Sequential Drawings by Richard McGuire
You’ve probably seen “spot illustrations” before but not known what to call them. They’re the “unsung toiler of the magazine page,” illustrations tucked into margins and quietly placed after an article’s paragraphs in what would otherwise be dead space. The substance of these drawings tends to border on the cutely innocuous: a parking meter, a birdcage, maybe a bottle of ketchup at a diner. In his introduction to Richard McGuire’s wonderful Sequential Drawings, Luc Sante describes them as “missed by many insistent readers as they chase the progress of a story across columns and ads,” and explains that their “inherent modesty has thus far kept [the format] a cult favorite.”
Richard McGuire’s spot illustrations have appeared in The New Yorker since 2005, and are compiled here in a pocket-sized hardcover. Delightfully, McGuire’s spot drawings form miniature stories when read in order. Considering how not all readers of The New Yorker pore through their issues cover-to-cover, this compilation allows McGuire’s adorable sequences, like “Gossiping Objects”, “Taxi”, and “Noise Upstairs” to finally be appreciated in their complete, miniature arcs.
McGuire is an exceptional cartoonist (as well as the bassist for the band Liquid Liquid), and 2014’s Here (which was finally completed after first appearing in RAW magazine in 1989) is an essential work of genius and creativity within the comics medium. Sequential Drawings, alternatively, is just a nice little book: its strips read like animated shorts between Sesame Street bits, or something you’d find before a family-friendly feature at an art-house movie theatre.
While that may sound dull to some, the desire to consider these works like animations is a testament to their fine construction. McGuire’s lines are geometrically flawless and the scenes they build read to be almost mathematically coded. In “Elevator Love”, a man is enamored with a woman who gets lost, tragically, in a subsequent floor’s hub-bub. Cute, but look at that scene: the elevator car is a perfect rectangle, its two, sub-set rectangular doors efficiently portraying a feel of depth. Two rows of buttons on the right are balanced in turn by the opening doors, showing the outside horizon of the floor. Characters enter and leave on the diagonal, upturning the scene with subtle spatial dramatics. Or, take a look at the incrementally built spider’s web in “Spider”, or the abstract, optical illusions of “Architecture”, in which unlivable but visually arresting buildings are composed out of a tangle of compass-traced vectors. In “Taxi”, a rider grows increasingly carsick during a trip while the taxi itself loses the rigidity of its lines. By the end of the sequence, car and rider are a jumble of shapes: the car’s headlights are traced over its front fender, the steering wheel somewhere beyond the windshield, and the rider is reduced to a geometric pile on the sidewalk.
Sequential Drawings is great for what it is: a small, focused look at a relatively overlooked craft. Further, its holiday season publication will do wonders for sales: Sequential Drawings will fit into even the most modestly-sized stocking and alleviate any anxieties about the office Secret Santa. This is not the next Here by any means but a delightful and surprisingly rewarding footnote to a great cartoonist’s career.