My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Here is a book-length expansion of an influential and experimental short story that appeared in the art comics anthology Raw in 1989. McGuire shows us one corner of a room (or, more precisely, the patch of earth it comes to occupy) in year-stamped two-page spreads from five billion BCE to the 23rd century and beyond. Within the spreads, he also nests year-stamped panels that display various doings on the spot at different moments. By representing but also scrambling the passage of time, McGuire’s narrative emphasizes patterns of change and continuity. The spot goes from uninhabitable square of cooling ground to a habitation first for Native Americans and then for Americans whose changing demographics reflect the last few centuries’ cultural shifts: elites including the older Ben Franklin in the 18th-century, middle-class white people in the 19th and 20th centuries, and mixed-race middle-class people in recent years. Then the spot goes back to being uninhabitable as a result (apparently) of climate change, and then it becomes a robot-docented tourist destination, rather like Roman ruins, for the curious elites of the future, who appear to be Asian. After some further unclear catastrophe—nuclear war?—we see it in 22,175 as a lush land bearing new life.
McGuire’s nested panel structure is a promising development for the comics medium. The formal gesture takes seriously Scott McCloud’s radicalism (in the sense of “getting to the root”). When McCloud redefines comics simply as “sequential art,” he neither requires nor even implies the conventions of comics so far. McGuire places panels within panels to display different moments in time within one space. Sequential art turns time into space by arraying images that represent different times simultaneously on the discrete space of the page: this is what comics can do that neither film nor literature can, and Here represents a further experiment with and development of this unique property of the medium. It is also drawn and colored in an unobtrusively informative and graceful style. In strictly formalist terms, it is an unqualified success.
But I am not a formalist, or not only a formalist, so I have to ask what the form of this book materializes or incarnates as meaning. And the answer is, “Less than one would hope.”
In compressed and non-linear form, McGuire gives us a cyclical vision of time, embedding humanity within nature and showing our recurrent periods of flourishing and failure. It is satisfyingly epic (in the generic sense) and even pagan. But the book’s dialogue and its several narrative threads tend toward banality. We follow the aging of a family from the late 1950s on, we watch a young Indian couple about to make love in 1609, we witness the tension between an artist and his muse in 1871, we eavesdrop on the nervous anticipation before Ben Franklin arrives at his son’s house for a stay in the 18th century, and more. But we do not linger in any of these stories long enough for characters to develop or deepen into figures we can care about. This abstraction—the characters represent nothing in particular, but the human condition as such—has the paradoxical effect of rendering the book not cold but rather sentimental.
Without the density and specificity conferred by complex characterization, Here leaves us with little more than platitudes about our common humanity: everybody falls in love, everybody cares for their families, everybody has relationship troubles, everybody argues about politics, everybody gets old, everybody dies. If anything, I wish the book were colder, more icily formalist. Without dialogue or any feint at all toward consistent narrative, Here would more effectively convey the loneliness of its vast time scales, the there-ness of here, wherever here may be. McGuire no doubt intended to juxtapose this sublime and inhuman immensity to the small moments of our lives, but these small moments are not meaningful without the context of a fully dramatized plot.
One moment in the book stands out. In 10,000 BCE, some kind of mammoth broods on the spot that will be the center of the room. Just below it, in a separate panel, a young girl reclines and reads on the house’s floor in 1970. At first, we are impressed with the fragility of civilization, the seeming defenselessness of the girl—and even the book she reads—as opposed to the huge animal hovering over her, temporally distant in the narrative yet physically proximate on the page. But then we recall what has gone into excluding that now-extinct creature and mastering the land it once occupied. We realize that the young girl—and her book—are the real powers in the conflict, at least until the weather will temporarily reclaim the house for nature. That is sequential art: put two pictures together and allow their juxtaposition to give rise to thought.
To repeat what I said in my Fun Home review, I suspect we will see comics develop in startling new directions when creators stop feeling that they must, perhaps to live up to the inadequate “graphic novel” label, add human interest to projects whose conceptual dimensions can stand on their own. Comics might take poetry or philosophy as their generic literary model, rather than the novel—at least as an experiment. For now, Here is as suggestive in book form as it was as a story; but the great meditations on time and humanity in comics remain such works at the intersection of high and fringe culture, and therefore less comfortingly middlebrow than Here, as Alan Moore’s From Hell or Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles.