Are you tired of waiting for total marijuana legalization but nervous about breaking the law? “Here,” Richard McGuire’s surreal journey through the portholes of millennia, might just tide you over. It is over 300 gorgeous pages of trippy time travel departing from the living room of a suburban New Jersey home. As a bonus, the voyage won’t trigger food cravings or make you feel like a giggling adolescent — McGuire’s work is serious and witty, precise and suggestive, and it is a revolutionary step in the evolution of graphic narratives. With very few words, the narrative is almost exclusively graphic.
The entire book focuses on the space occupied by the corner of one living room. Every page is seen through that frame, with the same dimensions and horizon line. But while the space is fixed, the time shifts. We see what the room looked like in 1957, in 2014, and in 1907 when the house was built. We also see the forest as it existed before the house, and the land before any humans, and earth before any life at all. We travel into the future and look through the frame to see what happens in that same spot hundreds and thousands of years after the house is gone.
McGuire used his childhood home and family photo albums as his starting point, and family pictures are a recurrent theme. Branching out, he expands his cast to include European settlers, Benjamin Franklin, dinosaurs, and tour guides from the future. Within the living room rectangle, people clean, sleep, dress for Halloween, fight, flirt, comfort babies, weep, yell, and die.
The scenes are not chronologically sequential, so different years, centuries, and even millennia rub shoulders. Further, they interpenetrate and inter-fenestrate as McGuire opens windows within the main picture to reveal what happened in a particular subspace at a different point in time. A typical page of juxtaposed and superimposed rectangles shows a man from 2014 carrying a rolled-up rug, a sleeping child in 1938, footprints from 1869, a Native American woman bathing in 1352, all while Walkman headphones on a table play, “Doo be doo be doo” in 1986.
The pages also talk to each other thematically. Arguments echo across centuries. Physical gestures repeat. The raising of a home movie screen in 1973 mimics the opening of an 1870 parasol. Two women, separated by a century, bend in the same posture as one cleans in suburbia and the other feeds a cow. Sometimes McGuire arranges thematic groupings on a single page. Other times, the relationships reveal themselves more subtly. He challenges the reader to complete his thoughts. He leaves dramas unresolved. People move out of the field of view. The limited dialogue is more snippet than conversation. Throughout, the reader is the fixed point as the witness of “Here,” but the here changes from one moment to the next. You can’t step into the same living room twice.
McGuire renders each moment and epoch with careful attention to detail. Wallpaper, furniture, appliances, trees, and garments are meticulously drawn, and the artist uses different marks and media to define different points on the spectrum of time. He delineates interior scenes with sharply defined shapes of flat color. Prehistoric scenes gain power from loose, bold watercolor washes. The future is aqueous and gauzy before it becomes tropical and luridly lush. The drawings run to the very edges of the borderless pages, and the result is a sense of a much larger canvas than the 9.25 x 12 inch dimensions of the open book. The printing is superb, with deep, rich, consistent colors.
“Here” began 25 years ago as a six-page, black-and-white comic in RAW magazine, a showcase of edgy, alternative comics featuring the work of modern cartoon pioneers. The early version shared the premise of the fixed point of view, as well as McGuire’s wry sensibility. But the book version is the expansive realization of the 1989 conceit. It has both a sweep and a rhythm that require the longer form. McGuire is also a musician, a founding member of the band Liquid Liquid, and it is evident in the pacing of “Here.” The free-associative narrative moves between soft passages and loud moments, scenes of domestic calm and staccato interruptions. Glimpses of intimacy — a child learning to tie his shoes — give way to destructive disruptions — a Hurricane Sandy-like flood.
A story with time as its main character might have fallen prey to a distancing didacticism, but “Here” exudes empathy, curiosity, and wit. Toward the end of the book, there’s an eight-page scene set in 2213 that shows an archaeological tour guide explaining what life was like in 2014. With a small, fan-shaped projector, she summons images in the sky of unfamiliar objects from two centuries earlier — a watch, a wallet, and a key. We recognize ourselves in the eager listeners in her group. In the final panel of the sequence, one of the tourists, speaking of the guide, says to another, “She’s so lifelike.”
“Here” is a visual delight and a mind-bending invitation to explore. Time, memory, history — how do we construct and define these categories? How are we constructed and defined by them? It’s a provocative narrative that begs to be shared with others. Don’t bogart the book.Dan Wasserman draws editorial cartoons for the Globe and other publications.