The System of Comics by Thierry Groensteen (1999). Translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. U of Mississippi Press, 2007.
If McCloud’s Understanding Comics has been considered the de facto comics theory book in the United States, it probably stems from the distinct lack of such theoretical/formal examinations of comics in English. While historical approaches to comics and various re-earthings of past figures or comics proliferate, the dearth of more formal investigations is disheartening. Much praise is due to Bart Beaty, Nick Nguyen, and University of Mississippi Press for offering one attempt to counter this lack, a readable and much needed translation of Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics. Originally published in French in 1999, Groensteen’s book is a theoretical look at comics as a system of interworking parts, which is not only engaging and enlightening but also inspiring to comics reader and creator alike.
I read the French edition back in 2005, and you can read my summary of it, which two readings in English has not significantly altered. Beaty and Nguyen’s translation codifies some translations of specific terminology I had trouble with, including Groensteen’s main ideas of iconic solidarity, arthrology, and braiding. Going back through the whole book and repeating what I already said seems needlessly involved, so I’m only going to add some supplemental comments to what I said in my previous review.
1. It struck me much more in this reading how part of Groensteen’s program is to showcase the close reading of comics through the formal apparatus. This isn’t to say he ignores the content (that is the iconic value of the images), but that he uses the formal elements as a lead in and a guiding point.
2. The idea of the spatio-topia is more clear to me now. In discussing comics’ iconic solidarity, that is, the images interdependence, the spatio-topia deals with the spaces (that is panels, word balloons, etc, the areas of the comic) and the places (that is location on a a page or other frame) of the images. The concept of arthrology deals with the way one image relates to another, either linearly in the case of restricted arthrology or as a network in the case of general arthrology.
3. Groensteen brings up the kind of iconic comics page that ones sees in drawings, a page with a number of rectangular panels drawn on it, and notes his feeling that this type of image represent the implicit definition of a comic, images in relation to each other on a space.
4. To describe a panel he uses three parameters: form (the shape of the panel), area (the size), and site (the location), all of which bear some relation on how the panel relates to other panels.
5. Again I am struck by his brief discussion of margins and how little that area is used.
6. He posits six functions of the frame exerted upon the contents of the panel: closure, separative, rhythmic, structural, expressive, and readerly.