Reading Bande Dessinee by Ann Miller

Miller, Ann. Reading Bande Dessinée: Critical Approaches to French-language Comic Strip. Intellect, 2007. ISBN: 9781841501772.

Somehow I missed this book when it came out. It’s a kind of textbook for students and general readers on reading comics and the history of bande dessinée in particular. The book as a whole is quite good, covering a wide area though, because of this, occasionally lacking in depth. I’ll admit I didn’t read the whole book. There were sections I skimmed. Miller covers history, followed by a variety of approaches to comics: formal analysis, cultural studies, nationalism, gender, autobiography, psychoanalysis. I read the parts I’m interested in and skimmed the others.

Miller’s first section covers the history of Franco-Belgian bande dessinée (bd) in just under 60 pages. Through these pages, a variety of facets of history are discussed: from the still disputed origins of the form through the blossoming of more mature works in the 70s to the independents of the 90s and subsequent co-optation of same. Individual publications and creators are placed in the context of their importance to the development of bd. Issues of censorship, public opinion, and the struggle to earn bd a sense of legitimacy are traced across the decades as are the rise(fall) of various genres, publishing houses, and critical enterprises. For me, it filled in a lot of context that has been missing from various other readings I’ve done (for instance, it gave context to the dispute a few years ago when the name Futuropolis was taken up by a large publisher).

I’m not aware of any other English language books that cover this history [1] (Bart Beaty’s book, as I recall, focuses more on recent decades), so on that alone this can serve as an introduction and gateway for further exploration of bd. Though, with most of the work mentioned not available in English (and most of the rest of it out-of-print in English), a non-French reader may not get far past this book.

The second section of the book explicates three “analytical frameworks” for bd: “The codes and formal resources of bd”, “narrative theory and bd”, and “bd as Postmodernist Art Form.” The first two of these were right up my alley. In each Miller uses a single work as the primary example to discuss the codes and narrative in bd.

The chapter (5) on codes starts with a very brief introduction to Saussurean semiology and the idea of encoded meaning. For comics, the codes include such elements are composition, breakdowns, style, and various text-image interactions (i.e. word balloons). The ideas of metonymy and metaphor in comics are noted. Miller quotes the French critic Fresnault-Deruelle as calling comics a “metonymic machine.” Conventional tropes of comics such as speedlines, beads of sweat (plewds), and many other emanata act as metonyms for larger concepts. I think we could even consider the pared down iconic drawing style of many comics as a form of metonymy. Similar many other conventions are more metaphors than metonyms, the first example that comes to mind is the light bulb thought balloon that represents an idea.

Miller moves into a more specific discussion of the codes Groensteen discusses in System of Comics: the spatio-topical code (layout), restricted arthrology (breakdowns), general arthrology (braiding). Much of this is familiar territory (to me at least, having read Groensteen’s book), more a review than new insight. One thing that stuck me anew, is Benoit Peeters’ (whose work Miller also references frequently here) term perichamp (perifield), which concerns the way the reader of a comic is always aware of what exists outside the single panel they are currently reading. This idea has come up recently in discussions of how one actually reads a comic.

Using the primary example of Baru’s L’Autoroute du Soleil [2], Miller uses concrete examples (and a decent number of reproduced pages) for the ideas under discussion: covering layout, composition, style, “angle of viewing”, transitions, braiding, color, text-image interaction (including discussion of Barthes’ relay and anchorage), and more. The chapter is an instructive example of analysis, too rarely seen.

This is the rare English language book which allows a view of comics theory involving both the McCloud/Eisner touchstones with the wide variety of French language work that is much less often referenced in English. As such it deserves wider recognition, as a vehicle for generating interest is these other theories and works (and perhaps even more translations of these works).

The following chapter looks at narrative theory in comics, primarily using the example of Andre Juillard’s The Blue Notebook (which is available in English from NBM). This chapter takes up Genette’s theories (primarily, in English at least, in Narrative Discourse and Narrative Discourse Revisited). Miller covers Genette’s duration, mode, and voice in relation to literary texts, before discussing similar issues related to films in the work of Jost and Gaudreault. I’ve used some of these ideas (focalization and ocularization) in my article on point of view in comics.

Miller takes these two fields (literary and filmic narratology) and synthesizes the application of the concepts to comics. This is a necessarily abbreviated synthesis, as it is not the focus of the book and she is focused primarily on the appearance of these concepts in a single work. Her choice of The Blue Notebook does allow for a range of discussions, as the structure of the book is relatively rich, particularly in its use of retellings of the same events through two different focalizations.

I wish I’d read this section before I wrote the point of view article linked above. It took me awhile to get to the Jost’s idea of “ocularization,” by way of various film articles, and here it is in a book about comics. Alas.

I should make note of the concept of “transsemioticization” borrowed from Jost and Gaudreault (whose book on narration and monstration (showing) in film, I’m reading now). The easiest way to explain what this is, is through an example Miller uses. The second chapter of The Blue Notebook is narrated through the written diary of one of the protagonists. This starts out as narrative captions, but, instead of actually writing out all the text of the diary, Juillard, for most of the content, switches to just showing what the diary is narrating. That is, the narration has been shifted from written language to visual representation, it has been transsemioticized (that’s a mouthful). This is a not uncommon practice in comics (and film), both with diegetically written narration (like the diary) as well as narration that is more clearly “spoken” (a character in the narrative is narrating a story within the story).

There is some nice discussion and examples of “subject images” in The Blue Notebook: that is, images which are partially or wholly in the mind of a character. Also, the idea of “flaunting” ellipses in panel transitions is something I’ve rarely seen discussed (though, more on that at a later date).

The final chapter in the first section discusses postmodernism, intertextuality, and metafiction in relation to comics. This section didn’t strike me with any particular revelations, though the subjects discussed are ones I read a good deal about in the past (in relation to literature at least).

Sections three (“A Cultural Studies Approach to Bd”) and four (“Bd and Subjectivity”) take up various works in discussion of issues such as nationality, post-colonialism, class, gender, autobiography, and psychoanalysis. This is where my interest drifted, as I’m not particularly engaged by any of these issues specifically (as you may have noticed in this blog, my interests are primarily formal right now). Here, Miller writes brief essays on these issues in relation to specific works. Among others topics include: Tardi and national identity (in light of his World War I works), Larcenet’s Ordinary Victories and Algeria, Dupuy and Berberian’s Monsieur Jean and class, psychoanalytic approaches to Tintin, Trondheim and autobiography, and Doucet and Satrapi in relation to gender and autobiography.

What I read of these sections were interesting, though I focused on parts about works I’m familiar with (Larcenet and Algeria). The Tintin/psychoanalysis chapter lost me very quickly, despite having read two of the books she discusses (Peeter’s Bijoux Ravis and McCarthy’s Tintin and the Secret of Literature). That could be as much (more?) my fault as the writing’s.

Overall, this is an engaging book, and like a good introductory textbook-like volume, it leads the interested reader in many directions to many possible next readings. Miller has clearly done her research, the bibliography is impressive and offers a wealth of books, articles, and comics (many of which, I’m sure I’ll have trouble tracking down in the US). As a whole it lacks any real overarching argument, which makes it very easy to pick and choose sections of interest. Highly recommended for those interested in learning more about bd or about ways to discuss/write about comics in general.

Nitpicking 1: “Critical Approaches to French-language Comic Strip.” Strip? Really? In the singular? Not to mention that she primarily focuses on longer works which aren’t generally referred to as comic strips. I wonder is those odd English locution is somehow a result of “bande dessinée” being in the singular.

Nitpicking 2: Miller consistently refers to “thinks” balloons instead of “thought” balloons. I’ve never heard the former used. Is it a British-ism? Only 600 results in Google and most of them seem to be what people think about balloons. Though there is one Bryan Talbot interview where he uses the term. Miller’s book (in Google Books) is result four. I’m skeptical of widespread usage.

[1] Actually, I’m not aware of book about American comics that has this kind of overarching history either.

[2] Oddly enough, this is a work Baru made in Japan for the publisher Kodansha, part of the same program that lead to Baudoin’s Le Voyage, which I recently reviewed.