Spot-On Graphics

Sequential Drawings: The New Yorker Series     Richard McGuire     (2016)

Although I have no credentials at all as an art critic, I’m recommending this art book to you. At my local library, it’s been classified as a “graphic novel,” and that designation is apt. This is highly accessible art, in the form of little drawings that appeared in the midst of text in The New Yorker magazine between the years 2005 and 2015. Artist Richard McGuire is one of many artists whose graphic work has been used to break up intimidating pages of words in the magazine.

You may not be familiar with the format of these drawings, called “spot illustrations” or “spots” or “vignettes.” Before the digital era, when the staff of print magazines were setting up pages of text, they often used spots to accompany stories or to fill space. Luc Sante, in his introduction to Sequential Drawings, tells us that “digital composition has largely eliminated the physical need for spots . . . The New Yorker’s spot is no longer a stopgap but an attraction in its own right.” The New Yorker has separate spots that illustrate the themes of individual articles, but the sequential spots, scattered throughout the magazine, are a different breed and are especially appealing to me.

Indeed, when I attack an issue of The New Yorker, I flip through the entire magazine looking solely at the sequential spots—trying hard not to look at the cartoons, which I save for later. In recent years, The New Yorker has assigned the spots for each issue to one artist, making the sequential aspect possible. Sequential spots are unrelated to the text around them, but rather riff on a theme or story all their own. In the January 23, 2017, issue, for example, all the sequential spots, by Tomi Um, showed one or more persons in a protest march.

Richard McGuire has collected 29 of his sequences, including cover and front matter drawings, in this thick but tiny book. Each drawing has its own page, inviting pauses for inspection, but on my first pass through I couldn’t wait to turn the pages. Some of the sequences are collections—of wire in various shapes, of bird cages, of frozen things. Others have some level of narrative, either explicit (a harrowing ride in a “Taxi”) or implicit (a day in the life of a “Pigeon”).

Among my favorite sequences is “Scenes from a Table,” nine drawings of the four mainstays of tabletops in diners: ketchup, mustard, salt, and pepper. In one drawing, McGuire places a diner patron’s soggy teabag next to the pepper. In another, he shows the four main objects overpowered by the presence of a towering ice cream soda, complete with cherry and two straws. The four objects cower when coffee spills at their feet. In three of the spots, the ketchup bottle has its cap askew and slightly globbed; in another spot ol’ ketchup has pitiful drips down its side; in yet another it is standing upside down, presumably so that a patron can extract the last of its contents. In the final spot of this series, the four objects are partially reflected in a bowl of soup, doubling their authority.

In the sequence “Noise Upstairs,” a man reading quietly in his apartment is assaulted by various loud noises from the apartment above, depicted by giant shoes or giant mouths or giant record players. When the poor man finally gets up the courage to tap ever so lightly on his ceiling with a broom handle, he gets even more horrendous noise. The introduction to Sequential Drawings tells me that there are echoes of the German Expressionists in this sequence of drawings. That may be. I just see McGuire wordlessly but hilariously portraying the predicament of living below a boorish neighbor. 

Words cannot capture the magic of this book. I can see a case for buying it rather than borrowing it from the library. You could pass it around at a holiday gathering, to lure family members off their phones. And after everyone has had a chance to peruse the book, maybe you could carefully cut out a sequence of drawings and frame them.

This is a bonus Sunday post on the Cedar Park Blog.