by Thierry Groensteen. Translated by Bart Beaty & Nick Nguyen. University Press of Mississippi, publisher. $40.
Hooboy. Eighty-some pages into Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics, near the end of its long first chapter, I went back and reread its Introduction (pages 1-23). The idea was to do to the Introduction what I had starting doing with Chapter One, that is, leaving behind a record of my reading in the form of highlighting. Hoping to be able to reference key passages more easily, and also to get a stronger grip on the book’s unfolding argument, I dutifully picked out what I saw as the most interesting (and contentious) bits with a fluorescent pink marker. But, by the time my highlighting of the Introduction joined up with my highlighting of Chapter One, I had I front of me a span of eighty-odd pages fairly glowing in pink, with only a handful of pages (those devoted mostly or entirely to illustrations) un-highlighted.
This was a record of my first two days with the book, read intermittently at fugitive moments, its reasoning coming to me in bemusing Aldis-lamp pulses. The pink bits – blips and slashes and whole sentences – were reminders of how I had tried to make sense, locally, and build out to the book’s larger argument, globally. In a few cases, my highlighting was so extensive as to seem almost entirely unselective, reminding me of hapless hours spent in graduate school highlighting texts to death.
This was all very frustrating.
Which is not to say that the process was unproductive: along the way my understanding of Groensteen’s modus and agenda seemed to solidify, so that, upon returning to my jumping-off point in Chapter One (page 86?), I found myself on surer footing. But highlighting selectively, in the Introduction or anywhere else, turned out to be more than tough, due to the book’s knottiness, semantic density, and, on occasion, sheer, bracing difficulty. It’s that kind of book.
It’s also a book that has a lot to offer. Arising from the Franco-Belgian tradition of comics and comics study, written by cosmopolitan and inclusive scholar in response to a long-lived European discourse of comics theory, published in France some eight years ago, and now at last translated into English, System has the potential to reenergize if not redefine the still-inchoate field of what I’ll call, for convenience’s sake, comics theory in English.
Not everyone will find this a recommendation, of course. But those with a vested interest in the entanglements of formal comics theory should know this book.
The funny thing is that, having struggled through System, I quickly forgot how difficult the struggle was. I ended up using the book within days, that is, trying to apply its ideas to my own works in progress. In particular, I found Groensteen's brief remarks about narrative drawing, which come in the book's Conclusion as if in an afterthought, useful and inspiring. In a very few pages, Groensteen in effect locates the difference between comic art and illustration, and posits a series of qualities that define comic art as such. This is one of the most intelligent discussions of the narrative power of cartooning that I've ever seen -- and drawing is not even the main subject of the book!
Since I first read the book I've had occasion to discuss it with several friends and fellow scholars, and every conversation I've had about it has started with some mention of its difficulty; honestly, though, I had forgotten. I had to go back to my own pink-saturated copy for its difficulties to come back to my mind. I think the reason I forgot my initial frustration with the text is that, in the end, I found it eye-opening and useful. I went through similar conversions with a lot of grad school reading: from frustration, or even anger at the sheer difficulty or seeming aloofness of a text, to interest in its possible application and even, yes, admiration of that difficulty.
Now, not everybody's going to warm up to this book, and I grant that it is not a welcoming read. There are a number of factors that stand to make the book more forbidding to readers unversed in francophone comics study. For one, Groensteen assumes an audience versed in such things, and takes time to joust with, question, and qualify previous studies. He is writing for an audience that has been exposed to semiotics and more particularly semiological comics study, both within and without academe. He takes issue with certain tenets of, yet also tries to provide a firmer grounding for, such study. So, System is very much an intervention in an ongoing conversation, one of a very specialized sort.
For example, Groensteen rejects, at some length, prior scholarly attempts to parse the comics panel or drawing into smaller elements that can be precisely defined and separated (in this he positions himself on, as he says, "the fringes" of semiology). In fact he seems to go further, undercutting the very notion of the panel or individual drawing as the essential unit of comics analysis; his goal is, not to reduce comics to component elements, but instead to focus on the way comics combine elements. "[T]he most important codes," he says, "concern larger units" (4). The comics panel, Groensteen argues,
is fragmentary and caught in a system of proliferation; it never makes up the totality of the utterance but can and must be understood as a component in a larger apparatus.... [W]hat makes comics a language that cannot be confused with any other is, on the one hand, the simultaneous mobilization of the entirety of codes...that constitute it, and, at the same time, the fact that none of these codes probably belongs purely to it.... This is the reason that [comics] can only be described in the terms of a system. (6)
This is not to say that Groensteen neglects the constituent parts on comics. Indeed he refers to the panel as "the base unit of the comics system" and devotes considerable space to describing the manifold functions of the frame; he also examines at length, for example, the role of word balloons (never before have I read a scholarly study that bothered to distinguish between balloons that merely touch panel borders and those that actually overlap panel borders!). System is in fact the most detailed academic study I have yet read regarding the formal elements of comics. But Groensteen consistently refuses to view these parts in isolation. As he says, he tries not to "disassociate" page, panel, and story, but rather to "analyze their...levels of interaction" (27). It's not the littlest parts, then, that interest Groensteen, but rather the way comics function as an "original ensemble of productive mechanisms of meaning" (2). Ensemble -- that's a phrase that's been kicking around in my head ever since.
On this point Groensteen is fencing with prior semiological analyses of the artform. What's refreshing to me is that he refuses attempts at exhaustiveness and argues against the reducibility of comics. It's his emphasis on the entire ensemble of comics, on the possible relationships among images within that ensemble, that makes the book novel and interesting. So, despite Groensteen's precise, sometimes taxing technical terms, he shows a certain humility before the comics page, a willingness to admit that criticism cannot exhaust the page in all its protean possibility, nor meaningfully break it down into its least parts. In this sense System, despite its effort to understand comics as just that, a system, rejects the bogus scientism that often characterizes semiotic analysis (Groensteen does not try to decompose comics into discrete, atomistic units, nor, thankfully, does he indulge in charts or graphs). This kind of talk, though, may seem digressive, pointless, or plain obscure to those who have not read work within the tradition that Groensteen is challenging.
Another factor that may put off some readers is the book's quest for a more precise terminology. This quest results in the coining of new words (arthrology, referring to relationships between panels, from the Greek arthon, meaning articulation) and the repurposing of existing words (braiding, gridding). Now, these terms struck me as both useful and elegant, but they are, let's admit, bids to create a new or more particular jargon, and that's likely to be a barrier to many prospective readers. Beaty & Nguyen have done, I think, a good job of rendering this terminology into English (tressage = braiding, quadrillage = gridding, and so on), but it could not have been easy.
A final factor that comes to mind (and I thank friend and colleague Rusty Witek for calling this one to my attention) is Groensteen's blunt or disputatious style, something that may be endemic to francophone comics study. Groensteen's style is authoritative, and his engagements with other scholars direct, decisive, and impersonal, so he may strike unaccustomed readers as aggressive. Just as he is quick to pick up on, use, and extend work by others that he finds useful or interesting, he is also quick to critique, reject, or deflect that which he finds incomplete, unfounded, or useless. The style is declarative and unabashedly argumentative; Groensteen overtly acknowledges (this I find refreshing) his own plans and interests, and steers the text determinedly, hence its density and relative economy of phrasing. Plainly, System plays by the rules of an ongoing, energetic, and sometimes rough game.
Again, the question of translation comes to mind: how does the tone of the translation relate to the tone of the original? In fact the language of academia is to some degree transnational; it may reveal more about professional standards and habits than about national or cultural peculiarities. There's something about the style of System, I think, that adverts not only to the book's francophone origins but also to its participation in a transnational discourse of comics study. The book's high-academic tone may place Groensteen squarely in a tradition of francophone theory, but System is a cosmopolitan book that aims to render said theory international, that is, to further an international academic conversation. You can see the markers of two cultures on the text: its francophone origins, yes, but also its effort to speak to an academic audience across borders of nation and language. Beaty & Nguyen, as translators, try to extend that effort. The results are difficult by the standards of comics theory in English, but, I'd say, pretty clear by the overall standards of academese. IMO the toughness of the text is honestly come by and genuinely instructive.
The book's heart is in its description of comics as networks of images: comic art, says Groensteen, "is not only an art of fragments, of scattering, of distribution; it is also an art of conjunction, of repetition, of linking together" (22). The relations between images are, for Groensteen, what define the comics "system." The sum total of these relations he refers to as arthrology, of which he distinguishes two degrees or types: restricted arthrology, meaning the linear relations that comprise the "sequential syntagms" of a story; and general arthrology, meaning distant or translinear relations, to describe which Groensteen invokes the concept of "braiding," that is, the linking of images in networks across even the breadth of a long work such as an album or graphic novel. (As Groensteen himself suggests, one example of braiding might be the recurrence of the smiley face icon in Moore & Gibbons' Watchmen; the repetition of this image, though discontinuous, constitutes a major structuring device in that novel.) The sense of comics that emerges from all this is grand and architectonic.
I took the book as a challenge, and not just because it's tough reading. What System says directly challenges those who would see comics as a literary form (I count myself among that number, as my first book shows). Part of Groensteen's project is to move the discussion of comics narrative out of the literary and more squarely into the visual; for him, comics is predominantly a visual system, a "spatio-topia," that is, a system of spaces and places in which the relations between images are not wholly reducible to, or capable of being paraphrased into, words. He sees himself as resisting a "logocentric tradition" or "linguistic hegemony" in semiotics, and argues, in essence, for decoupling comics' visual narrative from literature per se. This is certainly a provocative line of argument (one that evidently influenced Bart Beaty's own recent book, the excellent Unpopular Culture). I don't agree with it, though, if only because I find the literary approach to comics more expansive, or less restrictive, than Groensteen does. I don't think a literary POV is incompatible with an emphasis on visuals.
So, hooboy, The System of Comics leaves a lot to argue about. Thankfully. From my POV, the book's a challenge, a provocation, and a gift; the difficulty of the text accomplishes something. I know I'll be using and arguing with Groensteen in future, and I expect I won't be alone.