11 Jan 2016

Groensteen (1.7.3) The System of Comics, ‘The Rhythmic 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 Rhythmic Function


Brief summary:
On account of the temporal breaks between comics panels, there are a series of jumps that have the same sort of rhythmic properties that we find in the patterning of cuts between shots in an edited film. This is the rhythmic function of the panel.




[I do not understand the terminology in the first sentence, so I will quote it. It might be a reference to creating a rhythmic meter in writing, but I am not sure.] “To cut up a text is to scan it” (45). [We previously discussed the separative function of the frame. It creates breaks in the flow of reading. These breaks then produce a repetition of experience as we read comics, and this repetition of experience can be said to have a rhythm, like the repeating patterns or beats in music. The rhythm of comics can be modified using other visual elements that affect the way we move through the images and text.]

To cut up a text is to scan it. The “text” of comics obeys a rhythm that is imposed on it by the succession of frames—a basic heartbeat that, as is seen in music, can be developed, nuanced, and recovered by more elaborate rhythmic effects stressed by other “instruments” (parameters), like those of the distribution of word balloons, the opposition of colors, or even the play of the graphic forms.

To further characterize the rhythmic function of the comics frame, Groensteen quotes Jean-Luc Godard’s definition of the cinema as “the art of making music with painting” (qtd in Groensteen 45). Groensteen says that comics share many affinities with painting [in that they both produce still, visual, two-dimensional images often using mostly similar tools and materials], and as well comics share much in common with cinema [perhaps because they both have similar story-telling devices, including mise-en-scène, “cinematography” (in the sense of angles and other elements of perspective and focus in the comics), editing, pacing, and so on]. The other similarity is that both comics and cinema tell their story rhythmically.  He writes: “comics, in displaying intervals (in the same way as persistence of vision erases the discretization of the cinematic medium) rhythmically distributes the tale that is entrusted to it” (45). [The persistence of vision – or, as it is understood in more recent accounts of the cinematic illusion,  the  phi phenomenon – is what makes the discrete units of still imagery on the film strip appear as continuous motion when viewed at a rapid frame rate. However, films are normally not made of one continuous sequence of frames meant to seem like one solid duration from one viewer’s point of view. (Some notable exceptions are Hitchcock’s The Rope and Iñárritu’s Birdman.) Rather, they are made of smaller fragments containing continuous footage (normally seconds or so long, but sometimes much longer or very brief) each with their own distinct cinematographic properties (like different angles, lenses, and so on), and all these independent fragments are edited together to make the film. Those breaks can be meant to go unperceived, as in continuity style editing (and even The Rope and Birdman have cuts edited so to produce the illusion of unbroken continuity), or these breaks can be more apparent, as in discontinuity styles like Soviet montage, jump-cut editing in French New Wave (Godard), or more recently in  chaos editing. Nonetheless, whether the editing is continuity-style or not, it in both cases still presents breaks or punctuations in the viewing experience, and the patterns of these breaks produces rhythmic effects. See for example the snappy, perhaps “upbeat,” musical rhythm of Orson Welles’ editing in F for Fake. Comics of course do not use the persistence of vision (or the phi phenomenon) (except in flip book applications, see the examples from section 1.6). Nonetheless, each panel takes on a block of continuous duration. It is not constituted using a perceptual illusion, but is rather projected onto the image by the imagination of the reader. (See the prior section, especially Scott McCloud’s demonstration). (Note also, that Eisner considers the experienced temporality in the comics panel to be an illusion. It is illusory, in that it is not physically there. But it is not a perceptual illusion, because it is not the product of our perceptual apparatus; rather it results from the activity of our imagination). So the succession of comics panels (that is, of continuous blocks of story duration with experiential jumps between them) can have very similar rhythmic features to the succession of shots in film.] The motion in the act of reading comics, then, is “intermittent, elliptical, and jerky”:

To ignore speed — its images are immobile and no voice imprints a delivery on the dialogue — does not suggest any less of a cadenced reading, or an operation given rhythm by the crossing of the frames. Its speech in this particularity is intermittent, elliptical, jerky. Each new panel hastens the story and, simultaneously, holds it back. The frame is the agent of this double maneuver of progression/retention.

Groensteen’s next point is that when we use his own methodology,  we cannot identify standard parameters that determine the rhythmic function of the panel to be applied to any and every comic book. Thus specifically we cannot say that any time a panel is longer it encompasses a longer duration of action. [Perhaps Eisner was making such point that Groensteen is against in his Comics and Sequential Art, especially section 3.3. Recall for example this analysis where Eisner said the narrower panels accelerate the pace and the longer ones create pauses or portray longer moments of story duration.

 photo Eisner. Comics and Sequential Art.foul play 4_zpsvxexcymf.jpg

] For Groensteen, the rhythmic function is something that depends more on the actual contextual factors rather than on universalizable ones.

At this time, I want to register myself against a false temptation to which, in the past, more than one specialist has succumbed: that of establishing an automatic | correspondence between the form and the dimensions of the frame and the length of the supposed action that it enframes. One finds, notably in Pierre Masson, several indications along these lines: thus “a frame stretched in height . . . suggests a suspension of rhythm, the discovery of a high point,” while the “juxtaposition of several panels of the same format” will translate into “a rapid succession of actions or of replies.”29 The same author has also written that “the greater the number of panels, the stronger the impression of rapidity.” All normative propositions do not do justice to the diversity of the expressive techniques and to the aesthetics of the authors, and it would be easy to oppose a quantity of counter-examples (beginning with the pages by Gabrion, Baudoin, and Del Barrio reproduced above). Against the dogmatism that has sullied too many theoretical structures, the comics system that is outlined here is meant to contrast a resolutely pragmatic approach, summarizable in these terms: the function of a parameter, of a unit or a figure is not prejudiced to its usage and to its signification in a given context (narrative, artistic, editorial).
[Footnote 29: Lire la bande dessinée, op. cit., p. 21. (“Notes” 171)]
[From p.27: 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 ofa panel”) and “Syntax” on the page, the continuity, and the scenario). (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.

Image Credits:

Will Eisner. Comics & Sequential Art. Copyright Will Eisner. Tamarac, Florida: Poorhouse Press, 1985.

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