What do the ’80s post-punk band Liquid Liquid, faded family photographs, and Art Spiegelman have in common? All contributed to the creation of Richard McGuire’s latest graphic novel, Here. Joined by comics critic Bill Kartalopoulos at 192 Books last week, McGuire explained the genesis and creative thinking behind this “graphic-novel-like-book-item,” as Kartalopoulos called it. An expansion of McGuire’s 1989 six-page, black-and-white comic strip for RAW magazine (founded by Spiegelman and his wife, Françoise Mouly), the book offers a visual narrative of the corner of a living room at various times in a series of overlapping panels. The living room is McGuire’s own, making Here part memoir, part artist’s book, part graphic novel.
“I had just moved to New York into this new apartment, and I got to thinking about who had lived here before me,” McGuire explained. With a background in music and sculpture, he spent his early years in New York playing bass for Liquid Liquid, hanging out with artist Jean-Michel Basquiat, and “plastering up some drawings around town,” which were stenciled images surrounded by “little poetic statements.” Around this time he saw Spiegelman talk, which “planted the seeds for Here.” Shortly after, McGuire sent Spiegelman the earliest version of the comic, and Spiegelman published it immediately. “It was like, boom, I got in RAW right away.”
McGuire explained that, thinking about the previous occupants of his apartment, “I chose the corner of the room because originally I was going to do one half of the room going forward in time and the other going backward.” And Kartalopoulos noted the uniqueness of the concept: “Even though you could find those precedents of seeing something change over time already in some comics, this was non-linear.” The eureka moment for the design came when McGuire saw an early version of the Windows operating system “I thought: Oh! That’s what I can do! I can have multiple views of time in the same space!” Each spread displays just one view of the corner, in many cases split into windows spanning hundreds of years.
“The great conceit you arrived at with the book is that the gutter of the book is the corner of the room,” Kartalopoulos added. This is where McGuire’s background in sculpture came in. Unlike the flat comic strip, the book is a three-dimensional object — an art object suggestive of an artist book. McGuire actually built a foam-core model of the room while working on the book. “There are advantages to the strip,” he admitted. “You can make connections faster across the page. But this medium has its strengths. I knew it had a beginning and an end. There were things physically about making a book that are different.” Enter Liquid Liquid and the music background. “The book has a story arc; it has a musical structure to it,” Kartalopoulos suggested. McGuire nodded, explaining: “It’s definitely composed. You have to find the flow of it. I was worried — doing a six-page story is one thing, but 300 pages is another! I had to have long threads to hold it together. There had to be a balance of it just being free enough. In that way it was very musical — there had to be rests.”
One of the most successful of these long threads is the family Christmas photo staged on the couch over several years. “My father used to take photographs of the family at Christmas time,” McGuire said, “every year in the same location. Just watching and seeing things change over time. I use that in the book.” The Christmas photographs were not the only inspiration McGuire took from his own life. During his time as a fellow at the New York Public Library, he researched the history of his hometown, Perth Amboy. He found that the house across the street from his family’s belonged to Benjamin Franklin’s illegitimate son, William Franklin. McGuire’s home was also said to have been the site of a Native American burial. Both of these appear in some form in Here. Recounting the story of how archeologists once knocked on his door and asked his mother if they could dig up the yard to look for Indian bones — an event that occurs in the book — McGuire remarked, “I never looked at my backyard the same!”
The layout of the book references Windows and various digital operating systems familiar to us today while also evoking a more traditional scrapbook, with panels from different periods tinted in different colors, much like old photographs weathered over time. Given that the physical form of the book was a large part of both its conception and the conversation, it’s perhaps surprising that McGuire has also developed an ebook form for the iPad, which allows readers to follow various storylines more directly and generates new combinations of panels beyond what McGuire originally planned. (The book was also the subject of an exhibition last fall at the Morgan Library and Museum.) It incorporates animations as well, like a purring cat, which brought laughter and interest from the audience at 192 Books as McGuire scrolled through the spreads on his iPad. He emphasized the new possibilities the ebook will allow for, while Kartalopoulos highlighted that the two versions are in many ways different texts.
Although music is still an influence on the ebook, evidenced by McGuire’s description of it as a “remixed version” of the physical book, it eliminates his carefully composed sequencing. This applies not just to the order of images, but also to the fragments of text and sounds present in the living room throughout the years. During the question and answer session, an attendee asked McGuire about “the language and voices” of the book. Glad to have received the question, McGuire cited the influence of Joe Brainard, a poet and artist who experimented with language in his comics. Connecting Brainard’s work to his own, he explained, “The language was collaged the same as the images were collaged: like a whole section about loss, a theme about misunderstanding. There were little groups. And sometimes it was just about the sound of things.”
These little groups tie time and space together across the many nonlinear narratives of the book. Here begins and ends in 1957, the final page showing a woman who says to the empty room, “now I remember…” as she picks up a book. It reinvents the graphic novel as a form that constantly reminds us — of music, collage, family history, and more.