The One-Room Time Machine
Richard McGuire's innovative 1989 comic strip Here, depicting one location over centuries, returns as a museum exhibition and book.
Little did artist Richard McGuire know in 1989 that 25 years later his modest, black-and-white comic strip Here would not only be called “groundbreaking” but would also evolve into a full-color graphic novel and a museum exhibition. Today, the Morgan Library & Museum in collaboration with the New York Public Library opened From Here to Here: Richard McGuire Makes a Book, which tracks the process behind McGuire’s uniquely sequenced space-and-time narrative. Truly appreciating the artist’s existential exploration may take more than one viewing of the exhibit, running through November 9.
Here, which appeared in RAW, Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly’s avant-garde comics journal, presents time as its protagonist. Set in one corner of an anonymous living room, starting in 1957, multiple frames appear in each main panel that intermittently shift vantage point from distant past to far-off future. Like the unforgettable scenes in the 1960 film The Time Machine, where Rod Taylor experiences the passage of time as his contraption accelerates into the future, McGuire’s characters are born, age, disappear, and reappear. Events taking place in the space of the room from eons, centuries, years, and moments of now and then are united through artfully constructed pictures and terse running dialog.
In 1989, just prior to the mass popularity of graphic novels, Here offered another dimension of narrative complexity that comics artist Chris Ware cites as one of his influences. Here is, furthermore, a meditation on “impermanence,” which is what makes it emotionally compelling yet unsettling—as though every moment in time is preserved in some random playback mode. Structurally, everything and everyone has what McGuire calls a “walk-on part” as the mysterious scenes go flowing by.
“If you stop to think about this, the ‘now’ becomes heightened,” he says. “We are so rarely ‘in the moment,’ we spend most of our time thinking of the past or worrying about the future. The ‘now’ is the only thing that really exists. The book starts with the question, 'Why did I come in here again?' Which is what I was asking myself when I started this project. It took me a long time to figure out how exactly to make this book. The book ends with a moment of recognition of the ‘now.’ The person finds the book they are looking for. Which is also my answer, I came back to this idea to make it into a book.”
McGuire (born 1957) is a veteran cartoonist, musician, toy designer, author, and illustrator of children’s books, including Night Becomes Day, Orange Book, and What’s Wrong With This Book. He's also a frequent illustrator for The New Yorker, The New York Times Book Review, and other publications. Originally, Here was just one of his explorations that was put to the side. But around 15 years ago he realized “the idea was worthy, and that I could go deeper. I pitched the idea to [publishing house] Pantheon, and signed a contract, but it just didn't come together, so I put it in the drawer.” In the meantime, he received an offer to direct a segment in the feature animated film, Fear(s) of the Dark (2007), “so I jumped ship” and stopped all work on Here for a few years.
When both his parents took ill and needed his care, he returned to the U.S. “My parents were still living in the house where I grew up, which is kind of the center of Here,” he says. Then a few years after they had both passed away, McGuire was awarded The Dorothy and Lewis B. Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers fellowship at the New York Public Library, which gave him the time and resources to get focused on the project again.
In 2011 Joel Smith, a curator and the head of the photography department at the Morgan, put the original Here strip in an exhibition called “The Life and Death of Buildings” at the Princeton Museum, a show of mostly photographs. “[Smith] once mentioned that it would be nice to do a show when I finished the book, a 'making of' exhibition,” Mcguire says, referring to what is now the exhibition at the Morgan. The NYPL made a lot of the funding possible.
Besides seeing the original strip and the process of how the current book came together, attendees will also have the first look at the e-book, which McGuire says is an integral part of the re-invention of the original strip. “The story was always non-linear, but it seems tailor-made for new media. The e-book deconstructs the book. I worked closely with a genius developer, Stephen Betts. The iPad version is the enhanced version, you can swipe the pages and read it as you would the book, or you can move through it in a more free form way, the backgrounds and panels are free from the page layouts in the book and can be reshuffled, new combinations and new connections happen. The full version will also include animated gifs. Tiny movements that are timed so they don’t happen often so they are a surprise when you see them. A curtain may move with a breeze, or a petal may fall from a flower, a person reading may turn a page. There are no sound effects or music, it feels closer to reading experience than a film experience.”
Each of McGuire's projects start from point zero. “I don’t feel I own a particular style,” he says. “When I made the original strip it was in a very generic style, because it was the correct solution for the story. It had to be as easy to read as an instruction manual, so the reader could follow what was happening very clearly when the interlaced time panels start being introduced. Going back into the project again was tricky. 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.”
He wanted to maintain the feeling of a scrapbook or photo album. But unlike the RAW version, he added watercolors next to tight vector art done with the computer. “I didn't want it all to feel equal because days themselves never feel equal, the quality of light, the weather, different temperatures and moods are different, I wanted to suggest that,” he says.
For McGuire, the printed book is the finished art. But this unique exhibition reveals more than just the process—it speaks to his joy in how the strip holds up today. But there’s another bonus: “One thing that got me excited conceptually,” he says, “was having the exhibition in a one-room gallery that is about a book that takes place in one room.”