Case, Planche, Recit

In the first paragraph of this essay on McCloud’s Reinventing Comics and Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan, Belgian theorist Jan Baetens writes:

For many readers, the analysis of the medium proposed by the first book has always seemed a little simplistic, and not really up-to-date. McCloud’s work had already been accomplished by several other theoreticians, for example by Thierry Groensteen in Bande Dessinee: Recit et Modernite (Paris: Futuropolis, 1987) and Benoit Peeters in Case, Planche, Recit (Paris/Tournai: Casterman, 1991). Although McCloud put his message in a pleasant ars poetica form based upon a certain coincidence of showing and telling – the essay on comics is a comic book itself – there was not much to learn about the language of comics in Understanding Comics.

Baetens goes on to focus on McCloud’s Reinventing Comics (which I never did finish reading when it came out), but this first paragraph made me curious, how had Groensteen (who I had just read a bit of in Oupus 1) and Peeters already covered the same ground. Lucky for me I can read French and my library can get me just about anything. Peeter’s Case, Planche, Recit: Comment lire une bande dessinee (roughly: Panel, Page, Story: How to read comics) came in first accompanied by Groensteen’s tiny La Bande Dessinnee, une litterature graphique, a nice French introduction to comics that provided a much needed glossary of comics terms (my French-English dictionary is mute on them and a few have been problematic for me).

Anyway Peeters’ book is an interesting work, though it is rather slim in content. He accompanies his writing with lots of examples by way of panels and pages of comics from a variety of creators, though Herge’s Tintin makes the most appearances by far (not surprisingly) followed closely by McCay’s Nemo.

I’m not going to go through the whole book, rather I’m just pulling out the things that interested me the most and seemed to fit in with related ideas I’ve been thinking or posting about. For starters, I don’t think this book accomplishes the same things as Understanding Comics. While both books address some of the same elements of comics, they look at them in different ways, and, for the most part, cover different concepts completely. So, I’ll leave off that comparison for another time (after I see Groensteen’s book and reread McCloud’s perhaps).

Peeters looks at the relation of comics panels to painting and film. Taking a page from Andre Bazin: paintings are framed to separate themselves from the world, the wall around it; film is unframed, connecting the image we see to the rest of the world that is out of view. Comics panels are somewhere in between: they are cut off as single entities, enframed, yet they are also part of a continuity, only a single view of a larger world (the next panel and the next panel). Each panel is not its own entity, it requires a recall to the previous panel and a forward look to the next panel. Unlike a temporally frozen painting and a continuously forward flowing film, comics panels are somewhere in between, both a moment in time and part of a flow of movement.

In this section Peeters does briefly mention something similar to what McCloud calls closure, the mind’s filling in of actions between the panels. He uses a page from Herge where Captain Haddock’s falling from a airplane boarding ramp is elided from a panel of him running up it (unconnected to a plane) through one of Tintin warning him to a panel of them on a plane with Haddock getting some first aid. Peeters says: “It is the skillful construction of the scene and the memory of other albums which leads one to create what could be named a “phantom panel”, a virtual image constructed entirely by the reader.” (27, my translation).

He then looks at a few examples of pages that have continuous backgrounds across the panels (i.e. three panels of Tintin where the background is one fragmented image of mountains) but the foreground images change in a different way. For instance: a Little Nemo 6 panel strip with a continuous background of NYC but an almost identical foreground in each panel of Nemo and company on what I think is the basket of some kind of blimp/balloon. Its an odd juxtaposition that seems normal until one thinks about it.

Peeters goes on to look at the “découpage and mise en page”, that is the way the panels are organized in sequence to create a narrative and the way they are organized on a page. He enumerates a few different ways of organizing pages based on the “dominance of the story or image” and the the element of autonomy or dependence between the story and image. I can’t say I’m completely clear on these things, but the organization styles he looks at are worth thinking about.

Conventional: This is the very conventional organization of panels into strips (in this case usually 4) on the page, originating in the way the pages had to be easily reformatted for use in newspapers (with panels of all the same height it’s easier to take the 4 strips and make 2 longer strips, or more shorter ones). He provides a beautiful page by Hugo Pratt that uses this layout (4 rows of 3 panels each) with a repetition of image (mostly moment-to-moment transition) to create a wonderfully subtle conversation scene.

Decorative: The visual design of the page overrides the narrative. A not very good example from a Burne Hogarth Tarzan strip. (It is interesting here to note, because I noticed it in this passage, that Peeters differentiates between “bande dessinée” and “comics”, that is between European and American works, actually using “comics” in English.)

Rhetorical: In this style the panels are organization to best work in conjunction with the narrative. Peeters’ example is a three panel sequence from Herge of a man slipping on something and almost falling over. The first panel is proportionally thin and tall, fitting the standing figure of the man. The section panel shows him beginning to slip, his body is at angle and the panel is wider to accommodate the figure. In the third panel, the man’s arms and legs are spread as he fights to maintain his balance. The panel is wider than the second one, square actually now that the the points of the man’s four limbs spread out also form a square. He notes that Herge also uses very large panels in cases where the scene is very important or very complex.

Productive: A case where the layout of the panels motivates the narrative. Much discussion of McCay and Little Nemo here. The pictured strip features a 4 column strip with 2 panels in each column. The panels change height in each column and the characters stretch to fit the panel like in a funhouse mirror.

He looks at a few other mise-en-page examples such as Régis Franc’s where the page consist of three tall panels inside of which there are three different levels of narrative going. The background, midground, and foreground each have their own word balloons. This creates the possible for multiple readings: the word balloons for the background come at the top of the page and could be read across, followed by the midground balloons across the middle, and then the foreground ones at the bottom. Yet looking at the page another way, one would start with the foreground of the first panel, forcing one to read up (foreground, midground, background). The almost necessity of going back and forth on this page also slows down narrative (and real) time, something which can be tricky with comics.

The next section looks at a few examples of the organization of panels and images for the reader to move through the page. More from Herge on always having his characters running from left to right so that they follow the same movement of the reader’s eye. A bit on Verbeek’s famous strips that are read first rightside up and then upside down (like the Oubapo did in Oupus 3). He also discusses Nogegon by Francois and Luc Shuiten a 72 page comic that is palindromic. Its not like those from Oupus 3, but rather the panel layouts are reversed, the images in the panels are altered versions from one half to the other, and the dialogue has the opposite meaning (in the example two pages, one panel’s “The brute, throwing me out!” is countered by “You won’t throw me out?”, or one’s “Out!” is countered by “Come!”).

Peeters fourth section looks at the relation of images and words in comics, starting out with Topffer, he who is generally credited as the inventor of modern comics. In 1837 Topffer, speaking of his book Monsieur Jabot, says (my translation):

This book is of a mixed nature. It is composed of a series of line drawings. Each of these drawings is accompanied by one or two lines of text. The drawings, without this text, would only have an obscure significance; the text, with the drawings, would signify nothing. As a whole it forms a sort of novel. (73)

In the earliest Little Nemo and Tintin comics, text appeared below the images to explain the goings-on in the image before the form we know today was adopted. Both McCay and Herge moved to a much more visual style, the latter claimed to view his comics as a film, visual in nature, using text for dialogue, sound, and only for captions when absolutely necessary (like to mark time). On the other hand there is the Hal Foster Prince Valiant style of using greater amounts of text to accompany more illustrative images. Peeters interprets Foster’s method as a way of making the story historic and distant in time.

Further styles of text/image interaction are discussed and pictured, including silent comics that use illustrated word balloons, transforming the words into images, and comics that need narrative text to bridge the disparity between the sequence of images (those that jump around in time, place, and subject unclearly). Using an page from Barney et la note bleue by Loustal and Paringaux he also notes the way text and image can take two different narrative paths through the same story, and how the text can say what the images cannot (smell, sounds, thoughts). Another example could be the mix of image and words used in the Chris Ware story I posted about the other day.

Another example from Regis Franc shows us a interweaving of narration, foreground dialogue, and background dialogue that creates the story through its combination.

Peeters’ last section discusses the interaction of comics authors and artists, a section I’m not interested in enough to go through again. All in all it is quite an interesting book that shows a great number of ways comics can be done.