- The Expanding Art of Comics: Ten Modern Masterpieces by Thierry Groensteen
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Thierry Groensteen and his colleagues in France and Belgium were polishing theories and practices of comics formalism in the 1980s which North American criticism has only recently begun to hew of its own accord. During my early years as a graduate student, I more than once referred to Groensteen's The System of Comics1 as "my Bible" when recommending it to others—positioning it as the key to unlocking nuanced formal close reading—and although I have since reined in my dogmatic enthusiasm, the experience of reading comics alongside Groensteen remains invigorating and enlightening. Few comics scholars have such a keen eye for spotting the underlying patterns of the form while also possessing the clarity of voice to expound upon them. Groensteen's standard critical approach draws descriptive theory from a wide body of comics rather than imposing a pre-ordained framework upon a specific few, a process that remains refreshing in a humanities dominated by ideological methodologies.
However, Groensteen's third book to be translated and published by the University of Mississippi Press, The Expanding Art of Comics: Ten Modern Masterpieces, represents a departure from his rigorously theoretical works: The System of Comics and Comics and Narration.2 A series of discrete examinations tackling ten so-called comics "masterpieces," The Expanding Art offers English readers, for the first time, extended Groensteenian readings [End Page 213] of major works. Originally published in Belgium by Les Impressions Nouvelles—a house founded by Marc Avelot, Benoît Peeters, and Jan Baetens, and whose catalog is aimed at a popular readership—The Expanding Art might be considered a companion to Groensteen's previous Impressions Nouvelles book, Comics: A User's Guide (La bande dessinée, mode d'emploi),3 which is framed explicitly as a beginners-styled introduction to the art form. The Expanding Art, then, serves as a practical application of the theoretical basics outlined in A User's Guide.
Pulled from this Franco-Belgian framework of general readership, The Expanding Art is placed staunchly within an American academic milieu, a transition resulting in moments of dissonance. Groensteen's prose is admittedly more accessible here than in his strictly theoretical work, while his overall approach leans towards explication and review rather than deep critique and analysis; yet his intermittent use of jargon, as well as his frequent off-hand references to specialized critics and practitioners, suggests an informed readership. Given this tension, the best course of action may not be to evaluate The Expanding Art using either set of standards—the popular or the academic—but via the criteria Groensteen himself outlines for the project.
In deliberate contrast to the popular ideation of beeline evolutionary progress, Groensteen—in a mere four pages of introductory matter—argues for a more nuanced conceptualization of flowering expansion within the comics field: a shrewd pivot from a linear trajectory of "progress," often associated with the overblown narrative of comics' "growing up," to an outward branching outgrowth. Rather than highlight texts which represent some imagined, recently acquired apex of the form, Groensteen instead posits an examination of works that have pushed comics in radically novel directions: "Each of these books has created an opening, achieved a breakthrough, offered a new narrative model, or taken up an emerging tendency and perfected it" (3). For instance, Groensteen argues that Dominique Goblet's Pretending Is Lying represents an expansion into the visual arts, while Chris Ware's Building Stories signals a move towards comics as a "book-art object" (4).
Considering this alternative framework, it is surprising to note that the comics Groensteen ultimately selects—including Alison Bechdel's Fun Home, David B.'s Epileptic, and Craig Thompson's Habibi—could have been easily assembled using the model of progressive evolution he attempts to subvert, especially given that, for many, the "graphic novel" represents the most recent acme of the comics form. And indeed, for all his claims of expansion, Groensteen ultimately...