, scribbly lines, and even stenciled patterns (for wallpaper) distinguish the settings and eras from one another. The primordial soup of the Earth appears as a gaseous wash of conflicting colors, like Constable’s cloud studies viewed through a glass of beer; the brown-skinned people of 2213 stand in monochrome unitards amid calm, solid colors under a crosshatched pencil sky. By contrast, a 1609 mini-plot takes place amid inky, runny, twilit tree trunks, where people speak what Google suggests is Delaware Lenape, translated discreetly at the tail of the page (“Tschitgussil”: “Be still”).

Here began in 1989 as a six-page sequence in the celebrated art-comics magazine Raw, coedited by Art Spiegelman of Maus fame, and Françoise Mouly, cover editor for the New Yorker. This extended treatment of the same domestic space, so generous in its attention to long swaths of time, makes it hard to imagine the earlier version—but easy to know why it gained a reputation. While he was finishing, or not finishing, Here, McGuire found time to make animated films, to draw New Yorker covers, and to play bass in the downtown New York instrumental act Liquid Liquid, famously sampled by Grandmaster Flash & Melle Mel’s “White Lines (Don’t Don’t Do It).” If you try hard, you can even compare Liquid Liquid’s irregular yet propulsive rhythms and the irregular, overlapping plots and time scales seen in Here. It would be just one more of the many analogies between comics and other art forms that McGuire’s book permits, with its landscape painters and house-builders for characters, and its pencil lines’ sometime resemblance to fashion sketches or to architectural diagrams.

How do comics differ from all these other art forms? The simplest answer is: They turn space into time. That transformation need not depend on words, but words can help. McGuire deploys them sparingly and well: When one colonial-era character calls another a “terrorist,” the seeming anachronism is jarring for its rarity. In the future, words are used to better effect. A tour guide explains that “in the twentieth century, nearly everyone carried. . . . a small circular device. . . . called a watch because it was looked at so often.”

That circular watch or clock face might be the strongest of the book’s many repeated signs. Though McGuire covers all of life’s stages, the longest and most affecting mini-storylines describe either making art, or growing old. A mirror falling in 1949, an arrow in midair in 1402, the ocean encroaching in 2111, a young girl whispering in the ear of an older one in 1990—almost everything McGuire portrays can be, if not a memento mori, a reminder that time changes everything. Late in the book a gramophone plays an old song: “The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble,” but (McGuire leaves it to us to complete the chorus) “our love is here to stay.”

And the song is half-right: To see wallpaper come and go, gramophones give way to smartphones, and the home itself rise and fall, is to see how nothing visible lasts. In these close, fleeting looks at what departs at the end of a century, the end of a civilization, the end of a day, we might find reasons to cherish the scenes we do see—and the people we do know—while we can. Read, watch, or peruse Here in one mood, and you’ll discover a lyrical tribute to those attachments; read it in another, more fatalistic mood, and you might admire even more the varying textures of the lives—the many lives, in one place—that McGuire has made.

Stephen Burt is a professor of English at Harvard. His third collection of poems, Belmont (Graywolf), appeared in 2013. His chapbook All-Season Stephanie (Rain Taxi) came out this past April.