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  • The Expanding Art of Comics: Ten Modern Masterpieces by Thierry Groensteen
  • Laurence Grove
The Expanding Art of Comics: Ten Modern Masterpieces. By Thierry Groensteen. Translated by Ann Miller. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2017. 240 pp., ill.

Fittingly described by translator Ann Miller as 'a master class in comics analysis' (p. xi), Thierry Groensteen's study takes ten works from seven different countries in chronological order, from Hugo Pratt's Ballade de la mer salée (translated as Ballad of the Salt Sea, 1967-69) to Jens Harder's Alpha: directions and Beta: civilisations (2009 and 2014). Each chapter of the book, which was originally published as Un art en expansion: dix chefs-d'œuvre de la bande dessinée moderne (Brussels: Les Impressions nouvelles, 2015), follows the formula of 'Background', 'Plot', and then central close analysis. Of the ten, three chapters are on French-language graphic novels (bandes dessinées) — Moebius's Garage hermétique (Airtight Garage, 1979), David B.'s L'Ascension du haut mal (Epileptic, 1996-2003), and Dominique Goblet's Faire semblant c'est mentir (Pretending Is Lying, 2007), but in addition Harder's Alpha was first published simultaneously in French and German — although the general context, methodology, and transnational approach mean the book as a whole remains pertinent to scholars of French. To take the example of the Goblet chapter, the initial sections provide a l'homme/la femme et l'œuvre-style overview of the artist's upbringing, influences, and publication history, as well as the main work's storyline and structure. It is the central section, here as throughout, that demonstrates Groensteen's talent for close reading, mixing application of relevant source material (in some cases via interviews with the author) to narrative techniques (for example, the ambiguities of Goblet's distanced narrator) and the way in which graphic style conveys psychological development. It is an approach that puts into practice Groensteen's key theories, making the potentially abstract musings of his groundbreaking Système de la bande dessinée increasingly relevant (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1999). This is all the more so thanks to Miller's masterful translation, which keeps the flavour and sense of the original whilst rendering it entirely accessible. In practical terms, there are shortcomings: typos at times mar the sense, the illustrations are monochrome, the secondary bibliography is far from complete, and the volume is expensive. Furthermore, reception is inevitably dependent on knowledge of the source texts, although Groensteen's work is also an inspiration to read any of the masterpieces with which one might not be familiar. Central to Groensteen's ethos is the question of a comics canon, as implied by the subtitle and indeed addressed in the Introduction. Here perhaps is an area for debate — can a canon function in any discipline in the twenty-first century? — rather than simple admiration of masterpieces. Nor need we accept that this is a full corpus that 'will speak on behalf of the ninth art in its entirety' (p. 5). Notwithstanding, like the works in question, taken on its own terms Groensteen's study is likely to be a defining marker. It is an apology for the graphic form, with the richness and insight of Groensteen's analysis allowing us fully and specifically to grasp the potential of comics. [End Page 641]

Laurence Grove
University of Glasgow


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