Here is Richard McGuire's epic of time
In Richard McGuire's time-bending graphic novel Here, the past, present and a vividly imagined future are all set in the same specific location. By Patrick Lohier.
Richard McGuire is a jack of many trades. He's a musician, a toy designer, a children's book author, an illustrator and animator. He's a frequent contributor to The New Yorker and The New York Times. He's created animated shorts that subvert our sense of light by playing with negative space, a puzzle made of almost identical pieces, a number of children's books, including one about the disparate adventures of 14 different oranges (some have unhappy fates), and more.
Richard McGuire. (Photo by Maelle Doliveux)
As a founding member and bassist of the underground band Liquid Liquid, McGuire is also credited with one of the most famous basslines in the last 30 years.
In 1989, a 36-panel comic by McGuire appeared in Raw Magazine, volume 2, issue 1. The comic centered on an idea or whimsy that might strike anyone at any moment: what might have happened here, in this very spot, in the past and what might happen here in the future?
Among a vanguard of cartoonists and illustrators, the comic, aptly named Here, had the impact of an elegant and groundbreaking theorem. In the years that followed, admirers grasped that McGuire's short work, with its straightforward black and white drawings, was a brilliant meditation on time, impermanence, metamorphosis and mortality.
Chris Ware said of that strip, “[McGuire] revolutionized the narrative possibilities of comic strips. I think he's a genius and what he gave every reader with Here was an individual and unique way of looking at life, and additionally (to this cartoonist at least) it was life-changing.”
Twenty-five years later, Pantheon Books is publishing McGuire's new book and an e-book, also called Here. The new work has provoked much fanfare, including a seven-week-long special exhibition in early fall titled, “From Here to Here: Richard McGuire Makes a Book” at the Morgan Library and Museum in New York.
The 300-plus page book extends the idea of his short 1989 work, reinvents the concept and gives it vibrant new life in curious, software-manipulated watercolors. Like that earlier, shorter work, Here scans back and forth across billions of years – millennia, centuries, years and even intervals of only seconds pass. But past, present and a vividly imagined future are all set in the same specific spot.
The fulcrum of the book is a corner in the living room of a 20th-century house in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. We see the house's inhabitants, including McGuire's family in the ’60s and ’70s, and we also see untouched forests and primordial wastes that spanned there eons ago, dinosaurs, swamps, forests, Lenape Indians, Dutch traders, colonists, and other past inhabitants of the region, people in years to come, apocalyptic scenes in the near and far-distant future and more.
The experience bends the mind. My initial reaction was tentative, even puzzled. But I soon found myself immersed and often moved. Here has the surprising depth of a magician's top hat. The combination of the surreal and the nostalgic are mesmerizing. The book is an ingenious epic of time and space, and I think readers everywhere, and of many ages, will find it delightful.
I had a chance to talk with Richard McGuire a few weeks before the book's scheduled publication in early December. I was eager to find out about the vision and inspiration behind his unique book, its transformation from the short 1989 comic, and the extensive research he undertook to give it a solid foundation in billions of years of history and fact.
McGuire has lived in Greenwich Village since his early 20s, when he graduated from Rutgers. I reached him there, while he was enjoying his morning coffee. I started out by asking him about the aspects of the book that appear to be based on his family.
"Well, in the first  version my brother was the focus, and at the time I was only 30 and he was about 32, and then I had him growing old and that was kind of funny at the time. But my parents have since passed away, and they're kind of the main focus of it now. That was kind of a nod to them, because my parents and my oldest sister Mary, who is in the book too, she passed away around the same time of cancer. That's sort of a dark time. It was more my parents' story because they bought the house and it was their house and they had lived there right till the end.
"It ended up by default having my family in it. It was never meant to be a story about my growing up as much as it was just about time. Then I got all this source material and family photos. There are little personal moments in it.
"I felt I had to give it depth and I had to do a lot of research about that area, but this is where it gets sort of tricky, because the book has such a wider scope. Of course it has some personal stuff in it. In the middle of working on the book we were closing the house and selling it. So I took all these photographs. Going over all this stuff you start to find all sorts of great, little casual moments. But it was never in a specific place because I wanted it to feel like just any place. It's not the history, it's like a tiny history. It's working on both levels."
I asked McGuire how his family and siblings feel about the book.
"They got a kick out of it. I mean my whole family does, my extended family and everyone was excited to see it. I threw a lot of people in there that I know. There're even people who worked on the book in there. I mean I tried to make it really inclusive of everybody."
One of the ways in which I think the book is very successful is that it put me through a lot of different moods: nostalgia or wonder or fear or anxiety. I asked McGuire if working on the book was an emotional experience.
"Well, going through the closing of the house was definitely an emotional thing. But you know this isn't a one-to-one connection to my house. I mean, if you looked at my living room it doesn't look at all like this particular living room. There're some elements that are the same, but . . . I was concerned about having the book have an emotional vibe. What I was mainly worried about was whether, without having a protagonist, would you feel any emotion without being taken through someone's story?
"I had a lot of people giving me feedback and they had been touched by it. I was hoping to get something in there. There's a scene where you see I'm with my dad, and my dad was really going downhill at one point and all that stuff was really hard to go through. I think going through all those family photos and especially after my parents passed away and my sister, it was a cathartic thing to go look at all that stuff. And I ended up having a lot of opinions about time, because they were always on my mind while I was working on the book.
"There's even a scene where you see these two guys and they're in the future and they're looking at these panels that are floating in the air and one of them sticks their head in the panel and becomes the younger version of themselves.
"That came from a dream I had where I was in the house and I was walking around and I see my mom and I asked if Mary was around which was my sister. And then she says, 'Oh, she'll be here soon.' And then I looked out the window and I saw a younger version of Mary like a teenage person. And I opened the window and I stuck my head out to call to her and then I realized I was younger because I suddenly had all this hair in my face. I had long hair when I was a teenager. And then I woke up and I remembered thinking, 'That was amazing!' I stuck my head through that window and I became a younger version. So then I tried to work that into the book.
I asked McGuire if he enjoyed the process of researching and finding out about the geologic, natural and human history of the region.
"It was a lot of fun doing the research. It was about a year of research. I got a fellowship at the New York Public Library and that really helped a lot. I had signed that contract [with Pantheon] years before and I'm glad I didn't do the book then. It would have been a totally different book. Having had the experience of my parents passing and then a sibling passing and then the idea of leaving the house . . . All those issues made it a deeper experience.
"But I think that and having the time to spend doing the research of the area and all that stuff made it a better book. And then it was about, I'd say, a year and a half of doing the artwork. Because I wasn't doing any of the artwork when I was doing the research. I mean I did a little bit, but I feel like every project I do, I feel I have to kind of find a way in. Because if you look at the other work I've done I can stretch my style in different ways. It's not like I have one way of working. And that was a big struggle for me, just to try and find the right way to go back into the book because I didn't want the book to just be the way it looked originally. I wasn't planning on just adding pages to the original. I always felt I had to kind of find a way to reinvent it. And I was doing experiments with water color and vector art and trying to find the balance."
While I was reading the book, I noticed the familiar face of Ben Franklin. Having grown up in Philadelphia, the face that adorns the $100 bill is as familiar as a beloved old uncle's. After doing some of my own research I discovered that a historic house, called the Proprietary House, that features prominently in Here, stands across the street from the book's focal living room. The house had served as the residence of New Jersey's colonial-era Royal Governor – William Franklin, Ben Franklin's estranged son. I asked McGuire about the cameo.
"I didn't want to announce him. I don't know if you read anything . . . But, yeah, it really did happen and then I found out more in research. That house is actually even closer than I show in the book. It's really directly right across the street from where I grew up. But I never really knew the whole scoop of what was going on over there. I just knew that Ben Franklin had something to do with the place. And then when I did the research I found out that it was his son who lived there, who was a Loyalist.
"Ben and him were really close growing up, but over the years they went their separate ways politically. Ben went there to kind of talk sense into him. And [William] ended up being arrested when the Revolution happened. And I think that was possibly the last time they ever saw each other, that confrontation. Because I read as many letters as I could about that situation. But I didn't want that to be such a big focus of the book because everything in the book is just passing through. It's hilarious to have this like celebrity. But everyone has their little walk around the park.
"I had this motto working on the book, and that was, 'Make everything big, small and make everything small, big'. And so the idea of that moment was to reduce it to just an argument between a father and a son. It was trying to boil it down."
The scenes between Ben and William Franklin are brief, but a quote ascribed to Benjamin Franklin seemed to me to aptly convey the themes and circularity of the book. Franklin says, "Life has a flair for rhyming events." I asked McGuire what the quote means to him?
"Well I'm always fascinated by those kind of loops that happen. This happens so repeatedly in life, things swing around. It happens to everyone, I suppose. In that particular case [Ben Franklin] really did come to the town when he was 15 and he really did come back when he was much older with his 15-year-old grandson in tow.
"It happens to me all the time. I did this strip, how long ago? Twenty-five years ago, and 10 years after that I thought I should do it as a book, and I signed the contract with Pantheon right around, I guess, '98 or '99 or something like that. I know it was before Chris Ware's book, Jimmy Corrigan. And I think Chris was the one who told me about Pantheon, and then I signed the contract, and then I ended up getting side tracked.
"It's like my music. Me and my band, my music has been reissued repeatedly over the years, going around in circles. When it was reissued the last time we ended up playing all these big shows and it's just strange. I keep putting things down and they keep circling around. My toys are being reissued now. So it just seems like everything's looping around."
I had received a beta version of the e-book version of Here. I asked McGuire about the process of making a digital version of the book.
"Well that was a really important thing too about the reinvention of the whole project. When I knew I wanted to go back into the book I definitely wanted to do it as an interactive thing because it seemed so perfect for that.
"I was in London giving a lecture about my work and I touched on the project. At that point I was doing the research. And I said that I wanted to try to do an interactive version and there was a guy in the audience, that was Stephen Betts, who's a program art developer. He's also a huge fan of the original. He wrote me and sent me a little model that he did, taking the original story and just making a little kind of thing where you can move within it.
"He said he was planning on moving to New York. So when he got here we worked on it for about two years together. We went through a lot of changes, and now we have the 1.0 version which is going to be launched when the book happens. It really does explode the book. If you click on the date in the upper left hand corner, it starts to shuffle the pages. You're not just looking at it as a book anymore.
"It was another one of these things where I didn't want to spell it out. Because everybody who sees it at first thinks the e-book resembles the book version. But if you play with it long enough, you start to click on the dates and the panels and that's enough of a clue that once you click on that one date in the upper left hand corner, it starts to open up the shuffling mechanism, and that's still surprising to me.
"Also, if you touch the panels themselves, sometimes you can follow a thread. Like when the artist and the model are talking [a narrative thread in the book], if you just want to read that, you just touch the panels and you can continue through that thread. Because some of the panels are stacked so they work as threads.
"It's the reshuffling of it that is the most exciting thing for me. I mean, I'm still surprised there are so many combinations. I was thinking about this the other day. I've never counted all the panels in the book, but I was thinking about just the normal card deck of 52 cards and that always seems like an endless variety of possibilities. So I was thinking, 'My god, I never calculated it but there must be an immense number of combinations that can happen.' And sometimes, I start to see patterns of things that I didn't intend that just happen.
"There's actually a lot of stuff you start to see in the e-book that's covered up in the book. Because when the panel is removed sometimes there's stuff underneath that you would never get to see otherwise. And we're also introducing animation."
I told McGuire that I was surprised to stumble on the animation of a cat walking across a panel.
"Yeah there're a few things like that in this version. I want them to be more of a surprise then to be like a bad animated film or something. The fire in the fireplace is one of the things. And then there's a breeze that comes through the window and the curtain moves. Somebody turns the page of a book and things like that, just small things. But they don't happen every time. They're really tiny events."
I had read in my own research that McGuire's original strip in 1989 was partly influenced by the Microsoft Windows operating system. I asked him about that.
"Yeah, well, I took a lecture series with [Art] Spiegelman and he was talking about comic diagrams and I think that started my thoughts on it. Then I tried to do a story where it was split down the center and that's why I did the corner of a room to begin with, cause I split the screen and I wanted half the room to be going forward in time and half the room to be going backward in time. And I was showing that to a friend and this friend had just got the Windows program and started explaining how that worked. And that's when it hit me. I was like, 'Oh, I can have multiple views of time . . .' So it really was that. That was the trigger."
I mentioned that McGuire's description of that eureka moment reminded me of his enthusiasm for the e-book project, and brought to mind what we'd discussed earlier, about life's flair for rhyming events.
"Exactly, exactly. It's going right back to the original idea. It really is. And it's a full circle thing of being able to introduce it as that. But you know there were a lot of elements. I was thinking about this, about how my dad used to take pictures of us always in the same location every year. I show a sampling of those in the book. And I think that had a lot to do with me thinking about time and space. Because I grew up with those photographs every year. I think that that had something to do with it."
I asked McGuire about the process behind the distinctive artwork, which look like old, digitally manipulated photos or photorealistic illustrations, enhanced with watercolors. What method did he use? Where did he work?
"I had a studio in Brooklyn. I'm just closing that out now that the book is done. I'm moving to a new place, because I just wanted to start fresh. I was struggling at the beginning and I was just doing all these experiments and then I was trying all these different styles, different techniques. And then at one point I started just collaging it together and felt that it looked okay and I was kind of surprised. It kind of works in that scrapbook kind of way, where it somehow is signified in the end. And also I think it's kind of nice to have some things that are softer because it kind of changes your focus on things. "I wasn't planning. Some of those things that ended up in the book were like sketches that I never thought would be finishes for the book, but I kind of liked the speed at which these things were done. Some are slow and some are fast. So there's the idea that even that is time based in the execution. I started to think that that's just another factor of the book, to have that, and to allow that to happen. But I wasn't planning on it in the beginning. It was one of those things that just evolved. And then a lot of the unifying things, I guess, masking . . . a lot of the work was done by hand and put into the computer and then colored in the computer. But some things are not. Some things are more colors and then enhanced with Photoshop.
"In the very, very, very beginning, I thought at the end of the book I would have all these beautiful paintings, and it didn't work out that way at all. It really was totally created in the computer and it had to be because I was going to do the e-book. I knew everything had to be not locked down. I couldn't have finished paintings of these spreads. All the elements had to always remain open and free to be shuffled. I knew that from the start. So the book is the finished art. That's the way I've always talked about it too.
"One of the things that was a big influence on me and that I was looking at were all these Japanese wood block books. There's all of this preparation and the final book is the finished book."
I asked McGuire if he has plans for another book.
"I do have stuff that I've been kind of working on and putting away that I want to get back to, a few different projects. I'm going to do an exhibition in Paris in January. I'm going to do some paintings of panels in the book, and then I'm going to paint them life sized so, like, the window will be a window-sized painting. I'm going to probably do, I don't know, maybe 10 to 20 paintings, separate standalone paintings so that the show will be half like the Morgan show and then the other half will be the paintings. And then, in the middle, there will be a projected thing of the e-book, somebody playing like a full screen thing of the e-book with reconfigurations."
Knowing how many creative hats he wears, I asked McGuire how he balances all of the different fields and projects he's engaged in.
"I feel like it's very organic how everything just happened to come up and then circle back. When I was first starting out I just thought I was going to be an artist and that's all, and then I came to New York – well, actually before I came to New York I put the band together. And I was working at all these galleries and bringing up my own artwork. But then it kind of ran its course. I did a few comics, then went on to doing kids' books, kids' books led to doing animation, but I was involved with animation before that. Then the kids' books got reprinted, and the toys are being redone. The music is going to be reissued again. This will be the third time it's been repackaged. It's coming out in the spring."
At the end of our conversation I confess to McGuire that I was a little nervous before I contacted him, somewhat awed by the fact that he's behind the bassline for Liquid Liquid's 1983 classic, "Cavern." I also ask him what's in store for the rest of his Sunday.
[Laughing] "Before this book came out I was thinking, 'Well at least now I've got the book that people will remember instead of, 'he's the guy who did that . . .' I've got to move out of my studio today, so I've got to go rent a car and this is going to be a day of schlepping stuff."
Note that Richard McGuire’s quotes have been edited for length and clarity.
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