You always remember where you were.
The park where you got your first kiss. The coffee shop where you got that life changing internship offer. The hospital where you held your grandmother’s hand for the last time. You always remember where you were, because while memories are fleeting, spaces feel concrete. Yet, as my life in New York enters its fourth year, I’ve come to realize that even spaces are mortal. The park becomes a condo. The coffee shop covers its windows in ominous brown paper. The hospital moves to a newer facility in the ‘nicer’ part of town. In life, time is our master; the thing we measure our memories and accomplishments against. In comics, time is just a plaything. Richard McGuire’s Here proves this.
Originally conceived and printed as a 6 page comic in a 1989 edition of Art Spiegelman’s underground comix magazine, RAW, Here was recently reconceived and expanded into a full length graphic novel. Both versions of Here tell the story of a place. Every panel is drawn from the same perspective as McGuire shows readers how the place changes from a stomping ground for dinosaurs to a vast ice age tundra to a modern day house. He places panels within panels and juxtaposes them to tell a story that unites widely disparate yet thematically similar moments. It is one of the most emotionally evocative comics I have ever read. Most importantly, Here cements comics as the medium that best manipulates time.
Before reading onwards, I need you to watch this short film adaptation of Here.
As an adaptation of the original comic, it is as faithful as it could be. It also illuminates the limitations of film as a medium.
Comics as DeLoreans
In The System of Comics, French scholar Thierry Groensteen examines the “arthrology,” or structural anatomy, of comics. In his analysis, Groensteen draws from film theory to establish how sequences of images become narratives. He draws an obvious but important distinction between films and comics: comics focus on the perceived changes between “fixed images” while films are constantly and explicitly moving forward (105). The movement between panels juxtaposed against one another is implicit and left to the reader’s imagination. In this way, comics become a collaborative media experience, as the eyes and minds of readers are allowed to explore individual panels and interconnected pages at their own pace. Time moves forward and backward as readers move on in the story or flip back to an earlier page to recall details in earlier scenes that have become more important later on.
Comics theorist Scott McCloud explores comics as a collaborative medium in his work, Understanding Comics. In that illustrated text, he emphasizes the importance of the gutter, or space between panels, as a blank space where we see nothing but our personal “experience[s] tell [us] something must be there!” (McCloud 67). Basically, he alludes to the idea that the experience of reading a comic is unique to each reader. When a reader sees the old woman in Here sweeping the room, he or she assigns the woman character traits that are not explicitly fed to him or her by Richard McGuire, but are informed by the reader’s own life experiences. I imagine the woman to trudge, her feet sliding against the floor, rather than walk. I see her with a slight hunch, and I imagine her to be quite short, around 5’0”, much like my own grandmother was. McGuire doesn’t provide readers with anything to judge her height against, after all. These assumptions color my reading experience of the comic, filling in gaps that allow me to develop a unique relationship with the character. Much like children with coloring books, those who read comics use our their personal narrative palettes to fill in the blanks illustrators like McGuire leave for them. The best part is, they’re actively encouraged to color outside of the lines.
In Here, every panel captures a single moment in time. The narrative focuses on the elements of the house and how things differ (or don’t) from year to year. The reason why Here works as a comic is because readers are allowed to wander on their own. They feel a sense of ownership and satisfaction as they discover subtle connections between seemingly disparate strings of dialogue or notice how certain pieces of living room furniture change to match the style of the depicted time period.
Then, in the graphic novel, McGuire adds an additional layer of collaboration with the reader by making all the largest panels two page spreads. He invites readers step inside the space of the house and feel the climate change as the house gives way to the swamps that stood there 10,000 years ago and the snowy forests that gradually replace the swamps over the course of the next 9000 years. By centering the story around a space rather than a character, the reader becomes the character through which the events of Here are viewed. Through the act of collaboration, all comics play with this idea to some extent, but only McGuire literalizes the act.
What’s up with the Film?
Unlike the panel-to-panel transitions of the comic, there is an uneasy feeling to the sudden scene-to-scene transitions in the film adaptation of Here. They cause the viewer to feel jilted, thrown from moment to moment with reckless abandon. The cut from the TV to the Radio (1:25-1:30) is one of the more seamless and interesting transitions in the film and the comic, but its effect is diminished because the TV is only on screen for a second.
Comparatively, the comic allows the reader to travel back in time at his or her own leisure. Readers can spend moments or hours soaking in the small contrasts between panels without rewinding and rewatching at a constant second-by-second pace. When the room changes dramatically from year to year, the film doesn’t leave the viewer time to process what he or she has seen before cutting to the next scene, thus failing to capture the poignancy of the contrasts between eras that make the comic work so well. The viewing experience is akin to being the tetherball in a game between two bodybuilders. The viewer never gets a second to breathe.
Where readers collaborated in the comic, viewers are guided. They are taken by the hand and dragged through every scene at a pre-determined pace. What viewers get from Here as a short film is not an open ended story, but director William Trainor’s interpretation of the story. This is a death knell for a comic as ambiguous and symbolic as Here, which implores every reader to fill its panels with his or her own unique interpretation of the story. Worse still, William Trainor does not color his interpretation of the story enough for viewers to empathize with his personal telling. Viewers don’t get a feel for how the comic personally impacts him. The heart of Here is collaboration, and the film denies viewers that heart, presenting them with an emotionless husk instead.
Bringing it Together
Here simultaneously forces us to recognize the fleeting nature of moments while providing us the opportunity to breathe and dwell in each one forever, distorting time in a way that no other creative medium can claim to do. Novels and films can move forward and backwards in time, but even in flashbacks and flashforwards, the scenes move forward at a second-to-second pace. By implying instead of describing or explicitly showing movement, comics are allowed to jump backwards and forwards in time from panel to panel without confusing the reader. Instead of being taken for a figurative ride, comic readers actively collaborate with the book to process time leaps at their own pace.
Near the end of the full length graphic novel, McGuire quotes an old Jazz standard, Love is Here to Stay. A voice croons, “The Rockies may crumble, Gibraltar may tumble.” A mountain, breathtaking in its majesty and vastness, a physical representation of eternity stretching from the earth into the endless sky. A fortified stone, commonly known to natives of Gibraltar island as a symbol of something that cannot be overcome. In the song, even these venerated and ancient places are made mortal. The song continues:
“They’re only made of clay, but our love is here to stay.”
In a press release, Richard McGuire says that “‘If Here is about one thing, it’s that nothing lasts, whatever it is or however permanent it seems.'” This seems like a purely melancholic message, but his use of Love is Here to Stay takes Here out of the tragic and into the sublime. Inevitably, the places where we make our memories will fall apart. However, what we’re left with isn’t scattered dust. It’s clay– the primordial material from which new life may spring.
Memories are fleeting, but we carry their weight forever. Through his work in Here, McGuire proves that comics have an unparalleled ability to manipulate time, drawing out a second into an eternity. He illuminates the weight of singular moments in the lives of individuals and reveals the capacity for a single place to influence the development of countless lives.