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"Thierry Groensteen's 'The System of Comics'"

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Research Report: Thierry Groensteen's The System of Comics


By Katie Kelp-Stebbins, Comics Team



1.Abstract: The System of Comics is Thierry Groensteen's most fully realized contribution to Franco-Belgian comics theory and its recent translation into English offers new modes and discursive practices for American comics theory, which has rarely engaged the formal aspects of the medium. Groensteen vehemently opposes methods of deconstructing the comics panel into basic elements, instead championing the semiotic study of comics as an interdependence of images operating together to produce articulation. Groensteen examines this apparatus on the level of "spatio-topia," the spatial/locative layout of a page, and then through its sequential or networked "arthrology," relations that create mechanisms of meaning.



2.Description: With The System of Comics (Système de la bande desinée), originally published in 1999 in France, Thierry Groensteen brings comics into the field of semiotics and creates a new analytical framework and vocabulary for the medium. Within each of the three chapters, "The Spatio-Topical System," "Restrained Arthrology: The Sequence" and "General Arthrology: The Network," Groensteen articulates the formal elements comprising a "preponderantly visual language in which text plays a subordinate role" (7). His subject headings correspond to the two predominant forms of the comic structure: spatio-topical evaluations of comic systems stress the importance of space and place, determining how the aesthetic effects of panel, gutter, frame and margin location are central to the operative logic of comics (26). By arthrology, Groensteen creates a neologism from the Greek arthon (articulation), to refer to the study of relations between panels. Within his system "iconic solidarity" is the foundation upon which is structured "an organic totality that associates a complex combination of elements, parameters, and multiple procedures" (159).

    Categorizing comics as a language, Groensteen rejects any attempts to reduce comics to groups of component elements. He is especially wary of those scholars who employ a static film theory to study comics, remapping the cell or scene of film onto the panel of comics. In this critical assessment, Groensteen identifies a grand oversight of the uniquely imaginative and subjective experience that the comic book reader undergoes through his or her engagement with the work.

    Groensteen cites the juxtaposition of images within comics as the primary bearer of narrative signification. Although he allows that each image may have its own meaning, he stresses that for comics it is the space between panels where relationships of articulation are constructed. An essential point made by Groensteen is that in the interpretation of a comic, each panel contains content, therefore it shows, but it is the linkage of panels that says. This is a necessary step away from film theory-based methods of comic analysis, and similarly precludes the implementation of a textual theory to account for the staging of meaning, which must occur across many planes within the comic system. By recognizing the sophistication of comics one can observe the multivalent levels of signification that combine to convey aesthetic or narrative effect.

    Using the panel as the base unit for his system, Groensteen writes at length of the ways that framing and placement determine how a panel functions as an "utterable," and the primary plane of the three-tiered, "staging of meaning" in comics. Panels in triad compose the syntagm of Groensteen's second plane, where informed interpretation begins. The reader must take into account that which precedes and succeeds the present panel and begin to construct semantic relations; as in retroactive determination, where a reader does not understand a panel without the information articulated in the next. In the sequence of panels the third plane unfolds to signify further contributions to narrative or aesthetic meaning. The page layout and breakdown are the linear spatial/temporal designations for these meanings, while discontinuous networks of correspondences between panels create the general arthrology of the work. Within a general arthrology, Groensteen further distinguishes between gridding (quadrillage) and braiding (tressage). Gridding is simply the way a page is broken up spatially; less simply it is also, "a primary repartition of the narrative material" (144). Thus gridding is a way of inspecting meaning without consideration for the content of the page. Braiding addresses the potential relations between any panels that exist as a supplement to the intelligibility of the work, which is determined by its breakdown. To clarify, the breakdown of panels into a logical or narrative sequence may hold some units to be physically and contextually independent, yet braiding reveals the way these same panels are associated and communicate with one another (e.g. through an identical construction of the panel with differing content, or a repetition of a single motif through disparate episodes, etc.).

    Having laid the groundwork for his architectonic theory, Groensteen concludes by excusing himself for any pragmatic drawbacks to his system, and suggesting the extension of his work beyond comics, toward a reassessment of many fields--narratology, media and communication studies are mentioned by name--that may have failed to synthesize comics into their theories.



3.Commentary: Groensteen's formal approach to comics comes directly from European comics theory that has seriously considered the "ninth art" a fertile medium for aesthetic inquiry far longer than most American academics. His book has the potential to elevate the study of comics beyond the preliminary nature of Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art and Will Eisner's Comics and Sequential Art, the foundational texts for American comics theory. These books are invaluable introductions to the field, yet Groensteen provides unparalleled theoretical structures for analysis.

    Groensteen's prose has been criticized for its opacity, yet one could reconsider his jargon-heavy and neologism-laced writing as the stylistic fulfillment of his stated goal. By inventing new ways to talk about comics that do not recycle the lexicons of film and literary studies, Groensteen advances comics theory toward its independence. Terms like "braiding" and "gridding" are fuller than "networking panels into series" and "repartitioning narrative components into units of space."

    The application of Groensteen's work is sometimes problematized by his reliance on Franco-Belgian comic examples, many of which may be unknown to an Anglophonic audience. It is sometimes hard to understand precisely the point that he is making without the reproduction of a sample page; these are limited to fifteen within the entire book. Additionally, Groensteen's text often suffers from an overly de-structive critical stance. If he devotes a considerable amount of time to dismantling and debunking previous comics theory, it is repeatedly done at the expense of developing a new model to fill the--now excavated--void. However, Groensteen's prose is evocative enough to inspire readers to perform semiotic interpretations that follow his lead. Many of Groensteen's greatest points are also his subtlest. In a careful sentence, he reveals the tension that is created with the use of two-dimensional speech balloons in a three-dimensional, mimetic image. This insight certainly paves the way for investigations into what might constitute a homodiegetic narrative within this schism of representation. Although Groensteen himself only provides brief examples, his system can be used to read virtually any comic.

    For the sake of an emulative remodeling of Jason Lutes' Berlin, Groensteen's book highlights the ways that meaning will be lost when the panels are deconstructed or destructured. In film one cannot find the same spatially juxtaposed series of narrative and representative interrelations, in text one loses the imaginative space in between images as a site of narrative genesis. For Groensteen the language of comics cannot be translated. It will be interesting to see, in the adaptation of the form, what meaning is lost.



4.Resources for Further Study:

  • Eisner, Will. Comics and Sequential Art. Paramus, NJ: Poorhouse Press, 1985.
  • Groensteen, Thierry. The System of Comics. Trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson, MI: University Press of Mississippi, 2007.
  • McCloud, Scott. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Harper Perennial, 1994.

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