9 Jan 2016

Groensteen (1.7.2) The System of Comics, ‘The Separative Function'


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 Separative Function


Brief summary:
The second function of the comics frame is to separate one panel from the others. This is necessary for there to be segments that make up the series of scenes that constitutes a comics story. It also is inherently a part of the prior function of closure, since the operation that unifies the contents of a panel is also what makes one distinct from the others. This working of the frame is similar to how punctuation marks separate sentences, and in fact, frames may create the experiences of pauses or breaks in a similar manner. There are three main components in every conventional frame separation. There is (a) the boundary of one panel, (b) the boundary of a neighboring panel, and (c) the blank space between them. However, there are three unconventional sorts of framing that do not exhibit these three parts. There are (1) singular lines that divide two panels, (2) merely a blank space between panels, and (3) the interprenation of neighboring panels. Nonetheless, the separative function still holds in all three cases. In the first case, the visual separation is there even though it is quite narrow. In the second situation, the reader still regards the blank space as something dividing the opposing panel contents. And for the third case, other visual elements often work to indicate the frame separations, even though the way they operate becomes more difficult to discern immediately. Thus regardless of whether the frame is conventionally or unconventionally used, its separative function is found in all cases of comics stories.



We previously discussed the way that the comic’s panel frame encloses the contents within the panel. But it is not a reductive enclosing, like how film framing is a matter of selecting what in front of the camera is captured and what is left out of the image. Rather, what is shown is already a self-contained unity. However, there is still the out-of-panel, you might say, which is evoked as a virtual extension of what is shown. He now notes that in addition to this imagined or virtual out-of-panel, there is the actual visual out-of-panel which is the other panels surrounding any given one (43). But what will be under our analysis here is not the out-of-panel but rather the separative function of the panel frame. [Consider if there were no segments in the comics story. This is very hard to imagine. Can it still be a story if there is not different parts with different temporal meanings? It would seem to need temporally distinct parts in order to have the events that make up a story. The question we then ask is, are those events continuously variable or discretely variable? In a sense, film can show the continuous variation of story events through time, since the film medium is itself in continuous motion, and it also creates the illusion of continuous motion in the viewer’s visual perception. Printed comics, with the exception of those with a potential flip-book function (see the examples we discussed in section 1.6), are still (that is, motionless)  images. As such, their event parts would seem to be discrete units. This should not be seen as a limiting factor in their ability to tell a story, however. What is cut out and left as implied in the gutter between panels is still present in the experience of the story. Each panel normally gives us an abrupt difference from the prior panel (And even if two or more successive panels are identical and thereby give us the impression of eventless duration, they still probably have their effect in the context of surrounding panels which are not eventless. And thus it is their abrupt difference against that context which makes them stand out). As such, when reading comics panels, we experience a series of narrative ‘shocks’ or jumps. Phenomenologically speaking, comics are experienced like a strobe light, as a series of narrative flashes or glimpses. The lack of continuity is more than made up for in the intensification of each moment, as each panel presents a condensation of narrative material, and implies the narrative developments happening between the panels. But with regard to the point that we still read a discrete sequence even in a single panel with its own duration, we might consider this example from one of Winsor McCay’s Little Nemo in Slumberland. (Click and enlarge at photobucket if it is too small here).

 photo Little Nemo singing sequence panel_zpslxjc19cv.jpg

The song that it evokes might progress continuously in our mind, and lend to the sense of a continuous duration in the panel. However, the staccato rhythm of the comics experience is still in some senses fundamental. This is evident with each little temporal jump in the series of song word ballons. But also the two forground character bubbles seem to present two more discrete units of story event perhaps occuring during the singing, but read afterward, as if the song provides a sonic background within which the primary dialogue takes place. Scott McCloud, in Understanding Comics, draws this panel to demonstrate one of the ways that dialogue helps constitute the thickened temporality in a comics panel.

 photo McCloud. Understanding Comics. Dialogue Sequence_zpsactbdjhd.jpg

Here he is discussing the constitution of continuous duration in the panel. (To be more clear, the structure of the time that we experience as being in the comics panel is different than the temporal pattern of our experience of the panel. We might ascribe to the panel a continuous duration of a block of a couple seconds. Furthermore, we might read a panel while experiencing the continuous passage of time. And so during this duration for example we might imagine the branches of a depicted tree swaying continuously in the wind. Or we might imagine the figures’ lips moving continously as they speak the dialogue in the bubble. However, insofar as one panel presents segments of action within it or insofar as a series of panels does so, we experience the panel’s continuous duration by means of a discrete series of mental experiences, which clear breaks between each segment of that story experience. Again, refer to the McCay panel above where we might have in mind the continuous playing of the song, but we experience the song’s parts by discrete steps.)  Yet, regarding the experience of each balloon in McCloud’s panel, like in the Nemo Slumberland example, we have a series of discrete experiences of the story, which could if the author wanted, involve placing more panel lines within the larger panel to designate those narrative sub-partitions. But this is superfluous, since those subdividing framing lines are inherent to our experience of the panel’s contents. At times, however, that superfluous line is in fact drawn into a scene, to notable effect. Consider this panel below from a superhero comic.

 photo Legacy of Superman split framing_zpsxjuijqim.jpg

Now, for further comparison, consider also some interesting instances of framing in Dave Sim’s and Gerhard’s Cerebus #75, “Terrible Analogies.”

 photo Cerebus 75 p.6_zpst47z9fxh.jpg

In the first panel, we have what appear to be two moments in Cerebus’ seemingly slow and crestfallen pacing away from the woman, sitting on the bed, who just then gave Cerebus heartbreaking news. In this first panel, no frame is used to determine that there are segments of movement and time, although those segments are still discerned in their discreteness. The last panel, however, shows a blur of continuous motion. We might experience it as one unified event. Or perhaps we divide it into two different moments for each time the blade strikes the ground, as impact makes its own sound. At any rate, in the first place we have discrete phases of motion and discrete moments of time presented in continuous visual space, but that discreteness carries with it an implied and invisible frame. Following Groensteen’s analysis in the prior section, we would say for the first panel that the internal sub-framing is implied but still present, because the contents of the panel contains two seperate unities. The first pose gives us one coherent distinct event or phase of the event, and the second pose gives us the other one. But what is notable in this panel and in others that we will examine is the way the framing alters our experience of the temporality. Even though the frame here is implied, we still juxtapose the moments, perhaps giving the event more of a timeless or eternal feel to it.

Now consider many pages later, after Cerebus offers a sack of valuables to the woman with whom he must part ways.

 photo Cerebus 75 p.15_zpsztpnvqyq.jpg

Consider especially panels 3 and 4. With regard to the background, it is almost as if both panels are spatially continuous, and the panel divider was placed overtop of that unified setting. (Note also that there are no outer boundaries on those panels, which perhaps emphasizes the role of the visible boundary in the center.) However, the contents of the panels do not suggest that the frame only spatially divides a singular moment, even though it visually divides a singular space. There is the offer and then the rejection. The frame boundary in the center both divides the event into two poles of motion, and at the same time, it places into the forground two different characters. So on the one hand, as we go from one frame to the next, it is as if the “camera” stayed in the same place, since the background does not change. But since we get two different moments of the action, it is as if the “camera” has changed positions to give a close up of each character individually. This of course creates this potent tension between their intimate relational bond that at the same time is being split apart into two different directions. Now finally let us look at page 17, after the woman has departed, and Cerebus watches her leave from the window. In the central panels, we seem to have something like a mixture between what we saw on page 6 and also on page 15. Like on page 15, we have what seems to be a singular background underlying the panel divisions. The four window panels seem to be the same as those shown in the prior panel of Cerebus looking out the window. And like from page 6, we have different moments of the walking motion, shown independently and without indication of the movement between those moments. But here we have the panel divisions (the two virtical black lines that might be mistaken for window frames), which perhaps make the moments seem more segmented and temporally sequential. It might give us the impression that every moment of her leaving held great weight for Cerebus.

 photo Cerebus 75 p.17_zpse44s8epj.jpg

] As Groensteen explains, the panel frame function of isolating panels is like punctuation that divides sentences into complete discrete units.

If the panel is equipped with a virtual diegetic off-screen, it also possesses a physical off-screen, which is composed of the bordering panels.26 Also, it is a condition of reading that the panels are physically isolated from each other, or cognitively isolatable, of the sort that they can be read separately. In this consideration, the panel frame plays an analogous role to that of punctuation marks in language (here comprised of the elementary sign that is the blank white space that separates two words), these signs that divide, within a continuum, the pertinent units, thus allowing—or facilitating—the comprehension of the text.
[Footnote 26: Benoît Peeters suggests giving this surrounding space the name “péri-field,” cf. Case, planche, récit, op. cit., p. 15. (“Notes” p.171)]
[From footnote 7 of chapter 1: Benoît Peeters’ book, Case, planche, récit. Comment lire une bande dessinée (Tournai-Paris, Casterman, 1991). (“Notes” p.169)]



There is a convention for panel separation. We have the boundaries of each panel and the third element, the blank space between them.

The dominant usage similarly rests on an insistent separation, to the limit of the tautology. That which separates two panels is indeed nothing less than the triple frontier constituted by the frame of the first panel, the inter-iconic blank space that follows, and the frame of the second panel. Undoubtedly, frames are so well perceived as an integral part of panels that it is necessary to distinguish the one from the other; it is initially to the interstitial space (notably termed, depending on the author, “intericonic space,” “interframes,” “between images,” or “gutter”)27 that the reader recognizes a separative virtue. But it would not appear like this if it was not bordered, on both sides, by the thin lines of the frames of the panels. Gutters are not framed themselves, but all the same they are calibrated with precision and, it can be said, “protected” against the hegemonic pressure of the image.
[Footnote 27:  Cf. Jan Baetens, “Pour une poétique de la gouttière,” Word & Image, vol. 7, no. 4, October– December 1991, pp. 365–376. (“Notes” p.171)]

[Recall from section 1.3 that the “multiframe” is the system of interrelated panels in a comics work, and the panels in the multiframe may be nested within enlarging scales of organization.] Now, this “ordinary apparatus of compartmentalization in the ‘multiframe’” that we mentioned above need not have the three parts we identified (the two borders of neighboring panels and the space lying between them). Rather, the structure may be simplified or bypassed. Groensteen then identifies “three important breaks with respect to the dominant usage” (44).

1. The first break with the conventional panel separative structure is a simple outline that “simultaneously and indistinctly belongs to the frames of each of the two adjacent panels” (44). He cites Töpffer as a historical case.

 photo Toumlpffer. Jabot p1_zpsvym6ljb8.jpg

Groensteen also mentions Mutt and Jeff.

 photo Fisher. Mutt and Jeff. gas suicide b_zpskzqgkh82.jpg

And as well he cites Krazy Kat.

 photo Herriman. Krazy Kat. 1916-04-30_zpsxnfjq9qg.jpg

He also mentions the more recent example of Claire Bretécher.

 photo Breteacutecher. Les megraveres. p14_zpsqbmqusrq.jpg


2. Another unconventional framing technique is merely to rely on the white space between the panels.

Similarly, often nothing tangible separates the different elements of the narrative sequence, nothing except the white of the paper, or the space that the drawing does not occupy. In Reiser, Copi or Wolinski, the narration concentrates itself generally only in the characters, solitary figures developed in an empty décor or one that is minimally suggested by a few elements. The repetition of the same figure suffices to signify the passage from one “panel” to another (if we can be allowed to use this term).

Here for example is a page of Copi.

 photo Copi. Vive pedes p253_zpsj0qhaxzy.jpg

Here below is one of Reiser.

 photo Reisner. Cest beau une femme. Le jeu du veiel Indien_zpszqpswaq5.jpg

And lastly here is Wolinski.

 photo Wolinski. Je ne veux pas mourir idiot_zpsj84vvmwt.jpg

3. The third possibility is that the different panels on the page interpenetrate one another, and Groensteen cites recent works by Will Eisner. [Below are some pages from his The Name of the Game. On the first page shown,  at the top right we see two moments of the man entering the room. It is almost as if in the right-most panel he is introding into the panel happening sequentially prior. As well, in the rest of the panels we see word balloons and other visual elements crossing into other panels. In the second page displayed below, the intepenetration is so continuous that it even appears as if the man is entering the floor of the panel above him, since that floor above seamlessly becomes the wall below.]

 photo Eisner. Name Game. p.72 106.b.S.b_zpsdsrja4t4.jpg

Groensteen still thinks that even in these cases of interpenetration, the function of panel separation remains, for the following four reasons. (a) The pages often still have at least one framed panel, “where the regular form structures the totality of the surrouding space of the page. (b) Certain elements of décor, like door and window frames, often serve the panel separation function. (c) And, “the contrasts between the background blacks, whites, and greys (gross-hatched) reinforces the differentiation of the images.” Also, (d) we still read the panels left to right and top to bottom, and that ordering sequence also helps segment the interpenetrating images. [In the case of the floor of one panel becoming the wall of the panel below it, we come to the lower panel after reading through other panels to the above right, and so the distinction is made more clearly].


Groensteen then notes that just like Eisner, Wollinski’s panels lack the “artificial” and superfluous framing border that signifies which parts are “organic units”. However, such a boundary still exists as an implicit outline, even if it is not visually rendered (45).

So after showing the separative function of the frame in both obvious and non-obvious cases, we are led to conclude that it is found in all cases of comics, no matter what. This function is also essential for the way that the parts of comics connect like joints (anthrology); for, you can only have connecting parts if in the first place you have distinct parts that can be connected.

Thus, the principle of the separation of images can never be truly denied. The spatio-topia, let us not forget, is a part and a condition of arthrology: one could not connect the visual utterances if they were not distinct. The separative function is always in the work, even if the frame, which is ordinarily its privileged instrument, finds itself deliberately dismissed.

[I think Groensteen’s final point is something like the following. The prior panel function of closure was the principle that coheres the panel contents into a unity. As such, closure also makes one unit distinct from other such unities, for otherwise it would not be a coherent whole unto itself (even though it serves as a part in a larger system of other self-sufficient unities). Therefore, these two functions in a sense are one in the same, since to enclose a unity is in the same operation to separate one unity from another actual or possible one.]

The function of closure and the separative function are, in truth, nothing but the same function, successively envisaged as it exerts itself on the interior space of the frame and toward the exterior field.



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 taken gratefully from:

Winsor McCay. Little Nemo in Slumberland. 1906-07-01. Obtained gratefully from the Comic Strip Library.

Dan Jurgens (story and layouts), Trevor Scott (finishes), John Costanza (letterer), and Glenn Whitmore (colorist). "Vanishing Point.” In The Legacy of Superman #1. March 1993. DC Comics.

Scott McCloud. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: Kitchen Sink Press, 1993.

Dave Sim and Gerhard. Cerebus #75. "Terrible Analogies." June 1985. Aardvark-Vanaheim.

Rodolphe Töpffer. Histoire de M. Jabot. Genève. 1833. Available online at the Internet Archive.

Bud Fisher. Mutt and Jeff. 3-Nov-1911. "If Someone Doesn't Turn off the Gas, It's All off with Mutt and Jeff." Obtained gratefully from Ben Welter's article at the Star Tribune.

George Herriman. Krazy Kat. 30-April-1916. Obtained gratefully from the Comic Strip Library.


Claire Bretécher. Les mères. Copyright Claire Bretécher, 1982.

Jean-Marc Reiser. C'est beau, une femme! Copyright Reiser and Albin Michel, 1996.

Copi. Vive les pédés et autres fantaisies. Éditions de l'Oliver, 2014. Here taken gratefully from Cornélius.


Will Eisner. The Name of the Game. Copyright Will Eisner and DC Comics, 2001.

Georges Wolinski. Je ne veux pas mourir idiot. Copyright Wolinski and Éditions Denoël, 1968.

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