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REVIEW: The Expanding Art of Comics

In his most recently translated book, Thierry Groensteen puts his groundbreaking theories into practice with a collection of ten essays. Unfortunately the results are mediocre and real missed opportunity for comics scholarship.

The Expanding Art of Comics: Ten Modern Masterpieces
Thierry Groensteen
Ann Miller, translator
University Press of Mississippi, 2017 (original French edition 2015)
publisher site | WorldCat

Thierry Groensteen is probably best known, at least in North America, for his groundbreaking theoretical works, The System of Comics and Comics and Narration, where he introduced ideas like page-as-network, panels and other elements interacting as an "arthrology", narrative "braiding", and much more. He's also one of sadly few theorists coherently challenging the stranglehold that McCloudian philosophy has on comics scholarship.
It's unfortunate, then, that he hasn't applied his theories effectively here.

Eight of the the ten "modern masterpieces" that Groensteen covers are already in your collection, or are very easy to obtain through interlibrary loan: The Ballad of the Salt SeaAirtight GarageWatchmen, EpilepticFun HomePretending is LyingThe Arrival, and Habibi. (Jens Harder's Alpha is impossible to borrow through ILL; Chris Ware's Building Stories is such a strange publication physically that libraries are unlikely to lend it or even purchase it in the first place.) Each chapter begins with background information on the creator(s) and the work itself and is followed by a plot summary, after which Groensteen goes into a close reading of the various elements at play. Depending on the comic in question, this can include narrative structure, drawing techniques, dialogue, page design, cultural context, and many other interesting angles. Groensteen is clearly invested in a serious consideration of the works and the art form they belong to, and in contributing to a broader and deeper discourse in comics scholarship as a whole.

Unfortunately, the best I can say about these essays is that they're... fine? There's nothing really wrong with them: even when I disagreed with his commentary, I still appreciated the opportunity consider it, and there were tons of insights I hadn't had myself, so they definitely made it worthwhile to read or reread the titles being covered. Yet nothing here approaches the challenge or reward of reading Groensteen's earlier books, even when he applies his own theories. It's rude for a reviewer to ask for a book other than the one they are reviewing, but this is such a missed opportunity that I'm willing to be that rude: these essays should have been deeper and more complex in their considerations, and they should have covered more works from a wider array of creators. Moreover, analyzing Watchmen and Fun Home, possibly the most analyzed comics there are, feels like a waste of energy for writer and reader alike.

I still think librarians would benefit from reading some or all of Expanding, and in particular I'd recommend trying it out with one comic you've already read and one you haven't, which would give you the broadest experience of what Groensteen is trying to do. Even given my disappointment in the essays, they would be good to have under your belt in advance of a book club, or a classroom visit, or a trip to acquisitions to lobby for collection funds. They also serve as a good model if you're writing your own close reading (or assigning students to write them); fact, I bet you'll surpass the bar set here.

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