By Derek Royal
In his seminal work, The System of Comics (2007, originally published as Systéme de la bande dessinée in 1999), Thierry Groensteen laid out his foundations for a comprehensive understanding of comics and how they work. His text is primarily centered around what the author refers to as “spatio-topia” (the role of space and placement on a comics page) and “arthrology,” or the relations inherent in iconic solidarity (i.e., interactions among images, visual composition within panels, meaning generated through the multiframe, and the significance of page layout, or mise-en-page). As he states in his opening pages, System is largely based on Saussurean semiotics, to the point that the author even admits that his is a “neo-semiotic” approach. Groensteen’s initial study is fascinating and ambitious, although its rhetoric and style are, at times, not the most inviting. Some of the readability issue may be due to the text’s theoretical bent, but part of the problem may be due to Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen’s translation. I would guess that one of the biggest challenges in being true to the original would be handling the differences between French and English sentence constructions, especially as they relate to rather complex and dense critical matters.
Concerns of readability are not really an issue in Groensteen’s latest book, Comics and Narration, his followup to System (and referred to throughout as Systéme de la bande dessinée 2). Indeed, this text, translated by Ann Miller — steeped in the field herself and the author of Reading Bande Dessinée: Critical Approached to French-lange Comic Strip (Intellect, 2007) — is the logical next step from System in that Groensteen addresses more overt issues concerning narratology. If his previous text helped to explain the way comics worked, the foundational system of the medium, then Comics and Narration goes on to explain the ways in which comics speak. As Groensteen puts it in his introduction, “where the first volume described the foundations and the major articulations of the system, its particular architecture and dynamic, this volume is more concerned to analyze the uses to which it may be put” (5). And as the author also points out early on in his text, there has been relatively little critical study on narratology within comics studies. As becomes clear in the middle chapters of the book, the classic narrative theory so strongly anchored to prose fiction (e.g., that of Gérard Genette, Tzvetan Todorov, and Seymour Chatman) is not as pliable or as applicable when it comes to a visually based medium. What’s more, discussions of narration in film studies do not necessarily apply in the same way to forms that are more space-reliant and sequentially based. Groensteen’s present study takes account of these challenges, and the result is a cogent and persuasive account of the mechanisms underlying comics storytelling.
The core of Comics and Narration is its treatment of the narrator, character subjectivity, rhythm in comics, and the author’s further insights into sequentiality. These sections are certainly the text’s high points, and they prove to be the most useful and discerning found in this study. However, Groensteen addresses other issues that, while not being as immediately pertinent to comics and narrative theory, are nonetheless significant in the overall scope of his project. Some of the topics he raises — the place of abstract, or what Groensteen calls infranarrative, comics; the impact and functioning of manga; the growing prominence of digital comics; and the relationship between comics and contemporary art — are intriguing, but they stand apart from his investigation into narrative strategies. One gets the feeling that Groensteen is attempting to do two general things in Comics and Narration: first, to address several theoretical issues he didn’t cover in The System of Comics (thus, referring to the current text as Systéme de la bande dessinée 2), and second, to provide a cohesive introduction to the narratology of comics. These two impulses aren’t mutually exclusive, but they do strike me as contributing to a slightly bifurcated text. Regarding the former, discussing topics not addressed in the previous book, Groensteen is upfront about and completely aware of these intentions. As he makes clear in the opening chapters of Comics and Narration, he attempts to use the current study to incorporate more non-Franco-Belgian comics, take into account American theorists/critics such as Scott McCloud and Douglas Wolk, address the proliferation of digital comics, and place his analyses within a broader art/cultural context. (To his credit, Groensteen does indeed bring in more non-European comics as illustrations to his analyses, although the number of examples and the creators addressed are limited. Chris Ware and Robert Crumb are the only U.S. creators given any significant treatment, an indication of the restrictiveness or possible “elitism” inherent in the study…and by far, Groensteen isn’t the only scholar to dismiss, directly or indirectly, mainstream comics publishing.)
Where Comics and Narration thrives, and where you can find arguably its most insightful contribution to comics studies, is Groensteen’s discussion of visuals, sequentiality, and narration, specifically chapters 5 and 6, “The Question of the Narrator” and “The Subjectivity of the Character.” Of particular service is his breakdown of the concept of narrator as it relates to comics. Here, Groensteen distinguishes between the monstrating function and the reciting function. The former is “the instance responsible for the rendering into drawn form” that which is told, a level of enunciation that shows visually what is being revealed by the narrating instance (86). The reciter, on the other hand, is more like a voice-over. This narrative function is responsible for revealing through words the action or context of the story, and as such, is the text-based equivalent of, or companion to, the monstrator. Groensteen then subsumes both of these narrative instances into a higher source narrator, where this larger and more abstract presence — the orchestrator behind the telling of the story — delegates the actions of the monstrator and reciter, that which can be visually represented and that which is revealed through text. Framed in this way, the mechanisms of narration in comics become more complex and can be linked to issues of focalization, character perspective, subjectivity and psychological states, and the rendering of space into time (or rhythm). Indeed, the penultimate chapter, “The Rhythm of Comics,” aptly combines much of the analysis found in The System of Comics with the insights into narration provided in the previous two chapters. It is perhaps in this way, more than any other, that Comics and Narration truly picks up from where the earlier study left off.
Karin Kukkonen suggests toward the beginning of her new book, Contemporary Comics Storytelling (the topic of a future review), that the more formalistic or semiotic approach to comics analysis can be limiting and doesn’t take into account fully the role of the reader in creating meaning. While this may be true to a point, there is no denying that the work of Thierry Groensteen is a vital starting point for any serious and systematic study of comics. With Comics and Narration, Groensteen provides us with a necessary tool for deciphering the ways in which comics tells stories, why they resonate, and the scaffolding behind that resonance.
See Comics and Narration as well as the other books discussed in this review: