Systeme de la bande dessinee

Systeme de la bande dessinée by Thierry Groensteen. Presses Universitaires de France, 1999.

Groensteen is a member of the Oubapo and a prolific comics theorist, or rather theorist of the bande dessinée. This volume is a long look at the form of comics. I can’t imagine easily summarizing it all. Groensteen’s endeavors to show comics as an organic system of many elements working in conjunction. While systems are often of dubious validity or use, Groensteen, in his elaboration, does offer much food for thought. Having read this book, similarly to both McCloud’s Understanding Comics and Peeters’ Case Planche Recit, I will look and create comics with newfound insight and depth. Each author, in different and overlapping ways, exposes some of the workings of comics.

I probably read this book a little too fast. It’s due back at the library soon (its from another university’s collection so I can’t keep it long); I had to breeze through some of the sections to focus more closely on the one’s that interested me. Groensteen draws upon narratology, film theory, a wealth of other comics theory (mostly French), and of course specific comics (once again Hergé wins out as most referenced and Watchmen comes in second) throughout the book. He occasionally slips too far into abstraction for my taste, but he always comes back around to concrete examples (sadly the illustrations are not very well reproduced, they deserve better). I lost a lot of the bigger points while focusing on the smaller ones. Alas, someday I’ll have to come back and read it again.

For now, I’ll try to lay-out the key points (in my opinion/interest):

1. Solidarité iconique (Iconic interdependence): Instead of flat out trying to define comics, Groensteen goes through a number of previous attempts and then offers what he sees as the basis of a definition to cover the whole range of the medium/form (though, like McCloud’s definition in Understanding Comics this does exclude single panel cartoons (personally, I don’t care, never into them, and I see them as illustration more than comics)): iconic interdependence. What he means here is interdependence among a number of images, which comes in the form of:

…les images qui, participant d’une suite, présentent la double caractéristique d’être séparées… et d’être plastiquement et sémantiquement surdéterminées par le fait même de leur coexistence in praesentia. (21)

[…images which, participating in a suite, present the double characteristic of being separate and being formally and semantically overdetermined by the fact of their coexistence in praesentia.] (my trans.)

2. Groensteen’s main divisions in the book are based on what he calls “le spatio-topie” which concerns elements of space and place such as the mise en page (the layout/organization of the page), the location of word balloons and other text, and “arthrologie” (a neologism from the Greek arthton (articulation)) which deals with relations between the various images. Arthrologie is divided into “arthrologie restreinte” (confined/restricted) concerning linear relations and “arthrologie générale” which is translinear or distant relations.

3. Taklng up the “spatio-topie” he notes the way the location of a panel on a page can be used for visual/narrative effect, particularly the “privileged” locations of the upper left panel and the lower right panel, the first and last images of any two page spread. For example, a sequence in a Tintin book where a character is entering a building at the end of a spread and the reader turns the page to see the character enter the building.

4. In discussing the use of margins, he points out the way a black margin can reclaim white as a color, rather than, in the case of the common white margin, white being simply an absence.

5. Many of Groensteen’s sections just make note of possibilities (often underused) such as the compositional arrangement of double pages rather than concentrating on a single page. Think of the power of the layouts in Promethea where much attention is paid to the double page spread.

In examining the panel he notes the expressive possibilities of an irregular organization. Guido Crepax uses non-rectangular, non-square panels without parallel sides or right angles to express moments of eroticism or violence. (One can see this in manga.) Also, the line that draws the panel frame can function as “instructions for reading” on the contents (for instance a kind of thought balloon panel frame that represents a dream).

6. “…un cadre est toujours l’indice d’un quelque-chose-à-lire. Lorsqu’il rencontre a cadre, le lecteur est tenu de présupposer qu’il y a là, à la interieur du périmetre tracé, un contenu à déchiffrer. Le cadre est toujours une invitation à s’arrêter et à scruter.” (64)

[A panel/frame is always the indication of something-to-read. When meeting a panel/frame, the reader is obliged to suppose that there is, in the interior of the frame, content to decipher. The panel/frame is always an invitation to stop and scrutinize.]

I wonder if this could relate to the pictureless comic concept.

Under this same concept, panels can be used to force the reader to pay attention to something that might otherwise be passed over, a blatant example being the use of an internal panel inside a larger image to focus attention on a specific part of the larger image. Or the breaking up of a larger image into separate panels.

7. “Strips”, that is a sequence of panels of the same height juxtaposed on the same horizontal plane (like comic strips), are considered as an intermediate entity between the panel and the page. I never thought about it that way, tending to skip that intermediate level, but in most American/European comics the strip is persistent in its appearance (the traditional 9 panel page is clearly three strips of three panels). Groensteen considers how the strips on a page can be considered their own entities and how, for instance, their separateness can be created through large “between strip” gutters and the placing word balloons at the top of the panels (creating a kind of buffer zone between the two levels of images). The reader’s move from the end of one strip to the beginning of the next, a jump back across the width of the page) can also be used as a rhythmic device (like the lines of poetry, a great comics example being Matt Madden’s sestina comic in A Fine Mess 2). He also posits a correspondence of the different lengths of silence in music to the different kinds of gutters/margins of comics: the “entr’images” (between-images), “entr’strips” (between-strips), and the “entr’planches” (between-pages), another rhythmic potential to be explored, one that is obvious on it being pointed out, but not something one usual considers. (Example further: Jacques Tardi’s “C’etait la guerre des tranchées” (It was the war of the trenches) which is described as a kind of tercet through its invariable use of three strips on each page, each strip being of equal height and consisting of only a single page-wide panel.)

8. Word balloons and captions: Groensteen notes the tension between the images, attempting to represent a three-dimensional space, and the balloons, clearly and unabashedly two-dimensional. I have seen comics (I forgot who but I want to saw Dave McKean (perhaps in Cages?)) where the word balloons seem to emit directly from the mouth of the speaker, the “tail” (what are those things called? In French it is “flêche” (arrow)) of the balloon going into the mouth. This strategy makes the words seem more physical, more inside the image rather than floating on top. A few mentions of different styles of balloons and different ways they have been used (Sienkiewicz colored the balloons by speaker in Stray Toasters, while in Big Numbers he used all perfectly circular balloons (Note to self, write about Big Numbers)) including variations of outline, shape, size, color.

9. Examining the way comics make narratives, the issue of retroactive determination raises its head. In reading comics images/panels are often indetermined narratively until a future panel puts the image/panel in context. Images are put into context both from what proceeds them and what follows them (and not necessarily the immediately preceding or following ones).

10. Tressage (braiding, weaving). Groensteen explicates his concept of tressage, the way panels (that is the images in the panels) can be linked in series (continuous or discontinuous) through non-narrative correspondences, be it iconic (repetition of certain symbols or elements) or other means. In a way this is a kind of rhyming for comics. The reader gets to a panel and something in it recalls a previous panel (or panels). One of Groensteen’s examples involves the use of the yellow smiley-face in Watchmen. This is something I’ve never seen articulated before in regards to comics, and having a way to name it makes it that much easier to think about.

This also relates to the idea of comics as being often about rereading/relooking. Each image’s context and narrative drive is created through the relation to previous and suceeding panels. This means having the other panels in mind while one is looking at the current panel. Similarly the way one can see the whole page at once and then look at the first panel, an element of “reading ahead”. This normality of discontinuous reading is something that makes comics rather different than other types of narrative.

11. There’s more in this book than I can deal with right now. Let this serve as a few starting points of interest and consideration. I hope this resume at least shows how this type of writing about comics differs from what we see in English (unless I’ve missed it, if so let me know, I’d certainly find it much easier reading this stuff in my native language).