One could demonstrate, perhaps maliciously, that the influence which Benoît Peeters’s work has had on the study of sequential art has not been proportional to the coherence of his analyses. The present translated excerpt from his magnum opus, Case, planche, récit: lire la bande dessinée, offers a good deal of fodder for just such a critique.
For instance, we could consider Peeters’s formalist contrast between the “narrative” and the “composition” in comics, or between what he calls (following Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle) the “linear” and “tabular” aspects of the comics page. This seemingly commonsensical starting point is nonetheless bound to get him into trouble. Here, unfortunately, what was intended as a fresh approach to theorizing an underexplored realm, comics, gets loaded down with all the philosophical baggage of an old theoretical distinction between verbal and visual arts. For G.E. Lessing, for instance, verbal arts were inherently linear and “temporal,” incapable of representing simultaneity, while the visual arts were inherently “spatial,” incapable of representing action. W.J.T. Mitchell, among others, has suggested that this distinction has been played out (or at least overstated). Pictures narrate – they are “temporal” experiences – and narratives, too, present “spatial” structures. Peeters, then, has taken a false step from the very start.
Since this opening move allows Peeters to establish his four combinatorial possibilities for mise en page, one can expect problems to follow, and they do. For instance, an objection arises concerning Peeters’s contrast between meaningfully “rhetorical” and merely “decorative” layouts. If this distinction is to be of any use, it would seem, there must be some case in which we can be certain that the visual architecture of the page is not relevant to the meaning of the narrative, that it is purely ornamental. If images narrate, however, then no image can be purely innocent of narrative meaning.
For example, this page from an Arabic-language comic book [figure 1] about the life of Gamal Abdel Nasser might seem to present a perfect example of “decorative” design: the panels are not all identical iterations of one another (as in conventional mise en page), nor do their shapes clearly express an idea about the action contained in them (as in rhetorical mise en page), nor are their contents clearly the narrative product of their visual form (as in productive mise en page). Instead, they form a radial, symmetrical pattern, one which seems to invite us to behold the entire page simultaneously, to see it as a total composition (a tableau). Nonetheless, as a colleague of mine, Silvia Dapía, has asked: is the visual design here really “autonomous” from the narrative dimension of the book? On the contrary: the mourned leader, a radial design seeming to amplify the monumental status of the coffined figure at its center, and even the “immobility” of the page – its refusal to provide one single clear narrative path, its insistence on the simultaneity of all the panels (the relations between them, we might note, constitute mainly what Scott McCloud calls “aspect-to-aspect” transitions, in which “time seems to stand still”) – all reinforce the idea of the funeral. Why not call them “rhetorical,” then? Indeed, when can one ever expect to encounter a layout which is not, in the broad but legitimate sense of the term, “rhetorical,” an instance of visual rhetoric – an image with persuasive power?
In Pour un lecture moderne de la bande dessinée, Jan Baetens and Pascal Lefèvre raise a similar concern about the boundaries between “conventional” and “rhetorical” form when they point out that even in Peeters’s first example of utilisation rhétorique – three panels from Hergé’s The Calculus Affair – the “elasticity of framing” is “limited to the width of the panels,” while the vertical dimensions of the panels remain unchanged and identical to one another. In other words, the most adept “rhetorical” uses of the page rely on “at least an element of [the] conventional” (59). Indeed, one could argue further that any “rhetorical” use of variations in framing is only made possible against a “conventional” background of expectations. The less conventional the layout is in general, the less meaningful or rhetorically effective any variation in the framing will be; it is even possible that the most thoroughgoingly unconventional layouts, by their relative unreadability, will tend to be read as merely “decorative.”
Lisibility is, of course, relative to the cultural conventions that make reading possible, and here, too, some objections can be made to Peeters. Aarnoud Rommens, for instance, complains that the four categories of layout described by the system cannot possibly account for the “endless variation” and “baroque” excesses of Japanese comic mise en page: Peeters’s “typology of comic book layout formats . . . does not apply to manga layouts.”
Finally, Peeters’s system invites a certain confusion concerning the experience of narrative time as it is affected by the reader’s movements in traversing the composed space of the page. In the words of Harry Morgan, “The linear/tabular opposition has the additional disadvantage of confounding the morphology of the comic with its being taken consciousness of by the reader.” In fact, different readers (or the same reader at different times) may experience the same page in a “linear” or “tabular” fashion: “Concretely, nothing says that, simply because the page is divided into panels, these must be read one after the other from left to right and top to bottom, nor that, even when a page comprises only one panel, it must be grasped en bloc” (34, translation mine). In short, it has been argued, what Peeters presents as a system for classifying objective features of a page is really describing the decisions and strategies of the reading subject.
Peeters himself, in this chapter of Case, planche, récit, seems to run aground on this confusion between the image and the beholder. Thus, he describes “productive” layouts – those remarkable and innovative page designs in which the shapes of panels actually give rise to a narrative – as those best placed to achieve “a perpetually mobile result, which has for its primary effect the destabilization of reading” – and yet it is in praising Régis Franc, whose work he considers a prime example of productive mise en page, that Peeters rediscovers the “immobile“: here, “one has scarcely taken a step in the reading when it is already necessary, in order to progress, to take a step back.” Here, a radical “destabilization of reading” seems to come from a frustration of linearity or sequentiality, the very aspects of the comics page which conventional layouts would seem to foreground. Nonetheless, it is a page from Hugo Pratt’s Tango, taken as an example of conventional layout, which he uses to illustrate the use of a fixed perspective to foreground the tiniest nuances of expression – i.e., in the words of his caption, as an exemplar of “the virtues of immobility.” Is the “immobility” a feature of the page or a product of the reader’s responses to it?
Perhaps, then, Peeters’s system does not prove entirely satisfying. Nonetheless, it has become a most important, even inescapable, point of reference for contemporary Francophone comics theory: even Baetens and Lefèvre express a broad approval of Peeters’s treatment of mise en page, returning “a largely affirmative answer” to the question of “whether Peeters’s system of classification retains its validity vis-a-vis more complex pages and works” (60). Even Morgan (Principes de la littérature dessinée) and Thierry Groensteen (Système de la bande dessinée) pay it the homage of extensive citation. Indeed, as Melanie Carrier notes, Peeters’s “typology” reappears in Groensteen’s work, “modified, but not radically different” (translation mine; italics in original):
|Narrative-Composition Autonomy||Narrative-Composition Interdependence|
|Narrative Dominant||Conventional Use||Rhetorical Use|
|Composition Dominant||Decorative Use||Productive Use|
|Regular Composition||Irregular Composition|
Granted, Groensteen’s nomenclature may serve the useful purpose of clarifying Peeters’s categories (for instance, by discarding the terms “dominance” and “autonomy,” which, imported from political discourse, are as mystifying here as they have been since they were first used by the avant-gardes to define their own transgression of aesthetic conventions as politically subversive). Groensteen’s categories seem to eliminate consideration of the narrative dimension altogether, to confine themselves to purely visual, empirically observable properties. The term “regularity,” at least, suggests an almost mathematical objectivity. The terms “ostentatious” and “discreet,” however, remain dubiously subjective – for whom does a given layout call attention to itself? And in relation to what, if not the omitted term, “narrative”? The narrative/composition or linéaire/tabulaire binary reasserts itself. Groensteen does not escape the limits of Peeters’s system.
In English, our theoretical grasp of the problem of mise en page is even more impoverished. We have the clunky if serviceable lingo of the trade – “grid layout” versus “non-grid layout” – but this is hardly sufficient to describe all the varieties of ways in which the composition of the page speaks to the eye. As long as our analyses remain on the level of relations between individual panels, the level described by Scott McCloud’s taxonomy of “transitions,” we are afflicted by a myopia which prevents us from seeing clearly some of the things that make sequential art unique, specific, special. There is a gap in Anglophone comics theory, an empty space in which some coherent and systematic account of the meaning-making properties of the page as designed space needs to be introduced.
It would seem then that for us, too, Peeters’s work is a necessary beginning.
Baetens, Jan, and Pascal Lefèvre. Pour une lecture moderne de la bande dessineé. Bruxelles: Centre Belge de la Bande Dessineé, 1993.
Carrier, Melanie. “La bande dessinée: sens et langage.” Review of Thierry Groensteen, Système de la bande dessinée. Fabula. <http://www.fabula.org/revue/cr/425.php>.
Douglas, Allen and Fedwa Malti-Douglas. Arab Comic Strips: Politics of an Emerging Mass Culture. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1994.
Groensteen, Thierry. Système de la bande dessinée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999.
Morgan, Harry. Principes des littératures dessinées. Paris: éditions de l’An 2, 2003.
Rommens, Aarnoud. “Manga Story-Telling/Showing.” Image and Narrative 1 (August 2000). <http://www.imageandnarrative.be/narratology/aarnoudrommens.htm>.