13 Jan 2016

Groensteen (7.1) Comics and Narration, “The Multiframe as Beat”

by Corry Shores

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Thierry Groensteen

Comics and Narration

Chapter 7:
The Rhythm of Comics

The Multiframe as Beat
Brief summary:
Comics have panels that we read through progressively. The panels are discontinuous, because they have temporalized breaks between them. Comics will have an underlying basic pattern of repetition of their panels, which establishes a rhythmic beat.

[Here Groensteen defines the multiframe it seems as the system of panels on a page. I had the impression from his System of Comics that the multiframe could include panels from other pages. When we look at the comics page, just its panel structure tells us that the story is told as a series of moments given as still images, with breaks in between them.]
The emblematic apparatus of the medium, the multiframe, that is to say the page divided up into a certain number of framed subspaces, is a very powerful solidarity operator—within it, successive images do not just make up a string, they com- | prise, from the outset, a totality. Readers approach the page both as a fraction of a story and as a visual unit. They notice immediately that the page they are about to read is composed of numerous panels, and thus has moments of stasis, pauses programmed into the narrative.
When we first see the page, even before we know the content of the panels, we see how many of them there are and how full they are with information. By seeing the density, we can instantaneously judge how long it will take to read the page and also we can see already “the rhythm that will govern the phased, disjointed reading process” (136).
The number of panels comprising the whole-page multiframe determines the density of the page. Experienced readers take this in at a glance, just as they can see whether the images are high or low in information. This instantaneous perception enables them to calculate two things: the (approximate) reading time (they see whether it is a page that can be skimmed or whether it needs to be lingered over) and the rhythm that will govern the phased, disjointed reading process.

Groensteen says that comics have different levels of rhythm, and the first one we encounter is the most basic beat serving as the rhythm underlying all the others. [Groensteen seems to regard this beat as being very basic, as if it were an overall structural element, as his examples seem to suggest.]
The first rhythm that we encounter, the underlying rhythm, which provides the background for all the others, i.e., the beat, is precisely indicated by the number of panels, and, as a function of this, their size. On a page consisting of two large images one above the other, the beat is slow and steady (the first two albums by Anthony Pastor, Ice Cream and Hotel Koral, for example, use this duple time); in a page containing numerous rows of small panels, it is faster.
[Below is a page from Pastor’s Ice Cream. All the pages have this structure of two panels.]
 photo Pastor. Ice Cream.p18_zpsuhyjyrsu.jpg
[And here is one from Pastor’s Hotel Koral. Again, all the pages have this pattern.]

 photo Pastor. Hotel Koral_zpsakj7wevh.jpg 

Groensteen then notes another rhythmic factor, which is the force of forward moving attraction. We are pulled forward as we pass through the frames. [Using Husserlian terms, we might say that our protentional awareness creates curiosities and excited expectations that motivate our gaze to proceed to the next panel in the sequence.]

Once the reading process is under way, the multiframe displays another of its powers, the power of attraction that entices the reader forward. Reading could be said to deconstruct the page, in the sense that it gives direction to the succession of panels, unfurls them, and arranges them in single file (each one will have its moment) within the “imaginary ribbon” that I evoked in System 1.13 The multiframe lures the reader ever onwards, it designates in advance the images still to come; the reader therefore feels summoned by them and rushes headlong after the forthcoming narrative segments, as if running down a flight of stairs. Eager to discover the surprises in store, but also, in some way, to exhaust the apparatus itself, to get to the end of it, to miss nothing.
[Footnote 13: Système 1, pp. 70–71, System 1, pp. 58–59.]

Groensteen sees this force of attraction being there even at the early stages of creation when perhaps the artist has only made an empty grid of panels. “A string of empty frames drawn on a piece of paper provides a matrix whose content cannot be other than sequential. As Henri Van Lier noted, frames are not just filled with images, they actively call them into being” (136).

[So one element of the rhythm is the beat, and we saw one example being the duple beat. Groensteen seems to say now that it is the pattern of moving from each comics panel to the next that establishes the beat, perhaps further making the same point. But we note that the discontinuity is important for the rhythm of comics.]

The act of filling in one little square, then another, then another, obviously recalls the way in which children tell a story, using the “and then . . . and then | . . . and then . . .” method. But the process of reading a comic also follows this cumulative logic: readers extricate themselves from one panel only to plunge into the next one, and so on. It is this discontinuous and rhythmic operation that sets up a beat at the heart of the reading process.


[I am not sure I follow the next point, but it seems to be that because our eyes blink, we have in our consciousness breaks in the visual stream. But it also seems “blinks” is metaphorically used to suggest breaks in our mental life and not just our visual perception. In that case, I am not sure what the blinks are. The main idea will be that phenomenologically we have ellipses in our temporalized consciousness. Likewise we have them in film editing and comics sequences. The important notion is that our conscious experience of comics is one of breaks in our experiences, making the process “disjointed and jerky”.]

In Naissances de la bande dessinée, Thierry Smolderen quotes an essay written by the film editor Walter Murch, who worked with Coppola, among others. According to Murch:

We are permanently “editing” the film of our lives, and the blinks that so often punctuate our utterances and our thoughts represent one of the most obvious symptoms of this editing process.”16

And Smolderen goes on to suggest:

If Murch is right, if these micro-cuts really do explain our readiness to accept the discontinuities in an edited film, then that also means that reading a comic comes much closer to the experience of watching a film than we had thought, because in this case, our brain certainly works in the same way—through brief cuts—in order to move from one panel to the next.17

I do not know how it would be possible to provide scientific proof of this daring hypothesis, according to which crossing between frames would coincide with a micro-blackout, equivalent to a blink. If it could be proven, it would confirm the view that the reading process is fundamentally disjointed and jerky.
[Footnote 16 from p.191: Walter Murch, In the Blink of an Eye (New York: Silman-James Press, 2001).]
[Footnote 17 from p.191: Naissances de la bande dessinée, op. cit., pp. 132–33.]
[Footnote 3 (of the Introduction) from p.177: Thierry Smolderen, Naissances de la bande dessinée (Brussels: Les Impressions nouvelles, 2009). To be published in English translation under the title The Birth of Comics, from William Hogarth to Winsor McCay, trans. Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen (Jackson: University of Mississippi Press, 2013 forthcoming).]

Groensteen says that humans possess all sorts of biological rhythms, not just blinking (137).

When we listen to music, we can hear the beat (which are “the regularities of tempo”) that underlies the melody. Similarly, when reading comics, we are “aware of the underlying beat engendered by the multiframe, which gives rhythmic pattern to the narrative that s/he is embarking on, even if an irregular arrangement of frames and a profusion of content seem to screen out and disrupt it” (137).

Groensteen thinks that “Of all the different human rhythms mentioned above, the one that most closely approximates the comics apparatus is walking” (137).

Thus rhythm is essential to comics, and it is spatialized.

The multiframe is, then, an instrument for converting space into time, into duration. It is entirely appropriate to describe it in terms of rhythm.

Émile Benveniste has shown that in Greek ‘rhuthmos’ originally means “characteristic arrangement of parts within a whole.” The spatial connotation becomes temporal in Plato, who extends the notion of rhythm to the movements of the body in gymnastics and dance.21

For the Greeks, rhythm is, in Pierre Sauvanet’s formula, a kind of “temporalized spatial form.”22 It is precisely at the intersection of these two dimensions, space and time, that comic art has developed its own rhythmic practice.
{Footnote 21 on p.191: Claude Lévi-Strauss, Regarder écouter lire [Look, Listen, Read], (Paris: Plon, 1993) p. 157. Lévi-Strauss is referring to Émile Benveniste’s article “Le rythme dans son acception linguistique” [Rhythm in the Linguistic Sense], reprinted in Problèmes de linguistique générale [Problems in General Linguistics] vol. 1, (Paris: Gallimard, 1966) pp. 327–35.}
{Footnote 22 on p.192: Le Rythme grec, d’Héraclite à Aristote [Greek Rhythm, from Heraclitus to Aristotle], (Paris: PUF, 1999).}



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.


Image credits:


Anthony Pastor. Hotel Koral. Copyright Actes Sud/l'An, 2008.

Anthony Pastor. Ice Cream. Copyright Éditions l'An, 2005

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