Background Music to the Story of a Space: On ‘Here’ and Comic Book Storytelling
By Ryan Joe
Richard McGuire’s Here is an impressive feat of choreography, among other things.
One aspect of comic book storytelling I’ve recently become more aware of, in part because of a class I’m taking with the cartoonist Tom Motley, is the way panels and word balloons contribute to the overall design of a page.
That’s really important for Here, which essentially features the same static shot — a specific corner of a specific room — as it existed through centuries. This is one of my favorite layouts.
A panel in the middle sends us back to that spot in 1503, when it was a dense and foggy woodland. And then we’re back in 2014, where the woman’s shadow appears like a specter. It’s simple and sparse yet packed with atmosphere, while hinting at a larger story. Why is the room, which in other pages was full of furniture and people, empty? Is she moving in or out? The colors give it a mournful quality. And that cold, empty thicket in the middle underscores the isolation nearly five centuries later.
In this small space, we witness narrative vignettes. Like ghosts, people emerge to discuss their relationships, flirt, argue, live, and die. But there’s always a thematic relationship between the events depicted in different time periods. Sometimes it’s even more explicit — an incident in one panel serving as commentary for an incident in another that happened years later or before. Consider:
In 1959, a wife goes through a checklist for her husband who is leaving the house. In 1970, someone sits on a loveseat, talking to a friend: “It’s a symbiotic relationship,” s/he says. “It’s a little ritual they do.”
(Sorry in advance for the shitty reproduction. The camera on my phone has been sucking ever since I tossed it into a river. Also, Here would have been better served with a different binding method. Every illustration is a double page spread, yet you practically have to break the spine or else you’ll lose art in the margins. And the action in the middle is often the focal point of McGuire’s layouts.)
McGuire occasionally draws out these brief episodes over a few pages. In 1989, a woman tells a joke about a man seeing a doctor — itself a premonition of what’s going to happen. Most of the page, however, is dominated by shots of that corner in the late 1700s, as land is cleared and a magnificent estate is built.
I’m leaving out a few pages, but this should give you the idea:
The woman reaches her punchline, one of the men listening to her joke begins coughing uncontrollably. In the 1700s, the house burns to the ground. Great building of tension here. And then:
Boom. The 1989 panel expands across the entire spread. The man lurches backward, disrupting the staid blocking of the four sitting figures. That’s just great graphic storytelling. Okay, I want to reiterate an earlier complaint. The most important information is the man falling, and we lose that information — and its impact — because half the figure is sucked into the binding.
McGuire is hyperaware of the impact of his color choices. It’s a great and often overlooked way of affecting a shift in tone. Here’s an image from Panel Discussions by Durwin S. Talon:
Same thing happens in the page where the house is burning down, right before the man collapses. Every other page has been yellow against a cool background. Suddenly, the page turns red, and the panel expands just as the man collapses to the ground.
Let’s look at McGuire’s busier layouts. That’s all relative, by the way. Here is cleanly designed throughout, but he still needs to focus his reader’s eye. That can be tricky to do sometimes, and in wordier comics, you can use balloon arrangements to draw the eye across the panels:
Another example from Panel Discussions:
Another trick is how much detail you include in each panel to control pacing. Richly-detailed panels slow the eye down and vice versa. Here’s a page where McGuire shows mothers from different time periods holding their babies.
The women are all loosely sketched in except for the one from 1957. Even though she’s sandwiched between two panels — and is the smallest figure of the group, she pops against the dominant purple background — unlike the other women who blend in — and the baby stands out against her. Look at her compared to the mother from 1945, who’s just sort of blotched in. McGuire also uses those very defined flowers as an anchor, halting your eye so you don’t gloss over the mother on the couch.
Now, why does he do this? Gotta tell ya, I’m not entirely sure. Might have just been a design decision because the eye does need to pause somewhere. I’m reminded though of what the legendary comic artist Moebius said, in his afterward for Silver Surfer: Parable.
“Details are dangerous,” he writes, “because an overabundance of details is a bad thing. It’s like filling the page just because it’s there, or feeling that because you put in a lot of details, you’re doing a wonderful job, but that’s wrong. Details must take into account the natural rhythm of the eye, like breathing. Details must follow the flow of the story, and accentuates its strong moments. Details are like background music in an orchestra.”
And that seems to be McGuire’s philosophy throughout Here. His details — the various lives and intimacies of all the people who at one time inhabited that corner — are all background music to the story of that space.