by Corry Shores
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[Central Entry Director]
[Literature, Drama, and Poetry, Entry Directory]
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[Thierry Groensteen, Entry Directory]
[Groensteen’s The System of Comics, entry directory]
[The following is summary. My own comments are in brackets. Boldface is mine.]
The Spatio-Topical System
The Pregnancy of the Panel
We can resize and reposition comics panels (keeping their sequence intact) without making meaningful changes in the story. However, if we make changes within the panel, we can make problematic alterations to the meaning of the visual ‘text’. Therefore, the panel is the smallest semiotic unit in comics, at least under our current spatio-topical analysis which is concerned with delimited spaces of story-telling material. Groensteen’s analysis will not follow the convention of first examining the panel’s entangled internal relations (notably, image, story, and frame) and secondly studying the relations woven between the panels. Instead, he will examine the interactions on all scales (without one getting a methodological priority), looking especially at two levels of interaction: the level of spatial interaction and the syntagmatic level of discourse or the story.
Groensteen thinks we should not look for units of meaning smaller than the panel. He discussed this previously in the introduction. He emphasizes now that in this chapter on the “spatio-topical system” we are not concerned so much with marks like lines and points but rather with spatial units, and the panel delimits a space. He notes that in republication, the editor may rearrange the panels of the comic, but she may not make changes within each frame. Thus, the reasoning seems to be, the panel is the smallest indivisible unit of the comic.
the choice of the panel as a reference unit is particularly necessary since one is interested primarily in the mode of occupation of the specific space of comics. In its habitual configuration, the panel is presented as a portion of space isolated by blank spaces and enclosed by a frame that insures its integrity. Thus, whatever its contents (iconic, plastic, verbal) and the complexity that it eventually shows, the panel is an entity that leads to general manipulations. One can take it, for example, in order to enlarge it and create a seriegraph; one can also move it.
The proof is provided when a comic, given a change in physical support (from the daily newspaper to a book, or from an album to a pocketbook edition) is subjected to a “reassembly”: it is at that moment that the order of panels is completely modified. The exercise consists of redefining their respective positions. As for the images, they are not directly touched, or, if they are, it is always with an eye toward preserving the alignment of the frames, to conserve, on the newly created page, a steady outward form. The point is to make an intervention on the frames. Every alteration imposed on the image itself, by the fact of this intervention, is of a consequential order, and can be considered as indifferent at worst, and at best (?) as a necessary evil. When an image is reframed, whether it is by amputation or extension, it appears that the publishers in charge have less respect for the internal composition (its balance, its tension, its dynamism) than for the coalescence of the page. The objective that is pursued is the maintenance of a form of geometric solidarity between the support and the panels that share the surface. In sum, it is notable that the frame dictates its law to the image. This experiential fact reinforces the theoretical privilege that must necessarily be accorded to the panel above all other interior units.
Groensteen further notes temporal features of the panel and claims that the comics panel is not equivalent to the “shot” in film. [One problem with seeing the panel as a shot seems to be that the shot often has more duration. For, he writes,] “With regard to the length of time that it ‘represents’ and condenses, its loose status is intermediate between that of the shot and that of the photogram, sometimes bringing together that of the one and the other according to what occurs” (26). [Perhaps he is saying that the panel represents more than a pure instant, but not as much as an extended shot in film. But I am not sure about this interpretation. A shot in film can be a fraction of a second. And the dialogue balloons in a comics panel can add many seconds to its duration.] Christian Metz saw the shot as the smallest indivisible unit of film, since it can be analyzed into smaller parts of information, but it is the smallest rearrangeable element. [In other words, I think, you can find smaller pieces of information or significance within a shot, but you cannot edit them and rearrange them. You can only edit shots and arrange them as whole pieces.] “one can transpose to the subject of the panel this remark by Christian Metz: ‘If the shot is not the smallest unit of filmic signification (for a single shot may convey several informational elements), it is at least the smallest unit of the filmic chain.’3 And again: ‘One can break up a shot, one cannot reduce it.’4 ” (26) [Citing Christian Metz, Film language: a semiotics of the cinema, trans. Michael Taylor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), p.109 and p.119.]
Groensteen then notes that some have claimed that the duration of the experience of the panel and also the assumed amount of time it represents in the narrative is longer than the shot. [I do not grasp the reasoning for this, but it has something to do with the empty space around the panel and the sequential continuum it is a part of.] (26)
[I am missing the next point too, but it seems Groensteen is saying that the panel gets the reader to be very involved in reading its imagery, which perhaps also explains why its duration can extend for so long. In other words, the reader dwells for a long time on the image.] “the panel has the power to hail the reader, momentarily frustrating the ‘passion to read’ that drives the images so as always to be in the lead” (26).
The power of the panel to “hail” the reader, Groensteen says, at times “finds its explanation in what Roland Barthes calls the ‘obtuse meaning’. [I am not familiar with Barthes' term yet, and I do not gather it from Groensteen's paraphrase. Let me quote the text, then. “... in what Roland Barthes called the ‘obtuse meaning.’ Beyond the informative aspect of communication and the symbolic aspect of signification, this ‘third meaning’ spreads itself to the plane of the signifier. Born from a sense of an ‘interrogative reading’ or of a ‘poetic seizure,’ and which clings par excellence to the ‘signifying accidents.’ Barthes specifies that ‘the obtuse meaning is clearly the epitome of counter-narrative; disseminated, reversible, trapped in its own temporality, it can establish (if followed) only an altogether different “script” from the one of shots, sequences, and syntagms (whether technical or narrative)’ “ (26). Perhaps Groensteen is speaking of something in the panel which tells us it has significance and thus that it is worth further investigating, and yet that meaning is not easily or ever made explicit.]
Groensteen then notes the “double-pronged approach” that most systematic studies on comics to date take: 1) first they examine the interrelated internal elements of the panel (image, story, and frame), then 2) secondly they examine relations between panels.
The most systematic studies published up to this point on the subject of comics generally follow an almost identical outline: they successively examine the tangling of the internal relations of the panel (notably, those of the three major components: the image, the story and the frame; but there are evidently others, since the image on its own admits numerous parameters: reference, composition, lighting, color, qualities of the line, and the writing does the same), then the relations that weave themselves between the panels, and the mode(s) of articulation of these complex units.
After this, he names a number of important treatments taking this approach.
This double-pronged approach can be found notably in Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle; the first part of his book La bande dessinée, essai d’analyse sémiotique (Hachette 1972) is broken into four chapters: “The Image in Itself (Without Text),” “The Balloons,” “Language/Drawing Relations,” and finally “The Relations Between the Images”; it is confirmed also in Pierre Masson, who divides his Lire la bande dessinée (Presses Universitaires de Lyon 1985) into two parts respectively entitled “Morphology” (on the “material of the image” and the “reading of a panel”) and “Syntax” (on the page, the continuity, and the scenario); one finds it finally in Case, planche, récit by Benoît Peeters who, respecting the promises of the title, suggests as the first chapters “The Frame Framed” (De case en case) then “The Adventures of the Page,” saving for the end questions of the scenaristic order.
Groensteen, however, will take a different approach. Instead of looking at smallest parts, beginning with the panel, and working outward to larger parts, he will try “not to dissociate these multistage units, but to separately analyze their different levels of interaction, that being the spatial level in the first place, and, second, the syntagmatic level of discourse, or the story (which admits in its turn two degrees of relations: linear and translinear)" (27).
Thierry Groensteen. The System of Comics. Translated from French to English by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2007. Originally published as Systém de la bande desinée. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999.