Welcome to the third installment of Holding History’s The Bookbag: a blog series discussing the books - and the forms they take - that are getting us through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond. This time, Ellen Weiland (Statistics Major, UW-Madison Class of 2022) interviews Julia Buskirk (Conservation Biology and Journalism Major, UW-Madison Class of 2022; also creator of the Water Lines blog here on the Holding History site) about the graphic novel Here by Richard McGuire. Here is available from A Room of One's Own.
Holding History (Ellen): Tell me about the book that you’ve read: what’s it about, what genre is it, who’s the author, etc.
Julia: So the book is called Here by Richard McGuire. It is a graphic novel; since the pandemic has started I’ve gotten super into graphic novels. It’s kind of a genre that I was not always encouraged to pursue when I was younger because my dad was always like, “Words! Not pictures!” but recently I’ve gotten really into graphic novels, especially in illustrating some research I’ve been doing. So I thought I would look at some professional examples of it. Here is a beautiful book—I highly recommend it to anyone. It’s hard to even explain, but basically McGuire takes a physical place, and it’s kind of fictional, though he’ll give clues as to it’s probably the east coast of North America somewhere, but he just explores this place over time. That time can extend from a century ago to millions of years ago, and he tells little stories of what happened in this place mostly through images, a couple words, a little bit of dialogue. It’s—I want to just show it to you because it’s such a beautiful book.
On one opening, it’s 1776 in the back image, but it’s overlayed with 1989. McGuire does that throughout the story: sometimes he goes back to the same images, for instance there’s this room in this house that was built and he’ll show a family that was living there one year, but maybe a century has passed and then you can see it’s the same room but different people, different furniture. And yeah, there’s obviously a lot of themes of time and change, but he also gets at the “universal” elements, though I don’t know if I want to say exactly that. Some of the patterns that emerge, even though the people are disconnected by centuries—like there’s one page, that just has a bunch of swears like all over the page but from all different years, so it shows how language has changed but we still have reasons to swear whether it’s 1850 or 2005 or 2020.
So how do you think the medium of the book impacted your reading of it? Do you think you could have gotten the same themes if it had been written with words instead of pictures?
Not in the same way, no, and the reason I say that is that so much of the words here—it’s nothing significant, if that makes sense? It’s a lot of the mundane things people say at any given time of day, but since it’s also juxtaposed with people saying similar things maybe a hundred years ago, suddenly something way more significant arises and you have a theme of how these little moments connect us through time. And I don’t know, if you boil this down to trying to describe it and say it, I think that would actually be a really boring story. It wouldn’t be super compelling to read this long of a book with just words. I don’t think I would have lasted! But since the visuals are so beautiful and dynamic, it really keeps you drawn in. And there are some pictures that go back to, I think, about a billion years ago, so at that point it’s just the artist’s imagination. But how do you describe the gaseous state of Earth, you know? So with that, I think there’s a lot of creative liberty with the media that he chose and he was able to turn (maybe at face-value) an uninteresting story into a really dynamic and thoughtful one.
What drew you to this book?
The boring answer is: I went on Google. I was looking for different graphic novels that people might have listed as “Oh, you need to read this!” But the reason I started reading the synopsis and the reason it really drew me in was because I’ve been doing some research with Prof. Joshua Calhoun (Holding History co-director) as part of a Hilldale Undergraduate/Faculty Research Fellowship, writing about Lake Mendota. So I’ve been really thinking about how to communicate the science of Mendota over a long spread of time, and this book was like “Oh we’re going to explore one place over a really long period of time,” and that was exactly what I wanted to do! And so even though we went about it in very different ways in talking about the history and the science and the research that’s gone on in Lake Mendota, this book has totally shifted how I’ve thought about communicating that science just because I’ve realized that storytelling through images can be super powerful. It gives you some room to express things that are a little hard to write about. Especially with Lake Mendota, I want to explore how to talk about things that happened a really long time ago, but how do you engage people in that? And how do you make that something you can actually grasp? And I think images are a really great way to do that. So that’s why I was drawn to this book—I wanted to see how he explored a place in time.
What’s your favorite aspect of this book? Are there any images you particularly liked?
I love when he juxtaposes a super, super old image from long ago with a more recent one. Like this one [on left] the back image is 50,000 BC and you can see ice and maybe a Macedon or a mammoth in the background. And then there’s a 1996 image overlayed in a house with totally different priorities. Again, it’s such a simple thing, like this guy’s saying, “Where the hell is the car?” and then in the background it’s just this huge, expanse of ice and water! There aren’t roads, there aren’t cars! So those are the pages I’m really drawn to, where there’s a huge difference in time. It puts things in perspective, a little bit. And they’re just beautiful, this is colored pencil the background. He really plays around with the media he draws with, so a lot of the more modern ones are digital drawings but then when he goes way back in time it’s more rough with colored pencils and water colors and it’s more loose.
Wow that’s beautiful, and it leads perfectly into my last question about the legacy of this story: how do you think this book will reach into the future? Do you think it could end up in a rare book archive someday?
You know, it is very niche so I honestly could see it maybe in a rare book archive. I kind of hope it doesn’t, though, because I want it to be mass-produced so everyone can see it. I feel like anyone who reads this—maybe that’s not fair—I think a lot of people who read this can find a piece that resonates or at least an image that they find beautiful. And he actually does draw the future! There’s one from 2113, and there’s a massive flood, so maybe we don’t want that.
It definitely does push boundaries. I haven’t seen a graphic novel like this, and certainly not a more, you know, “ordinary” book or classic book that we might think of. So I don’t know if that means it will remain an important part of, potentially, the graphic novel canon—I don’t know if the graphic novels have a canon—or if it might eventually be pushed aside like “Oh, that was an important thing, but…” For me, it really pushes storytelling and how stories can be told, and for that reason I can see it having a really important legacy. And I know it’s already impacting the work that I do, so there will be a legacy in my work, and it’s such a beautiful book. I would highly recommend it.
About the Project
The Bookbag: What We're Reading...and How is a series where we discuss books—and the forms they take—that are getting us through the COVID-19 pandemic and beyond.
The Bookbag is edited by English PhD Student Megan E. Fox. If you're interested in contributing, reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.