15 Jan 2016

Groensteen (7.4) Comics and Narration, “The Awareness of Rhythm”

by Corry Shores

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[The following is summary. Boldface and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is incomplete. Sorry about that.]


Thierry Groensteen

Comics and Narration

Chapter 7:
The Rhythm of Comics

The Awareness of Rhythm
Brief summary:
When a comics layout pattern is regularized to form a “waffle-iron” grid, it is formally obvious what about it creates its metrically homogenous, steady rhythm or “cadence.” However, when the panels’ shapes are not regularized, then the rhythm can be unsteady and more complicated. This means that brief instances of regularized sequences stand out very strongly from the irregular context. Nonetheless, even in irregular patterns there are still rhythmic factors like tempo alterations, syncopation, and so on. These other variables draw our attention to the subjective contribution to comics rhythm. The comics artist presents certain rhythmic possibilities for the reader to explore, and the reader, on the basis of her disposition and free decisions, actualizes any of those rhythmic possibilities.

[We previously discussed the steady cadence rhythm of the “waffle-iron” grid layout of comics.] Although many comics have the waflle-iron grid pattern, many others do not, and they thus do not have the steady cadence of the regularized panel formats (148).
[Groensteen then makes a very important phenomenological observation. He previously showed how when the regular pattern is established, the exceptional instances where that pattern is broken stand out and change the rhythmic feel of the comics. Eisner made a similar point, too. But if the pattern is irregular, then it is the moments of regularity that stand out. This supports a more basic phenomenological point, which is that phenomenality can be based on difference.]
When irregularity becomes the rule, it is localized incidences of regularity that stand out. The reader notices immediately if a series of three or four consecutive panels have identically shaped frames in common, particularly if the shape is unusual, either longer or wider than the norm for the other images. These panels work together: they constitute a stanza.
Groensteen gives an example from Jason’s Je vais te montrer quelque chose. Most of the work has irregular panelization, except for a dialogue scene [shown below, taken from Groensteen’s book.]
 photo Jason. Je vais te montrer quelque chose.p.18_zps5xney3ez.jpg

This central group of eight panels forms a “stanza”. [When we read it, there is an interesting change of rhytmic gears that occurs.]

Eight panels is more than enough for a cadence to emerge, and here it is reinforced by two of the seriality effects that we have already noted: repetition (each of the eight panels is a close-up on a face, whereas in the other images the characters are framed at half or full length) and an effect of periodic alternation (Sandra and Alex speak in turn; moreover, they are represented in three-quarter profile along symmetrical axes).


In the surrounding wordless panels, we do not have a good way to gauge how much time passed. But we can discern that the eight rapid frames have the temporality of the displayed verbal exchange (149). [Recall again Eisner’s explanation that we use clues in the panel’s content to discern how much time is passing within and between panels.]


[Groensteen’s next point is interesting. We first must distinguish the duration depicted and the duration it takes to read the panels. When there is dialogue, it might take us longer to read the panels than it takes for the fictional duration to occur. In other words, a panel sequence might imply that for example 10 seconds have passed, but it took us 20 seconds to read those panels. On the other hand, a silent panel might imply that 20 seconds have passed, but it takes us just three seconds to read it. Groensteen thinks that there is an inverse relation between depicted and experienced duration.]

It is of course important to make a distinction between the time of the action and the time of reading, which have an inverse relationship to each other. Our eight panels containing dialogue recount a very short scene, but, because they include text, they possibly take a little longer to read than the wordless images that occur before and after them, even though the latter represent more story time.


Groensteen then makes another interesting phenomenological observation. The time intervals in comics can be depicted in the story, but the rhythmic feel of the comics comes more from the temporal properties of the experiences of the comics. This comes, he says, in stages. First we see the overall panel structure on the page, which gives us a feel for whether or not the rhythm is regular or not. Then as we continue reading the panels, we might experience variations in the pacing. [I may not be getting the next point. It seems that Groensteen then says that the rhythm is not merely found in the reader’s experience but rather in the interplay between the actual temporal features of the experience and those of the fictional temporality that are decoded from visual clues.]

Rhythm, in comic art, is never a matter of time intervals that can be measured but of time intervals that are felt, through an impression that is built up in stages. This begins with an instant visual fix on the configuration of the multiframe, which will be perceived as regular or not, composed of a greater or smaller number of panels and featuring or not featuring seriality effects (all factors that can be taken in at first glance). It is then activated by the reading process, which is subject to variation in speed, now faster, now slower.42 We must refrain, here again, from an over-mechanistic or simplistic description, because not only does the reader’s awareness of rhythm depend on his/her own alertness and sensitivity, it is also something other than a simple matter of correlation with the time of the action or the time of the reading. It is, precisely, forged in the gap, the tension between these two dimensions: the reader’s engagement with what is being | recounted, and, correspondingly, the decoding of a greater or lesser amount of visual and verbal information.
(149-151, skipping 150, which entirely displays the Jason page)
[Footnote 42 of page 193: When Baetens and Lefèvre write: “The rhythm of narration of a comic can be measured by a comparison between the probable duration of the action and the number of panels covering it in the album” (Pour une lecture moderne, op. cit., p. 53), they are confusing rhythm with speed. Although the speed of the narration can indeed be measured by this relationship, it will by now be clear that rhythm is a considerably more complex matter.]
{From footnote 5 of this chapter, page 191: ... Jan Baetens and Pascal Lefèvre, Pour une lecture moderne de la bande dessinée [Towards a Modern Reading of Comic Art] (Brussels: CBBD, 1993) ....}


Groensteen will now focus more on the subjective element of how rhythm is experienced in comics. The same panels can have different rhythmic qualities depending on the dispositions and free decisions of the readers. The same silent panels for example can be studied and dwelled upon, or glanced over quickly.

The configuration of the multiframe and the density of the information are objective criteria. However, nothing is more subjective than our involvement in the fabula that is being recounted or shown, the narrative discourse that is addressed to us. It is all the more subjective for having a double motivation, emotional and aesthetic. Let us take the example of a wordless panel representing a (silent) character in close-up. Reader A will skim over it: s/he has noticed that this is a lull in the action and so (in his/her opinion) the panel is not worth tarrying over. Reader B (especially if she is a female reader?) will be moved by the expression on this mute face and will linger over it, intuiting a sentiment that arouses empathy (the importance of close-ups in shōjo mangas is well known). Reader C will be held up by his/her interest in the drawing style of the close-up: it may be striking on account of the intensity, the accuracy,—and sometimes the comic effect—of the facial expression (as in the theatre, we can speak of a powerful presence), or it may simply be worthy of admiration for its graphic virtuosity, as a particularly felicitous portrait, a face that is etched and detailed, a remarkable “phizog” (think, for example, of certain close-ups by Giraud or Goossens).

[Below is a page of shōjo manga, Ueda’s Peach Girl, which Groensteen displays earlier in this book.]

 photo Ueda. Peach Girl.p19_zpsicxsvago.jpg

[Below is a silent close-up by Giraud. I am not sure if this is the sort of close-up Groensteen has in mind, however.]

 photo Giraud. Cristal Majeur.p20.face_zpse2wqqlyk.jpg

[And below is a silent close-up by Goossens. Again, I am not sure if this is what Groensteen has in mind.] photo Goossens. Route enfer.p.13_zpsass3imcx.jpg

As we can see, then:

In the final analysis, the author proposes but the reader disposes. It is the latter who animates, identifies with, punctuates, and brings to life the story in his/ her own way. The reader therefore contributes to the rhythm of the narration, which, ultimately, coincides with the pulsating flow of the reading process.


Groensteen then has us consider another example, namely a page from André Juillard’s and Patrick Cothias’s Les 7 Vies de l'Épervier. Tome 7: La Marque du condor. [Below is the referenced page.]

 photo Julliard Cothias. Les 7 Vies Epervier. tome 7. Marque condor.p16_zpsbrcnc2hl.jpg[Let me quote first.]

This page is characterized by seriality effects, even if they are not as marked as in the work of Jason. The geometrical arrangement of the page, as the reader first apprehends it, however vaguely, is as follows: vertically the page is divided in two across the middle. Horizontally it is also divided in two, but the parts are of unequal size. This structure (an off-center cross shifted towards the left) dictates the rhythm of the page: one large image followed by a stanza of three horizontal images “bracketed together,” then two more classically shaped images one above the other, then again a group of three images, this time vertically elongated.

[I was a little confused, because I expected it to read that horizontally the page is divided into equal sections top and bottom, but vertically into unequal parts, as the left side is narrower.]

 photo Julliard Cothias. Les 7 Vies Epervier. tome 7. Marque condor.p16.overlay_zpsvddrdtcj.jpg

[At any rate, the point seems to be that we get three beats in each “stanza” on the right side of the page. This is similar to the Jason example, because in the context of rhythmic irregularity, there are isolated sequences with a metrical rhythm.]


Groensteen then says that this pattern makes the rhythm here “syncopated” (151). [The idea might be that although the stanza’s have a regular rhythm, in the context of the irregular rhythm, they perhaps seem like accentuated off-beats, but I am not sure.]

The operation of reading this part of the narrative is not regular or cadenced; it is more syncopated, as the sequence is processed in successive chunks. The | most expressive element is of course the vertical juxtaposition of these two tercets (three-panel stanzas) oriented along opposing axes.
(151-153, skipping page 152, which displays the comics page)


Groensteen then looks at other visual elements in the frames of this page that lend to its rhythmic feel. For example, the blue of the sky in the last three panels creates an affinity between them that lends to their being grouped as a stanza. But what about the top stanza? All other panels have just one speech balloon, but those have two, again creating a visual grouping.

Over and above the arrangement of the frames, other structuring parameters are involved in the production of rhythm, the two main ones in our example being the distribution of colors and the spacing out of speech balloons. As regards the colors, red stands out strikingly, very prominent in the first panel, and then punctuating the lower part of each half of the page. But the pale blue of the sky creates an effect of continuity among the last three images and contributes to their perception as three components of a single group. As regards the text, it is noteworthy that every panel of this page contains one speech balloon, with the exception of the three horizontal panels of the top stanza, which each contain two. There again, we have a factor that, by introducing a variation into the tempo of reading, singles out the stanza and designates it as homogeneous in its difference.





Works Cited:

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:


Thierry Groensteen. Comics and Narration. [See above]


Jason. Je vais te montrer quelque chose. Copyright 2004 Jason and Éditions Tournon-Carabas. Here taken gratefully from p.150 of Thierry Groensteen. Comics and Narration.


Miwa Ueda. Peach Girl #1. Translated by Dan Papia. Copyright 2001 Mixx Entertainment / 1988 Miwa Ueda. Tokyopop.


Jean Giraud (artist) & Marc Bati (writer). Le cristal majeur. Copyright 1986 Dargaud.


Daniel Goossens. Route vers l'enfer. Copyright 1997 Goossens and Audie-Fluide Glacial.


André Juillard (artist) & Patrick Cothias (writer). Les 7 Vies de l'Épervier. Tome 7: La Marque du condor. Copyright 1991 Éditions Glénat.


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