Close Reading — December 24, 2014, 8:00 am

Time Out of Joint In Richard McGuire’s Here

“One learns about the characters the way a machine would, by analyzing discrete moments of their lives, like a search engine combing for patterns.”

Here-in-RAW

Panel of “Here” published in Comic Art #8. © Richard McGuire.

In a well-known painting by the Belgian surrealist René Magritte, a miniature locomotive emerges from a dining-room fireplace as the smoke from its stack trails back under the mantelpiece. He called the work, completed in 1938, La durée poignardée, which translates literally to “ongoing time stabbed with a dagger.” (The painting is commonly known in English as Time Transfixed, a title Magritte never cared for.) “The image of a locomotive is immediately familiar,” Magritte wrote of the painting in a letter to an acquaintance. “Its mystery is not perceived. In order for its mystery to be evoked, another immediately familiar image without mystery—the image of a dining room fireplace—was joined.”

“Ongoing time stabbed with a dagger” could well describe the long-awaited new graphic novel Here by Richard McGuire, in which an ordinary plot of land in New Jersey is depicted at dozens of moments in time, from three billion years in the past to twenty-two thousand years in the future. The book is an expansion of a six-page comic of the same name, which McGuire drew in 1989 for an issue of Raw, the comics magazine published out of SoHo by graphic novelist Art Spiegelman, and editor Françoise Mouly.

A comic about a place, “Here” (1989) took its premise from a one-page strip called “A Short History of America,” which R. Crumb had published ten years earlier. In Crumb’s piece, Anytown, U.S.A., evolves over the course of a century from a bucolic pasture to a whistle-stop town to a twentieth-century strip mall. “Here” doesn’t have the satirical edge of “A Short History of America,” but it is more daring aesthetically; McGuire nests frames within frames and years within years, juxtaposing scenes that on their own would be banal, but when put together on a page are surprising and new. It was one of the first strips to explore the idea that a comic doesn’t need to tell its story chronologically. At the time, it “revolutionized the narrative possibilities of comic strips,” the graphic novelist Chris Ware wrote in Comic Art magazine. “Cézanne famously accomplished it with painting … and Richard McGuire, I think, did it with comics.” The strip was so influential, in fact, that twenty-five years later, reading his new book, McGuire’s technique feels almost conventional—a natural way to portray day-to-day life.

If, decades from now, a cartoonist is ever considered for the Nobel Prize in Literature, a likely candidate would be Chris Ware. Ware’s books include Jimmy Corrigan and Building Stories, both of which are about lonely losers living in Chicago. The emptiness and the drudgery of their lives are offset by layouts and color schemes that are obsessively, ecstatically detailed. Ware draws his cartoons with the clear-line style of Tintin and Gasoline Alley while packing his pages with information, sometimes jumping a century from one frame to the next. Ware acknowledged the influence the 1989 version of “Here” had on his 2012 poster for the Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest, Illinois, a work he dedicated to McGuire. It depicts a young Ernest Hemingway running to catch a football, Frank Lloyd Wright standing on the balcony of his Heurtley House, Robert McCormick flying overhead in a Sikorsky S-38, Potawatomi and Illiniwek Indians working outside, insects circling palm fronds from an antediluvian era. Ware wrote of McGuire’s “Here”: “I don’t think there’s another strip that’s had a greater effect on me or my comics.”

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“Oak Park” and “River Forest” posters, Chris Ware. Courtesy The Historical Society of Oak Park and River Forest.

The graphic novel Here, like its precursor, is more poetry than prose, an attempt to capture within the narrow confines of a living room the chaos of the eons. It weaves the dramas of modern human life with those of geological history in a way that is not unlike Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life. But whereas Malick is ponderous (opening with an epigraph from Job), McGuire is playful (quoting pop songs like George and Ira Gershwin’s “Love Is Here to Stay”). The site on which everything takes place is like an improv stage. Characters from different periods come and go, unwittingly cracking one-liners about the events that are occurring years before or years after. One of the busier scenes in the book follows a fight between Benjamin Franklin and his son William about the future of the American colonies. The Proprietary House, where William Franklin lived as the last colonial governor of New Jersey, is a block down the street. The page is an aggregate of grievances occurring on top of one another, each labeled by year: floodwaters flowing through the window in 2111, a hole in the ceiling in 1949, broken glass on the carpet in 1963, and insults and put-downs from the Fifties through the Eighties.  

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Here (2014), Richard McGuire. Pantheon Books.

A spread from the end of the book is more subdued: A Lenape Indian from 1620 is walking, bow in hand, across the same soil on which a construction worker, in 1907, is building a house. Inside, a woman from 1957 is wandering around the living room, and a radio, in 1968, is playing the Peggy Lee pop song “Is That All There Is?”

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Here (2014), Richard McGuire. Pantheon Books.

According to an interview in Comic Art, McGuire got the idea for the original “Here” when his roommate told him about the Windows operating system, which had been released only a few years earlier, in 1985. And indeed, the strip has the look of a busy computer screen. Revisiting the concept a quarter of a century later—when personal computers have become ubiquitous—McGuire goes even further, expanding the strip into a 300-page book. The result feels less like reading a novel than like killing time online or flipping through TV channels. One learns about the characters the way a machine would, by analyzing discrete moments of their lives, like a search engine combing for patterns. It could just as well be read back to front as it could front to back.

Writers made use of this kind of fragmentary storytelling in literature long before the time of the television or the computer. It’s the ambling fancy of the decadent brat epitomized by the character des Esseintes, in Huysmans’s novel Against Nature (1884), who holes up in his house in the country and gives himself over to the theater of his mind, to images and ideas instead of people and events. In Here, McGuire alludes to the despair and to the loneliness that are always lurking within such elaborate forms of distraction and escape. Two of the drabbest, grimmest spreads in the book are nods to studies of isolation and inertia by Edward Hopper that use single-family homes as their settings.

hopper-paintings

Clockwise from top left: Detail from Here (2014), Richard McGuire. Pantheon Books; Detail from “Cape Cod Morning,” Edward Hopper; “Sun in an Empty Room,” Edward Hopper; Here (2014), Richard McGuire. Pantheon Books.

Hanging on the walls of the living room, in various eras, are posters or reproductions of paintings: two by Vermeer and one by Jean-Honoré Fragonard. All of them show girls who are reading alone, their heads tilted down as if they’re praying.

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Left to right: Detail from Here (2014), Richard McGuire. Pantheon Books; “Young Girl Reading,” Jean-Honoré Fragonard.

 The Peggy Lee pop song “Is That All There Is?” which appears in the book’s final scene, was inspired by Thomas Mann’s short story “Disillusionment.” It’s about an unhappy old man—possibly a caricature of Schopenhauer or of Nietzsche—who wanders around Venice muttering about how spoiled he was as a child, how high his expectations for life were, and how constantly disappointed he is with everything. Nothing he experiences—not even his parents’ house burning down—prevents him from asking if that’s all there is to life in a modern world. The way Here skips from one eon to the next makes it seem as though it’s asking the same question: Is this all there is to our past and future?

 In “Mr. Natural’s 719th Meditation,” another R. Crumb progenitor of “Here,” a little sage with a long beard walks through a desert, unrolls a mat, and sits down to meditate. Suddenly, a highway is paved in front of him. As in “A Short History of America,” a strip mall pops up, and soon a cop is yelling at him to move. The sage, Mr. Natural, chants “Om,” and the buildings around him disintegrate, the winds of the desert blowing all the scraps and detritus away. Mr. Natural is then back in the unsullied desert. He snaps out of his trance, stretches, rolls up his mat, and walks whistling out of the frame.

 Here might be what Mr. Natural sees as he escapes momentarily from the ordinary cycle of the days and the years. It’s life seen from the inside out rather than the outside in, and it’s indicative of the generation of cartoonists that Richard McGuire and Chris Ware belong to. Their comics are models of the mind, in which what was, what could’ve been, what is, and what might be are next to one another on the page, letting the reader, as Magritte claimed, perceive their otherwise invisible mystery.

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Serving as a US Air Force launch control officer for intercontinental missiles in the early Seventies, First Lieutenant Bruce Blair figured out how to start a nuclear war and kill a few hundred million people. His unit, stationed in the vast missile fields at Malmstrom Air Force Base, in Montana, oversaw one of four squadrons of Minuteman II ­ICBMs, each missile topped by a W56 thermonuclear warhead with an explosive force of 1.2 megatons—eighty times that of the bomb that destroyed Hiroshima. In theory, the missiles could be fired only by order of the president of the United States, and required mutual cooperation by the two men on duty in each of the launch control centers, of which there were five for each squadron.

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When he quit the Air Force in 1974, Blair was haunted by the power that had been within his grasp, andhe resolved to do something about it. But when he started lobbying his former superiors, he was met with indifference and even active hostility. “I got in a fair scrap with the Air Force over it,” he recalled. As Blair well knew, there was supposed to be a system already in place to prevent that type of unilateral launch. The civilian leadership in the Pentagon took comfort in this, not knowing that the Strategic Air Command, which then controlled the Air Force’s nuclear weapons, had quietly neutralized it.

This reluctance to implement an obviously desirable precaution might seem extraordinary, but it is explicable in light of the dominant theme in the military’s nuclear weapons culture: the strategy known as “launch under attack.” Theoretically, the president has the option of waiting through an attack before deciding how to respond. But in practice, the system of command and control has been organized so as to leave a president facing reports of incoming missiles with little option but to launch. In the words of Lee Butler, who commanded all US nuclear forces at the end of the Cold War, the system the military designed was “structured to drive the president invariably toward a decision to launch under attack” if he or she believes there is “incontrovertible proof that warheads actually are on the way.” Ensuring that all missiles and bombers would be en route before any enemy missiles actually landed meant that most of the targets in the strategic nuclear war plan would be destroyed—thereby justifying the purchase and deployment of the massive force required to execute such a strike.

Among students of nuclear command and control, this practice of precluding all options but the desired one is known as “jamming” the president. Blair’s irksome protests threatened to slow this process. When his pleas drew rejection from inside the system, he turned to Congress. Eventually the Air Force agreed to begin using “unlock codes”—codes transmitted at the time of the launch order by higher authority without which the crews could not fire—on the weapons in 1977. (Even then, the Navy held off safeguarding its submarine-launched nuclear missiles in this way for another twenty years.)

Following this small victory, Blair continued to probe the baroque architecture of nuclear command and control, and its extreme vulnerability to lethal mishap. In the early Eighties, while working with a top-secret clearance for the Office of Technology Assessment, he prepared a detailed report on such shortcomings. The Pentagon promptly classified it as SIOP-ESI—a level higher than top secret. (SIOP stands for Single Integrated Operational Plan, the US plan for conducting a nuclear war. ESI stands for Extremely Sensitive Information.) Hidden away in the Pentagon, the report was withheld from both relevant senior civilian officials and the very congressional committees that had commissioned it in the first place.

From positions in Washington’s national security think tanks, including the Brookings Institution, Blair used his expertise and scholarly approach to gain access to knowledgeable insiders at the highest ranks, even in Moscow. On visits to the Russian capital during the halcyon years between the Cold War’s end and the renewal of tensions in the twenty-first century, he learned that the Soviet Union had actually developed a “dead hand” in ultimate control of their strategic nuclear arsenal. If sensors detected signs of an enemy nuclear attack, the USSR’s entire missile force would immediately launch with a minimum of human intervention—in effect, the doomsday weapon that ends the world in Dr. Strangelove.

Needless to say, this was a tightly held arrangement, known only to a select few in Moscow. Similarly chilling secrets, Blair continued to learn, lurked in the bowels of the US system, often unknown to the civilian leadership that supposedly directed it. In 1998, for example, on a visit to the headquarters of Strategic Command (­STRATCOM), the force controlling all US strategic nuclear weapons, at Offutt Air Force Base, near Omaha, Nebraska, he discovered that the ­­­STRATCOM targeting staff had unilaterally chosen to interpret a presidential order on nuclear targeting in such a way as to reinsert China into the ­SIOP, from which it had been removed in 1982, thereby provisionally consigning a billion Chinese to nuclear immolation. Shortly thereafter, he informed a senior White House official, whose reaction Blair recalled as “surprised” and “befuddled.”

In 2006, Blair founded Global Zero, an organization dedicated to ridding the world of nuclear weapons, with an immediate goal of ending the policy of launch under attack. By that time, the Cold War that had generated the ­SIOP and all those nuclear weapons had long since come to an end. As a result, part of the nuclear war machine had been dismantled—warhead numbers were reduced, bombers taken off alert, weapons withdrawn from Europe. But at its heart, the system continued unchanged, officially ever alert and smooth running, poised to dispatch hundreds of precisely targeted weapons, but only on receipt of an order from the commander in chief.

Bombhead, by Bruce Conner (detail) © Conner Family Trust, San Francisco, and ARS, New York City. Courtesy Kohn Gallery, Los Angeles

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