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Review of Comics and Narration

By Melissa Loucks

Groensteen, Thierry. Comics and Narration. Trans. Ann Miller. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi, 2013. Print.

Since its publication in 1999, Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics has been a mainstay of comics studies, providing a theoretical framework upon which scholars have built an increasingly complex discourse. In Comics and Narration, Groensteen expands that framework, moving from how comics work to what comics do. Whereas the first book was primarily concerned with the interplay of panels, frames, and pages, the second focuses on the ways in which rhythm and, as the title implies, narration function and affect perception. Moreover, Comics and Narration broadens Groensteen’s theories, both by engaging with other critics and by attending to comic media outside the bande dessinée tradition, including American comic books and newspaper strips, manga, digital comics, and children’s literature. In his introduction, Groensteen is quick to acknowledge the advances made in comics studies between his first and second volumes, paying homage to Theirry Smolderen, Harry Morgan, and other scholars who have helped to progress the field. He likewise identifies a number of advancements in the comics medium, praising strides toward greater inclusivity and evolving formats. But Groensteen also makes note of some areas in which further progress is necessary, especially the “imperialism of the series and the hero” and “outdated aesthetic standards corresponding to a long-gone classic period” (6). Appropriately, then, this book is as much a response to these failures as it is a complication of Groensteen’s earlier theories.

Comics and Narration spans eight chapters, each of which decodes a single aspect of the larger investigation at hand. This approach is to be applauded, for Groensteen’s writing is notoriously dense, and segmenting the whole into its parts helps to ameliorate the book’s tendency toward stilted prose. Still, the chapters are hardly uncomplicated: they are rife with the challenges scholars have come to expect from Groensteen, including new, specialized vocabularies, innovative applications of linguistic theory, and labyrinthine explications of overarching assertions. In Chapter 1, for example, entitled “Comics and the Test of Abstraction,” Groensteen examines abstract comics, but further deconstructs that category into two parts—comics made up of abstract art and “infranarrative” comics, or “sequences of drawings that contain figurative elements, the juxtaposition of which does not produce a coherent narrative” (9). These kinds of comics, he argues, challenge any definition of comics that insists upon sequential narrative. Yet Groensteen does not offer his own definition to replace those he displaces. Since his project is not to explain what comics are, but to test how they work, the lack of a revised definition is not a failure; nonetheless, it might frustrate scholars accustomed to more determinate criticism.

Like its predecessor, Chapter 2 (“New Insights into Sequentiality”) further chips at traditional definitions of comics. Here, Groensteen notes the infrequency—but not impossibility—of narrative in single-panel cartoons, which may convey meaning but, in most cases, cannot narrate a beginning, middle, and end. In the third chapter, “A Few Theories of Page Layout,” however, the author moves away from efforts to dismantle definitions of comics and toward ways to better understand how they work. The first of these ways is through examination of the panel itself, or rather, the panel as it relates to other panels on a page. Groensteen identifies four “degrees” of panel layout, dependent on consistency in number, height, width, and density. Using these classifications, Groensteen generally privileges comics with greater regularity over those with less, arguing that more varied layouts are “disruptive from the point of view of the reader” (45) and typically less conducive to meaning-making. He does allow, though, that some artists are capable incorporating irregular layouts effectively, citing Chris Ware’s innovative style as the preeminent example. Chapter 4, “An Extension of Some Theoretical Propositions,” returns to the identification of rules and exceptions, taking under consideration children’s comics, shōjo manga, and interactive digital comics as forms that complicate definitions of comics. While each of these forms, Groensteen assures the reader, shares with classically-defined comics “certain areas of artistic inquiry” (55), their incorporation of devices like layout irregularity, animation, and sound begs the question of whether they are comics per se or an altogether new medium.

Groensteen gets to the heart of his project in Chapter 5, “The Question of the Narrator.” He first separates the concept of narration in comics from that of narration in prose literature, explaining that “each [medium] has its own enunciative mechanism and, consequently, a distinct narratological configuration” (81). As such, Groensteen revises the tenets of narration for a comics application, identifying two distinct types of narration: the “reciter,” which voices the details of a story, and the more abstracted “monstrator,” an “instance responsible for the rendering [the story] into drawn form” (86). Together, the reciter and monstrator are components of a narrative trinity, in which both combine to form a third, ultimate narrator responsible for storytelling overall. Within the framework of this amalgam, other narrators can also exist. Groensteen is careful to note that some comics employ a first-person narrating character, for instance, while in the case of autobiographical comics, the author himself may operate as a narrator. These are termed “actorialized” narrators, and Groensteen explores their implications through examples like Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. Chapter 6, entitled “The Subjectivity of the Character,” extends Chapter 5’s interrogation of the narrator to specific storytelling devices that portray a character’s “inner voice” (121). These can include thought balloons, of course, but also illustrative techniques, as in Lynd Ward’s use of color to indicate a character’s dreams and fantasies in the wordless Wild Pilgrimage.

In Chapter 7, “The Rhythm of Comics,” Groensteen returns to his earlier discussion of layout to draw comparisons between comics and music. The “beat” of a comic, he contends, is determined primarily by panel size and density, with pages comprising many smaller panels having a faster rhythm than those with fewer, larger panels. This chapter’s borrowing of musical vocabulary leads nicely into Groensteen’s discussion of comics’ relationship to other art in Chapter 8, “Is Comics a Branch of Contemporary Art?” Groensteen closes the book with an exploration of the ways in which comics have been subjected to comparisons with other art forms and an insistence that such comparisons are inappropriate. While comics may share an experimental spirit with contemporary art, he explains, they operate in a completely different “art world” of “economic, cultural, and sociological systems” (173).

In Comics and Narration, Groensteen’s project is not so much to define comics as to complicate the process of defining comics, and the book is successful in that regard. It does, however, have some problematic tendencies. First, Groensteen’s steadfast commitment to devising a new vocabulary for comics analysis is, at times, unnecessarily arduous. If comics scholars already have a language for understanding abstraction, for instance—and they do, as Groensteen himself shows in his critiques of comics scholarship—it seems superfluous and somewhat elitist to reinvent that particular wheel. Second, in order to really understand what is at stake in Comics and Narration, one must already be familiar with The System of Comics, for the former is in every way an extension of the latter. This is not a problem in and of itself, and it is hardly unusual for an author to write a follow-up to an earlier publication, but System‘s complexity does pose a readability challenge that might discourage some scholars from engaging with either volume. To Groensteen’s credit, he seems aware of the readibility problems in System, and he attempts to correct some of them in its successor by offering clarifications of how the new book remedies those problems in each chapter. These elucidations are quite productive, and as a result, Comics and Narration is probably best used as an addendum to The System of Comics. On the whole, though, the book is useful and provocative, and its prose is for the most part accessible. This last point may be partly owing to Ann Miller’s translation, but it is certainly also a consequence of the book’s situation as an outgrowth of an existing theory, rather than the beginning of a whole new way of understanding comics.

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