Comics and Narration by Thierry Groensteen

Comics and Narration
Thierry Groensteen
trans. Ann Miller

I picked up this book having struggled with The System of Comics translated by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. While I loved the direct analysis of that book, much of it was difficult to understand. Part of that was just due to reading theory; it takes some time to get into someone else’s mode of thought and terminology. But part of it was due to the stilted sentence structures and odd choices of words. So I was surprised to find Comics and Narration so readable. Sure, there were complicated ideas and I had to slow down and even reread passages at times, but by and large the book was engaging. I even found myself charmed by the tone, something I would never say about the previous book. So this begs the question: did Groensteen’s writing get better or is Ann Miller a much better translater than Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen? My French is too elementary for me to know for sure, but comments Groensteen has made on-line (see comments here) point to the latter. Melissa Loucks and the writer at Critical Takes also think this.

That being said, this book is an extension of The System of Comics, so a working knowledge of that book is necessary to engage with this book. One drawback to that is that it makes this book feel like a series of appendices more than a solid entity at times. Still, Groensteen’s ruminations of narration and rhythm are insightful. What I always appreciate about Groensteen is that he grounds his theory in an analysis of actual texts and his ultimate goal is how his theory can be practically applied to actual texts.

Like Barabra Postema, Groensteen states that a single panel “can evoke a story” (23). Yet he sides more with Scott McCloud in further stating that a single panel cannot be a narration, since, by definition, a narration needs a beginning and an end. Still, he discusses comics relationship to time and that sequence creates a sense of time and that the gutters leave space for the reader to fill in. This may not sound like anything new, but Groensteen breaks things down even further into shown, intervened, and signified. These categories indicate the level of engagement of the reader. The shown is what is exists in the panel or “that which the monstrator displays to us” (37). The intervened is what the reader assumes to have happened between panels (38). As Groensteen implies, the length of the intervened can create rhythm. He offers a page by Jason (on page 150) in which the intervened is mostly just the back and forth between two characters talking, while the last panel offers a longer intervened time. So the final panel introduces a new rhythm, and so a new scene. Lastly, signified, as I understand it, seems a bit like connotation. It is when what is shown is not literal, but figurative. The image alludes to an idea or feeling. We might call this a visual metaphor or symbol. The example Groensteen uses is on the cover of the book and on page 49. In it, Jimmy Corrigan turns into a child while talking to his mother. Neither is he literally a child, nor is his mother literally standing next to him. Yet the conversation evokes these feelings and memories for Jimmy. This idea that Jimmy is remembering a previous time with his mother and therefor feels childlike and helpless is signified by the images (39). Groensteen’s overall point with this is to give us a new way of ascertaining “artistic achievement” (41). Stories that simply show and in which the intervened is simple to deduce from the shown are more simplistic works. Works that engage the reader further and make us try to understand the signified are more complex works.

As I quoted above, in this book Groensteen employs the terms monstrator and monstration first coigned by André Gaudreault. I’m excited by this because I too have taken to using monstration. However, I avoid the term monstrator, because I want to get away from the linguistic obsession with who makes the utterance. For me, narration is what is told and monstration is what is shown. I don’t care who the narrator is (unless it’s important for the story). Groensteen, however, is concerned with enunciation and so the monstrator decides what to show and the monstration is the effect of that decision (86). Furthermore, Groensteen makes the monstrator a subset of the narrator. For him, the narrator is the “high[est] enunciating source” (94). The narrator then selects what is told and what is shown, in the roles of the reciter and the monstrator. So Groensteen’s theory is couched firmly in structuralism. While I personally don’t wish to use these terms, they do allow Groensteen to theorize about the various roles the two play, which he discusses on pages 90-95.

The other major theme in this book, which I briefly mentioned above, is rhythm. Groensteen mostly discusses panel layout, but also considers how words affect rhythm. While I liked this, I wished that he had gone further. Layout creates rhythm of course, but so does the relative visual density of the panels. So does the amount of time in the intervened. As I showed above, Groensteen hints at this possibility. Again, the fact the Jason chooses to end his page with a panel that implies a longer space of intervened time creates a change in rhythm to the end of the page. If Groensteen didn’t say this explicitly, he pointed the way. In other words, he has invited us to continue where he left off, which is one of the great gifts of well-written theory.

Overall, I’m glad this book exists. First, it proves to us English readers that Groensteen can be an accessible writer. It also gives us new modes of analysis and jumping off points for our own theorizing. Comics and Narration is both useful and inspiring.