Richard McGuire Interview

I couldn’t have imagined anything better

Ο Richard McGuire είναι ο δημιουργός του HERE, ενός από τα πιο διάσημα και επιδραστικά short comics όλων των εποχών. Είναι, όμως, και ενας ευγενικός, φιλικός, αλλά και εξαιρετικά δημιουργικός και πολυτάλαντος άνθρωπος. Ενας άνθρωπος  με πολλές γνώσεις και απίστευτες εμπειρίες, που με ότι και αν έχει καταπιαστεί, εχει κάνει δουλειές καινοτόμες και πρωτοποριακές.

Στο πλαίσιο του Comicdom Con Athens 2017, είχα την τύχη να τον γνωρίσω από κοντά και να μιλήσω μαζί του. Παρακάτω, θα βρείτε μια καταγραφή όλων όσων είπαμε…

AK: I will start with an understatement. You are a multi-talented person. You were a member of the band “Liquid Liquid”. What were you doing there? Were you playing an instrument? Singing?

RMG: The group had many versions, in the most known I played bass. I sometimes played guitar and sometimes extra percussions, sometimes plastic melodica. Whatever worked.

AK: So… you play music, you paint…

RMG: I was making sculpture in school. Some paintings, but mostly sculpture. Then started the band and then worked in an animation studio…

AK: You’ve also directed some movies?

RMG: Yeah… eventually I did that. At one point, I had a little company, I was making toys and then children’s books, and then working for the NEW YORKER… They all connect, though… I think everything connects…

AK: You consider “Art” to be one huge thing that has many aspects and Comics is just one of them?

RMG: Yeah, I think each medium has its own strength but I also think my impulse to create is always the same. These things you can do in comics you can’t do in any other medium. Like HERE… Someone at one point made a little film of HERE. A student film. It’s not so good, I mean it’s cheap because they didn’t have any money and the acting is bad because it’s students… But the main takeaway for me was that film is linear and it just unrolls in one direction and you can do some swipes but the great thing about the comic version you’re going to open up at any point and jump and jump… In what other medium can you have that interactivity?

AK: Was this why you started doing comics?

RMG: You probably heard this in another interview and I have probably said it a million times how HERE started… I was not considering myself a cartoonist. I was an artist and musician and I loved RAW magazine. When I was growing up, I loved Charles Schulz (he points at my Peanuts notebook). As a fan… not thinking I would be a cartoonist. and before Schulz… I was 10 years old when I bought the book on Krazy Kat. That was the first thing that I was, like, “I love this”! The language and the drawings were so funny. To me that was like the first really exciting comic.

AK: Did you feel this as a reader or as a creator?

RMG: I felt it as a reader. I remember trying to do those drawings but still I wasn’t making Comics. I tried to imitate but I wasn’t trying to do my own thing, really. And then I was probably a teenager when I saw Crumb’s ZAP COMICS, and I remember thinking that was awesome and very very exciting and funny and beautifully drawn.
But it was only after I went to see Art Spiegelman giving a talk. He was talking about the history of comics and he would show a slide, for example, it would be just one frame from Dick Tracy…

AK: Had RAW started at that point?

RMG: Yes and that’s what was the reason why I went to see him because I was a big fan of RAW. And even after trying to speak to him and I was so nervous.

AK How did Spiegelman react to a fan?

RMG: I just saw him for two seconds and said “I think you’re great”. Maybe even had him sign something. But it was in that class that he was talking about comics and he said “narrative diagrams”. It got stuck with me… Made me think of comics differently suddenly. The word “diagram” opened it up to think the possibilities.

Then I came home, I had just moved into a new apartment, and I was thinking about who lived in this apartment before me, and then I thought maybe I could do a comic about two different times. And I am looking at the corner of the room and I thought: if I have a panel and that line was the corner then maybe one side can be the future and one side can be the past… So I started doing some drawings and then a friend came by and I showed him my sketches. Unrelated, he started telling me about his computer. He was working in a boring job in Wall Street and he was telling me about his windows program. When he described opening the different windows, it blew my mind. I was like “now I know how to do this”. So I finally worked out the comic and I sent it to Spiegelman.

He left a message on my answering machine… some old technology. I came home, I pressed the button and Spiegelman said: “I really think you did good, it’s good. I think we want to publish it.”

It was like hitting a home run. And I saved this message, I still have this, cause it was a cassette. I still save this message. And then I became friends with him and met all those people I was admiring, like Charles Burnes, Gary Panter, Mark Beyer, all those people.

AK: So you got in RAW. How did this work? Did the artists gather together? Because nowadays they would just sent an email with the art.

RMG: I must have physically sent it. I didn’t have a computer. I must have sent a letter with a xerox copy. But I do remember that once I got in, they always had little parties and most cartoonists were shy and awkward. I think it was at Spiegelman’s home, that’s when I met all these people.

An then I was in the next issue…

AK: HERE was in the first issue of the second volume, correct?

RMG: Yes and that was when they went down in size. I had made the artwork bigger. Actually, the first version of HERE, the one I actually made, is only three pages, and then they cut it down as six pages to fit in the small book. And the only reason they went small is that MAUS had just come out and was getting a lot of attention. They said “now we know this is a perfect size for an adult book of comics”.

AK: You got your break in RAW, and HERE is a milestone in comics history

RMG: Now it is.

AK: But at the moment, you had Kim Deitch and Mark Beyer, Ben Katchor and MAUS. So it was a milestone among giants.

RMG: Its funny… At that time I was very conscious that I didn’t have a style. And I thought everybody has his cool style of drawing but I thought I had to be very realistic, because it fits the subject , but I still felt embarrassed by my totally traditional style. It was really very boring style, And I loved Mark Beyer, people like that, I thought that was really experimental and so genuine and good, and Gary Panter was so crazy and loose. But i didn’t… you make it sound like it was…

AK: It didn’t have that impact then?

RMG: Over time it had impact. It was maybe a year later, maybe six months, but I remember Spiegelman told me: “I just came back from France and someone wrote an essay about your piece. It is in a literary magazine… It is really taken seriously”. Then he told me “I was in Belgium and there was a conference and they talked about you and your comics”. So it started building over time… then it was reprinted…

AK: One thought I had when I first read HERE was this: Should i try to serialize this and create a linear story, or should I appreciate what is given to me and feel the impact of what I see? What do you think that the reader should do?

RMG: It is funny you should say this. The same thing happened when the book version came out. A friend of mine, Peter Mendelsund, is a very famous designer for book jackets, he is the best book jacket designer for very famous novels, and he helped me on HERE. He came to a talk and he had taken the book and had cut the book up and put it in a correct logical order of time and it made no difference at all! He showed it at the audience saying: “I made these things and put them on these big boards and tried to read it logically and it didn’t matter! It felt still fragmented.”
And also, what it was really about was always a crystallized version. I like the combination of a fire and a glass of water, I think there’s funny things that happen and that was what it was all about for me. Because I felt I am more of a visual artist than I am a writer.

Doing six pages took me six months, but I was very self-conscious of the writing and even when I did the book I was struggling with the language. I wrote so much and then I cut, cut, cut for the book. I thought for the book you needed to have deeper stories. But everyone I showed it to said “You know this moment gets too slow”, And I thought that liked it and I was proud of this writing, but the more people told me, the more I was like “I know”. I had to have much more of the rhythm that the first version had. I wrestled with it back and forth. A book is so different.

AK: Before going to the new HERE, did the short story make an impact on the comics community?

RMG: Chris Ware wrote me a fun letter he was still in school “Dear Mr. McGuire… I loved what you did in RAW, I am coming to New York”, and then we became friends, but he was still in school then.

AK: Did this impact drive you to create more comics?

RMG: Even the following issue they said “do you want to do another”? They had chosen everything, but they had one blank page. So I did a one page script called “The Thinkers”, where you are just following the thoughts, and then the third thing, I had a an idea for something…

I was in New York in the subway and I saw on the subway tracks an orange. I was thinking: “Oh that poor orange It had a beautiful life growing on a tree and now a depressing life in a subway, it is going to be eaten by a rat”. I thought maybe this is a story and I can follow the path of all those different oranges. I even did some sketches, but a friend of mine said this sounds like a children’s book.

I had started to do some toys designing and made a deck of cards, and the children’s books editor saw those and asked if I had any ideas for children’s books. So I said that I have this orange thing.

AK: You felt OK with your creative urges?

RMG: Yes and also it was satisfying to have a book by myself. It wasn’t like an anthology with a bunch of people. And then by the time I got the fourth children’s book, I got bored. HERE came out in 1989. From 1989 until 1994 I’m doing children’s books, one per year. Then I went to Japan and I remember thinking on the flight coming back “I don’t want to do another children’s book. At that point, MAUS was already huge, Chris was already making JIMMY CORRIGAN, and I thought I really should expand HERE and make it into a graphic novel.

AK: What do you call it? I mean is it “the new HERE”, “the expanded HERE”?

RMG: I don’t know… the book version, the graphic novel version, it’s reinvented and not expanded. My publisher thought I was just going to add pages. They thought it was going to be a continuation, and they were surprised when I showed them what I was doing.

AK: I remember being troubled when I heard that HERE was going to be reinvented as a graphic novel.

RMG: I know, I know. Everyone was going “You are going to fuck it up”, and I was thinking “why am I doing this?” (both laughing). And even a few times during the making of it, I thought maybe I shouldn’t have done it, and that it is a mistake. I thought I was going to ruin it.

AK: You used different techniques?

RMG: Yeah. During my talk I showed a video. I built a little cardboard version of the room. I thought it was all going to be painting, so I made this cardboard version. When I put these pieces together, I thought that’s how I will do the book: each wall will be a full page. Also, doing the children’s books, I was already used to using two-page spreads. I think it had a sculptural-architectural reason to be a book. And that was very satisfying. It wasn’t just expanding the original. There was a solid reason for it to be a book.

AK: You talked about the jacket.

RMG: Peter Mendelsund was someone I didn’t know but I admired his work. At Pantheon, there are usually two guys for the books: Chip Kidd, who you may know, and Dan Frank who is an editor for novels too. So I was dealing with the two of them. A friend of mine who is a designer suggested I should be working with Peter Mendelsund and gave me his email. I just wrote him cold (I never do this kind of thing), but I did and said “I am going to come by the office. Can I stop by and say hello?”. So I showed him the first version and the cover looked exactly like the inside. There were panels, and it said “HERE” really big and it had my name on.

He had a look at it and the first thing he said to me was just the cover should not be like what’s inside. It seemed like an obvious thing to him. Don’t make the cover look like the insides. And that felt right. So he said: Why don’t you make it the outside of the house? I thought it was so brilliant! I went home and tried all these variations and they all looked like shit, very boring. It looked like a magazine cover. I was really disappointed with myself.

Once I added the extreme shadow, I thought it looked better and then I took my name off and made the book name smaller and I thought it was looking more mysterious. Then I sent an email to Peter. He had a look at it and wrote back one line: “Close the curtain over the word”. And it was so brilliant (laughter). Every time I try to give him credit for helping me. But… he was the first person I did an interview with and I told this story and he said he had very little memory of any of our conversation.

AK: It came effortlessly for him.

RMG: Yes because he is doing a million books. He is a very interesting artist. He is a classically trained musician, never studied graphic design, so his approaches are always very different. That is what I appreciate about him.

AK: The book reminded me of Chester Brown that keeps messing with his older books (changing panel positions) and also Vincent Van Gogh who drew the same theme like sunflowers again and again but having a new approach each time.

RMG: Even in music you see someone like Bob Dylan reinventing his songs. And especially something like HERE is infinitely expandable. Not that I am going to do HERE 2 and all that… I don’t think so. I have been talking with people about doing a virtual reality version. Which would be an amazing thing. It wouldn’t be the same but conceptually it would be. Instead of the page, there is all this space that can be used. And there is an element of sound that can be used. Sound is very important because it can make you turn, If you are in the room and you hear a horse galloping and turn to see the horse… suddenly we are outside and by the time you turn back, the room is something different. The movement instead of windows. Or maybe there could be panels you walk into and then you are in the hall space… I do not know…

AK: You are interested in new technologies.

RMG: I am interested cause I do not think I am tied to anything and I am also very excited… It’s like finding new ways.

This may or may not happen. I don’t know if this is something I should even be talking about… but I signed a contract with people who are interested in making a TV series. When I was first asked, I said it is impossible. Unless you have Charlie Kaufman maybe that guy could do something with it. When you sign an option it just means it is a possibility. Even when they make a pilot, it doesn’t mean it is going to end up as a series. it is a long way and it may never ever happen, but when I talked to this woman, I joked about Charlie Kaufman and she said “…I sent him a copy”. so who knows. That’s a lot of Hollywood and Hollywood is a lot of bullshit talk. In the conversation, I said it can’t be just the room. It has to be bigger like the whole house and then it becomes BUILDING STORIES.

Actually, Chris (Ware) called me before he did BUILDING STORIES and said “I had this idea but I wanted to ask your permission cause it’s too much like HERE”. I said “whatever you do will never be anything like I do. Thank you for even asking but you don’t have to”. So I am sure now if this is going to happen and it’s a whole house he is going to be suing me probably (laughter).

I thought each episode might be a different time. It is stretching the idea. It doesn’t have to be panels, because it is not comics, I am trying to figure out how do you reinvent it but let the Medium tell you what it can be.

AK: You’ve done a lot of NEW YORKER covers.

RMG: Yes. That is because Francoise Mouly, who is Art Spiegelman’s wife, became art editor there. I had done my pieces in RAW so she knew me from there. One day I stopped by to visit Spiegelman and I showed him my children’s books and my toys and after that she just called me and said “I love what you are doing you should really work for the magazine”. New year’s was coming and we had a cover idea for a double issue (it would be on for two weeks). I said “What about an image you could turn upside down” and she said that’s a really good idea. I left and I did some sketches but everyone said no. Then I did one more. Francoise came to the meeting and presented it to Tina Brown, who was the editor, and Tina said “no, it is too weird.” But they left it on the desk. So on the next meeting, just as Francoise was leaving, the publisher, Tina’s boss, comes in sees it and says “what a great idea”. And she was like “Yes, that is our new cover”. Francoise sent me an email me and said “You are never going to believe what happened”. So lucky!

AK: What I like about this picture is that it’s not really obvious that it will work if you turn it upside down.

RMG: It took me a long time to solve. And in the final version I just cut paper and then glued, I still did not have a computer. They got letters and the writer John Updike wrote to Tina Brown and said that it is a genius cover. Tina wrote me a letter but said that she cannot give me his letter, because he talks about some other personal things. So I never got this letter.

AK: From all the media you have worked with, is there something that you want to do more on?

RMG: The HERE book was the most important thing to me. It was something I made that I feel touched people emotionally. I was afraid it would not have any emotional impact, because if you do not have a character that you are following that you care about, why would you care about these people? My family is the center of it and I think for some people it reminds them of things in their own life. That’s the connection.

When I was putting it together, I was using a lot of pictures from my own family but I met a photo collector, who just collects vernacular photography, and he allowed me to use his archive. I looked at photos and every family photo is exactly the same: birthdays, holidays, wedding. It’s all the same kind of things, it could be anybody. The book is making people connect in that way.

I did not have that reaction from the first version. It is only with the book that people tell me this. The first was more of an experiment.

AK: The book feels, for lack of a better word, warmer.

RMG: Yes. I wanted it to be deeper on every level. It is not exactly my family house but it is a stage version. I did all this research with history. All that history stuff is true. Now that i have done this, I feel I have a seed of an idea. Another book.

AK: Another comic?

RMG: I think it is going to be experimental and I think it is images and words, so it is comics or graphic novel. But I can see that the concept can stretch in the way we were talking about. I want to make a film too, and I want to make a soundtrack too. This is what I would like, whether it happens I do not know. I think that the new concept I have is so stretchable, that I can do some things in the film that I can’t do in the book and so on. So I think it has a possibility. I am excited about it but I am also terrified. Every time I start with something, I start from point zero. I don’t feel I have to make it look like HERE. I don’t want to have this as my brand, I don’t believe in that kind of stuff. I really want each thing I do to have its own rules.

AK: You travel a lot. Being in different countries, do you think that there is a common understanding of comics? Is there a common language?

RMG: I think that there are different flavors, but I think it is amazing to go to all these different festivals and then there’s something like a community. I don’t believe that it has ever been until now that comics are as big as they are. And it is international. I was in Colombia in a literary festival – occasionally I get invited to these things. It was just me and one other cartoonist, but the rest were writers and they were very questionable. “Why do you feel like you want to make drawings? Why don’t you write the story?” You know comics can do stuff that writing cannot. If I was to write HERE, it would be one long sentence starting “Meanwhile, blahblah and meanwhile…” you don’t get the impact of seeing all those different things at once. In that way, comics have an advantage over “just text”.

AK: But you have written books beyond children’s books. Popeye and Olive.

RMG: That was another weird art experiment. Related a little bit to animation. It is an abstract love story. Popeye and Olive are meeting and once they meet, their forms become one and then it becomes almost like a language of the relationship. But then I made this abstraction and people were seeing sexual things. They said you should do another book about the sex life of Popeye and Olive, so I did another one P&O which is all about their sex life. Also very abstract. That’s the kind of thing that is very satisfying, to have a concept and then try to find a solution. I like that.

I can’t believe there are over 20 translations of HERE and I was thinking there is so little text it is hard to believe that people even want to have it in another language. And some people have talked to me and they say “Your book doesn’t have any words”. Yes it does (laughs). It is mostly visual and these words were very important to me, but it is very easy to digest and I think it has also a universal theme and that’s why people like it. I also have been joking about how HERE is about one room but never have I traveled so much about one book that is about one place.

AK: You are (in my eyes) a creator – an artist that also does comics. Is it tiring that people keep asking about HERE?

RMG: No… It is always going to be the biggest thing I ever did. It is defining. Before that, when I did my famous bass line, I thought that is what I was going to hear for the rest of my life. That was a surprise too. Who could have predicted that I would have gotten ripped off and then it would be samples and samples.

AK: Ripped off?

RMG: I was completely ripped off. Our songs was already getting played in clubs. Rising on the charts, on the radio. And then somebody said “Have you heard this song ‘White Lines’?”. I was flattered because I was a fan of Grandmaster Flash, but I couldn’t believe it. And actually that wasn’t a sample! They had Sugar Hill (the record label) and a house band and they recreated it and then they put a different break and they put different words on it and then released it. So on the radio they played both and then stopped playing ours and I could see their songs rising on the charts. But at that time… the band was breaking up and our record company was breaking up and then it just became this big mess. This big legal mess… Years later, probably some time in the 90s, Duran Duran decided to cover White Lines and then I hired a lawyer and sent a letter to Duran Duran saying you can’t release this song because you are ripping off Liquid Liquid. And they were like “Who the fuck is Liquid Liquid?” (laughs). We froze them from releasing it. Then everybody had to get together and the laywers had a meeting and they finally made an arrangement so now it is OK.

I had a tape with all these songs that used the bass line. If it wasn’t for that, maybe the band would have been forgotten. It became more of a cult thing. It is a two-way street. Music always evolves like this. You hear all these stories, usually black musicians getting ripped off by white musicians. It is the way it works. I have mixed feelings about it. When I still hear it, it makes me laugh.

We played for a few years and then the band broke up. Years later it is re-released. The Beastie Boys had a label and they re-issued it and then we started getting offers to play! And we played shows with thousands of people. Back then we could hardly fill a club. We did a Japanese tour. And every show we said that is the last time. And then they said “do you want to play on TV on Jimmy Fallon show” and the band Roots said we want to play with you. How can you say no? And then we played the biggest show, the very last, 5 years ago, at Madison square garden, for 20000 people. When I was a teen, I would see all the big rock shows there. I had to say yes to that. After that we said “OK, it is not going to get any bigger. We have to stop now”. And also we were not creating anything new. We are really different people now. Back then we shared the same taste and now we don’t.

Last week wrote an article about the band. Some guy just wrote because he loved the remade three records and he gives a little history of the band. I was so touched by this. People are still talking about it. It blows my mind. The guy says they only recorded 43 minutes of music. We never even made a full album. Our three records were EPs, so they had five songs on each one. It is a very small amount of work. In a way very similar to the way HERE is a six page story.

Who would have known… I just feel it’s been very lucky. I couldn’t have imagined anything better.