Category: comics theory

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.

Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments

Barbara Postema, Narrative Structure in Comics: Making Sense of Fragments

Barbara Postema organizes her book about making sense of comics the way I was imagining organizing my own hypothetical one. She starts with single panels, then moves on to the relationships between panels, then the whole page, and finally the sequence of pages. Basically, she starts with the smallest elements of comics and then moves up in size. Her goal is to examine how these various elements function, but she doesn’t seem interested in developing some grand theory full of neologisms, as Thierry Groensteen does in The System of Comics. This makes for a book that is fairly accessible on the one hand, but a little unclear about its goals on the other.

The main focus of every chapter is Postema’s analysis of specific comics and I think this analysis is what may be most useful to people. If you want some more insight into The Golem’s Mighty Swing or Shutterbug Follies, then you may enjoy this book. Postema is a careful reader and exhaustively describes elements of the comics she discusses. This is a strength, though I also found it to be a bit tedious at times. In some instances, the descriptions are of factual details in an image and so seem redundant when paired with the very image she describes. Also, these long descriptions sometimes lack a clearly stated point in the beginning, so that one has to slog through a few pages to see what Postema is getting at. Still, she makes many insightful comments and I enjoy how she weaves in other theorists, such as Barthes and Groensteen.

The question I have here is: who is this book for? I think that the book is aimed at academics who want to engage with comics, but are unsure of how to do so. But Postema doesn’t present a systematic way of doing this. Instead she presents a series of observations about the different elements of comics, as if she were saying “take a look at this and try something similar in your own comics reading.” She wants to show how one might bring the theories of Barthes, Bakhtin, or Eco to bear on comics reading. But it’s more of a suggestion by example than a clear program. Also, she refers to comics that people who aren’t already immersed in comics reading probably haven’t heard of, such as Shutterbug Follies. I am all for expanding the canon, but this may alienate people new to comics instead of draw them in. Also, Postema goes into deep analysis of certain scenes of comics that are not reproduced in the book. This means that we cannot see what she means; we just have to take her word for it. And if you have never read the comic she is analyzing, then you are completely lost. In fairness, this is a problem I see in a lot of writing about comics. Comics essays tend to be styled like literature essays: lots of verbal analysis with a few quotations thrown in as evidence. Yet since comics is a visual medium, the evidence needs to be shown visually. Maybe this is difficult to do because getting the rights to images is a challenge. Yet I suspect the real reason is that the genre of criticism is steeped in words. It doesn’t yet integrate images very well (ironically). Also, as Neil Cohn points out, the appendix on comics terminology in the book is odd. Its inclusion seems to signify that this book is for people less familiar with comics and comics criticism. Yet the appendix only contains five terms, and those terms are only the most basic, such as panel and gutter. The terms that Postema uses to analyze comics, such as paratextual, syntagym, or the difference she makes between sequence and series, are not listed. I guess she or her editor assumed that these terms are sufficiently defined in the text. But oddly, many of these terms also don’t show up in the index.

All criticisms aside, I am really glad this books exists. Most books written about comics by academics for academics make odd assumptions or demonstrate shocking gaps in understanding. Postema doesn’t have these problems. For instance, she understands that comics is primarily a visual medium and doesn’t get hung up on the old saw that comics simply puts pictures and words together. The more wannabe comics theorists who understand this the better, and I thank Postema for trying to set them straight.

Also, as the title of the book implies, Postema sees how the various fragments of comics, its elements, work together to create a coherent narrative structure. For instance, she goes into some detail explaining how images in comics both represent things (the iconic level) and also signify ideas and associated meanings (the connotative level). While literary theorists understand the difference between denotation and connotation and how the two may work in, say, a poem, for some reason when the same theorists look at pictures they assume that the pictures just convey what they show. They are blinded by the representational. They miss the connotative possibilities and so miss a large arena in which comics function. The examples Postema gives to explain this from Julie Doucet and Jason Little are lucid. As I said, Postema’s strength is careful analysis, or, to use a term that has fallen out of favor in some places, her close reading.

Another idea that she brings up that I really am getting a lot out of is the relationship comics has to time. Scott McCloud makes much of this also in Understanding Comics, yet Postema’s observation explains how images in comics, even in a single panel, are different than images in painting and photography. This is due to how comics relate to time. If one looks at a painting or a photograph, what one sees is a frozen moment. The image seems static and timeless. Yet a comics panel implies the movement of time. “The moment that is shown is unfinished. It asserts itself as a fragment of a larger whole” (Postema 13). This is an idea that I want to write about more and I have to credit Postema for helping me in this direction.

Overall, Postema’s book acknowledges that comics is an art form that is capable of a complex interplay of its elements. In the end, she states that comics demand a lot of work from the reader (121). If I am right and this book is aimed at academics who are considering comics to teach or research, such an argument is essential, not just to counteract the negative assumptions of the past, but to seriously move comics criticism forward.

Get the book here.

Other reviews:

Derek Royal
Neil Cohn

The Language of Comics by Mario Saraceni

So I’m reading through a few books on comics and how to analyze them and the first one I finished is part of the Routledge Intertext series, The Language of Comics by Mario Saraceni.

The audience for this book is, I believe, college students and so the aim here is to help college students analyze comics. From my own experience teaching comics at the college level, this is a worthwhile goal and a clear text is needed. However, I’m not sure Saraceni’s book is that text.

For one, Saraceni makes a few counter-factual claims. Early in the book, he says that one of the two most important characteristics of comics is that it, as an art form, employs both words and pictures (5). While this is often true, it is obviously not always the case. David Carrier makes the same claim in his book The Aesthetics of Comics and that book, while well-intentioned, demonstrates a shocking naivety about comics. So this was an early red flag as I was reading. Then on the next page, Saraceni says that comics have six to nine panels per page (7). Yes, he modifies this statement with “normally,” but he cites this “six to nine” figure a few other times throughout the book. Oddly, he provides plenty of examples that show that comics pages can have any number of panels. While I don’t believe that Saraceni is as unread in comics are Carrier seems to be, these careless claims undercut his authority.

On the whole, the rest of the book provides many interesting insights, but feels a bit underdeveloped and ill structured. For instance, Saraceni asks what relationships exist between words and pictures and answers that there are only two relationships (13). Not only is it odd that he can only see two relationships possible, his way of explaining the relationships is very roundabout. Basically, the two categories that he comes up with are “blend” and “collaboration.” “Blend” is when the words and images convey the same information and “collaboration” is when they do different things but work together to create the overall meaning. Yet instead of saying this straight out, he waits fourteen pages before defining the terms he introduces. In those fourteen pages Saraceni explains the concepts of icon and symbol from semiotics. He ends up saying that words in comics exist between icon and symbol and that images do as well. So they inhabit a similar space. This is interesting, but it doesn’t really help to understand what he means by “blend” and “collaboration.” It also doesn’t help that as soon as he finally defines these two concepts he doesn’t use them and instead says that words and images “interact in many different ways” (28). So we jump from “two” to “many.” This isn’t completely nonsensical, but it is sloppy and adds to the feeling that this book needed a few more drafts.

Then there’s the whole chapter at the end about computers in which Saraceni goes through the icons on his desktop. One can infer some connections to the ideas he has brought up earlier in the book, but how any of this helps us understand comics is beyond me.

There are other odd things like this I could mention, but instead I want to briefly bring up the various exercises in the book. Since the aim of this text is to use it in a college classroom, the addition of exercises is appropriate. However, as a teacher I have difficulty imaging that I would use these exercises. Most of the exercises involve students making lists, which gets old pretty quickly. Also, while many of the exercises are trying to get students to understand how panels connect with each other based on common elements or visual themes, the exercises completely overlook the fact that what most often joins panels is narrative. Usually comics tell stories. This book seems to overlook that fact.

Overall, this book is interesting but it’s careless structure and long asides make it seem more like an early draft than a finished book. According to Neil Cohn, the book is adapted from Saraceni’s dissertation and that would explain why it goes to such lengths to explain certain ideas. Again, the goal of the book is admirable; I just don’t think it is very effective at accomplishing that goal.

pictures over words?

R.C. Harvey has an interesting essay over at the Comics Journal. I find a lot of what he says very thought-provoking and I have to agree with him on the examples he gives (for the most part), but one underlying preference that governs his criticism is that in comics the pictures should lead the pacing and not the words. While I too tend to prefer comics that are visually paced, I am loathe to overprescribe the medium. And in fact, I can think of works I like that are word-centric. For instance, I know that Alison Bechdel composes her comics in words first and then decides how to illustrate them later. And I think Fun Home is an incredible book. Dan Clowes also has a lot of works, such as “Immortal, Invisible” or the beginning of David Boring, that a very narrative heavy. I would say that in these works words set the pacing more than the images.

And yet I agree with Harvey’s overall point that many people who try to create graphic novels seem to not really understand the medium. Part of this may be they are coming out of a writing tradition and have not really thought through how comics function and the unique advantages of the form. Still, I don’t think the problem is that the words are the prime mover of the pacing.

More fundamentally, the problem is that the words and pictures are not given unique jobs. In the word-centric examples Harvey provides, the problem is that the pictures merely illustrate the words, not that the words lead the narrative. This is what Scott McCloud calls a “duo-specific” relationship. And this is not a new problem. The old  Classics Illustrated books and many of the EC horror comics had this same problem. So I also disagree with Harvey that somehow writers new to comics are destroying the medium. I think the problem is the same one that has always been: the medium has been viewed simplistically and its potentials ignored.

local images to global images = metonymy

Okay, first read this. It’s a translation of an article by Barthélémy Schwartz about the defining characteristic of comics.

I’ll wait here until you’re done.


Okay, so this reminds me of my old idea that comics are metonymy. With metonymy, a part or a related concept of a larger idea stands in for that idea. This can be seen visually in comics all the time. The minimalist backgrounds of someone like Jaime Hernandez are a good example. The backgrounds are often just simple lines and silhouettes that stand in for something like an entire neighborhood. So a part stands in for a whole. Yet this is done in painting as well, and so doesn’t seem like a fundamental enough idea.

So let’s move away from the individual panel or even the act of drawing itself. As Schwartz says, comics are created when “juxtaposed local images” make up “a global image.” For instance, we could have a panel of someone throwing a ball and another panel of another person catching a ball. As readers, we understand that it is the same ball in each panel and that the one person is throwing it to the other. Also, if they are dressed in uniforms, we may assume the act is part of a larger game, which brings in the related idea of other players and perhaps spectators. So these juxtaposed parts are pieced together and create a narrative larger than the pieces themselves. I would call this metonymy.

I’m not the first to say this. According to Ann Miller in her book Reading Bande Dessinée, Roman Jakobson first applied the concept of metonymy to visual art. Yet his understanding seems more akin to the first one I described above, which doesn’t capture what is special about comics from other visual art. Miller also says that “Fresnault-Deruelle has called [comics] a ‘metonymic machine'” (78). Still, as Miller goes on to describe this idea all her examples are of individual panels. For instance, she discusses how speed lines have become a grammatical element to stand in for speed.

But what I mean by metonymy in comics is more akin to what Schwartz says about individual images making a global image. The structure of comics itself is metonymic. The reader takes discrete images that relate to a larger idea to understand that larger idea. Related details stand in for a larger whole. This act is essential to being able to read comics. So it is a fundamental component of how the art form functions.

intentional dis-ease

John McWade had a fascinating article about typesetting over at Before & After. Basically, the thesis is that easy-to-read typefaces and layouts may not always be better. Sometimes confusing layouts make the reader slow down and pay attention.

I’ve thought about this in comics in terms of the density of panels. Denser panels tend to slow down the eye and make the reader work a bit more. Fractured narratives, such as The Sound and the Fury, have a similar effect. And I think the clunkiness of the gameplay in the original Silent Hill actually adds to its effect.

But it’s interesting to consider making a comics panel or layout confusing expressly with the intention of getting the reader to work more. I need to run off now, but I want to think of examples of this in comics. Do you have any?