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REVIEW: The System of Comics & Comics and Narration

This pair of books by Thierry Groensteen is among the most important examinations of comics available in English, taking a serious look at the medium through the lens of semiotics, and revealing its rich underlying visual-narrative framework.

The System of Comics
Thierry Groensteen
Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen, translators
University Press of Mississippi, 2007 (original French edition 1999)
publisher site | WorldCat

Comics and Narration
Thierry Groensteen
Ann Miller, translator
University Press of Mississippi, 2013 (original French edition 2011)
publisher site | WorldCat

In The System of Comics, Groensteen presents his grand theory of the comics medium, which includes ideas like "the spatio-topical system" (page layout as an equal partner with story in creating narrative, rather than a subservient one) and "arthrology" (the idea that the basic unit of multi-panel comics is the relationship between panels, rather than the panel itself), among many, many others. Comics and Narration is best understood as a companion to System rather than a second half of the theory, as its goal is to clarify, modify, and re-examine, rather than to complete, Groensteen's theoretical model. (By the way, the "narration" of the title should be understood as "the construction of narrative" rather than our more common usage as "the voice telling the story", although that aspect of storytelling does come into play.) In Narration the author addresses such issues as abstract comics - comics with little-to-no representational images - the narrative capacity of single-panel comics, subjectivity in comics storytelling, and the relationship between comics and fine art. I found myself saying "thank you!" over and over as he addressed my what-abouts from reading System, and reading both books made me feel relieved that someone had done a much better job of interrogating the nature of the comics medium than I could ever do, but had always wanted.

For some readers (including me), the books' serious approach means that their passages are often dense and challenging. I probably had to read each sentence twice or more to get its full meaning, and some of his ideas were simply beyond my grasp. (I did find the second book easier going, but I'm not sure whether that was a difference in the text, the translation, or my own understanding.) That's not to say that they aren't worth reading, or that I didn't enjoy them. It was a thrilling intellectual experience to read this codified dissection of what comics are and how they work, and I had many internal conversations and arguments with the author that I can only dream of having with someone in real life! In other words: it was a lot of work, but it's work I was happy to undertake.

It's hard to give these books a full recommendation for any kind of comics librarian per se, simply because they don't do a ton for a librarianship-oriented understanding of the medium, and they probably wouldn't inform your daily work at all. That said, I've realized that literary theory, by comparison, has such a long history that we can now learn parts of it in middle and high school; if we're ever to reach that kind of understanding of comics theory, it will take a lot of people reading these difficult works and digesting them into more accessible bites for the rest of us.  (I also think it's important to get exposure to views that don't fully align with Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics, as good a book as it is.)

So while librarians may not find Groensteen's books help them with reader's advisory or defending comics against challenges by elementary school parents, I do recommend them for anyone who's ever wondered "what are comics, really?" and has the patience to untangle some tricky (and trickily worded) concepts.