Book review: Here - a comic-book concertina of American history

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 03 January, 2015, 9:04pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 03 January, 2015, 9:04pm

by Richard McGuire

In 1989, Richard McGuire, an aspiring New York artist, drew a 36-panel comic that leapt back and forth through thousands of years of history without ever stepping outside a living room - achieved by floating frames within frames (his inspiration was Microsoft Windows, then just four years old).

The comic, called Here, was published in Raw, the anthology edited by Art Spiegelman and Francoise Mouly, and caused a stir among younger cartoonists. Chris Ware, who would create the award-winning Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth, said McGuire came closer to capturing "real memory and experience than anything that had come before".

Yet McGuire left it to others to explore and capitalise on this new sense of possibility; in the years that followed, he designed toys and children's books, made animated films and drew covers for The New Yorker magazine. But now he's back, with a full-length version of Here - and once again, the strip is making waves. "All comics are somehow sheet music of time," Spiegelman told The New York Times recently. "But Richard's book is a symphony."

The New York Public Library devoted an entire season to celebrating its arrival.

It's easy to see what the fuss is about. Here is an exquisitely drawn book, its restrained palette and pop style calling to mind the work of such artists as Vermeer, Vilhelm Hammershoi and Richard Hamilton. To hold it is to covet it.

McGuire has again miraculously concertinaed thousands of years of American life - the narrative flips back to 500BC, and forwards to 2033 - into a few dozen pages, and without ever leaving a suburban sitting room (the book's gutter cleverly forms one of its four corners). But this time, his conceit feels more vital: the heart of Here is, by my reading, unavoidably moral, for it comes with an implicit warning about our stewardship of the planet.

At one point, a dinosaur wanders across the pages; at another, the author ponders a future apocalypse. In between, there are walk-on parts for generations of McGuire relatives (we're in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, where he grew up); for Benjamin Franklin, who travelled to a house nearby to argue with his estranged son; and for the Lenape, the native Americans who inhabited Delaware before the European settlers arrived.

McGuire treats time as a hopscotch-playing child treats a pavement: he parcels it into squares, and then jumps all over it. It's a dizzying technique. Its message, though, is clear: yes, we may be just a speck on the face of our planet but even dots have responsibilities; even mere particles must be accountable to those who will follow.

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