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Comics and Narration by Thierry Groensteen (review)

From: College Literature
Volume 41, Number 3, Summer 2014
pp. 152-154 | 10.1353/lit.2014.0035

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The eminence of Francophone comics theorist Thierry Groensteen was underlined by the publication of his book The System of Comics, published in French in 1999 and translated into English in 2007. Groensteen postulated that the meaning of a comics panel is produced not only from its position in a sequence, but also as a result of its dimensions, its position on the page, and its relationship to panels that do not fall immediately before or after it. Comics and Narration functions as a sequel to The System of Comics, and while Comics and Narration is a superior text on many levels, a reader wanting to engage with Groensteen’s seminal contribution to the semiotics and narratology of comics is probably best served reading the earlier book first. Nonetheless, Comics and Narration has a distinct overall thesis: narration is embedded in the essence of comics. Groensteen allows that some juxtapositions of visual material refuse to “produce a coherent narrative”—he calls these types of text “infranarrative” (9–10) comics—but he remains convinced that the experimental, challenging comics of recent years do not herald the end of narration. Rather, they demonstrate more exciting and enriching possibilities for telling stories with comics.

Each chapter of Comics and Narration has a clearly defined purpose and none of the chapters are overly long, allowing the reader to progress through Groensteen’s (sometimes dense) theory in manageable increments. As a consequence, the book can be easily set as weekly course reading; in contrast, The System of Comics is dominated by one very large chapter. Comics and Narration uses a number of exceptional cases to test whether the structural principles of comics that Groensteen elaborated earlier in his career still stand up. As Groensteen acknowledges, the theories developed in The System of Comics were primarily based on comics from the Franco-Belgian tradition, where Hergé’s Tintin is the most well-known character. In Comics and Narration, he covers US newspaper strips, Japanese shōjo (comics aimed at teenage girls), and online comics. In the English-speaking world at least, Comics and Narration draws on texts familiar to a wider audience than those found in The System of Comics, such as Andrei Molotiu’s anthology Abstract Comics (2009) and Chris Ware’s Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth (2000).

The two most substantial additions to Groensteen’s system are made in the chapters “The Question of the Narrator” and “The Rhythms of Comics.” In the former, Groensteen works towards a theory of narration specific to the medium, where the “prerogatives” of the narrator are “delegated” to a monstrator, the generator of visual elements (Groensteen borrows the term from film scholar André Gaudreault), and the reciter, “responsible for [the] narration” in words (84–95). Having differentiated the two, Groensteen runs through the styles that the monstrator and the reciter can separately adopt and the ways they work with and against each other, commenting on a range of fascinating themes such as graphic style, narration by characters within the text, and narration in autobiographical comics. In “The Rhythms of Comics,” Groensteen discusses how different types of page layout offer readers certain kinds of reading experiences by structuring the journey in time they take in negotiating the comics text; in other words, he asks what rhythms and responses are made possible by panel arrangement and other elements of comics narration. To take the “waffle-iron grid” (144) that dominates Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons’s Watchmen (1987) as an example, for Groensteen this page layout produces a regular rhythm of reading, conveying a sense of fatalism and inevitability to events in the narrative. The “metronomic regularity” that proceeds from the repetition of same-sized panels corresponds to one of Watchmen’s major themes, “the inexorable march of destiny” (144).

The final chapter, “Is Comics a Branch of Contemporary Art?,” travels away from the methodology deployed in the rest of the book. Here Groensteen considers the exhibition of comics in art galleries and museums as well as the appropriation of comics as source material by artists such as Roy Lichtenstein and explores whether comics have a future as a form of contemporary art. Groensteen draws on sociologist Howard S...

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