In this response to both System and to Charles' thoughtful post (go there first if you're arriving in the middle of this discussion!), I don't want to talk about the difficulty of Groensteen's prose. Is it really a shock that a high-powered French academic would use too much jargon and communicate (or not) in a dry, impossibly dense style? Birds gotta fly, fish gotta swim, and Groensteen's gotta write like he's channeling Roland Barthes' Elements of Semiology.
For me, figuring out System's worth doesn't lie in interminable debates about the book's accessibility. I'd rather just dive into System and search for concepts that'll help me understand comics better. Charles and his highlighter have begun doing exactly that, and I'd like to follow their lead by applying some of Groensteen's key concepts to a specific example of comics art, a page from Jason's graphic novel Hey, Wait..., published in English by Fantagraphics in 2001:
(Be warned: I'll be assuming that you've read Hey, Wait..., so spoilers ahoy. If you haven't read the book yet, please do, because it's wonderful.)
Let's begin our System-atic analysis of Jason's unusual page by first getting a handle on the shape of Groensteen's theory. His ideas about the comics medium unfold as a kind of reverse Russian nesting doll. He begins with what he considers the smallest unit of significant meaning in comics, and then expands out into larger "dolls" of signification. And for Groensteen, that smallest unit is the panel.
Why the panel? Why not the drawing inside the panel? As Charles notes, Groensteen doesn't bother to dissect drawings "into smaller elements that can be precisely defined and separated." The marks and lines that make up a drawing can be endlessly categorized ("And here is another ink dot to represent an eye!") but the purpose behind most of these lines and marks is a straightforward narrative one: if you're delineating a Donald Duck story, you're bound to use similar lines from panel to panel to render Donald's figure. Groensteen, however, isn't interested in analyzing every single beak in every single panel of that Donald Duck tale, since that way lies madness and a dearth of scholarly insight. Instead, by beginning his study with the panel as his smallest Russian doll, he can then chart the relationships between individual panels and the various "frames"--the bigger dolls, the various higher-level forms that wrap around panels--to discover how these relationships create meaning. Our Hey, Wait... page mirrors Groensteen's own emphasis on the importance of the panel.
Jason's panels on this page, and throughout Hey, Wait..., aren't typical of the clean grid we see in most comics. The lines surrounding the panels, black and thick, clot up the gutters with darkness. There's a wobbly, free-hand quality to the borders; Jason didn't rule with a T-square. What would Groensteen say about the panel borders here? On page 39 of System, he declares that the panel frame can have "six important functions":
the function of closure, the separative function, the rhythmic function, the structural function, the expressive function, and the readerly function. All of these functions exert their effects on the contents of the panel (a voluntary general expression, by which I mean the totality of the figurative elements within the frame) and, especially, on the perceptive and cognitive processes of the reader.
How can these functions help us understand the Hey, Wait... page? The function of closure seals the panel up, conferring "upon it a particular form" (40). This strikes me as painfully obvious, as does the separative function, where the lines, in addition to closing up the picture, also keep it graphically discrete from pictures in other panels. (That's clearly happening on the Hey, Wait... page--those black lines look impenetrable.) Groensteen deepens his analysis, however, by considering some artists who appear to abandon panel margins altogether, like Will Eisner:
Groensteen doesn't discuss this specific page from To the Heart of the Storm, but his general observations about Eisner's layout apply: "Most of the pages are organized around a framed panel, where the regular form structures the totality of the surrounding space of the page; the elements of the decor, such as doors and windows, are themselves strongly solicited for their structuring effect, and frequently function as frames; finally, the contrasts between the background blacks, whites and grays (cross-hatched) reinforces the differentiation of the images" (44). Eisner may look like he doesn't use panel frames, but he remains a graphic separatist by other means.
The rhythmic function arises from Groensteen's contention that music and comics are arts built on intervals: both are about the rhythmic distribution of information. One possible objection to this comparison is that in music pace is determined by the performer, while in comics it's the reader that controls the flow. Groensteen counters that "to ignore speed--[comics] images are immobile and no voice imprints a delivery on the dialogue--does not suggest any less of a cadenced reading, or an operation given rhythm by the crossing of the frames. Its speech in this particularity is intermittent, elliptical, jerky" (45). This is true of the Hey, Wait... page. Despite the slight irregularity of the panel margins, the size of the panels is consistent, creating a metronomic rhythm that, in fact, remains constant throughout the entire book. There are only two story pages out of 62 in Hey, Wait... that don't follow the six-panel grid. The first is on page two, and it includes the book's title and a full-page shot of Jon and Bjorn sitting in a tree; the second is a full-page splash at the beginning of "Part Two" of apartment buildings stacked up behind each other, creating a claustrophobic atmosphere at odds with the serene Jon-Bjorn-tree picture. Both these splashes act like credits at the beginning of a movie: they create a space where the reader (or spectator) can pause for a moment before plunging into the world of the fiction.
Groensteen is tempted to interpret an artist's use of a rigid layout as an expression of "a vision of the world founded on the notion of order, on Cartesian logic, on rationality" (49), but he immediately cites Watchmen to debunk this notion. Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons maintain a nine-panel grid as Watchmen's storytelling norm, but the content of their story is a critique of cold-blooded rationality: as Ozymandias describes his plan to save the world, he discusses the deaths of millions of people in dispassionate, logical terms, as if describing how to make the trains run on time. Hey, Wait... produces a similar effect, using a regular layout to chart Jon's irrational decline from carefree kid to haunted adult. (I'm going to refer to the Hey, Wait... characters as "people," even though Jason draws them like weirdly stylized animals.) In Part One, before Bjorn's death, Jason's six-panel grid sets a genial, loping tempo, stringing together vignettes from Jon's childhood--reading comics with Bjorn, playing dodgeball, hiding from his crush Ingrid--while occasionally inserting a few playful, surrealistic touches (the pterodactyl that steals Bjorn's kite, the adults who travel by stilts). After Bjorn falls from the tree, however, and Jon assumes responsibility for his death, the vignettes become adult, grim and realistic. Now Jon is grown-up, stuck in boring morning commutes and a dead-end job, and he drinks too much. Instead of representing a child's sense of elongated time and endless potential, the six-panel grid now seems like a curse, like a relentless metronome that constantly reminds Jon that his life "didn't exactly turn out" the way he planned, and that his time is running out.
When discussing the structural function, Groensteen points out that the typical frame is shaped like a rectangle. (This may be the case because the typical comics page is shaped the same way--the traditionally printed comic book favors up-ended rectangles.) This rectangle--or any variant shape--"informs, during all phases of execution, the drawing that is elaborated within it, just as it later inflects its reading" (48). The size and shape of the panel affects the size and shape of the picture within the panel. Charles Schulz always said that adults hardly ever appeared in Peanuts because the panel shape, combined with the stubby designs of the characters, made it difficult to plunk a vertical being into Charlie Brown's world. If we extend Groensteen's observation to the printed version of the original art, we also see the structural function in the progressive shrinking of daily and Sunday newspaper comics. Winsor McCay's art was about scale because he had so much room to draw in; today, cartoonists simplify their styles because most of the details in their drawings will be lost when the pictures are squeezed into fingernail-sized dailies.
Jason's art illustrates that the rectangle remains a versatile device for comics storytelling. The six-panel grid is a choice rather than a constraint for him. Jason's willingness to change scale--to zoom in for medium shots and close-ups, and move out for long shots--means that he can easily accommodate tall and short characters in a single panel, and that he conceives of the panel as a window designed to display the story as clearly as possible. At one point in Hey, Wait..., Jon asks Bjorn, "Is Neal Adams the best-ever Batman artist, or what?" but Jason never goes for an Adamesque, experimental, fractured layout--a layout which would affect the drawing inside the panel more than the tried-and-true rectangle.
The expressive function can, in Groensteen's words, "instruct the reader on what must be read, or even [go] as far as to supply a reading protocol, or even an interpretation of the panel" (50). Groensteen is deep in OuBaPo territory here, where an artist imposes one or more arbitrary formal constraints on a comics work. (If you're not familiar with OuBaPo, visit Tom Hart's unofficial webpage for more information about the American branch of the group. Also check out Isaac Cates and Michael Wenthe's Elfworlds story on their Satisfactory Comics blog, constructed from rules solicited from several friends, including Midnight Sun graphic novelist Ben Towle and one C. Hatfield. Scroll down and begin with the first Elfworlds post.) Groensteen's example is Bill Griffith's 1980 Raw story "The Plot Thickens," where what really thickens is the number of panels. Griffith's constraint is that each successive tier of the page has to include one more panel than the tier previous: he begins his story with one big, wide panel and ends it with twelve microscopic panels dotted across the bottom of page two. But I'm not convinced that Jason labors under constraints (some may say "gimmicks") like this. It might be possible to read the rigid grid of Hey, Wait... as a very simple restraint--"No matter how dramatic the narrative events, we'll stick to the same six panels!"--but I still consider the grid more of a stylistic and rhythmic choice, although maybe this ambiguity shows just how porous Groensteen's categories are.
Finally, we come to the readerly function, which is the power that a panel has to make a reader stop and "scrutinize" its contents, even if there's no obvious reason for panel divisions in the first place. Groensteen's example, a strip from Spanish artist Aleix Barba, is a long horizontal strip stacked into three shorter horizontal tiers, and then pressed into a Watchmen-like nine panel layout. A similar American example might be one of those astonishing Frank King Gasoline Alley Sunday pages where a single picture is sliced by gutters and frames into fragments. Groensteen writes, "To dedicate a frame to an element is the same as testifying that this element constitutes a specific contribution, however slim, to the story in which it participates" (56). For Groensteen, the Barba page is the beginning of an "intimate story" that, through its panel divisions, encourages the reader to ease into the languid pace of a day indoors in wintertime. I don't think the Hey, Wait... page tries to cultivate a mood as Barba's does, but Jason has at least two other reasons for sticking to his six-panel pattern. First, there's a motif in the book of presenting significant moments in the narrative through six panels' worth of repetition. Second, the six blank panels give us a feeling or duration, of a collection of intervals where nothing happens rather than just a moment or two of oblivion. This extended dose of nothingness prepares us for the conclusion of Hey, Wait... , where Jon chooses to erase his life.
I'll conclude by briefly discussing the bigger Russian dolls surrounding Groensteen's notion of the panel. Groensteen calls the next doll the syntagm, and argues that it is limited "to the triad composed of the panel that is currently being read, the panel that preceded it, and the panel that immediately follows it" (111). The panels that come before influence our understanding of the panel we're currently flowing through, even while we're anticipating what might come next. It's all about sequentiality; even out of context, a blank panel followed by a blank panel followed by a black panel creates the sense of a lengthy, forlorn emptiness. The next step up is the page, which can include several tiers and can be as traditional as Jason's grid or as mad as the single page that comprises Xavier Robel and Helge Reumann's Elvis Road. Beyond the page is the sequence, characterized by a unity of action and/or space" (111). As anyone who's read Hey, Wait... knows, the empty panels are part of a sequence where Jon gets loaded. Here's the page immediately preceding the blank grid:
And on the next page, we see him emerge from his stupor and throw up:
This sequence gives us a context in which to understand the empty panels: Jon, racked with guilt over Bjorn's death and his wasted life, is trying to drink himself to death.
The final step up is to the entire book or comic itself. To talk about his various "dolls" of semiotic units, Groensteen coins the term multiframe, and argues that comics is built around a kind of mise-en-abyme structure:
The strip, the page, the double page, and the book are multistage multiframes, systems of panel proliferation that are increasingly inclusive. If one wishes, it is possible to speak of the simple multiframe that is the page, or of every unit of lesser rank that joins several panels (the half page or the strip). Piling up the printed pages on the recto and the verso, the book itself constitutes a paged multiframe. It cannot be comprehended in the totality of its printed surfaces; at any place where it is opened it can only be contemplated as a double-page spread. (30)
An infinite lattice of connections can be made among the different elements that make up the multiframe in any given comic. For Groensteen, "every panel exists, potentially if not actually, in relation with each of the others" (146), and also potentially in relation to the tier, the page, the sequence, and the whole text. Everything can connect to everything else. As Charles notes, Groensteen's term for this networking of connections is braiding, which, in his words, "consists of an additional and remarkable structuration that, taking account of the breakdown and the page layout, defines a series within a sequential framework" (146). The empty page from Hey, Wait... is part of such a braided series: it's one of three central moments in the narrative represented by the repetition of six panels in a row. In Part One, Bjorn jumps for the tree branch, and we realize he tumbles to his death because of Jason's use of six pitch-black panels:
The empty grid, the page at the start of this post, occurs near the end of Part Two. Then the story takes a "magical realist" turn: a skeletal figure appears in Jon's bathroom and offers Jon a "do-over," an opportunity for Jon, as an adult, to travel back in time and prevent Bjorn's death. We suspect that Jon has succeeded when the image of the tree is repeated in six panels, without the kids playing their dangerous game on the overhanging branch:
The next page shows Jon-the-child and Bjorn playing soccer, confirming that Bjorn is now safe. Hey, Wait... ends on a somber note, however, as Jon, having written himself "out of continuity," rides a bus full of dead people to an unknown destination. Across the multiframe of the book, the motif of six-panel repetition appears and reappears at central moments, creating a series that transcends the reading for meaning at the panel-to-panel level. Perhaps the central claim of The System of Comics, then, is that the medium is capable of complex art; by building his theory up from the panel to the elaborate braid, Groensteen argues that comics can be as complex as the finest literature.