Time is a liquid, memory is a cup

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In The Fantastic : A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, Tzvetan Todorov wrote that in the realm of art, “evolution operates with an altogether different rhythm : every work modifies the sum of possible works, each new example alters the species” (Cornell University 1975 : pg. 6). Despite the problematic use of the word “evolution” in the arts, Todorov argues that things work differently therein, where no dead ends exist, and a continuous contribution by each and every new text is verified. One may argue, however, that there are texts that even though they may not lead to direct affiliations (i.e., they “don’t leave descendants”), they do “alter the species” in quite profound manners.

Richard McGuire’s Here is one of those projects that will probably not lead to followers, but changes the game altogether. It is a grand example of experimental comics.

When I refer to experimental comics, I am not referring to works that “push the envelope” or “bring about new potentialities” within this mode of expression we call comics. That is all good, but “experimental”, properly speaking, should be employed in works where formal choices, new modes of organization, structuring or at the very level of the materiality of the project are not used in order to be subsumed (or should we say “re-territorialized” ?) in a narrative or representation program nor in the expansion of genre conventions, but rather when they act as a sign of continuous crisis of the very form (that is to say, using Deleuze-Guattarian speech, truly deterritorializing modes). Where comics are concerned, and without denying the value of many great artists that have expanded its language, tried out new paths and opened up new vistas, I am thinking of works and people that belong solely to a class of their own. Martin Vaughn-James’ The Cage, Eduardo Batarda’s Peregrino Blindado, and, to lesser extents, the oeuvre of people like Warren Craghead III, Ilan Manouach, Andrei Molotiu, Aidan Koch, diceindustries and a few others who would be examples of this unclassifiable class. And the short piece “Here”, by Richard McGuire, was also a piece of that broken puzzle.

“Here” was originally published as a short, black-and-white, 6-page piece in the first issue of the second run of the highly influential art comics magazine Raw, edited by Françoise Mouly and Art Spiegelman back in 1989. As many other pieces published in Raw, this short story was found in a strange liminal territory of what people accepted as “comics”. Apart from artists that could be seen as great heralds of then contemporary trends that expanded comics where both its thematic and literary scope was concerned (Spiegelman himself, of course, with Maus, but also Tardi, Muñoz and Sampayo, Lyda Barry, Charles Burns, and others) there were also those with some degree or other of pictorial experimentalism (with Sue Coe, Mark Beyer, Jerry Moriarty, a young Chris Ware, and so on), not to mention the company of artists that were also published or quoted alongside comics in order to expand the “family” of its visual culture (a mission that would be taken later on by Blab ! and PictureBox, etc.). Where “Here” is particularly concerned, however, one could also find in Raw a handful of exercises, if you will, that attempted to deterritorialize comics as a whole. Gary Panter, Mark Newgarden, Cathy Millet, some of the pieces by Ware, and even Françoise Mouly, in her ever only comic, would be found in that group (although one must say that these “groupings” don’t make much sense within the economy and structure of Raw, whose purpose was precisely to efface such differences, including across history and geography). In any case, Richard McGuire’s “Here” would become over the years a recurrent reference in many talks about the “expanded field” of comics.

McGuire would seldom return to comics. His work has been developed in other areas, from children’s illustration to toys and music, but he did revisit this short piece. As far as I know, McGuire created a coloured, slightly expanded version of “Here” in the also-experimental comics’ Swiss magazine Strapazin (the special English issue acting as the catalogue for “Bubbles’n’Boxes” exhibition in New York, 2000). With only four pages, but with an increasingly more friable structure, both rehashing previous images and producing new ones, this version presents a looser line work, and colour patterns. It expands also “laterally” the time-frame of the original story, making more precise dates, to the day, and exploring more moments and crossing them in a sort of mesh.

Now (in 2014), Pantheon has published a book-length version, which has transformed radically the original into a new beast. First of all, we have the mere fact that, from a materiality point of view, this is no longer a short piece found within an anthological magazine, but “a book”. Moreover, as a book within a publisher that has been one of the major players in the “graphic novel” trend in the US since the 1990s. However, to call Here a “graphic novel” would open more questions than provide answers. If we think about the inscription of a given text within a given genre or category as following an endogenous path, in the sense that it is something that has been construed by the authors or publishers themselves, or, on the contrary, as an exogenous one, in the sense that it is created by all of those agents from the literary (or other) institution proper, such as critics, historians, and so on, the question we have to ask ourselves is, what is the coincidence rate between the verdicts from one and the other descriptor in relationship to Here ? To what extent is it considered by the author himself as something that belongs to the development of the medium of comics ? To what extent is it (both the short pieces and now the book) considered when discussing the history of the medium ? How many artists have looked up to it as a sort of catalyser of their inquiries and research into formal structuring ? To what extent does Here expand or question the very label “graphic novel” ?

After all, we have an object, a book, that, in the midst of the economy of its commercial distribution, of an editorially imposed genre, and so on, presents itself as a “narrative” (although it is not one in any immediate or clear-cut way). Any book can be argued to be an overall, enveloping structure, a communicational act even. And Here does present, as we shall see, a number of segments, whether textual or syntactic, that can be interpreted as narrative. In any case, as J. H. Miller has famously discussed in “The Critic as Host” (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 3/No. 3, Spring, 1977 ; pp. 439-447), a work of art “like all texts, is ‘unreadable,’ if by ‘readable’ one means open to a single, definitive, univocal interpretation.” (447). What follows then is not a “univocal” or “final” interpretation of Here (I very much doubt one is possible), but solely a number of reading notes, which I expect to have some degree of coherence in the end.

The first thing I would like to propose in its interpretation is that Here does not renounce fiction altogether, but it does propose a new form to allow for its formation, even if it can be seen as an incomplete, open-ended, non-finalised shape. As readers of Here know, this is not a classical narrative, organized along the three Aristotelian unities, but rather a continuous movement back and forth through time anchored in one point in space, so we witness a procession of people, events, little actions, the tide of nature and civilization and evolution, and so on. If every two-page spread presents a new time framing, quite often these “units” are burst through or interrupted by floating, smaller panels that open up to a different time period. Time thus appears in a continuous supradimensional flux, as if it could shuffled and manipulated as the physical dimensions.

In other words, the book calls precisely for a time-form in its own process of formation. Perhaps a comparison would be warranted with “austere” filmmakers such as Béla Tarr and Alexandr Sokourov in the sense that McGuire also proposes an experimental approach to space, time, as well their perception and experience within human memory. If the title seems to lock itself in one particular point in Earth — its “ground zero” being the corner of a North-American modern living room –, it navigates through time, as freely from its unidirectional arrow, with no care for causality or order. The oldest date in the book is 3 000 000 000 BCE, and the most future 22 175. The original Raw version was “set between” 500,957,406,073 BC and 2030, while the Strapazin version stretches from 400,000,000 BC to 3030. The original story seemed book-ended by two women about to give birth, but Here, the book, seems to be slightly more open-ended where human activities are concerned, although they do occupy most of the project. Still, the fact that the book gives us access to moments when humans were not even a biological possibility and when human civilization has no traces left whatsoever, the fleetingness of time becomes more apparent, so we cling more strongly to the seemingly banal gestures of the characters.

These, in fact, become enmeshed in what one could call, in lack of a better word, transtemporal communities. It is not only the same elderly woman cleaning the house throughout the years. That is one character, and we cannot have a community of one, even if the communality of her actions through time are underlined. Some of these communities are created across the pages (in a sort of braiding/tressage phenomenon), as for example, when we find many people dancing in this room, or different childhoods spent inside those four walls. There are people who have “lost” many, many things, and the author also plays with the polysemy of the word. Finally, perhaps quite touching, there is the community created within a single spread of many mothers rocking their newborns, in 1924, 1945, 1949, 1957 and 1988.

These networks of common actions do not allow us to create the idea of coherent, narrative sequences, although these do exist as well. Even though they are brief, they instill some degree of narrative fluidity, which was not expected from the previous iterations of the project. For instance, there is one “episode” set in 1775, showing a couple walking in a meadow, and then two men approaching the house at the end of the path, a path that is situated “here” (before the house was built). These people are talking for six double spreads (the couple) plus four (the two men), and we realize that they all belong to the same family, that has been broken along alliances to the British Empire and the (future) American Revolution. Careful re-readings will reveal that this is Benjamin Franklin, his son William and his grandson Temple, allowing, thus, for a reading of Here under the light of American History. One of the immediate consequences of this would be to also link it with Robert Crumb’s 1979 short piece, “A Short History of America”, perhaps a source of influence. This segment, anyway, founds an internal short story that is associated to the country’s history and to the theme of division and union between spaces and characters.

Division and union can also be achieved through formal choices. One “unit”, dated 1973, shows a family watching a film being projected above the mantelpiece. The author paints this scene in such a manner that the projected image bursts through in a more vivid and illuminated color, due to the darker texture of the surrounding space. He is, in a certain way, mimicking precisely the structure that he himself explores in the whole project, as if the projected image wasn’t anything else that another panel that gives us access to a different time period, taking to the next level the common metaphor of the frame (of a painting or a comic) as a “window” to a fiction world or a moment in time. There are also many scenes in which mirrors, boards, or other structures create physical echoes with that of the framed panels of the book, without ever coalescing into such familiar devices.

The possibility of creating these transtemporal links is also achieved in other ways. More often than not, the dialogues (or the isolated sentences) of characters can be read in two divergent manners. Either solely within their own enunciation, within the walls of their own chronological-diegetic intervals, or as textual substances that exist in the surface of the page, opening up the possibility for the reader to cross them with one another in the most diverse fashion, creating corresponding events, transforming them into internal “rhymes” of a larger structure, or even imagining one character answering another, independently of the diegetic or chronological possibility of such a relationship (even if it wasn’t at first sight, it would be finally, considering they appear as objects in this book, which means that they share always already such potential). Even the most seemingly innocuous commentaries (a note about a perfume, about a song) seem to be woven into, and from, the temporality that feeds these pages.

The idea of “rhyming” is not mine. One the 1775 men, the “grandfather” (Benjamin Franklin) says that “Life has a flair for rhyming events”. And, right after that segment, there are 3 spreads that show the most diverse, yet equally violent, actions in that closed space : a fight between two men, a window shattered by a baseball, people insulting each other (and are those particular insults branded by chronology as well, as a sort of concentrated diachronic portrait of language ?), a shoe lace snaps, someone falls down a ladder, glasses and plates crack, the room is flooded, and so on and so forth. It is important to notice that that precise sequence is intensified by an ever growing number of panels/moments that invade the image. Like Russian Matryoshka dolls or Chinese boxes, there are many of these rhymes, and perhaps one of the most riveting is the scene in 1935 where a girl is playing with a little house, which acts like a copy of the room corner that constitutes Here (and a smaller house inside this promises a recursion effect in ever tinier scales). There are other subtler notes as well, like the framed poster in 2015 of a Vermeer exhibition, showing a reproduction of Girl Reading a Letter at an Open Window, hanging in the precise same spot where another reproduction of the same Flemish painter used to be (Woman in Blue Reading a Letter), although there was an interval of two decades when nothing was found in that spot, or something altogether different. A woman asks her husband, in 1959 and other years, just before he leaves the house for work, if he forgot his keys, wallet and watch, the objects that a future transtemporal guide (we’ll get back to this) will describe as central to “our” culture. The many fantasies and masks used by the people throughout the years are an echo of the particular local history of “here” (quite probably New Jersey, taking in account Benjamin Franklin’s story, the Lenape people appearing and speaking their own language, not to mention natural details). A loose commentary in 1997 (possibly about a fire a year before) seems to refer to the conversation between a couple in 1988. A T-shirt that reads “Transitory Future Fossil” seems not only to describe that which we have seen from the past (dinosaurs) as well as what we’ll see in the future (after the eradication of human civilization)…

Notice how my language, or my ineptitude in writing in English, obliges me to torture the distribution of the time slots of Here into their chronological order, even if it’s not respected within the linearity within the book. But that is one of the consequences of Here : connecting these things through strange, impossible causalities, like when the fire at the Franklin’s family house in the 18th century “makes” the old man in 1989 to fall down the chair, or how the Lenape man’s story in 1609 about a monster seems to be “about” a young boy disguised as a bear in 1975, or the dialogues across time that we mentioned before, etc., are crossed over. There are many other forms of research about time along the pages of Here. There are a couple of scenes that allow the author to create structures in one single spread that could remind one of chronophotography, where one single movement — a construction worker building the house, a bird flying into the room — is stratified along a horizontal axis.

One must be careful, however, in choosing a sort of technological explanation for the distribution of time in Here, for one could be dangerously close in re-territorializing McGuire’s structuring of the book. Take the 2213 episode. This is the curious moment when — in the future — we visit the spot, the “here”, in the past (more or less “our” present), through the services of a transtemporal tourist guide. This woman uses some kind of technology still unknown to us which allows her to literally access a palette of moments in the past. We could argue, perhaps, that McGuire was subsuming the whole structure of Here under this science fiction narrative potentiality, as if what we, the readers, have been looking at is actually the temporal navigation afforded by such outstanding, future, but techno-logical mechanism. This would mean, of course, that we would be in the danger of territorializing Here‘s structure.

Nevertheless, despite this danger, I do believe that most readers will not opt for such a naturalizing device and still navigate through the pages in a free-flow manner, through that which Jean-Christophe Menu called, in his La bande dessinée et son double, the “espace feuilleté”, translatable into English as “leafed-through space”. This space has no need to be either linear or unidirectional. If the time dimension is, for human beings, unidirectional, “like an arrow”, even within the many mindboggling lessons of contemporary physics, its probably random distribution in the book invites us also to the possibility of using the book-object in a rather radically different way than most “graphic novels”, although we should note that it is not a different use of the book-object itself, considering that there are many types of trivial books whose reading and usage protocols are not linear at all, such as dictionaries and encyclopedias. (I wrote “probably random” because I would live to preemptively defend myself from my sheer ignorance on mathematics. I think Here‘s distribution of the time periods is utterly random but it might be possible that there is an underlying sequence, order or distribution according to a mathematical formula that I do not understand. I would love to learn about it).

The wallpaper of the room, the foliage, the textures, and so on, do change constantly, which allow McGuire to explore yet another layer, literally, of expression, considering that the chromatic quality of his tools had not been present in the original work (the Strapazin had color added, but in a more or less random-expressive manner). The endpapers of the book show the room’s corner, the “here” in its barest nature, with no date or any object or any clue whatsoever that would permits us to identify the period. As of course, it is not completely possible to say that it is a “zero degree panel” as it was in the first version, considering that in overall terms there are enough indicia to anchor time : after all, the building itself exists, as well as the mantelpiece, so that would help us to imagine that we are either in the immediate beginning or the very end of the useful life of that constructed space. But, of course, we are talking about a textual construction, so that both the “past” and the “future” (in relation to the first date of the first version, this new date, or the dates of all readers in all reading acts) are a product of the focalization on “here”, which does start as the inside of a living room in a North-American home in the late 20th, early 21st century.

Now, this is a complicated business, because in comics, covers, endpapers, dustcovers, flaps and so on may sometimes act — if not always — as textual elements, and not merely paratextual ones. Still, if you allow me to be a little conservative in this bit, I would like to focus on the first and last pages “of the book”. Both are dated 2014, but their order is a little awkward, I find. In the first spread, we see the room emptied out except for a single sofa. In the first spread at the end, that sofa is gone, but there is a bookshelf, half-full, and an open cardboard box on the floor. In the following spread to this one, the box is closed up, the bookshelf cleaned out. Moreover, the room-with-a-bookshelf has a window equipped with a roll-up curtain. All of this could add up to the idea that we were witnessing a moving in and out of the people that owned the sofa (which is never to be seen again in Here) and the ones who own the bookshelf (which does appear often). However, the very attempt of mapping out time in Here and the internal “intrigues” and “dramas”, as we have seen, not only is practically impossible as probably unrewarding, even unnecessary in relation to the pleasure that the book demands for the reader to follow.

Recurrent dreams, memories, lost and found objects, little jokes that are readable in second senses, all of these drift as snow and dovetail perfectly in a mesh of the human experience of time (or even beyond, if one takes in account the time span is cosmological).

… “now I remember” says a character in the end. As if the memory he or she was looking for had not been retrievable at the moment of its need but it came belatedly, as they always do. Out of time. One possible framing question for this entrancing book, a bona fide game-changer, would be one that is asked by another character : “Where did the time go ?” The answer is pretty obvious. “Here”.

Dossier de in May 2015