Sunday, August 31, 2008

Review: The System of Comics by Thierry Groensteen

Groensteen, Thierry. 2007. The System of Comics. Translated by B. Beaty and N. Nguyen: University of Mississippi Press.

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The best thing about the new translated work The System of Comics by Thierry Groensteen is that it hopefully reflects an increase of English translations of international works on comic theory. There are numerous offerings by European, Japanese, and South American authors that rarely make their way into American scholarship, and more exchange of ideas can only be fruitful to the field. Groensteen is regarded as one of Europe’s leading historians and theorists of comics, and in its original French, the Systeme de la Bande Desinée is heralded by many as a "must-read,” so it would be a logical starting point for such a trend.

Moreover, Groensteen’s book is offered by many as a “serious” alternative Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which has gained massive popularity, especially in America, yet remains dismissed in many scholarly circles since McCloud himself is not an academic. Comparisons between the two works has become commonplace (including the book’s own introduction), and this review will be no exception. For his own part, Groensteen does not engage with McCloud's theories except in a singular passing endnote, which is a shame since their ideas share many similarities.

While my French is not sufficient to assess the overall quality of translation, it certainly did not read comfortably. At times, the English felt unnatural, and word-choice often seemed clumsy if not uninformed. For instance, calling the psychological device of an "eye tracker" an "eye path follower" betrays a lack of competency and/or desire to find the accurate vocabulary (whether on the part of the translators or author is unknown). Additionally, while the endnotes were often helpful, the absence of a reference section is quite noticeable, and the endnotes do not include all the cited bibliographic information. As an “academic” book, such an oversight is a bit peculiar.

Nevertheless, the writing should only be a surface issue to the actual ideas in the book. Perhaps the most appropriate place to start is where he does: with the definition of "comics.”

Problems with definitions

Groensteen begins with what has become a common exercise in the study of comics: defining “comics” itself (no doubt bande desinée originally). He carefully deconstructs the faults of various definitions that have been proposed by various realms of scholarship. He rightly shows it cannot be guided by a single "essence" like text/image interactions, and decries a definition of comics as episodic narratives, among others.

Rather, at the outset, he identifies "comics as a language" a “system” that arises out of the "combination of a… collection of codes,” most strongly motivated by “iconic solidarity” — a fancy term for the contribution of several images. While somewhat more flexible, this emphasis on the visuals sounds a great deal like McCloud’s more rigid “juxtaposed sequential images,” but lacks a reference or engagement with his ideas despite discussing many other scholars works who Groensteen disagrees with.

Truly, in its similarity, Groensteen’s definition falls into the same formalist trap as McCloud's in failing to separate the structural notions of creating images/writing from the socio-cultural role of “comics” as objects/artifacts. This habit may have been inherited by them both from Kunzle’s influential The Early Comic Strip, whose recasting of the term “comics” on pre-1800s sequential images engendered many (like McCloud) to seek out a definition to include all possible historical examples. However, this goal is a red-herring, and as Horrock’s points out, there is no reason for sequential images from diverse historical contexts to be bound to the same socio-cultural context of the contemporary notion of “comics.”

Indeed, "comics" as a social artifact refers to numerous qualities, including 1) physical objects (strips and books), 2) a collection of genres, 3) an industry, 4) a culture/community, and others that are all tied to a context of the modern era. On the other hand, sequential images do create a language: a “visual language” that combines with text to be used within those social objects called "comics." "Comics" are not this visual language. "Comics" are a social object written in a visual language that combines with text. If novels or magazines are written in English, why should “comics” be a language, instead of be written in a language?

While Groensteen strives to strike out an abstract notion for his definition, he frequently reinforces the conflation of "comics as a medium” with "comics as a social artifact” — particularly a physical object. He writes that comics owe their birth to the technological development of lithography (8). Further on, his analysis of both word balloons (69-75), panels as “measurable in square centimeters” (28), and the expressive power of sequential images through “arthrology” rest wholly on the physicality of and across pages. However, physical objects cannot be languages — especially in the abstract sense of them being a “code” — and his reinforcement of it runs contrary to his own definition of “comics” that claims to guide the broader work.

The "System"

As invoked by the title, Groensteen’s work seeks to sketch a “system” by which “comics” operate. To his credit, he carefully moves in analysis through varying levels of interactions in comics’ structure, accounting for most of its forms. He eschews the method of previous structuralist approaches to treating the form as a “language,” which aim to dissect the medium into its minimal units, instead aiming for its broader “articulation” — larger levels of structure. However, Groensteen’s grand system is little more than an extensive taxonomy with terms that essentially mean “the principle by which (pick your taxonomic portion) operates.”

Groensteen begins by discussing the “spatio-topical system,” the various spatial elements at play in comic pages. He first notes the “hyperframe” as the delineated space of the page, in contrast to the “multiframe” — meaning the relation of all frames that constitute a comic piece, including “the sum of the hyperframes.” This chapter also includes discussions of the functions of a panel, usefulness of margins, positioning of balloons, and various facets of page layout, such as inset panels, the “strip” of a tier of panels, and possible functional roles for types of layouts.

Now, my harshest criticism is not that I think Groensteen's theory of comics is invalid or wrong, but that it is uninteresting.

While at times insightful, he labors through discussing details of relatively lackluster observations, such as the various ways in which a balloon visually interacts with a panel border. It is understandable why a taxonomic distinction can be made between balloons that touch the panel border and those that overlap it, but does it really add substantially to knowledge about the function and understanding of balloons as a graphic/narrative element on its own?

If this discussion led to a substantial observation about the constraints that this interaction creates on such a relationship, this breakdown would seem more significant (for instance, that two balloons cannot cross tails such that their speakers are in opposite panels than the balloons). However, no revelation of this sort is reached, and most of his analysis focuses solely on the physical aspects of the relations of balloons to panels. Such is the features of most of his discussions. All of this leaves the question of what this analysis offers a theory of comics understanding except for surface descriptions of a (fairly banal) phenomenon?

The next two sections are devoted to the principle of “arthrology” to describe either the linear relations of panels to each other (restrained arthrology) or the relations that one panel might have to others in a non-linear sense (general arthrology). Unlike McCloud’s panel transitions, Groensteen does well to recognize that panels make connections beyond their immediately juxtaposed neighbors, yet does not give any hint as to how. McCloud’s transitions at least attempted to characterize relationships between panels, which is largely why the approach is so appealing, but Groensteen leaves such detail aside, preferring instead for gross scale abstract principles. He describes “braiding” as the principle guiding arthrology — essentially the function of making connections across the multiframe.

On the surface braiding and arthrology appear to be about the creation of meaning, like McCloud’s “closure,” or perhaps a comic version of Halliday and Hasan’s (1976) classic notions of local and global discourse coherence, which Saraceni (2000) also attempted to map to comics’ analysis. However, Groensteen does not even come close to talking about semantic concerns in this way — despite purporting to (the back cover describes the book as “An authoritative exploration of how the comics achieve meaning, form, and function.”).

Really, braiding and arthrology are a theory of compositional relationships. What Groensteen focuses on is not in any way a system of how the content of panels lends towards making meaning — it is primarily about the relationship of the visual composition within a panel to others on a page and other panels scattered throughout the broader work. In particular, his theory observes the recurrence of compositional or thematic similarities (such as motifs) across varying distances of space, be it a page or a whole work, and whether the position in layout of those panels has significance (such as in the first or last position of a page).

While these observations provide a very different perspective on comics pages, they do not even scratch the surface of the “holy grail” of questions about comic sequences that they appear to address: how do sequences of images create meaning? Indeed, Groensteen dismisses such aspects as merely about "storytelling."

Rather, arthrology, like the other aspects of Groensteen’s system, once again highlights a physical feature of comic pages in what is proposed as an abstract code of understanding. The theory treats the medium as an “art object” to be analyzed like a multi-canvas painting, as opposed to a communicative medium in the McCloudian sense. Indeed, such an approach would be akin in verbal language to recognizing that various patterns of sound appear throughout different words in a story — perhaps telling you something about phonetics, but nothing about meaning. All told, Groensteen’s system limits itself to only describing the surface aspects of the medium, without pushing towards any deeper constraining principles.

Despite the criticism of the workings of his system, Groensteen is nevertheless an astute observer of various components of the comics form, and his numerous insights on comic elements betray a deep commitment to dissecting the medium. The System of Comics does reveal gems of this intuition at times when discussing various components, though the overall theoretical architecture in which they are embedded is not commiserate with the value of their insight.


The most troubling thing I found about The System of Comics is the overall orientation to scholarship that this work represents. Throughout, Groensteen’s writing conveys an attitude as if the theories are entitled to be significant, echoed in the introduction where Beaty and Nguyen hail it for emerging from the rich semiotics tradition, as if that inherently legitimates its ideas. This is a direct knock to McCloud, who they note has “been criticized for…lack of theoretical sophistication” (1). Though, this criticism has only come from academics unfortunately perpetuating the stereotype of ivory tower snobbery, as if scholarship must be done in the academy. It is hypocritical at best for any scholar to deride McCloud for not engaging a broader literature while lauding a book with very similar ideas to McCloud’s without any citation or discussion of them. So much for the value of “engaging the literature.”

Truly, Groensteen is the anti-McCloud, keeping the keys to theory locked away in the ivory tower, reachable by only those willing to slog through the exposition to reach it. While McCloud’s work about comics is presented in its visual language, there is some irony that The System of Comics takes “iconic solidarity” of images as its crux, yet is almost devoid of graphic examples. Perhaps this is why McCloud is ridiculed so much by Groensteen-minded theorists: he willingly gives away the goods to the rabble without a fight.

If McCloud lies on one extreme of being too accessible (as if that’s a bad thing), Groensteen’s work is the inverse, reflecting the worst of academic jargon and inapplicability of “theoretical sophistication” — to the extent that the terminology obfuscates the actual theories (to academics and layfolk alike). Groensteen offers complicated names and lengthy descriptions to what are otherwise fairly facile observations about surface phenomena.

Moreover, numerous questions are left unanswered, for instance how this theory is useful or applicable to 1) describing how this medium of sequential images communicates, 2) contrasting various comics’ structure with each other, or 3) describing the relationship of the visual language in comics to other modes of human expression?

Groensteen’s “system” accomplishes none of these. These are all questions that are important to semiotics as a discipline, so why is Groensteen's approach unable to even broach them? It only states vague principles for nearly obvious observations, with fancy names and a semiotic tradition to validate its claims. It is scholarly hand-waving at its best, and a reflection of why the invocation of “semiotics” garners more eye-rolls than awe in many circles.

Paradigm Shifts

In Kuhn’s renowned discussion of paradigm shifts, he describes that prior to a major shift many similar theories will emerge in competition with each other, yet all pointing towards similar intuitions. In this case, Groensteen taps into the common intuition that the system found in comics is somehow similar to the system of language. Indeed, he begins with a strong statement about how comics are a language, yet his analysis paints a picture of the comic medium that is decidedly un-language-like.

While his stated focus is not on “minimal units” — thereby avoiding topics such as how the system is understood as a graphic domain and meaning-making for signs and symbols — he states nothing resembling a grammar for how the sequence creates meaning (though claiming that is his intent). If his aim is to describe a “code” that shows this is a language, one would think it would involve structures akin to language. All this leaves doubt as to whether Groensteen would actually know what being “a language” would entail in the first place (aside from metaphoric extension).

To this extent, Groensteen’s total work certainly marks a valiant attempt that can take its place next to other approaches that reflect the growing pains of a discipline, sharing the intuition that the comic form should be compared to language (including: Eisner 1985; McCloud 1993; Saraceni 2000; Cohn 2003, etc.). However, this piece and its theories are not the revolutionary new paradigm for comics that will sweep away all others, and will likely follow the path of the branch of semiotics from which it hails — being considered largely passé in the study of language.


Cohn, Neil. 2003. Early Writings on Visual Language. Carlsbad, CA: Emaki Productions.
Eisner, Will. 1985. Comics & Sequential Art. Florida: Poorhouse Press.
Halliday, M. A. K., and Ruqaiya Hasan. 1976. Cohesion in English. London: Longman.
McCloud, Scott. 1993. Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York, NY: Harper Collins.
Saraceni, Mario. 2000. Language Beyond Language: Comics as Verbo-Visual Texts. Dissertation, Applied Linguistics, University of Nottingham.

Monday, August 25, 2008


Blogging has been slow lately for me what with the oncoming start of school next week. I've mainly been devoting my time to the set-up of my latest experiment, which, after a few behavioral studies, will finally start looking at people's brainwaves reading comic strips.

To give an idea of the scope of experiment preparation: I have to create 200 novel Peanuts strips using panels from existing strips, and then make an additional 600 that are not of the "normal" variety. So, 800 new strips for one study, which will all be rated and tested in three pre-experiment studies to make sure they will be acceptable to use. Oy!

I do, however, plan to post a few reviews in the coming weeks. First, I will finally post my review of Groensteen's System of Comics, though I'm debating how best to parse it up (one LONG post? several shorter ones...?), and I may actually get around to finishing my post of Abel and Madden's latest Drawing Words & Writing Pictures.

Stay tuned.

Note: Especially when things are slow around here, I'm always open to requested topics if people want to pick my brain. Feel free to send me conversation pieces!

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Equivalences for "Language"

In claiming that the graphic form (especially in sequence) is structured as a language, it might help to parse out how to make the analogy reasonably. It's not as if no one has ever noted the similarities between the forms — in fact, it's fairly common. However, mistakes are often made in my opinion.

First, I assume that there is "Equivalence" between the different modalities, which can be summarized as "the expectation that the human mind/brain treats all modalities in an equal way, given modality specific constraints."

By this account, it essentially means that we would expect all modalities to feature the same sort of storage in memory for patterned signs of differing sizes and functions (from sound patterns of phonemes to sentence patterns of idioms) and feature ways to combine all those elements at different levels of structure (phonology through discourse). We would also expect development to be similar, with a critical learning period and drop offs after that.

However, this is not the take that most comparisons of the verbals and visual forms take. Rather, they often try to make direct superficial analogies between specific types of structures. For example, "such and such" is the equivalent of a "word" or "sentence." This is often why many want to claim that single images have "grammar" — because a single image has lots of information in it, like a "sentence" and unlike a "word" — even though composition within single images behaves nothing like a grammar. (...nor should we expect it to given the differences between sound and light!)

A similar endeavor has tried to find "minimal units" of the structure of the forms, following the school of Structuralism (most popular in American linguistics from around 1920-1960ish). However, again, just knowing minimal units doesn't tell you about the broader structure, and units larger than minimal units might also be useful and insightful. It also gives no beneficial comparison other than that "minimal units" exist in both domains.

All of this is an argument for looking beyond the superficial understandings of "language" and to look for comparisons in deeper, more fundamental aspects of structuring.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Diversity in Visuals

At the VaIL conference a few weeks ago, one of the frequent conversations revolved around the issue of creating a universal graphic system.

The belief that visuals are universal is not new, and largely stems from the fact that most drawings look like what they represent ("iconicity"). This is also a motivating factor behind so-called "universal writing systems" like Blissymbols, Icon Language.

However, when looking at drawings as reflecting patterns in the mind, then there is actually quite a lot of diversity. Patterned styles like those of Japanese manga compared to stereotypical American superhero comics reflect culturally diverse conventions of different populations. Even more relative are the sand drawings of native Australian communities, and the constraints they place on recognizing other graphic depictions. Several other stories exist of people not fully understanding iconic drawings as well, such as the story Mort Walker tells about natives (I can't recall where) who thought that a person's legs were cut off, despite just being "out of frame."

Given this, perhaps it's time that we get over the idea of a universal communication system, and we come to accept that populations of humans will always develop idiosyncratic and in-group tendencies.

While globalization especially has raised a desire for inter-cultural communication, diversity in communication systems may have had evolutionary advantages. Having an identity tied to your language separate from others' means you can identify your group members, and even more helpful that you can keep secrets from other groups. If it wasn't beneficial, we would all be speaking the same languages (or so the argument could be made... diversity could just be a useful "spandrel" for the way other cognitive functions happened to turn out).

Perhaps instead of attempting to create universal systems, we should instead acknowledge the diversity that comes along with the way our brains are wired for social interactions. By accepting it, we can then strive to work with the constraints that our cognition and diversity brings or allows. That way, it will cease the fighting against the tide of inevitable diversity with rose colored glasses of universality, and instead invites appreciation for relative systems and cooperation to meet common goals of communication.

Saturday, August 02, 2008

Vocab gaps

This interesting and quite fun essay/post reviews the book Reading Comics and ponders the definition of "comics" and some other terminological issues. Its biggest query is 'what is the word for the act of making a comic... the producing of sequential images bit?' (paraphrased).

I agree there's somewhat of a gap in vocabulary, but think that its partially symptomatic of a larger issue: not recognizing that drawings (especially in sequence) constitute a system of communication. That is, we lack the recognition that drawn works use a set of mental patterns the same way that, say, English does.

We in America speak in English.
We in America draw in ___?___.

Note that we also have many words describing the avenue or subroutine for picture-making: painting, sketching, penciling, inking, coloring, etc. But, no word for one actually does with those media besides the uninformative "drawing," which inadequately covers the dynamic process of creating sequences of images.

In a previous thesis of mine (¡Eye [heart] græfIk Semiosis!), I argued that vocab in a language for graphic creation partially relies on how that culture's graphic systems are structured. In Western representation, we have a dominantly sound-based "writing system" with a preference for highly "realistic" drawings — and our words for these things are very different: "Writing" versus "Drawing." Contrast this with Japan, who use a wide range of meaning/sound values in their "writing", while using much less realistic representations — and they use a single word for both concepts (kaku: かく), while using two separate Chinese characters to distinguish uses (writing: 書く, drawing: 描く).

So, in our case of English, what we're left with is a gap in vocabulary, for those representations that run a middle ground between our prototypical conceptions. Anyone who reads this blog should know my answer: The missing graphic system is what I call "visual language" (when done with images in sequence).

We in America speak in English.
We in America draw/write in American Visual Language.

If this is language, then we might as well just adopt language related vocabulary. I have no problem with the idea that I write in pictures (as well as words), and I doubt many others do either.

And, as I've argued before, recognizing that such a system exists (visual language) is the first step towards defining (or rather, un-defining) "comics." By taking away formal definitions that rely on the "comics=visual language" equation, "comics" can be defined as what we've always known it to be: socio-cultural objects (books, strips) in which a visual language is written, often pertaining to particular genres, and a culture surrounding them.

Finally, many have complained that debating vocabulary is a waste of time. But, something like this has realistic applications. Take for instance pushing the notion of visual language through the idea that sequential images are "written." Where would you learn such a thing?

You learn to write in a writing/language class, and such would be the case with visual language too. You learn to write in pictures in a writing class, not an art class — bringing it directly into the fold for education and development in a very practical and communication-driven way.