Artists-editors Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman launched an avant garde anthology magazine called RAW in 1980 that focused largely on comics, but featured other visual art, all the work of globally sourced contributors.
Musician, filmmaker, and designer Richard McGuire’s first comic, “Here,” was included in the first issue of volume two, which hit stands almost ten years later. The minimal, six-page black and white strip “Here” appeared alongside a chapter of Spiegelman’s Maus, comics from Charles Burns, Basil Wolverton, and more. In this year’s Comics: A Global History, 1968 to the Present, authors Dan Mazur and Alexander Danner spotlight RAW and the offerings within in their chapter on the American graphic novel’s birth: “Just as punk music embraced the coarse and unmelodic, RAW embraced creators whose work was purposefully ugly, non-linear and difficult to read.”
McGuire’s curious and experimental comic is filled with conventional-looking figures, but is set mostly in one room of a house — or, the space in which that room/house was built. Time jumps backward and forward, so the idea of a living room being there isn’t exactly permanent or reliable.
Conceived just a couple of years following Microsoft’s deployment of its Windows operating system, in which application windows opened and closed freely on top of one another, the original “Here” strip functioned similarly on its surface, with panels materializing inside of panels, each jumping from different time periods marked by a narrative caption to represent a different era from that space. We see celebrations and tragedy — a New Year’s Eve party, a man reading aloud from a newspaper obituary — but McGuire’s wire-thin lines also bring the mundane to the forefront. A woman polishes a coffee table in 1983; a carpenter hammers nails into the house’s frame in 1902. Extreme time shifts yield a viewpoint of the space when there wasn’t a room at all; rather, when it was farmland in 1870, or home to the big lumbering creatures of the Late Jurassic period. The juxtaposition of such divergent settings proves both funny and affecting. A short assessment of the issue of RAW that featured “Here” appeared in the summer of 1989 in the New Yorker — a magazine that would contract the strip’s creator for illustrator work and hire Mouly as an art editor a few years later. The paragraph might as well have been directed at least partly at McGuire’s pages alone: “This collection displays a full range of anomie and anxiety and what can be called postmodern humor — the kind where the fact that there isn’t a punch line is the joke.”
From Pantheon Books, a new, full-color graphic novel version of “Here” is stunning. Over more than three hundred pages, McGuire revisits and rebuilds his original strip with flashy interiors set in vivid pastels, and landscape sequences fleshed-out in moody watercolors, computer software-built textures, and sketchy pencil lines. I appreciated the rolling clash of modernity and nostalgia in the digitally colored productions versus the artist’s brushwork and archival photography-based efforts.
The sequences that focus on Here‘s living room in the new book afforded McGuire the opportunity to position the corner of his room in the gutter, so that the lush page spreads, which, squared-off as they are, give the impression of collage work, dressed in penciled-over photographs. But this is how Here was built: A recent exhibit, riveting although spare and fittingly relegated to a small room within the Morgan Library and Museum in New York City, displayed sketches, mocked-up pages, scraps of textiles that the artist would later use to emulate garish wallpaper patterns, and photos from miscellaneous time periods (See writer Josh Kopin here). McGuire talked about the image research he was doing during a 2012 panel discussion at Brooklyn’s Knitting Factory with Spiegelman and Chris Ware, and explained that he’d returned to his 1989-era comic strip idea for the purposes of building-out a book that would be based on the history of the New Jersey home where he grew up. I’d argue that the story behind the story is one of the more compelling aspects of Here — McGuire having sensed that there was still work to be done with his decades-old idea; the ambitious and seemingly insurmountable challenge of producing a new, full-length project from its six pages. Sadly, the Pantheon volume is completely bereft of this context, and if the print edition falls short at all (an e-book version will reportedly offer a more interactive experience), it’s in the absence of these salient background details. At the moment, I can’t think of another book that is more deserving of a supplementary introductory essay, or at least inclusive of a reproduction of the source material. Slotting the strip that housed McGuire’s original concept alongside this new work would do wonders toward illuminating the path that got him here.
At the Morgan Museum exhibit, a computer-colored guide or two with rough pasted-in photo cut-outs offered one such peek at McGuire’s meticulous process, some insight on an endeavor that, according to Steven Heller at The Atlantic, launched around 15 years ago and was soon after tucked away when bigger priorities took hold.
“Going back into the project again was tricky,” the 56-year old artist tells Heller. “I felt it had to be similar to the original version but in a new way. I didn’t want to mimic that first approach, I never thought I would merely be adding pages to the original. This was to be a re-invention.”
More space in McGuire’s “re-invention” allowed for bigger chunks of a variety of stray stories to be worked into Here. Some of the sentiments are brief, but they’re memorable and executed wonderfully — the despondent woman from the original strip, alone and tending to housework; a girl being chased by a bird across a two-page spread, with all the flailing and stumbling taking place within slim vertical boxes that act as clear glass panes, so the background remains orderly and undisturbed; a pack of laborers building the house in 1907. New concepts lend a bit of narrative weight, such as the researchers from the “Archaeological Society” who show up to announce that the land is of historic significance. Having been led back in time to the 1600s by McGuire, who carefully directs us out to a forest clearing for a look at the region’s Native American settlers pages earlier, the reader already knows as much.
RAW cover image © 1989 Raw Books & Graphics. “Here” original strip © 1989 Raw Books & Graphics. Here image © 2014 Richard McGuire. Photography of Here © 2014 Dominic Umile.