- Text/Image Mosaics in French Culture: Emblems and Comic Strips
In the concluding paragraph of this entertaining study of two seemingly disparate genres, Laurence Grove reminds his reader that he had opened the book with what he calls an "Editor's nightmare" of a statement (162). This refers to the first page of the book's foreword, where Grove is at pains to disavow any claim to any encyclopedic knowledge or comprehensive coverage of the French emblem book and comic strip. Rather than any overarching synthesis or exhaustive historical comparison of emblems and comic strips, he has selected a few "discrete synchronic case studies." Disconcertingly, this means, in effect, that "there is . . . no reason for this work to be about emblems and bandes dessinées" rather than other thematically, aesthetically, or semiotically related genres (xiii).
Grove intends to provide what he calls a study of "parallel mentalities," in which the serial juxtaposition of alternating chapters will make possible appropriate comparisons between the aetas emblematica and the modern age. After a substantial introductory section devoted to the basics of text/image genres in general and to the emblem and the comic strip in particular, we are given four groups of paired chapters in which Grove discusses emblem and comic from the points of view of theory, production, thematics, and reception before drawing a few brief overall conclusions. [End Page 1272]
A study of this sort is, as Grove himself cheerfully admits, the work of an enthusiast, and the author's refreshingly keen interest in text/image genres is evident throughout. At the University of Glasgow, Grove is fortunate to have direct access to the peerless Stirling Maxwell collection of early illustrated books and manuscripts, and it is apparent that he has read widely in the emblematic corpus of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. His knowledge of French comics seems equally broad, from the early works of Rodolphe Töpffer to the most recent, "off the wall" creations by current BD artists. The question, then, is not whether he is well-versed in the two subjects he has chosen to link, but whether the linkage is ultimately a productive and enlightening one.
Here the verdict is mixed. As with any comparative study of this kind, the risk is that the parallel analytical tracks may never meet, and that the relevance of the subjects chosen for juxtaposition may, thus, remain less convincing to the reader than to the author. Grove's central thesis is that both emblem book and bande dessinée are examples of mosaics combining visual and textual elements in ways that allow for multiple arrangements and rearrangements of the various parts. He thus devotes an interesting chapter to what he calls "moveable woodcuts": visual images that printers and publishers could combine and recycle in novel ways so as to take full advantage of the semiotically more open nature of the image as compared to text. A printer might thus uproot a previously published image from its context, using it to support an entirely new textual meaning, or combine woodcuts from many sources into an unanticipated but pleasing new composite. Grove argues that visual images became analogous to the letters found in a printer's font, assembled as needed to create new meanings. Polyvalent and malleable, visual images were thus more instrumental to the evolution of early print culture than has commonly been recognized. It is harder to see the relevance of this to the French comic strip, though Grove does demonstrate convincingly that both the genre itself and its practitioners have a kind of protean mutability that has enabled an extraordinary range of development and adaptation to changing social and political circumstances.
As I read each pair of chapters, I was inclined to agree with Grove's own suggestion that "the studies in this book [may be] best enjoyed individually" (162) as thought-provoking and unpretentious examples of, at least superficially similar, "parallel mentalities." This lack...