“Wherein past, present, and future he beholds”: Comics and the Eternal Present

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“What, then, is time?” Christian philosopher St. Augustine asked. “If no one asks me, I know what it is. If I wish to explain it to him who asks, I do not know.” We say that time flies or that it drags. We have it on our hands or we are pressed for it. And although we cannot experience any time other than our own present, physicists tell us that there is nothing particularly special about the present. It seems that all times exist at once, and it is only our perception that limits our view of it. Because of this, it’s very hard to understand and even harder to convey the idea that everything according to special relativity is constantly happening.


by Richard McGuire
Hardcover, $35.00
Pantheon, 2014

The way people experience time—that it has a direction and a flow—appears to be inaccurate, at least according to our best understanding of physics. In his explanation of special relativity, The Fabric of the Cosmos, Brian Greene explains: “There is no use crying over spilled milk, because once spilled it can never be unspilled: we never see splattered milk gather itself together, rise off the floor, and coalesce in a glass that sets itself upright on a kitchen counter.” Events happen in one direction, and one alone. Time seems to move always forward in a particular sequence that is never interrupted. However, Greene writes, “as hard as physicists have tried, no one has found any convincing evidence within the laws of physics that supports this intuitive sense that time flows. In fact, a reframing of some of Einstein’s insights from special relativity provides evidence that time does not flow … The outside perspective … in which we’re looking at the whole universe, all of space at every moment of time, is a fictitious vantage point, one that none of us will ever have.” But this view of time, and the way that authors have tried to use it, can offer enlightening insights about the world that normal sequential narratives cannot, and can shed light on the way narrative operates on our understanding.

In Paradise Lost, Milton’s God does see the world in a relativistic way: “beholding from his prospect high, / Wherein past, present, and future he beholds”. In his Cambridge Companion to Milton, Dennis Richard Danielson explains the philosophy underpinning this approach, quoting medieval philosopher Boethius: “God dwells in an eternal present that transcends our categories of time and tense. ‘Divine knowledge,’ says Boethius, ‘resides above all inferior things and looks out on all things from their summit.” God speaks to his son in book three about Adam and Eve’s impending original sin, eating the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge, “Man will hearken to his glozing lies, / And easily transgress the sole command” (emphasis mine) he writes, and then, not ten lines later, he continues to brood on Adam and Eve’s defiance: “And spirits, both them who stood and them who failed / Freely they stood who stood, and fell who fell” (emphasis mine). The Fall has happened already, and it has not. Omniscience generates these types of problems for verb tense and perspective.

Both author and reader are limited by their capability to perceive just one word at a time in the grammatical order. Verb inevitably follows subject, and we apprehend the meaning of each individual phrase, which we append to the phrase before it and after it to ascertain the present of the story. The necessary tense of each written sentence disallows any other tense we might ascribe to the scene: will happen and has happened are mutually exclusive. As Martin Evans puts it in ‘Paradise Lost’ and the Genesis Tradition, “the abstract idea of an ‘eternal present’ is simply not translatable into narrative terms.”

2The comic, however, is an ideal form to communicate multiple points on the timeline in near-simultaneity. In fact, this is largely the mode in which comics as a form, like painting or music, works. Scott McCloud, in his Understanding Comics, provides a perfect example: the scene of a family gathering. Every member of the family is portrayed in a single frame. Unlike a photograph, though, the picture does not represent every person at the same moment. The characters on the right react to dialogue and actions of those standing to their left in the panel. Even the PAF! sound of the flash has duration, and the word “Smile” takes even longer, then the couple whose picture is being taken reacts to the flash, and then the woman comments on Henry’s photography, and so on, across the frame. This one panel might portray a thirty-second interval of time, but readers see it together, at once, able to move back and forth in time and space.

In his masterpiece comic, Here, Richard McGuire uses this unique feature of the comics form to explore, and explode, the limits of human consciousness. McGuire traverses years, decades, and even millennia within a single frame, offering a God’s-eye-view to the reader, without any tortured grammar. The entire story depicts a single place, from the distant past into the near future. Within a single frame there appear several nested panels; each inset works almost like a jump cut to a different point in time, allowing the reader access across the timeline. But since the frames exist in this eternal present, it gives the comic an overwhelming, almost hallucinatory effect. The human mind is conditioned to interpret events in a linear pattern—one thing follows the previous in cause-and-effect relationships. The dislocation of time engenders the sort of omniscience that Milton fails to achieve.

While these bits of time do not necessarily imply a linear cause and effect, McCloud argues that there really are no non-sequiturs in comics. No matter what the image, the brain naturally connects everything it sees in succession. “By creating a sequence with two or more images,” he says “we are endowing them with a single overriding identity, and forcing the viewer to consider them as a whole.” This phenomenon carries through McGuire’s “Here,” so the reader begins to see all time through a single lens—every apparently unrelated scene is part of the same overarching existence of this particular place. Parents tell their baby to speak and a wrecking ball barrels through the wall decades years later: the reader connect the events so we cannot help but hear the baby like a loud crashing.

5,3Closure is the reason the frames have this effect on the reader. Closure is defined by McCloud as “observing the parts while perceiving the whole.” In everyday life, this is as simple as knowing a whole person is standing there when only half of them peeks around the corner, as watching someone walk behind a pillar and knowing that the person walking out from the other side is the same. Applied to the medium of comics, the reader moves from panel to panel, creating interconnections to form a coherent story. “If visual iconography is the vocabulary of comics,” McCloud writes, “closure is its grammar.” And this grammar, unlike Milton’s English, is flexible enough to portray the universe as it really exists.

In “Gutter Talk: (An)Other Idiom of Rhetoric” Joshua Hilst discusses the implications of closure in terms of paralogy, which, after Lyotard, deals in the gaps in our readings. This may refer to the many minor details of a scene that are missed at the expense of a few major details. In his essay, however, Hilst looks at something more literal and physical: specifically, the gutters between the panels into which we inject our own reading of a comic text. “In short,” he argues, “the viewer must do a great deal of guesswork to fill in the rest of the picture.”

McCloud’s closure is what bridges these logical gaps between panels. “The gutter is an uncodifiable space,” says Hilst, “and the panels help to hold our will-to-codify at bay. In an effort to read from panel to panel, certain paths, or jumps from panel to panel, must be taken.” It’s in the “abyss” of the gutters that the mind builds the story of the comic.

This mode is not particularly natural for the reader, so McGuire starts slowly, teaching the reader to follow his lead. It’s necessary, in a story called Here, to locate the context of the action, and in the first panel McGuire gives what could best be described an establishing shot. It’s the only frame in the story that does not include a caption above it to orient the reader to the date. The room is without furniture, bare, and this first frame is the timeless, Platonic “here” of the title. This is the baseline image to acclimate the reader to the space. In fact, this is the only space that will be seen in the comic, and the only continuity within a story that is otherwise totally inconstant.

6From here, the panels proceed in an orderly fashion. A couple has had a baby in 1957, and they bring it home. The first time another point in the timeline interrupts, it’s jarring. The husband asks, “Honey, can I get you anything,” and in the next panel, a woman from thirty-five years earlier answers: “What?”

Closure forces a connection through space but across decades. Moving down the page, the wife responds in an inset frame, in 1922, and someone entirely different is speaking on a new telephone. The effect is disorienting; the brain tries to close these gaps between moments, to piece together meaning where no explicit meaning exists. Only readers of comics don’t look just within the frames for meaning. In his essay “The Arrow and the Grid,” Jospeh Witek discusses the purpose of layout in a work and how that layout recalls “the delicate negotiation between sequentiality and simultaneity which we call comics.” The reader both follows the action in sequence and sees a complete page as a work of art in itself, all at once, at all times. McGuire’s Here forces itself directly in the middle of this medium-defining negotiation, and the interplay between these two are at both the thematic and practical heart of the story’s thesis.

Though Here defies linear narrative, that doesn’t mean that the sequence of scenes and images isn’t important. In fact, this lack of cause-and-effect makes the sequence that much more important. Without a plot, McGuire’s sequence makes its points from one inset panel to the next: “the concept of sequence, remind[s] readers what they already know: that the separate pictures on the page have meaning only as an integrated whole.” Each piece of information in the comic is only a piece. Only by connecting the proverbial dots does the reader understand how to read the comic.

Witek may denigrate “the use of an absolutely regular grid structure” where “panels of identical shape and size are arranged in even tiers across the page.” But this is the overt structure of Here, and it’s incredibly effective. All of the panels in McGuire’s book are the same size, laid out on a regular grid. “Highly regular grids,” Witek argues, “tend inevitably toward visual monotony and flatness in narrative action, since each event is given similar visual weight whatever its importance in the story.” However, since the reader of Here is looking from outside of this timeline at many different points, different times are supposed to be placed next to one another on an undifferentiated playing field. Each of the panels is additionally composed of inset panels which all carry the same weight, whether it’s the burning of a house or a New Year’s party, the birth of a son or a glass of spilled water. This structure is indispensable to the effect, giving the comic its hallucinatory aloofness.

Hilst describes this progression of gutters and panels, a la Lyotard, as a form of parataxis. “The gutter continually opens up and allows the viewer to see a blank space,” he writes, “but one that is determinative of what is seen.” In these spaces the mind forms the story that exists within and between the panels. In Here, McGuire problematizes this idea with his use of gutterless inset frames. Even with no white space between them, the divisions still stitch the frames together—but the effect is quicker. The story moves from one time period to another with much less resolution, associating those scenes more closely with one another. If each larger frame is a paratactic unit, the smaller inset panels are hypotactic, working as “subordinate clauses” to the larger idea of each panel.

McGuire’s inset panels make the reading experience highly irregular. Some panels have no insets, others may have four, all depicting different times. This duality between para- and hypotaxis is described by Witek, paraphrasing Will Eisner: “interaction between the panel breakdowns (that is, the composition of individual panels) and the page layouts to create subtexts (or parallel texts) to the literal level of the narrative within the panels.” The layout creates a tension between the regularity of the outer panels and the chaotic inner panels, conveying both the monotony of the time’s progression and the flummoxing at-onceness that eludes human beings with their limited perception.

8McCloud writes that “closure [in comics] is the agent of time, change, and motion.” It is the mechanism that moves characters in space, progresses the plot, and creates temporality. Through the deft deployment of closure, McGuire is also able to draw more radical comparisons between different characters as well as between the same characters at different points in their life. For example, a woman says in 1973 and 1983, “The more I clean…” Then, in one part of the next frame, she says again “The more…,” but this time the rest of the frame is taken up by inset frames from 1994, 1995, and 1996, and her sentence—“The more / I clean / the more / it gets dirty”—is completed over the course of four years. The woman invariably notes the unending return of mundane tasks while McGuire sadistically universalizes the task, capturing its eternal return.

This repetition also occurs on a larger scale in Here as well. The panels in the book picture the same space over more than two hundred years, from a Native American in 1850 through the life of the house to an empty plot in 2033. The readers extrapolates to countless others who lived “here.” Since the book was written in 1989, this late date could lie beyond the lifespan of those reading the comic (even at the time this essay is being written).

McCloud artfully illustrates the circularity of human life, and the simultaneity of time itself, questioning the simple, linear nature of language- and film-based art, arguing that people are conditioned by other media and the “real time” of everyday life to expect a linear progression. In The System of Comics, Thierry Groensteen writes, “Comics exist as a satisfying narrative form only under the condition that, despite the discontinuous enunciation and the intermittent monstration, the resultant story forms an uninterrupted and intelligible totality.” This definition is interesting as a litmus test. Here is certainly more discontinuous than most comics. The fact that there is no particular timeline—or rather that the reader is given too many points on the timeline—means that events aren’t wrapped up as they would be in a conventional story. This places comics in some relation to the fragmentation of modernism, either as pastiche or, as in McGuire, as the continuation of the technique for less comic effect. Groenstein’s “uninterrupted totality” however could be connected to the eternal present that the particular aesthetics of comics makes possible. Comics’ ability to be simultaneously discontinuous and coherent allows the form an immediacy and intellectuality found in no other art form or literature.



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About Kurt Klopmeier

Kurt Klopmeier is a writer and teacher living in Boston, MA. He has had poems published in journals such as ripple(s), Amethyst Arsenic, and Consequence.