18 Aug 2016

Groensteen (2.3) The System of Comics, ‘The Planes of Meaning’, summary


by Corry Shores


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[The following is summary. Boldface and bracketed commentary are my own. Proofreading is incomplete, so please excuse my distracting typos.]




Summary of


Thierry Groensteen


The System of Comics


Chapter 2:

Restrained Arthrology: The Sequence



The Planes of Meaning




Brief summary:

There are three layers of experience operating simultaneously and cooperatively while the reader of a comics work follows the panels and discerns the narrative. The first plane is the immediate experience of the prelinguistic signs or “utterables” within one particular image (or panel). These do not rise to the level of an explicit narrative unit, but they provide the raw material on the basis of which narrative units are constructed. The second plane is the triad of panels, namely, the present one the reader is now seeing along with the one coming before and the one coming next, which forms a narrative syntagm, that is, the smallest unit of narrative meaning. The third plane is the sequence, which is something like a sentential unit of the narrative in the sense that it what it expresses in the narrative can be expressed as a proposition (or logically connected propositions) which describe the contents and events of that narrative chunk.






Groensteen will now “formulate in more general terms all that we have just observed” in the prior section(s) of this chapter (see section 2.2). [Groensteen then uses the notion of a “staging of meaning,” but I am not sure yet what he means by ‘staging’.] “It seems that the analysis of this example allows us to conclude a staging of meaning. This | is plainly revealed in terms of the reader’s crossing of several successive meaningful planes” (111).


[Recall from section 2.1 the notion, borrowed from Deleuze in the context of film and applied here to comics, that the comics image is an ‘utterable’. By this Groensteen may mean that in itself it has no linguistically explicit narrative content, but it provides sensory material with significance of some sort on the basis of which explicit linguistic narrative constructions can be built. Groensteen will not go so far as to use the term “intrinsic narrative” for this situation but rather “immanent significance”.]

Given that it has no existence other than the theoretical (since the outer frame, or the péri-field, is always imposed on the perception of the comic reader), the panel’s plane should be principally considered. The image, seen by itself, outside of all context, is, as Deleuze rightly suggests, an utterable. I can translate or express what I see inside the frame (the what of the monstration) in linguistic terms. Sometimes, this virtual statement will be a straight narrative (Alack lights his cigarette), whereas other times, failing to perceive a dynamic internal relation to the image, I have to content myself to name the object-sign (or object-signs) that it shows. Rather than an intrinsic narrative, I will employ a more neutral term, that of immanent significance. At this elementary stage, my job as a reader is simply observation and identification.

(Groensteen 111, boldface and underline mine)


[So this is the first “successive meaning plane” that the reader “crosses.” The second is the syntagm, which is limited to “the triad composed of the panel that is currently being read, the panel that preceded it, and the panel that immediately follows it”. The idea so far seems to be that at any moment, we are on the first plane, receiving the immediate, prelinguistic significance within the image. At the same time, our experience resides on another plane where we take into account the contents of the current panel and its immediate neighbors, especially in light of the narrative relations that form between them. Note. There was a section in chapter 1 that we have not summarized yet on the “ inset”. He wrote: “the dialogue between the panels frequently passes through other configurations, | including those that find a frame welcomed within one or several other frame(s). This apparatus, which I will designate as the inset (incrustation), gives evidence of the extreme suppleness that characterizes the management of space within comics” (85-86). Groensteen seems to be making the point that there is one case where there is not this triple panel syntagm structure, and that is when dialogue is situated between two panels. Here, instead of there being a central panel and two others on each side, there is rather text in the center and panels on each side. But I am not sure. I quote:]

The second plane is that of syntagm, limited, in occurrence, to the triad composed of the panel that is currently being read, the panel that preceded it, and the panel that immediately follows it. At this level, my reading of the panel is already forcibly different, informed before and after by other contents with which I construct (or verify) semantic relations, on the basis of a postulate of narrative coherence. Plainly, I am now involved in interpretation. This arthrologic micro-chain constitutes an instance of shifting interpretation: at any moment of my reading, I will privilege the relations of immediate proximity and I will reconstruct this triad, which is carried along with me. (Only the phenomenon of incrustation contradicts this rule, by installing a privileged dialogue between two terms, the incrusted panel and the panel that accommodates it.)



[The third plane of meaning is the sequence. This seems to be the story on a more global level, even if it is not taken in its entirety. My impression is that the syntagmatic panel triplet is like a word or phrase, and the sequence is more like a sentence or paragraph. Here it seems maybe Groensteen is saying that it can take the form of a propositional statement. I will quote, as I am not sure.]

The third plane of meaning is that of the sequence. The semantic articulations of the story allow me to identify and to circumscribe a story segment of any length, characterized by a unity of action and/or space. The sequence allows itself to be converted into a synthetic statement that, transcending the observations and constructions of the inferior level and stopping (at least provisionally) the work of inferences, produces a global meaning that is explicit and satisfying.



[I am not sure, but Groensteen’s next point might be that the semantic units we see here are open to be modified and enriched from further consideration, analysis, and research following after one’s experience of reading it.]

General arthrology demonstrates that the panel can also be the object of distant semantic determinations, which overtake the frame of the sequence and proceed to a networked operation. Like all narrative works (deployed in time), a comic is governed by the principle of differance (delay): its signification is constructed solely on the terms of the reader — freed afterward to the interpretation deepened by the research of meaning that knows no definitive limit.



Groensteen then notes that in many comics, especially ones for children, the interpretive flow moves linearly forward with meanings being explicitly obvious with each new step in the story’s progress [rather than requiring that the child go back and reexamine prior panels to reinterpret them in new lights.] However, Groensteen will later give an example where the young reader will still need to take into account distant panels in order to obtain the humorous effect of a sequence (112).

We must always remember that a number of works that are more traditional and less sophisticated than Alack Sinner, obeying a narrative order that is strictly linear (of the causal-deductive type), never spare a retroactive determination at the level of the sequence. Rather, it is the plane of the syntagm that is dominant. In comics for young children, the authors simplify their intention by forcibly rendering each panel totally explicit and significant in itself. But the analysis of a page taken from a given series (Jojo by Geerts) will show that even here, certain effects, for example a humorous effect, do not hold unless the young reader effectuates a reconciliation between distant panels and scenes. The choice of the network as the ultimate level of interpretative pertinence is not exclusive to modern comics, with their fragmented writing, but is a general principle.







Groensteen, Thierry. 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.






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