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Review of The French Comics Theory Reader

By Eric L. Berlatsky

Miller, Ann and Bart Beaty, eds. The French Comics Theory Reader. Leuven, Belgium: Leuven UP, 2014.

Comics scholars frequently discuss the differences between the American and the European approaches to studying comics. In particular, it is an article of faith that European comics theory and criticism outpaces its U.S. counterpart in both quantity and quality. Due to the relative rarity of good translations into English of European comics criticism, it has largely been up to the multilingual few to transmit this message to the monolingual masses. Regrettably, I am among the (mostly) monolingual and have therefore been deprived of important critical work as a result of my own ignorance. In recent years, however, important European, and particularly French, works of comics theory have been translated and have found a U.S. audience. Of particular note is the translation and publication of Thierry Groensteen’s 1999 book Systéme de la bande dessinée into English ten years later (as The System of Comics) by UP of Mississippi and the subsequent translation/publication of Groensteen’s Comics and Narration by the same press in 2013. These two volumes, heavily formal and narratological in orientation, give English readers a taste of what they have been missing, thanks to the translations of Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen (in the first volume) and Ann Miller (in the second). Now Beaty and Miller have teamed up to translate a wider variety of French theory and criticism in the The French Comics Theory Reader, giving English-language-only readers a broader (if still incomplete) sense of the debates and discourses that have dominated French comics theory and criticism over the years.

If a reader were to go strictly on the basis of Groensteen’s work, one would have to conclude that French comics studies, both to its benefit and to its detriment, focuses heavily on the formalist and narratological, leaving more social and political concerns to their Anglo-American brethren, who have been heavily invested in cultural studies and issues of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation in recent decades. The French Comics Theory Reader confirms this difference to some degree, though in many ways I was surprised by how frequently the preoccupations of Anglo-American comics criticism are reflected in this volume. Whether it be an interest in the definition of comics, a focus on the ways in which comics have been ignored because of their association with an underage readership, or an attempt to provide origins or histories for the form, many of the concerns of Anglo-American comics criticism are also available to the reader of French comics theory, at least as presented in this reader.

As anyone reasonably invested in the field knows, Anglo-American comics criticism has been inordinately preoccupied by the question of defining comics. Whether it is Scott McCloud or Will Eisner, R. C. Harvey or David Kunzle, Charles Hatfield or Annalisa di Liddo, theorists have felt it necessary and useful to interrogate the question of what comics can actually be said to be. The French Comics Theory Reader’s opening section, comprised of eight essays or excerpts, also addresses this very question. In this section, Groensteen gets two separate opportunities to provide an answer, as does Sylvain Bouyer, with the section being rounded out by Jean-Claude Glasser, Gérard Blanchard, Francis Lacassin, and Thierry Smolderen, with the oldest essay dating from 1969, and the most recent from 2012. Glasser’s brief excerpt attempts to fix the origin of the use of the term “Bande Dessinée,” while Blanchard looks back through a variety of historical attempts to combine images and narrative, including the Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Bayeux Tapestry, medieval pedagogical books and phylactera, etc. Like McCloud’s opening chapter of Understanding Comics (published 20+ years after Blanchard’s Histoire de la bande dessinée), Blanchard positions comics as part of a long and storied history, at least partially in a questionable attempt to lend gravitas and cultural capital to an oft-underappreciated medium.

Francis Lacassin provides an even more familiar history, beginning in the 19th century with Rodolphe Töpffer and moving on through American newspaper comics like The Yellow Kid and the Katzenjammer Kids. Lacassin’s effort to account for the traffic between home-grown French comic books (initially sans speech balloons) and American neo-Imperialist imports (including Mickey Mouse and his cohort) is a useful primer for non-French readers, and is a not particularly theoretical account of the basic historical events in the development of French comics from an almost exclusively children’s concern (with humor, parody, and action-adventure as its milieu) into a medium with more expansive interests.

The last five essays in the section are more theoretical in orientation and more preoccupied with actually attempting a definition of the form, rather than sketching a brief history of it. Smolderen’s essay is a fascinating attempt to reject the idea that newspaper/magazine comics somehow work only to mock/parody things already known. Instead, through several compelling close readings, he notes that comics are especially suited to producing new knowledge of, or bringing a new understanding to, a variety of topics, including fashion, urban delinquency, and developing radiographic and audiovisual technologies (49-51). He is also quick to note the advantages early comics had in their lack of a standardized form, allowing them to adapt a more malleable form to the task at hand. Smolderen’s suggestion that late-19th century comics are somehow more adaptable, and thus more effective, than their more standardized 20th- and 21st-century equivalents is a provocative and useful one to consider.

The final four essays include two 1986 essays, one each by Groensteen and Bouyer, and two recent revisitings of those earlier essays by the same authors. This interesting approach allows readers to read Groensteeen and Bouyer’s initial refutation of “essentialist” approaches to comics, wherein some arbitrary list of characteristics is used to define comics (and ultimately fail to do so adequately). In the 1986 essays, Groensteen articulates a number of formal features of comics that vary too widely to form a consistent definition, while Bouyer, a bit more combative, notes that the inability to easily define comics by their formal characteristics has led others into a “cut-price Platonism” that leads to “facile mythologizing” of an “essence” to comics that cannot be defined (76). Both, then, refuse the idea that comics can be defined precisely, Bouyer, in particular, on the grounds that comics themselves are always changing. Groensteen’s second article builds on this observation, focusing on the more recent development of abstract comics, graphic novels, manga, online comics, etc., to remind his readers that any attempt to “fix” a definition of comics is likely to be futile. Bouyer, meanwhile, doubles down on his own combativeness, noting that through the influence of manga, comics is “no longer a distinctive cultural sector” (89) and is rather a “part of everyday life” that is therefore even harder to define in some ways, though it is now easier to see them as a “mass socio-cultural object” and thus “infinitely adaptable” (89). Rather than seeing this as a positive development, Bouyer notes that even those who don’t like comics now feel like they have no choice but to say they do, and that comics have thus reached the “point of cultural banality” (90). Again, Bouyer does not believe that comics have a clear definition or an “essence,” but he seems disaffected by a world of comics that “has no limits” (90), the very world that excites and interests Groensteen.

The next section concerns formal approaches to comics criticism. It includes an essay by Groensteen (again), two by Jan Baetens and Pascal Lefévre, and single essays by Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle, Pierre Sterckx, and Jacques Samson. Fresnault-Deruelle’s 1976 essay is among the best in the book, providing a thorough account, with excellent examples, of the ways in which comics present both temporally sequential images, and a single image to be consumed instantaneously/simultaneously. Using examples from Peanuts, Tintin, Little Nemo, and the work of Guido Crepax, Fresnault-Deruelle effectively outlines one of the more unique features of comics and the ways in which the four-dimensional encounters the two-dimensional in comics of all kinds. Samson’s account of “Modern Pictorial Enunciative Strategies” is an interesting exploration of the fascination with the modern or the experimental in a number of cartoonists less familiar to Anglo-American readers (Jacques Tardi and Alberto Breccia in particular). Samson’s formal exploration of both visual fragmentation and its narratorial equivalent reminds the reader of the formal effects possible if and when the transparent delivery of a story is not the only objective of the artist. Samson convincingly links Tardi’s critique of war in It Was The War of the Trenches to his aesthetic experimentalism, as in the work both of the literary modernists and their counterparts, especially the cubists, in painting.

Groensteen’s “Narrative as Supplement” is a fascinating thought-experiment devoted to uncovering the relationship between a written script and its comics realization. Groensteen looks at a series of unrelated, but juxtaposed, images without an accompanying script in order to try to ascertain at what point sequential juxtaposition yields a narrative. Groensteen’s near-mania for naming things (a commonplace among narratologists) leads him to suggest that there are five possible ways to define/categorize a series of juxtaposed images, a categorization strategy that might be used to determine the relationship of comics to narration. Though he arrives at no clear conclusion, his exploration of the comics/narrative relationship here is instructive and enlightening. The Baetens and Lefevre essays both also provide formal insight into comics. The first looks closely at the relationship between words and images, noting the prevalence and importance of words even in supposedly “mute” comics and detailing a variety of functions for text, even in very image-centric examples. The second essay looks closely at “peritextual” elements, especially front and back covers, and opening pages, which often seem to serve no real purpose in the narration or entrée into the story-world. Baetens and Lefevre do an excellent job of highlighting the ways in which these spaces are used both for commercial and aesthetic purposes, rounding out what is probably the best section of essays in the Reader.

The next section is devoted to close(r) readings of particular comics and cartoonists, including a fascinating essay by Bruno Lecigne and Jean-Pierre Tamine on the “new realism” in French comics, including especially, again, the work of Tardi, who, according to Lecigne and Tamine, “offers two great blocks of opposing meaning, grating against each other in constant friction, forever caught between appropriation and transcendence” (223). Though the hyperbolic rhetoric here may be less than fully penetrable, the essay is particularly concerned with the tension between narrative content and formal properties, and the ways in which the post-1960s “new realists” negotiate that tension. Lecigne and Tamine suggest that “Tardi was the first comics artists [sic] to experiment with new narrative modes” because he was “freed from the shackle of verisimilitude by the authenticating evidence of the image” (215). To call previous comics somehow “realistic” seems misled, perhaps, but the authors’ close reading and account of Tardi’s work is convincing in its account of formal features like panel shape and the use of blocks of white and black on the page.

The Lecgine/Tamine essay is followed by a brief excerpt by Harry Morgan and Manuel Hirtz on the work of American comics pioneer Jack Kirby, an essay by Fresnault-Deruelle on a series of discrete pages and their use of particular formal elements, and three essays or excerpts devoted to one of Hergé’s Tintin masterpieces, The Castafiore Emerald. Clustering essays on a single comic is an effective anthological strategy and was much appreciated by this reader, who was given an excuse to exhume his 35-year-old copy of Emerald for a quick re-read. It also serves the purpose of showing other readers the many ways one can read the same comic, and particularly Hergé, whose work is deceptively simple on its surface but which is, in many ways, a perfect machine of comics (embarrassing forays into cultural/racial stereotyping notwithstanding). Michel Serres’ account of the innumerable misunderstandings in Emerald, and his argument for the ways in which they provide a commentary on communication in modern society, is especially interesting and enriching. Benoit Peeters’ play-by-play of the first 3 pages (an excerpt of an extended treatment of the whole album) serves to illustrate the ways in which every element of the album is carefully considered, as the minor character of a gypsy girl named Miarka serves as a microcosm of the “dangerous image of femininity” (259) that is Bianca Castafiore herself later in the book. Serge Tisseron’s essay provides a psychoanalytic reading. While touching on previous accounts of Castafiore’s “lost jewels” as a reference to sexuality and lost virginity, Tisseron is more interested in pursuing his interest in Tintin adventures as metaphors for the search for a father, or parents more generally speaking. Referring to his previous work doing so in regard to the “Haddock Chronicles” (The Secret of the Unicorn and especially Red Rackham’s Treasure), here Tisseron links Castafiore’s perpetual losing and finding of her “jewels” as linked to the famous Freudian “fort/da” game (or “peekaboo”) in which a child is forced to face the loss of a parent momentarily, before that parent is returned to her. Seeing Castafiore’s “jewels” as a metaphor for a child in this position, Tisseron teases out the psychological ramifications of Emerald, in one of the most fascinating readings in this collection.

The final section, devoted to the “French Comics Industry,” includes essays by Luc Boltanski, Pascal Ory, Erwin Dejasse and Philippe Capart, Barthélémy Schwartz, and Jean-Christophe Menu, and explores the vicissitudes of comics as a business in France. Boltanski, for instance, tells a familiar story of an industry initially on the fringes of respectability, geared mainly toward children and the working classes, which slowly gathered its own auteurs and formal experimentation, gaining legitimacy both in the academy and outside of it. As in the United States, creators who disdained bourgeois legitimacy developed a counter-aesthetic with varying degrees of success. The history of French comics is, in this account and in many ways, almost identical to its Anglo-American counterpart, despite some idiosyncrasies (like the development of comic albums all of the same length). Boltanski’s history certainly refuses the notion that French-language comics have always had a kind of legitimacy denied their Anglo-American counterparts. Ory’s essay gives an account of the political influence of fascism on certain French comics during World War II, providing a useful contextualization for any reading of these comics. Dejasse and Capart provide an account of the rise and fall of serialization in French comics and both the benefits and the losses associated with that mode of production, while Schwartz discusses the varying markets for comics, rejecting the notion that certain comics are “commercial” while others are “auteurist” (322). He correctly reminds his readers that the two “kinds” are simply different kinds of markets. The book ends on a particularly cranky note in which Jean-Christophe Menu defensively rejects attempts by larger rival publishers to appropriate the aesthetic and marketing of L’Asssociation, dismissing them as cut-rate imitators. While this gives some insight into the infighting among French comics publishers, it seems like an odd conclusion to a book so replete with historical interest and formal insight.

From my own perspective, while I might be interested in a few more essays with a Cultural Studies bent, or with psychoanalytic inclinations, as in the essay of Tisseron, the French Comics Theory Reader gives a series of excellent insights into both the formal properties of comics and into the history and industry of French comics. It inspired me both to go back to my neglected Tintin volumes and to go about the acquisition of newly translated albums by other creators, like Tardi’s It Was the War of the Trenches. The book would be a useful accessory to any course that revolved around European comics, but it could also be used in courses that focus on formalist approaches to Anglo-American or international comics. While it might be better applied to graduate courses in the field, most of the book is accessible enough for use at the undergraduate level as well. There is much of value here, and no doubt elsewhere, to which I (and those like me) would love to have linguistic access. The French Comics Theory Reader is an impressive collection that gives insight into ongoing debates among French critics, while also integrating organically into Anglo-American discussions. As such, I hope that it facilitates the general movement to translate European comics theory into English.

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