8 Jan 2016

Groensteen (1.7.1) The System of Comics, ‘The Function of Closure'


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 Function of Closure


Brief summary:
The first function of the comics frame is to enclose the contents. But this is not a reductive or subtractive enclosing  function, like in film framing. When the contents of the film frame are chosen, at the same time, one is deciding which surrounding contents of the set or scenery will be excluded. In the mind of the cartoonist, however, comics images are not conceived in a similar manner. Instead, she conceives all the contents she wants to show, which together have a coherence and unity, and thus they already express an implicit frame that contains this unity. Then, when the frame is visually depicted on the page, it is superfluous to the implied frame contained already in the contents. In this sense, the comics frame is world-creating rather than world-concealing like the film frame is.




Groensteen explains that the comics panel’s first function is to “close the panel and, also, to confer upon it a particular form” (40).

Groensteen then contrasts the comics frame with the cinematographic frame. [His point of distinction seems to be the size and shape of the outline of the film’s projected image. Films have a non-varying frame, but comics artists can change the panel frame however they want. Of course filmmakers have experimented with using multiple aspect ratios in one film and also to have images go outside the supposed frame. This wonderful video essay shows some examples: https://youtu.be/R26_F7pecqo. The point still stands perhaps that the comics artist has much more freedom to vary the shape and size of the frame than does the filmmaker. Let me quote, as I may have misread him.]

In the exercise of this function, the comics frame is opposed to the cinematographic frame. This opposition is first of all technical. The flexibility afforded to comics with regard to the form of its frames, the “elasticity” of the drawn panels, highlights the rigidity of the cinematographic apparatus, which is practically condemned to equip the projected image with a fixed and constant form (even if other systems theoretically exist—and have existed historically).

Groensteen further discusses the differences between filmic and comics framing. [His next point, spread over a number of paragraphs, is that filmic and comics framings are “ontologically” different, in the sense I think that they perform representation in two very different ways. It seems we might think of filmic framing as like actually holding a picture frame up to the scenery or set standing before the camera, and the question of what to put in the frame is at the same time the question of what must be left out. This leaving out of the frame is central to the story-telling in film, because the excised elements are still evoked within the captured elements. But comics, he seems to be arguing, does not need to treat the situation as if their frame is a limiting factor which brings into dialogue the presented contents with the excised elements. The comics creator instead sees the frame as something that opens an area to put everything they want to show. May I comment for a moment. The difference right now might still not seem too pronounced. The comics creator must choose what is in and also what is not in the panel. And what they show in the panel evokes parts that are not shown. We make assumptions about the rest of the story world merely on what is shown in the panels. I think this “ontologic” difference has to do with the fact that the filmmaker (one who is recording a set or scenery, not one who is making animations, as is clarified in the footnotes) has an actual world in front of their camera, and they must choose what in that world is excluded. The cartoonist however merely has space to put whatever they want into it, without always being explicitly aware of what is left out in that process of filling the panel space.]

In the exercise of this function, the comics frame is opposed to the cinematographic frame. This opposition is first of all technical. The flexibility afforded to comics with regard to the form of its frames, the “elasticity” of the drawn panels, highlights the rigidity of the cinematographic apparatus, which is practically condemned to equip the projected image with a fixed and constant form (even if other systems theoretically exist—and have existed historically).

The difference, it follows, can be qualified as ontologic, and I want, for the instant, to linger a bit longer on this second aspect. If one agrees with Guy Gauthier that “to choose, for a figurative image, is not only to decide what is going to be visible, but also what must be concealed,”20 one must immediately add that the question of choice is posed differently to the filmmaker (to the camera operator, to the framer) and to the cartoonist. In cinema, the frame is, from the moment of shooting,21 the instrument of an extraction, of a deduction. It cuts up a pertinent zone called the “field” within a profilmic continuum that overflows it, drawing a mask around material that, not being printed on the film, will be absent from the screen, that is to say, the “off-screen.”

The frame assigns limits to the profusion of the represented elements, and it elects a privileged fragment. The frame of a comics panel does not remove anything; it is contented to circumscribe. It delimits an area offered to the inscription of a drawing and, if need be, to verbal statements.
[Footnote 20: Vingt leçons sur l’image et le sens (Paris: Edilig, “Médiatheque,” 1982), p. 11. (170)] [Footnote 21: I make allusion here to nothing but the cinema with a realist perspective, while not ignoring the fact that it works differently in animated cinema. (170)]

Groensteen’s next observation seems to be that closing the panel with a visual frame is meant to create a unit of time-space that may enter into coherent relations with other such units in the story. Its purpose is not to prevent the contents from getting confused with the contents of other panels, since for the most part the contents of each panel already cohere. The evidence for this is that when cartoonists change the features of the frame, the reader takes this to mean a change in space and/or time. [I am not sure how to think of this, because I do not know what sorts of changes to the frame would alter the way we understand that story part’s spatio-temporal features. Perhaps by making the frame wavy or in some way indicative of a dream would suggest that it is a memory or anticipation of the future dreamt in the mind of a character, but I am not sure. Possibly Eisner says that by making the panel longer it signifies more time taking place in the panel.]

To close the panel is not to stop the drawing. The graphic materiality cannot flee or flow out; no need, then, to limit it through coercive means. To close the panel is to enclose a fragment of space-time belonging to the diegesis, to signify the coherence. (To change the frame is often the equivalent, for the reader, of causing a displacement in space, then in time — or in these two dimensions at the same time.)

Groensteen then seems to further this argument that the comics frame does not limit the imagery the way filmic framing does with the following point. When the cartoonist draws the frame around the panel, this is not what brings the contents into one coherent unit, separate from the contents of the other panels. For, the mental image on which the contents are based is already one unit of mental visualization that is separate from other such mental images in the cartoonist’s mind. Groensteen then uses the metaphor of tailoring the frame to suit the panel. The implication seems to be that the contents were already self-contained and the visually drawn frame merely puts a visible dressing on that already present but invisible boundary.

In concrete terms, the frame can be outlined before or after the elaboration of the drawing — it must then enclose the already drawn image, crimp it — but the alternative has hardly an effect, since the mental image that inspires the drawing hand is always already framed, grosso modo. With connection to the first implicit frame, spontaneously meeting and without study, the effective frame that is finally inscribed on the present page is generally of little difference: it is at most adjusted to the “body of the image,” in the manner of a piece of clothing (tailoring). | In resorting to tracing (that can be to ink on tracing paper, as it is notably done by Alex Varenne, or in order to transfer the sketch to the original, as with Hergé and Jacobs), certain artists provide themselves a supplementary facility to adjust the frame to the nearest millimeter.

[I am not sure I get the next point. It seems Groensteen is saying that even though the frame is a superfluous addition to an already self-contained unit, still the cartoonist often begins by drawing the frame first and then secondly to fill it with the visual contents that they mentally imagine. I am guessing, but his reasoning for this might be that the mental image is not an exact copy of what comes to be drawn. There is apparently a translation process where the image needs to take on a different visual form, and by drawing the frame, that establishes the visual “language” into which the mental image must be translated. I am not sure of examples. Perhaps motion might be one example. Maybe the cartoonist in their mind has some image of the motion in the scene. But to draw it, they might need to use indicators like motion lines, which were not imagined necessarily. I will quote this paragraph below.] Often the cartoonist first draws the frames and secondly fills them with iconic content, and that first step Groensteen calls gridding.

When it transcribes a mental image, the panel is first of all an image without a body. In elaborating it on the page, the artist almost necessarily begins by creating the frame, however approximate and provisional. All this occurs as if the frame, having structured the space, will then favor the emergence of the icon. I later give the name of gridding to this preliminary appropriation of space.

Groensteen’s next point is that the artist is most concerned with what is included in the presented images. [I might be misrepresenting the following idea here, as I am a little confused by the wording. I reproduce this paragraph below. It seems he is saying that in a film, whatever is not shown in the actual images is meant to be non-existent somehow, or at least virtual, a phantom, a spirit, or something like that. If that is the case, I am not certain about that. Is it not possible that when a film has traffic sounds without showing traffic that we are still to ascribe to the traffic the same level of existence as what is shown? It is also possible that he is saying that even filmic out-of-frame, like voice-offs, is meant to evoke the presence of the unshown things and not their absence. Let me quote:]

An artist is essentially preoccupied by what he wants to put in his image (that is, in his frame), not by what he must exclude. When even, by some effect of decentering or of the arbitrary cut of a pattern, or again by the writing of a voice off, he makes sure that we will be led to presuppose the existence off screen of an element that has become invisible, what is not represented has never had any physical existence within the story (as in the filmic off-screen or profilmic at the moment of shooting):22 it will remain a pure construction of the spirit, a virtuality. [From footnote 22: “The off-screen suggested by film (the filmic off-screen) cannot have any reality — thus when they have constructed nothing but the fragment of the decor that occupies the frame — the physical (profilmic) off-screen does not exist except the one that merges with the entire space of the studio or of the chosen place of filming” (170)]

[I am not certain, but it seems that the next point is that framing in cartooning is automatically a part of the process of composing the image, as he said above. However, framing in filmmaking is something that is done after the set has been completed. Once the scene is set, the director may make framing decisions while filming, like close-ups of specific parts of the set, and so on. Further proof of the fact that cartoon framing is inherent to the drawing process is that in order to know better how the framing of the film scene will be conducted, filmmakers often make drawn story-boards in advance of shooting to create pictures that help determine the shots’ framing.]

In film, the operations that exist to construct or to locate a setting, to light it, to choose the actors, dress them, supervise their staging, in short all of the dimensions of the direction, fully participate in the preparation of the image, and this preparation starts well before the actual filming. As for the framing (choice of the lens, site—and eventual movement—of the camera, framing), it can be conceived at the last minute, in the moments that immediately proceed the shooting. It is significant that the filmmakers least inclined to improvise these filming decisions are compelled to create elaborate storyboards, that is, to draw (or to have drawn on their instructions) each of the shots that will be filmed. In the economy of the seventh art, it is the mediation of drawing that allows, better than any other method, to preconceive the framing.

So far, Groensteen has been been drawing a clear distinction between the cinematic framing device and the comics framing device. The filmic frame “rejects as much as it elects,” by which he refers to the limiting function of the film frame. The comics frame, however, “is content to host or, better, to accompany (since, from the initial instant of conception, the frame and the icon are interdependent and consubstantial),” by which he means that the comics frame both opens the space for the comics image, rather than cuts out pre-existing visual material, and it accompanies the contents in the sense that it is already there implicitly as the the element of coherence that makes those contents from the beginning in the imagination a complete self-contained unit. This is all review. But now he says that this sharp distinction is blurred in a certain case (41). A cartoonist might begin with a photograph, and then decide what in the photograph to draw and what to leave out. “Indeed, sometimes the panel is not a pure translation of the mental image, a product of the imagination; it takes up or integrates, with or without modification, an earlier, generally photographic, document” (41). It seems the entirety of the photographic image Groensteen calls the “prographic” material. The filmmaker has the profilmic material in front of the camera, and she chooses which parts to place in the frame and which to exclude. Similarly, the cartoonist working with a photograph chooses where to place the frame and how to depict what lies inside the panel. [By the way, in his “Glossary of Film Terms,” David Sorfa defines pro-filmic space as  “The area in front of the camera’s recording field.”]

This document, selected in the library of the author or drawn on the spot of the diegesis, constitutes what can be called a “prographic” material. The cartoonist is quite free to take only, by an operation of reframing, the pertinent area that will be drawn. The initial frame of the document has no | definitive character; its status is that of a simple proposition.

[Groensteen does not cite this example, but we might consider for instance Joe Sacco’s Palestine. It is a non-fiction piece in a journalistic style, and he based a number of panels from photographs. In the introductory material to the “Special Edition”, he writes regarding this: “For visual reference, I relied on a few dozen photographs – all I could afford, really, and taken on a borrowed camera” (Sacco xxi); “As I mentioned, I relied primarily on photos for visual reference. My camera wasn’t particularly good, but, then again, I am not a particularly good photographer” (xxiii). He shows some side-by-side comparisons of the photographic material he used placed next to the final drawn panels. Below I show one of those comparisons, and below that I show the entire page of panel. The caption reads: “The Isreal Defense forces camp and observation tower in Gaza’s Jabalie refugee camp” (xxv). As we can see, Sacco, like Groensteen claims, cropped out parts of the photo that he did not want to include in the story imagery.

 photo Palestine photo demo.S_zpsa67hqree.jpg

Another way that the comics panel can be a reduction is if one panel shows a part of a prior one, as if by zooming in. He calls this “reframing” (42). Yet, despite its obvious similarities, Groensteen opposes it still to filmic framing. [I do not follow his reasoning behind the distinction very well. It seems he is saying that you cannot reframe what is already framed. (You can only reproduce that same frame another time). And each part of the original panel were already framed. And perhaps the reasoning goes that since the original framing was not reductive, and since the close-up keeps the original framing somehow, then the close-up also is not reductive or subtractive. Even if that is the reasoning, I still do not quite understand.  Perhaps the idea is that when a close-up is made in comics, we are not subtracting all the other material that was previously shown. Instead, we are just highlighting some part of it. Let me quote, since I probably got this wrong:]

The preexisting image that inspires the panel can also be another panel originating from the same hand, belonging to the same work, or even the same page: in this case, the variant that the reframing introduces produces an analogous effect to what is produced in a film, a zoom or a movement of the camera (traveling, panorama). It is only when the cartoonist reframes that he attributes to the comics frame the extractive function that is particular to the cinematographic frame. Again, is it not the same thing to frame a profilmic element and to reframe a prographic fragment. (The profilmic opposes itself to the prographic just as the monument opposes itself to the document—to use a terminology dear to Michel Foucault.)24 The distinction is taken from the fact that the prographic is always already framed. There exists no icon that does not camp within borders, which are always more or less arbitrary. To intervene on this first frame is to return to a first enunciative gesture; it is inevitably to produce a second degree utterance, an image of the image, a citation. [From footnote 24: Cf., notably, L’Archéologie du savoir, Gallimard, “Bibliothèque des sciences humaines,” 1969, pp. 14–15. (footnote p.170)]

[I am not certain about the next point either. It seems he is further making the point that framing in comics is not reductive. His next way of making this point is to implicitly consider either filmic cuts-aways to wider shots or zoom-outs and then to contrast them to a similar sort of effect in comics, namely, making additions to enlarge a previous comics panel and to show parts of that scene which were previously not visible. In the case of film, this is like lessoning the subtraction. So it is still the subtractive operation where parts are excised. Only a little less is being excluded. In the case of comics, however, it is the creation of new visible things that were only virtual previously. It is like creating more of that story world, and thus Groensteen calls it the “demiurgic potential”. Throughout this section, Groensteen’s portrayal of framing with regard to cinematography reminds me of  ideas in Bazin’s “Ontology of the Photographic Image”.]

It is necessary to specify that this intervention does not necessarily move in the sense of a reduction of the cited icon. To reframe is not like tailoring a suit out of a single piece of cloth. The possibility also exists to enlarge the frame, to add to it one (or several) portion(s)—since this expansion is carried out on one or several side(s)—that belong to the virtual off-screen of the previous image. The drawing fully manifests, in this case, its demiurgic potential: there where there never was anything (there where the document is stopped), it has the power to generate a depiction that, although not informed by a referent, will manifest, if the cartoonist wants it, the same qualities of precision and veracity as the adjacent documented parts.

[Groensteen then briefly digresses and discusses how certain comics try to merge photography and comics. I will quote, as I will not be able to paraphrase very well.]

This point calls for a brief digression. An important aspect of modern comics is the mixture of imaginary drawings and documented drawings, fusing these two categories almost to the point where they become identical. The dichotomy is not pertinent except in regard to its genesis (the reason that I have called for it in the midst of a reflection on framing as a constitutive gesture of the image). The usage desires that comics delete every trace of its double origin, that it conceal it behind a homogeneous execution: at once a production of the imagination and a recycling of icons from every provenance—in eminently variable proportions. The Hergéan line, unifier par excellence, is exemplary of this natural direction. | Largely dominant (for the simple reason that it reinforces the credibility of the fiction), this tendency entertains only certain exceptions, about which I do not believe I have to extend myself here.25 [From footnote 25: I will recall simply that the dogma of the graphic homogeneity does not exist in Japanese comics, where the “the rule of the style of facets” reigns, cf. Thierry Groensteen, L’Univers des mangas (Tournai, Casterman, 1991), pp. 47–48. (p.171)]

Groensteen then emphasizes his point regarding comics framing and prographic photographic material. It seems to be that the photograph has its frame, but what matters in the framing of the photograph-based comics image is that the comics framing is bound up with the mental imagery that is finally drawn. Thus the final comics image is not subtractive but rather inherently part of that mental imagery and also world-opening rather than world-concealing.]

Allow me to repeat: the mental image comes from the imagination along with its frame, equally a mental product, while the prographic document necessarily camps within the interior of a real frame. But the materiality of the frame does not at all guarantee that it will be preserved; on the contrary, the real frame has a greater chance to be altered than the mental frame accompanying an image conceived ex nihilo and all of one piece.

Groensteen then specifies that “when a mental image is given birth by a cartoonist, the preconceived parameters of its frame are principally its proportions and its form” (43). [So the cartoonist in her mind when conceiving the mental image already has conceived its unity and coherence, which means she knows what is included and how it is arranged. She therefore has in mind implicitly already the frame which contains that unity.] [However, the dimensions might vary in the sense that it is not as important how large the image is drawn on the page, so long as it keeps the proportions and form. Nonetheless, even such variations in dimension normally vary only slightly from what was originally imagined. I might have that wrong, so let me quote again.]

It is advisable, on the other hand, to be precise: when a mental image is given birth by a cartoonist, the preconceived parameters of its frame are principally its proportions and its form (precisely the issue that the cinema, for its part, has always already resolved). The dimensions of the frame can vary; one knows of cartoonists who make miniscule sketches and do not create the image in its real size except at the moment that they carry out the transfer to the final page. But these are the exception: The variations of the frame, between the mental conception, the draft(s) and the final execution, are generally of a weak amplitude.

[I think the next point is that although the frame is implied in the unity of the panel, the contents of the panel might later be modified so to better interact with the other panels. Perhaps the concern here is that one might object that the frame stayed the same, but the organization and unity of the contents changed, and therefore the frame was never really inherent to the contents. I am not sure, so let me again quote if I may.]

If, in the mental image, the frame and the contents are immediately interdependent and consubstantial, that does not mean to say that, even if they were thought of first, they so remain in the completed image. They can later be modified together, in order to satisfy the superior exigencies of the page layout— which I will speak about in the coming pages. Indeed, the frame of a panel will not be definitively concluded without consideration for the surrounding panels. Bound to the contents that it encloses, the frame is no less attached to the frames that surround it.



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.

Or if otherwise indicated:

David Sorfa. “A Glossary of Film Terms.” Printed under the letterhead of The University of Edinburgh, School of Literatures, Languages & Cultures. Made available by the author at:



Images and some quotation taken gratefully from:

Joe Sacco. Palestine. The Special Edition. Seattle, Washington: Fantagraphics Books, 2007.

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