Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Here, by Richard McGuire

I have a new favorite book: Richard McGuire's comic Here.* I saw it recommended by Book Riot's Hattie Kennedy among 100 Must-Read Comics. The Bloomington library had a copy, but I think I might get my own  because I like it so much. I wish I'd come up with the idea behind it. Actually, I wish I'd come up with it and had the visual sensibility, eye for design, and artistic skill necessary to create it.

The image above is a two-page spread showing, simultaneously, the events that occurred in a single space in the years 1624, 1995, and 2126. Every page is like that, a spread with up to a dozen different images.They range from 3,000,500,000 BCE to 22,175 CE (I think that's the farthest in the future it goes). Multiple stories take center stage; some are only ever a few small panels, some occupy the entire spread. Some are sequential, some are shown only every so often. While the future scenes are some of my favorite, they're wisely used sparingly. The single image of water flooding through the window in the year 2111 speaks volumes--I'll leave you to discover the images from various years (18 in all) that accompany that flood. There's a lot going on, and it rewards second and third readings.

Some of the events include contact between European and Americans, Ben Franklin visiting his son (much more contentious than you might think, since it occurs in 1775), the building of the house visible in the background of the above image (which took place in 1907), and lots of everyday activities. In one sequence I like a lot, a woman sets up a movie screen--one of those old tripods that, believe it or not, I had to set up for an event at IU just yesterday--to watch some old Super 8 movies with her family.

One thing that appeals to me is that McGuire only hints at most of the events. They feel random, but there are thematic resonances that make for some profound and fascinating pages. Here's one:

Slightly cut off in that scan is the time stamp of 500,000 BCE. Each panel refers to some sort of loss. In 1932 (far left) "I lost my wallet." 1923 (middle) I must have left the umbrella somewhere. 2008 (right) "I think I'm losing my mind," spoken into a phone

Figurative and literal loss laid over the watery, soupy mess of half a million years ago. A loss that can be very frustrating (wallet), but yet it's not even possible without all the gains that have created the scenes taking place in the house itself. Half a million years provides a dry area, wood and mud to build with, and the house in which the three people experience their lives.

There's something whiggish about descriptions of Here, which tend to focus on the "corner of a room" aspect of the book. That makes it easy to describe, but the book itself doesn't force that description. There's a T-rex, after all. If I had the time, I'd count how many of the spreads have as their background focal point the room and how many show the landscape (which includes Franklin's house: the book doesn't give away the location with any precision, but the Franklin house across the street can locate it for us [William Franklin, illegitimate son of Benjamin, that is], as does the reference in this interview with McGuire, which tells us that the artist used his parents' house in New Jersey; we cannot locate it astrally because, strange as it seems to notice, there are no stars, not even in nighttime scenes).

The theme of the book as a whole, then, is impermanence. A worthy subject. Putting stars in wouldn't fit the theme; they're the closest thing we have to permanence. Mountains crumble, lakes dry up, nations come and go. The stars might shift a little here and there, but they'll outlast us all.

Here is a truly nonlinear book; there's an electronic version that amplifies and sometimes alters the juxtaposition of the different frames. You can see a sample in the videos that accompany the write-up of the book in The New Yorker.

In the interview linked to above, McGuire notes that the electronic and print versions have different strengths:

The book form works perfectly for telling this story, but I also wanted to push the nonlinear aspects of the storytelling. I imagined an interactive version that could randomize all the panels and backgrounds and reshuffle them, and with the new combinations come new connections within the story. I spoke about this possibility at a lecture I gave, and by luck there was a developer in the audience, Stephen Betts, who knew how it could be done. We collaborated on that for two years, right alongside of the making of the paper version. Stephen wrote a lot of programing for what became the e-book. It’s unlike any other I’ve ever seen. It also incorporates animated GIFs and, for me, those little looped movements feel the closest to single memories.

 I think I prefer the print. I could stare at these pages for hours.

*Previous favorite book: Alessandro Falassi's  Folklore by the Fireside.

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