Groensteen, Thierry. La Bande Dessinée, Mode D’Emploi. Les Impressions Nouvelles, 2007. ISBN: 9782874490415. 22 Euros.
Thierry Groensteen’s La Bande Dessinee Mode D’Emploi is unlike any book on comics I’ve read. The title, which one could roughly translate as “Comics: Instructions for Use” or “Comics Manual”, gives some indication of his goal. The book is written not as an academic treatise, like his most well known work (in the English speaking world at least) The System of Comics (a little more) (Systeme de la bande dessinée, 1999), but as a work for the student, for the lay person. In the introduction he states his goal as:
Tout en délivrant quelques rudiments d’une “culture BD”, le présent ouvrage visera d’abord à instruire l’oeil des moyens visuels que les meilleurs auteurs savent mobiliser pour faire naître le sens et l’emotion. [While delivering the basics of a “comics culture”, the present work aims first to instruct the eye in the visual means that the best authors can call upon to evoke meaning and emotion.] (8)
In this sense it is a guide for “reading comics”, one is tempted to say that this would work as a perfect title for the book, more apt than Douglas Wolk’s book of the same name, though the parallel with McCloud’s much different works might be too close. Groensteen’s book has a casualness to it that fits with these other works, but it is aware of the scholarly literature and makes use of it where necessary without getting too jargony. One could see this as a better gateway work for students to a scholarly approach to comics, offering a plethora of paths to take in studying comics.
Groensteen starts at the beginning with the format and cover. While he has an international (though primarily Western) approach throughout the book, his emphasis is, not unexpectedly, on the Franco-Belgian tradition. This emphasis is immediately apparent by his focus on “albums” and the series nature of the mainstream of that tradition. From covers and series, he moves into opening pages, page layouts, decoupage (breakdowns/sequencing), stylistic variations, composition (both in the panel and in the page), figuration, color, use of text, and much more. He structures the central section of the book into two chapters based on the ideas of reading competencies both basic and expert.
The idea of competency-based education has seemed to be increasingly prominent over the years, and it is interesting to see Groensteen’s take on comics reading competencies. He argues that, opposed to commonly held belief, there are reading skills that must be learned in order to successfully read a comic. He starts off looking at the basic skill of reading the image and the sequence, being able to piece together the parts to make the whole. A reader of comics must connect what is outside the frame to what is inside it and connect what is shown in one image to what is shown in the next, often creating hypotheses that are either proved or disproved as the reading continues. I’d argue these particular skills are not all that different than are necessary in viewing a film, though film has an easier ability to give the viewer more information in making the gaps less difficulty to close.
He strays from the focus on readers and competencies as he gets wrapped up in close readings of pages, discussing text and color use in two pages from Jimmy Corrigan or the ligne claire style and Joost Swarte. As he moves into the issue of style, Groensteen makes the valuable (and under explored) point that style in comics is more than just the way the images are drawn but includes also the framing, the layouts, and all the other decisions an artist makes in creating the comic.
Moving into the “field of expertise”, Groensteen covers the ways artist make their comics, definitions, history, stylistic genealogy, aesthetic judgement, and other issues, some of which are glossed over in a only sentence or two (such as the influence of computers). Any of these topics could birth a book of its own, but in this context, Groensteen piques the interest of the reader and offers quick examples before moving on.
This is followed by a chapter on various “registres” [styles/modes/register]: citational, comedic, “le mimique” [gestures and expressions], erotic, and political. This section is the least successful in the book, and the individual close reading are, for the most part, the least engaging. The section, unlike the others, includes no prefatory remarks on these “registres”, whether Groensteen sees these as comprehensive or merely a sampling, and how they integrate with the previous chapters. The book concludes with a chapter on the pleasures of comics where he address the pleasure of the story, the pleasure of the art, and that third pleasure which comes from the combination of the two which he calls the pleasure of the medium.
Throughout the book, Groensteen’s text is accompanied by full-page color examples of comics. While the selected artists showcase a variety of styles and genres, they are primarily Franco-Belgian in origin covering time periods from the very early creators (Topffer, Christophe) through classic creators (Peyo, Morris, Goscinny & Uderzo, Jacobs) and into more recent and contemporary artists (Moebius, Tardi, Trondheim, Blain, Guilbert, Sfar, Blutch, Baudoin, Goblet). He includes a number of English language artists (Ware, McKean, Herriman, McCay, Smith, Campbell, Crumb) and a smattering from other countries/languages (Calpurnio, Munoz, Mattotti, Crepax). It is noteworthy that only one manga example (from Kiriko Nananan) is included. As has been noted elsewhere (see Macdonald, Amanda. “Groensteen’s User’s Guide: A User’s Guide.” European Comic Art 1.2 (2008): 202-206) women comics artists are given only a small representation (Goblet, Johanna, and Nananan). Whatever the limitations of Groensteen’s range of selection from the corpus of comics as a whole, his selections are still quite broader than seen in most works of comics studies. By discussing different elements of comics through a variety of examples, Groensteen not only shows the variety of ways, for example, page layouts or visual style can work, but he also provides a kind of reading list for the interested amateur.
The use of full-page reproductions gives the read a greater context for any reading and allows Groensteen more room to discuss issues such as layouts, breakdowns, and composition that are not revealed in a single panel. He does not always make the best selections of the examples, not just in which works he discusses, but in the pages he selects from the work. His choice of a Crepax “Valentina” page, containing only three panels of a standing figure, in the section on the “erotics of drawing” seems tame on many levels considering the artist’s innovation with page layouts and reputation for images far more visually sensual (stylistically and thematically) than the selection. His selections from McKay and Herriman are also both lesser selections of each artist’s great works.
Books about comics like this, focusing not on creating comics or comics history or a specific genre or a specific artist but about reading comics in a skilled way, are in short supply (in any language, I suspect, but definitely in English). Popular works like those from McCloud or Eisner or anthologies like the Comics Studies Reader take quite different approaches to understanding comics, and works like Madden and Abel’s Drawing Words and Writing Pictures are closely directed toward aspiring comics artists. The closest work, in English, I can think of might be Ann Miller’s Reading Bande Dessinee, which has a more academic and historical focus, but does include excellent close readings of a limited number of works.
One clear bonus to this volume is how clear Groensteen’s passion for and engagement with comics comes through, an aspect so often missing from a lot of the academic literature on comics. I could see this work being a successful classroom text were it translated into English, though the lack of availability (in English) of many of the examples would be a detriment.
I wrote this review for the class I’m taking (on which, more later).