Friday, March 15, 2013

The System of Comics by Thierry Groensteen

What exactly is a graphic novel? Defining comics format is as tricky as defining other arts like poetry, novels or cinema. Thierry Groensteen does a thorough job of exploring the question in The System of Comics.

I read the English translation by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. I'm glad I didn't attempt the original French edition because deciphering the academic language was challenge enough. Diegesis, micro-semiotics, lexemes, orthogonalities, syntagms, aporia... the early part of the book was slow-going because I frequently had to consult a dictionary. Once I grasped the terminology, my efforts were rewarded.

Groensteen looks at comics as a form of language. This gave me a whole new appreciation for the ninth art, as it is called in France. The foundational principle presented is that comics are composed of interdependent images. Text is secondary, and not necessary to the medium. There are wordless comics, after all. Also, any meaning that can be found in an individual image (as with a painting) is irrelevant to the discussion, since it is in the context of sequential images that narrative is formed in comics.

Since the comics medium can be used to create not only fictional works but also propaganda, journalism, testimony, autobiography and other types of messages, Groensteen asserts that this "demonstrates that before being an art, comics are well and truly a language."

It's all very interesting. Now I'd like to read something explaining why children's picture books can be considered -- or not -- to be examples of comics format. Anyone have suggestions for me?

Readalike: Understanding Comics (Scott McCloud).

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