25 Dec 2015

Groensteen (1.2) The System of Comics, ‘The First Spatio-Topical Parameters’


by Corry Shores

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[The following is summary. My own comments are in brackets. Boldface is mine.]


Summary of
Thierry Groensteen
The System of Comics

Chapter 1:
The Spatio-Topical System

The First Spatio-Topical Parameters


Brief summary:
We might think of the spatio-topical framework of comics panels as if the page were made of blank boxes that can be filled with visual content. There are three parameters to the spatio-topical features of a comics panel: 1) its form (that is, its geometrical shape), 2) its area (the amount of space extending within the panel), and 3) its site (its location on the page and within the work at large). The site’s importance can be seen in cases where the location on the page is important for dramatic effect or for “rhyming” with other parts.




Recall from section 1.1 where Groensteen makes the point that the panel is the smallest irreducible unit; for, panels can be rearranged in different editions, but the contents of the panel must remain intact. Groensteen then says that “it is the frame that makes the panel,” while “At the same time, the page, this conglomeration of juxtaposed panels, is easily reduced to its framework, which we have called the multiframe” (27-28). He continues: “The traditional schematic representation of a comics page is nothing more than a grid where the compartments are left empty, the ‘skeleton’ being only the body of the evoked object,” citing an instance from Will Eisner’s The Dreamer. Perhaps this scene is what Groensteen is referring to:


 photo Eisner. Dreamer Frames. Groensteen.2_zps0c0ct65q.jpg

Such a depiction of empty frames highlights for Groensteen what is most essential to the medium of comics.

These miniature representations of comics pages are kinds of symbolic pictograms; they give value to their signs, they express a concept, they enclose an implicit definition. Behind their apparent poverty, these pictograms bring us back to what is essential about comics. They plainly confirm the two fundamental intuitions that guide me: that comics are composed of interdependent images; and that these images, before knowing any other kind of relation, have the sharing of a space as their first characteristic. And, remarkably, they do not say anything other than that.

In fact, the gridding of the visual space is a conceptual construct that can play an influential role at the early stages of creation: “Indeed, we will see later on that this ‘grid’ effectively incarnates comics as a ‘mental form,’ and that the artist can refer to it at a very precocious stage of creation, at a stage that has been given the name gridding (quadrillage). This stage in the process of creation can be briefly described as the first appropriation of the space that is invested in” (28). Now Groensteen will describe “the spatio-topical apparatus” of comics by saying more about “the mode of division” and “the occupation of spaces upon which comics rests” (28).

Groensteen claims that in order to describe any panel in precise detail, we must “mobilize at least three parameters,” namely, its form (that is, its geometrical shape), its area (the amount of space extending within the panel), and its site (its location on the page and within the work at large).

It is necessary to mobilize at least three parameters in order to precisely describe any panel, without regard to its contents. These spatio-topical parameters are always observable, even if the panel is free from all forms of inscription and consists of nothing but an empty frame. The first two are geometric: they are the form of the panel (rectangular, square, round, trapezoidal, etc.) and its area, measurable in square centimeters. This spatial dimension of the panel is summarized | and resides in the frame. The frame is at the same time the trace and measure of the space inhabited by the image.

The third parameter, which is the site of the panel, concerns its location on the page and, beyond that, within the entire work.

Groensteen will return to the topic of the panel site in section 1.5. For now he notes that how Jean-Claude Raillon observes the importance of the panel’s site in issue 8 of Hergé’s The Adventures of TinTin. We are to compare two scene transitions occurring as Tintin passes through a doorway. In the first case, the transition happens as we turn the page, since he is outside the doorway at the end of one page. Then we flip the page, and he is on the inside of the building at the beginning of the next page.

 photo Herge. Tintin 8.double page turn.RD_zpswzbdrwm4.jpg 


What is important here is that the position creates a certain suspense. And the turning of the page is like the turning of the door in the image. [It is as if the reader participates in the action, merely through the normal physical acts of reading the book.]

 photo flip page animation B 1.25cc.2_zpstkerjnls.gif

Compare that to a similar doorway transition later in the story.

 photo single page transition.R2_zpst6ch1dff.jpg

Groensteen quotes Raillon:

The observation, from the point of view of the topical parameter, of the panels in question shows . . . that their location on the page is not comparable from one sequence to the other. The first series is distributed over two pages, more precisely over recto and verso of the same page, while the second offers a readable denouement within the frame of the page on which it is written.

And everything changes, of course, with regard to the narrative suspense that organizes the structure of representation, but more certainly, we need to be attentive, in the rapport between the parametric compositions that they arrange. Indeed, the relation that allies the character’s movement at the instant where, arriving at the end of page 15, he crosses over the doorstep of the building, and the gesture of the reader who, accompanying him, turns the page, is remarkable. Thus one finds established, between the material framework of the drawings and the represented sequence, a double similitude: the first associated with rotation, around their respective axes, the planes that are a door and a sheet of paper; the second manifests the common displacement of the character and the reader toward another site.10 [ft 10: “10. Ibid. pp. 68 and 72.” ft 9: “9. ‘L’homme qui lit,’ Conséquences, no. 13–14, Contrebandes, op. cit., pp. 64–104.” ft 8: “8. For an analysis of this ‘meta-comics’ category and several others, cf. Thierry Groensteen, ‘Bandes désignées. De la réflexivité dans les bandes dessinées,’ Conséquences, no. 13/14: Contrebandes, Paris, Les Impressions nouvelles, 2nd quarter, 1990, pp. 132–165.” (169)]

Thus there is a great importance to a panel’s location on the page (29) [I am not sure how this squares with his prior point from section 1.1 that the panel is  the smallest irreducible unit since the order of the panels can be rearranged but their contents cannot be. He wrote: “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” (25). This seems to be contradicted by what he is saying here. In other words, with the importance of the site, why is the page not the smallest indivisible “spatio-topical” unit?  Perhaps the difference is that newspaper strips function differently than comic books. Or perhaps editorial alterations to the sites do not change the meaning of the imagery but rather only the way it is experienced. But I am not sure sure.]

As Groensteen explains:

This example will suffice (but I will verify it later on with others) to testify to the importance, for certain panels at least, of their “location on the page.” In the example of King Ottokar’s Sceptre, the panel that ends page 15 is over-determined by a concerted coincidence between its representation and its location. It is common in comics that panels find themselves “automatically” reinforced by the fact that they occupy one of the places on the page that enjoys a natural privilege, like the upper left hand corner, the geometric center or the lower right hand corner— and also, to a lesser degree, the upper right and lower left corners. Numerous artists have assimilated this fact and made, in a more or less systematic manner, key moments of the story coincide with these initial, central, and terminal | positions, to “rhyme” the first and last panels of a page, instituting a manner of looping that we will recognize further on as an effect of braiding.

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.

Images from:


Will Eisner. The Dreamer. New York: DC Comics, 1985.

Hergé. The Adventures of Tintin. #8. King Ottokar's Sceptre. English translation by Leslie Lonsdale-Cooper and Michael Turner. New York: Little, Brown and Company, 1974 edn.

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