12 Jan 2016

Groensteen (7.0) Comics and Narration, “The Rhythm of Comics [introductory material]”

by Corry Shores

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[The following is summary. Boldface and bracketed commentary are my own.]


Thierry Groensteen

Comics and Narration

Chapter 7:
The Rhythm of Comics

[introductory material]
Brief summary:
Since abstract comics do not have narrational or representative content, their rhythmic elements become more obvious and important. Classic representational and narrative comics also can have rhythmic elements, although they are often less pronounced or apparent. If those rhythmic components happen merely on the level of the page layout, then it is smooth narration. But if they happen on larger and/or smaller scales in a more elaborate way, then it is accentuated narration.

[Since the stories and the reading of comics involves duration, they can have such musical properties as rhythm. Furthermore, since comics convert time into space, that means their rhythmic properties will manifest spatially.]

Everything that has duration contains music, just as everything that is visible contains graphic design and everything that moves contains dance.

Duration, whether short (a three- or four-panel strip) or long (a 300-page graphic novel), is a natural dimension of comics narrative, as it is of any other narrative.

Consequently, so is “music.” And since comic art is distinguished by its capacity for converting time into space,1 the rhythmic scansion of the narrative necessarily implies certain ways of occupying space.

[Footnote 1 from p.191: Cf. Understanding Comics op. cit., pp. 99–100.]
[Footnote 16 (of Ch.1) from p.178: Scott McCloud, Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art (New York: Harper Collins, 1993), pp. 70–72.]

Groensteen then reminds us that he already discussed the rhythmic function in The System of Comics [see section 1.7.3] where he “described the process of reading comic art as a ‘rhythmic operation of crossing from one frame to the next’3” (133). [Footnote 3 cites: Système 1, p. 55, System 1, p. 45.]

Yet, since he wants to move from a general theory of the language in comics to a poetics of comics, he will need “to develop a more comprehensive theory of rhythm” (133).

Groensteen notes that although comics artists are often preoccupied with rhythm in their works, comics theorists pay little attention to it.

Eisner, in his Comics and Sequential Art, devotes a substantial part to rhythm. [See Chapter 3, and especially section 3.3 where Eisner gives a part-by-part analysis of one of his complete Spirit stories, here noted by Groensteen.] 

Groensteen then mentions Molotiu’s Abstract Comics. Because these abstract comics works do not have much along the lines of story or representation, their rhythmic elements come more to light.

In the anthology Abstract Comics (2009), the short shrift given to the story and, almost always, to mimesis and representationalism, has the effect of increasing the salience of rhythm as one of the inherent characteristics of the multiframe, the sequential apparatus peculiar to comic art. Indeed, the text on the back cover emphasizes this:

Panel rhythm, page layout, the sequential potential of color and the panel-to-panel play of abstract shapes have all been exploited to create potent formal dramas and narrative arcs, bringing the art of comics the closest that it, or any other visual art, has yet come to the condition of instrumental music.

And most reviewers of the volume put together by Molotiu have also pointed to the musical dimension of the formal dynamic at work on the page, whether this is a matter of harmony, dissonance, or progressive transformation. Charles Hatfield has gone so far as to suggest that the entire book could be thought of as a long musical piece, with each artist’s contribution representing a movement.8
[Footnote 8 of p.191: See his comments on the blog http://www.thoughtballoonists.com/2010/02/abstract comics.html. Consulted 11 March 2010.]


So for abstract comics, rhythm is very important. Likewise,

as far back as the 1920s, “art cinema,” sometimes called “abstract cinema” or “cinema without a screenplay,” was already giving priority to the exploration of its own potential for “rhythmic actions.”

But comics come a bit late in comparison to film when it comes to experimentation with rhythm (135).


In figurative and narrative comics (classic comics), we might not find as strong of a rhythmic factor as in abstract comics. Groensteen gives two reasons for this. {1} Instead of prioritizing the rhythmic element, it is more concerned with “the organization of a melodic dialogue among formal elements” (135), and {2} readers will be paying more attention to the plot and panel content than to the rhythmic features, even if there is a strong rhythmic development (135).


[I might not get the next point well. I think Groensteen is saying that in abstract comics, rhythm is a basic element in the presentation of the content. But in narrative comics, rhythm is something that is bound up with how the story is told. Let me quote:]

In narrative comic art, rhythm is no longer part of the content in itself (as it may be on some pages of abstract comic art) but merely a mode of narration. To summarize, we can, with Isabelle Guaïtella, say that we are most often confronted with an “intersecting play of iconicity and rhythm,” which can be analyzed in aesthetic terms but also in terms of meaning production.12
{Footnote 12 from p.191: See Isabelle Guaïtella, “Au rythme des images: multimodalité et multilinéarité de la bande dessinée” [In rhythm with images: the multimodality and multilinearity of comic art] Semiotica vol. 146 nos. 1/4 (2003), 519–26.}

[I am also not very sure what the next idea is. Perhaps it is this. There are two ways that classic narrative comics may present rhythm. {1} It may merely use visual features of the layout, perhaps including things like panel size, as we saw in Eisner’s analysis. For some reason, Groensteen calls this “smooth narration.” Or {2} it may make use of other variables (but I am not sure which yet) which allow for more elaborate rhythms operating on larger and smaller scales. This is called “accentuated narrative”.]

This “intersecting play” opens up several possibilities. Classic comics may go no further than using the apparatus itself by following the rhythm intrinsic to the preconfigured multiframe (a rhythm that will be more or less marked depending on the organization of the page layout, as we will see below); alternatively it can mobilize other parameters to produce “more elaborate rhythmic effects,” either at the level of the page as a whole, or over a smaller area. In the first case, the narration can be described as smooth, and in the second as accentuated.








Thierry Groensteen. Comics and Narration. Translated by Ann Miller. Jackson, Mississippi: University Press of Mississippi, 2013. Originally published as Système de la bande dessinée 2. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 2011.

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