Richard McGuire Explores the History of "Here"

Richard McGuire's new graphic novel comes from relatively inauspicious origins. A quarter century ago in the pages of "Raw v. 2" #1, McGuire authored a six-page strip titled "Here." In a mere thirty-six panels, he explored the world, past, present and future, in a fixed location -- the corner of a family living room. Moving forward and backward through time, McGuire examined the recurring threads of life on the smallest and largest of scales.

Comic book legends Chris Ware and Art Spiegelman responded with overwhelming excitement, with Ware going so far as to call the strip "life-changing." McGuire eventually saw more potential in the concept, an opportunity to expand its scope and explore the themes and bonds that tie together the human experience. But with so many other creative ventures demanding his time, "Here" was placed on the back burner, where it remained for more than two decades.

In the meantime, McGuire founded and played bass in the no-wave rock band Liquid Liquid. He provided illustrations for magazines including "The New Yorker" and "McSweeney's" as well as for children's books, and he worked in toy design. In animation, McGuire directed the film "Peur(s) du noir" ("Fear(s) of the Dark") and the short "Micro-Wolf," he and provided designs for Pixar's "Up."

But "Here" lingered. And, as he explained to CBR News, McGuire eventually found the opportunity to return to comics and complete the book as he imagined it. In fact, it went far beyond what he initially imagined -- the hardcover, out now from Pantheon, is just one vision of "Here."

The iBook edition (other e-reader platforms do not currently have the technology required to support the story's hands-on reading experience) goes a step farther, creating an interactive encounter that enables readers to shift panels about to create their own experience with the history of one small corner of the universe.

We spoke to Richard McGuire about "Here," his return to comics and the comfort in humanity's daily routines.

CBR News: You've been working successfully in illustration, music, animation, toys and children's books for a couple decades now. What brought you back to comics?

Richard McGuire: I seem to always circle around, with everything I do. I knew this project could be a book, that the idea was worthy to expand. This thought occurred to me back in 1999, ten years after the six-page story was published. I pitched the idea to Pantheon back then and I signed a contract, but it just didn't come together - I couldn't find my way; it took me a long time to find my way with it.

After signing the book contract and not really getting anywhere, I got the offer to direct a film in France, an offer I couldn't exactly refuse. All along, I thought I would find the time to do both projects but it's next to impossible to divide your attention on major work. It wasn't until 2009, when I got the fellowship at the New York Public Library that gave me the time to focus and do the research. There was always something preventing me from devoting the time to it. I ended up staying in France longer than I thought I would, one film led to the next. As that film work was winding down my old music was reissued and we were given some opportunities to play some amazing shows. Just pulling the band together and rehearsing -- it all takes time. We played dates in Europe and Japan, and the U.S. too.

You show how this one place in the universe is both consistent and wildly varied. It shows readers that wherever you are, there is history and there is possibility for the future. It seems while the world changes, there is a universality to the human experience?

That was the main objective. The original strip never defined where the place was, exactly; I purposely left that information vague, so it would be seen as an "everyplace" or an "anyplace," but it was loosely based on the house here I grew up. I was using family photos as reference, so I started to research the area to give the story some grounding.

As you note, the space is based largely on your childhood home in Perth Amboy, New Jersey. And I read that the scene of colonial America is based on a real event from Benjamin Franklin's life that occurred in town, though perhaps not within a few hundred yards of your family home. How much research did you do into the region and its history, and how much do real family events inform "Here's" narrative?

The Franklin story was something real, that came out of research, and took place even closer to my house than depicted in the book. That building is directly across the street in real life. I moved it off to the side in the book to deemphasize it; I didn't want it to be the main focus. My motto during the project was, "Make the big things small and the small things big."

So although that story directly relates to the start of the nation, it's also just an argument between father and son going on across the street. Ben did visit the city when he was 15 and on his way to Philadelphia for the first time, and years later, he, with his grandson in tow, who was himself fifteen, did visit his son William, who was a Loyalist Governor, to convince him he was on the wrong side of the revolution. I enjoyed discovering these loops. It was a lot of fun doing the historic research, and it helped to give it a real sense of "place," but I had to keep in mind what the focus of the book was actually about. Franklin, his son, and grandson, are just playing "walk on" parts, just like everything else. The book is a much wider view of time, and I'm more interested in the smaller details that go undocumented in this wide picture of time.

I love parallels and juxtapositions -- a page of all the insults used in that space across thirty years; a man scraping off wallpaper while his younger self, ten years before, puts the same wallpaper up; all the children's Halloween costumes. It creates a sense of continuity from era to era, a sense that we're all living in the footsteps of those who've come before.

Looking at all my family photos and lots of "vernacular" photos, you start to see patterns. Everyone's holiday photos look the same; we do share a lot of the same kind of experiences. I think about this kind of thing all the time, that I am walking in the footsteps of those people who came before. My dad would take photos of me and my siblings in the same place every year. I think this was one of the seeds of the project. I use a sampling of those in the book.

When you go back billions of years, are you accounting for plate tectonics moving that location thousands of miles from its present spot on Earth?

Plate tectonics came up while I was doing research. The idea of a "fixed place" itself becomes strange if the ground is shimmying around. Tides rise and fall, too. In the exhibition for the show, I have a photo of my parents standing by this wooden pole twice their size with dates up and down that indicate flood lines. The photo was taken in Virginia, but this is the same everywhere. In the book I decided on using a fixed horizon line, because otherwise it looked like series of different places. Names of places come and go; it's all about impermanence in the end.

The pacing of the book is fascinating as well. Pages become denser with overlapping information, nearly to the point of being claustrophobic, and then you pull back and offer a single vista, often surprisingly expansive given the limited real estate of "Here's" setting. How did you work out the pacing and the structure of events?

It became very "musical" for me. I had the entire book up on the walls of my studio, and I just kept moving things around to get the rhythm and the flow to feel right -- it was very intuitive. It had to have crescendo moments and calm moments. I needed to keep the viewer/reader engaged. I worried a little if I could hold a viewer's attention, and I also worried if it could be felt emotionally without a protagonist. I guess time itself is the protagonist. There are "groupings" that relate by theme; sometimes it's about the sound of words relating.

Going beyond its history, you speculate very freely about the location's future. The history is informed by research into the flora the region in 1775 or knowing the state of the planet's formation in 3,000,000,000 BCE. The future is entirely speculative though, and I'm interested why you went there in this edition.

In the original version, 2033 was as far as I went. I had a ceremony taking place, and an object is being buried in the ground. We don't know what it is, exactly. I like the mystery of that. I was nervous going into the future with the book. I consulted with a friend who is a climate scientist, and he pointed me to projected forecast maps that indicate the area will most certainly be underwater some time in future. As I was working on the book, Hurricane Sandy hit and there was the tsunami in Fukushima; and I was thinking of those possibilities.

Then, I had the idea of a future tour guide. She is talking about the 20th Century. My mom would always ask my dad if he had his "watch, wallet, keys" before he went to work, and it hit me that all three of those things will not exist in the future, most likely. Keys seem kind of primitive even now, odd chunks of metal we carry around to open doors. The idea of wallet, a leather pouch we keep paper in that that identifies us, along with paper money, how long with that last? Who knows if the new phone devices worn on the wrist will ever catch on, but in the 20th Century, to own a watch was kind of a "must have" item. The future tour guide has holographic projections coming from an unfolded fan as she explains these things. I also wanted to suggest a life beyond a dark radiated future, so I have glimpses of a distant future with orchids and the humming birds and a "new" prehistoric-like creature -- a bit more optimistic, maybe not for humans necessarily.

You also had an exhibit of your work in "Here" in New York at the Morgan Library and Museum that ended on Nov. 9. How did that come about and how does the experience of seeing your work in a gallery compare with seeing it in a book?

For those who missed the show, there will be a catalog of sorts -- the literary magazine "Five Dials" will devote an entire issue to the Morgan show that will be posted online. It will include photos of the show, scans of all the images, as well as more from my sketch books.

The exhibition kind of explodes the books -- you see the fragments, sketches, notebooks, photo reference and some books I used for research. It is also presenting the eBook for the first time. This is a very important element to the re-invention of the original. When I first signed the contact for the book, there was no mention of new-media. I knew getting back to the project how important this part was. It was if it was tailor made for "interactivity."

The idea of the "windows of time" came directly from a friend explaining his new Windows program to me just as I started creating the original strip about "time." I first intended to do a split screen story going forward and backward in time simultaneously; that is the main reason I made it the corner of a room, to divide the space in two. The idea of "windows" seemed ideal and allowed multiple views of time. So it seems fitting now to do an eBook version; it's come full circle.

I have been working with developer Steven Betts on this over the last two years and it will be released at the same time as the book. The eBook was made exclusively for the iPad; it's an eBook that has app-like functionality. It reshuffles the book -- the panels are no longer tied to the backgrounds of the book's pages. New combinations allow for new connections. You can follow story threads by touching the panels. We also introduced some very subtle animation. Most of that is timed not to happen every time you look, so it's more of a nice surprise when it happens. It is very fluid, intuitive and fun.

We just finished the 1.0 version of the eBook and will go into the 2.0 version soon. I have a gallery show opening in Paris soon to coincide with the French edition. I'm making paintings of some of the panels from the book. I have a few other projects brewing; I want to do something in "real time" I think, and of course more of everything.

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