Composition de la bande dessinée. Renaud Chavanne (PLG)

This review of Renaud Chavanne’s Composition de la Bande Dessinée, along with the interview, is based on material previously published, in Portuguese, on my own blog, which was subsequently edited for publication at the International Journal of Comic Art (Vol. 14, no. 1, Spring 2012). The interview was conducted by email, in both English and French, and not only consisted in back and forth correspondence discussing Mr. Chavanne’s new book, as it followed personal concerns, and does not claim to be a balanced, more objective stance (if such a thing exists). All the translations are my responsibility, except where noted, and they were done with clarity in mind, not style. To make it more palatable, I’m posting here the review only, and the interview in a separate post… Also, Thierry Groensteen issued a reply to this interview, which I translated and was put out by IJOCA, and I’ll post that soon as well. 

Review. Now and then there are books which become immediately a powerful and compulsory addition to the toolbox of an area of study. The edifice of comics own academic specificity has been slowly but surely built in the past twenty, thirty years, but somewhat akin to the way we read a comics page, that is to say, through saccades: small discrete movements, sometimes distanced in time, and without always drawing a smooth curve from one point to the next, and with various degrees of attention and focus. Perhaps with time, and with the continuous study and application of its analytical tools, comics scholarship will be able to create the illusion of continuity and smoothness. The last few years have seen an incredible boost in comics scholarship, and despite the dangers of generalization, it seems that in both the United States and Europe the focus has been on political and cultural approaches, and its never a bad thing to return to a rather formal discourse. This is still a – I wouldnt say sorely”, thoughneeded back to basics anyway, considering that this is and will always be a never-ending task. As the author of this book writes, where art is concerned, neither the aesthetic discourse order nor that of statistics can claim absolute priority (p. 149).

Renaud Chavanne

The new book by French scholar Renaud Chavanne is an expansion of the research he had proposed in a previous book, Edgar P. Jacobs & Le Secret de lExplosion (Edgar P. Jacobs & The Secret of the Explosion; PLG: 2005 [see above]). This is, to put it simply, a study in the work of page layout or, following the original French term used in the book, page composition, and what it means for the way one reads that page, what the author terms the reading protocols, an interrelationship between author and reader towards the creation of meaning, implying notions such as style, structural typologies and specific semiotics. In this volume, Chavanne engages with an overwhelming array of work from all kinds of genres, geographical and time origins, even importance or influence or quality, if you will. The main point is to prove the pertinence of the tools he develops and its application on such a staggering corpus.

After reading Composition de la bande dessinée it is utterly impossible to look once again at any comics page without seeing the structures that Chavanne discusses. Its as if we are sensitized along these almost 300 pages (of a double column oblong book which would make a 500-plus pages regular textbook) to detect these same structures, which will glow and irradiate out of any work. It’s as if we’re employing one those trial frames opticians use, changing lenses, altering the scope and focus and clarity of whatever one’s looking. Although the main scale, the main unit, of this study, is the classical area, plane or zone of composition (in French, the used word is planche for this compositional, visual unit – see interview), that plane can appear in many dimensions and configurations, as well see. Comics () allows for the construction of a representation of the world from the organization of coherent fragments (p. 11), we find at the outset of the book. That organization is the the fulcrum of the study.

Renaud Chavanne is part of a French-speaking tradition profoundly rooted in what one could call a post-structuralist approach to comics. We would add the name of Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle (whose two-sided notion of linéaire-tabulaire is amply used) to those quoted by the author, such as Benoît Peeters, arguably the founder of the study of composition with his Case, Plance, Récit, and Thierry Groensteen, especially due to the inflections on Peeters typology in his own Système de la Bande Dessinée. As of course, Chavanne also quotes his own work on Jacobs, which he furthers here in quantity, diversity and efficiency. But do not think that this is an unbound formalist fantasy. Just as Peeters and Groensteen, the author is always associating his findings with the history or other aspects of comics (see the interview to understand the distance he creates in relation to those other authors).

Renaud Chavanne - Composition, protocolos de leitura 1

His goal is to illuminate the forms of composition and the principles that animate them, as well as to reveal the successive mutations of those forms and to make explicit the reasons that make certain forms to be more used than others in certain historical periods (57). This historical dimension is always present. There is never a superficial analysis, but rather a search for the reason, and not [only] the detection of such structures (141). This implies that Chavannes formal descriptions are always done in association with the thematic, figurative, and semantic contents of the works. Chavanne has no wish to present himself as a researcher who has exhausted all possibilities of analysis: Our goal is not to cover all the potential modalities of composition, but rather to understand the principles through which, in turn, the author that masters them is able to realize the reasons of the immensity of the field granted by the fragmentation where image organization is concerned (145). These principles are a complexification factor (173), and the author – despite having no wish to create an hierarchy in terms of aesthetic, historical predominance or semantic transmission – organizes his book according to a growing complexity: from simpler structures (what he names regular or grid compositions) to more intricate compositions, such as the ultra-strip or even compositions that put into question the basic structural unit of the construction of all comic art, which is, according to Chavanne, the strip.

Renaud Chavanne - Composition, protocolos de leitura 2

There are two crucial words in this study: planche, which we will translate into English simply as page, and bande, or strip (the author also uses the English term). As Charles Hatfield writes in Alternative Comics, the fact that the French use planche instead of page (in French) underlines the fact that it is possible, within comics scholarship, to consider immediately a visual composition unit, and not a material support. This is paramount. We can say, in French, in page 34 of this book in order to locate but in planche 34 to read and analyse it. As for bande or strip, we have to recall that the contemporary French term for comics is bande dessinée, literally drawn strip but originally a direct translation of the English term comic strip. Bande dessinée elicits a very large territory that comprehends, naturally, strips, but also comic books, graphic novels, webcomics, etc. Although strips are not historically prior to full comics pages (and comics history is rather convoluted, even if one wishes to start with Töpffer ab ovo), the purpose of Chavanne with this is to make us think of the strip as the first structural unit for the page composition. Therefore, even after exposing his views about models and counter-models of composition, Chavanne returns to this basic point, that page composition, even in more complex or extremely unstable structures such as fragmented rhetoric compositions, can be, should be even, conceived fundamentally as the articulation of successive strips.”

Renaud Chavanne - Composition, Ruppert e Mulot

Chavannes research will admit models that differ or go well beyond this structural principle, yes, but it is by digging ever deeper through his analysis that even his more apparently complex cases reveal that basic model: only precise analysis of the composition structure allows for the strip to reemerge, hidden in the hyperfragmentation [he is referring to an example by Ruppert and Mulot, see above], but that nonetheless regulates the reading modalities in a quite classical fashion (200).

These reading modalities, also called “reading protocols” or “reading trajectories” (229) are found in a second order of importance. Chavanne’s analyses are done on the form through which the compositions demand a certain ordered reading of the panels (understood as the units of reading, units of space-time, of action, meaning, and so on), and subsequently a very specific semantic construction. The apparent “naturalness” with which this reading is performed by the reader does not correspond to a supposed inborn capacity of human beings, of course, but rather to the absolute or relative fluidity of the compositional work typical of this artistic field. Contrarily, the differences in typography or in the linguistic principles that regulate writing (especially in what concerns double articulation and, even more specifically, to the existence of combinatory units in the form of individual letters) make comics a radically and structurally distinct field. “The convention of the texts’ readings do not always offer comics with the necessary instruments to the awakening of its expression” (85). That is the reason why it is imperative to develop specific tools that pay exclusive attention to the production of this field.

The program of this book is centered on “issues of reading organization, on the guidance of the gaze [that] is to be found in the heart of the composition concerns” (23). In a way, it’s as if we were before a treaty of verse, less concerned with the expression of emotions itself than with the textual and compositional strategies that allow for such effects. It is beyond primary forms (figuration, expression, style) but before content. However, some of Chavanne’s close readings are not solely preoccupied with panel structuring, and they do engage with what’s inside them, inquiring on how construction modes take advantage of figuration, narrative representation, style and even, eventually, coloring (but in a black-and-white book, this dimension is somewhat limited). The research on fragmentation allows the author to realize that the laws of structure are respected internally within the strips-units, and then on their successive agglomerations, according to several types: “complex temporal, logical and semantic relationships are articulated, considering how panels are grouped together”. There is a sort of back-and-forth movement in the different scales of attention. From the panel, through the interstitial spaces (the horribly named “gutter” in English), to the page. The panel “can suggest a sort of fatality, the compulsory need of succeeding representations” (45). The in-between spaces create interrelations with everything: “The positioning of the figures, the plasticity and modality of representation, of matter and colors: the entire arsenal can contribute to the homogeneity of a succession of strips or panels” (171). Its function is not secondary at all; it becomes a sort of continuous and structuring background as it makes visible the composition process. That function is triple, according to Chavanne: it “separates”, it “regroups” and “assures continuity”. But despite this fluctuation of attention, or because of it, the bottom line is reinforced: the studied structures are pertinent and constant.

As we wrote above, Chavanne engages with a discourse that had been elaborated previously by other authors, such as Benoît Peeters. We must say, however, that Chavanne presents the most sustained research where theoretical and structural applicability is concerned, with his many concrete, diverse examples. The foremost theoretician he engages with is Peeters, then, whose influential, even seminal typology of page structures in Case, Planche, Récit is exploited, criticized and expanded on here. Let us refresh our memories about this typology, even if in the risk of reducing it somehow. For Peeters, the convergence of a “visual track” and a “narrative track” (not his words) in comics create two axis, the first being the dominance of one over the other (cases in which the story is more important than the images, or in which images take the primacy over the plot) and the second the degree of dependence between them (whether both working towards the same semantic role or acting autonomously in relation to each other). By crossing these two axis, we arrive at four types of page layouts: the conventional page (narrative dominance + plot-image autonomy), in which panels are all the same size; decorative (image dominance + plot-image autonomy), in which the page presents itself first and foremost as a global visual unit; the rhetoric (narrative dominance + plot-image interdependence), in which the panels have different sizes and formats according or underlining the content’s meaning; and the productive (image dominance + plot-image interdependence), in which the artist, as it were, is concerned first with the overall page design and then “fills” it up conceptually. It’s not possible for us to expound about the power and the shortcomings of Peeter’s typology, but Chavanne engages with that conceptual edifice in the most precise manner, developing some of the types and dismissing others (Thierry Groensteen did the same thing in his Système, in a sort of correction of Peeters, but Chavanne is far more thorough).

Chavanne reaches thus a slightly different typology of page layouts or composition structures, always based on the crucial idea that it is the strip the primary structural unit – a group of panels that is positioned in an uninterrupted horizontal axis, even if integrated in a larger page (all variations, as for instance, vertical strips, are always connected to that original model, and the author is quite explanatory how this works in the entire work of comics’ production). Chavanne’s modalities are as follow. The regular composition, in which panels are all the same size. Semi-irregular, in which there are internal differentiation from a regular grid, whether dividing panels or uniting them, that is to say, through the panels’ fragmentation or fusion. Rhetoric, same as in Peeter’s, in which the panel adapts itself to the represented action. Fragmented, whose irregularity of the page’s vertical axis leads to curvilinear optical movements, and not the more usual backing-up-and-descending movement. And also a final, nameless class that the author discusses in a chapter called “compositions à l’oeuvre” (translatable, with the help of the author, as “compositions in action”; 153 and ff.).

These models are then described with a numerical key that corresponds to each strip (or page’s tier), each digit corresponding to the number of panels in that composition. For example, a classical three-panel strip would be described numerically as 1/1/1. A similar strip with the last panel divided into two smaller panels would be 1/1/2. Secondary, tertiary or ulterior subdivisions can occur. You have to believe us when we say that this system is way simpler than what it may sound from its description, and its quite fast that one “sees” this numerical structures in comics pages (if you’re familiar with the use of the .cbr digital format, when one sees these files in thumbnails form, these structures are quite visible).

Renaud Chavanne - Composition, pranchas regulares

According to Chavanne, “regular compositions are multiple” [see comparative scheme, above] but, independently of whatever specificity that may occur, they “reveal themselves to be able to conjure up a feeling of ataraxia, absence of passions. This is not to say however that comics with regular compositions are reduced to the sole expression of calm or constancy, for many examples could contradict this quite easily” (43). The author understands that the artists who chose this option see in it a strategy not to avoid more complex composition processes, but rather a form to concentrate themselves on other domains, such as figuration, representation, lightning, color, plot, etc. (46) [as in this example by Will Eisner, below].

Will Eisner

In turn, where fragmented compositions are concerned, there are several models, such as the 2/1/2 (picture a strip that has two first small panels, then a larger central one and then two final ones), which are “pretty habitual” even though “more sophisticated”, and whose effect is the upholding of a “symmetrical mannerism” concentrated on the centre of the strip. The examples that Chavanne presents (Table VII) joins examples such as McCay [Chavanne shows solely the third of the four strips of the page below], Got with Pétillon, Lolmède, Franquin, Charlier with Giraud, Schuiten & Peeters, F. Ayroles, Masashi Tanaka, and Miller with Sienkiewicz. What happens is that we immediately perceive the common effect and reading protocol, even if each work is qualified by different traits.

Winsor McCay - Little Nemo (26 Nov 1905)

In a diametrically opposed model, the 1/2/1, the common effects are “a passage through the two panels that open and close the strip”, using the “fragmented [and central] part of the strip” to “call one’s attention to details that couldn’t be presented in the two larger, peripheral panels, to insert a micro-sequence that dialogs with the larger images, to decompose a movement. The central part of the strip can thus be put to use in order to bring more dynamism or present in a quicker fashion the transition between two scenes less mired in temporarilty, and therefore present, for instances, the transition between two states, two situations” (126-128). These are but two of the modalities studied by the author, but each of them are revealed to be quite open-ended and multiple.

José Salinas- Las MInas de Salomón

As mentioned, the author admits the existence of compositional processes that question and even definitely erode the strip as primary structure. The reinvestment (and crisis) of the returning gaze – i.e., the movement that the eye does when it reaches the end of a strip/tier and then has to go back to the beginning of the next – is the first discussed case. Chavanne uses a few of Ben Katchor’s The Jew of New York pages for this, an excellent example. A second case is what he calls the boustrophedon, which, as the very name proclaims, imitates the ancient Greek writing system that aligned words from the left to the right and then from the right to the left in the next line, and so forth. In order to exemplify this, the author uses the classical compositions of José Luis Salinas in his magistral Las Minas del Rey Salomon [above], a noteworthy case of a progressive compartmentalization within a single work. “We were conscious that the absence of homogeneity of a strip’s height is a factor that contributes to its weakening, by suppressing one of its distinctive traits. But we now realize that the variation of the strip’s height, within itself, can guide the gaze to a contrary trajectory, and therefore create a boustrophedon movement, yet another sign of the strip’s weakening” (209).

What follows are “centripetal intricacies and constructions” that emphasize the level of plurilegibility of a page. All these models contribute towards that “multiplicity of pertinent relationships [that] overload the compartmentalization of the reading structure (…) [leading to] the organization of a non-linear, multiple reading, the elaboration of a discourse and an expression in which globality cannot be decomposed by simple sequentiality (232). There are other aspects explored by Chavanne, but it is impossible to expose all the details of this monumental work: from the relationships of text and image, the fashion after which the texts’ spaces constitute a special “pavement” in the compositional space, among other issues. All in all, Chavanne presents us with an engaging, complex conceptual framework that demands to be read thoroughly and whose teachings must be subsequently studied and applied in order to make clear its impact.

There are even more singular models that bring about unconventional reading specificities or very peculiar stylistic variations. One of these models is called ultra-strip (ultra-bande). On the one hand, it seems that the author is referring to that which Peeters called decorative pages, to the extent that they (paraphrasing) “emanate an immensity, an overwhelming feeling that implies the disappearance of the strip in the name of a global construction”. But the truth is that even “such a strong impression will not hold under the scrutiny of the composition and the reading protocols” (173-174).

Jessica Abel - Viva page

Another such model is that of intercalation (enchâssement), in which a strip is found within another. The case studies are all by Chris Ware, whose analysis (strongly ontogenetic, more on which later) makes visible the successive phases of internal fragmentation, and whose complexity “put in doubt the very nature of the strip” (181). However, we ask ourselves what one would do with a case such as the one above this paragraph, by Jessica Abel, in with there is literally a juxtaposition: the “strip” across the middle of the page could be seen as a semi-diegetic object fluctuating above the compositional space (a photo booth strip of the same characters of the story), but the use of speech balloons prevents that reading to be correct, or at least, a final one. It exerts a powerful weight that re-inscribes it into the diegetic cloth. Chavanne makes the following advertence: “stricto sensu, according to the definition that we ourselves have presented of strip, there can not be a strip inside another. Just as it is physically impossible to have a page of a book inserted in the page of the same book. Intercalation is related to forms, to the the act of iteration of models, the repetition of similar structures” (184). The clearest example is, for example, when inside a given panel, we have the representation of one or more pages of a comic book (that a character, for instance, is reading). The logic corollary of this model is that which Chavanne calls “Russian doll,” which the author thinks it’s “funny:” “intercalated into one another as Russian dolls, they can lead to vertiginous compositions” (185). The Moebius’ page [immediately below] is the presented example.

Moebius - Le Bandard Fou

Yet another model is found in hyperfragmentation. This is “a very abundant fragmentation that decomposes a strip into a multitude of panels, some of which, obviously, very small, so that the [present of the] strip becomes somewhat dissimulated in that multiplicity of panels” (188). The key examples are taken from Crepax and, once again, Ware. Chavanne finds this option to be “effectively a tension towards a point beyond the strip, a desire or need to reach a composition ordered according to different principles”. Moreover, and basing himself on the readings of Bruno Lecigne and Jaques Tamine of Crepax’ oeuvre (found on the ground-breaking Fac-Simile, 1983), the author finds in this model “a compositional principle that constitutes a questioning of the strip, pushing it to an excess of its own rules of panel structuring” (189). In the case of Crepax there are examples of pages that can be read according to several competitive protocols, all with the same stake at meaning-construction (another way of pointing out, through analysis, the role of Crepax as a true reinventor of comic’s structures). “The disturbance of the reading protocols does not emerge from the organization of the panels, but rather from the choices in the ordering of representation. Indecision comes about from the fact that the panels’ structuring offers us with several possible reading interpretations, and the artist was punctilious to the point of offering in those moments representations that do not allow us to prevent such multiple options” (195). In other words, we could say that the structure remains, but the map changes.

Renaud Chavanne - Composition, Crespin

The last part of the book – “Au-delà de la bande” (“Beyond the strip”) – is dedicated to close readings of four particular artists that “make inoperative the conventional rules of reading” (237). They are Michel Crespin [above, the pages with Crespin’s example], an important French author from the 1980s, creator of a whole series of science fiction or other genre books, but exploring exquisite human dimensions; Chris Ware, one of the most successful and accomplished reinventors of comic’s language; the Italian master Gianni De Luca, who, in his three adaptations of Shakespeare most famous plays (The Tempest, Hamlet and Romeo and Juliet, between 1975 and 1976) progressively opens up the path for panels that occupy the entire composition plane of the page, where the characters appear in different moments of their actions (imitating – for the first time within the comics medium – a beautiful technique that was used by Botticelli in his interrupted version of Dante’s Inferno, as pointed out by many scholars); and French contemporary artist Alex Baladi, whose compositions open up to wide expansions of white in order to avoid classical linearity and bring about a dream-like dimension to the compositional choices [below, an example from Nuit profonde]. Chavanne considers that it is important for one’s analysis to take in account if such innovations and the “defeat” of the strip principle is the result of a continuous, sustained research on the part of the artists, or if it’s just “trouvaille solitaires” (“one-time findings”, 232). That is the reason why the researcher has chosen four artists whose productions are fruit of hard labour. In the case of Lucca, furthermore, the genetic principle is clearly at stake. Because Chavanne’s research was done before the availability of Ware’s Building Stories, we cannot demand from the author, after hundreds of analyzed pages, yet another example. And his readings of Ware’s older work are tantalizing. He writes “In Ware, the research for image organization solutions that are transgressive of the strip model implies a cluster structure, that is to say, regroupings of coherent images, which are in turn structured among themselves”. When he refers to Ware’s immense “tables” from Quimby the Mouse, Chavanne zeros in on those pages in which the several layers of background/scenery, the representation of the character’s action and the representation of his memory are mixed in the compositional plane. On the other hand, there are clusters, as the author says, that function as internal, fluctuating units within a same plane. Ware reaches, thus, a very special level. Although Chavanne is referring to a particular page in the following quote, we can read this statement as a recurring principle in Ware: “The strip is therefore branded by a compositional unit, but at the same time by a blatant discursive and semantic autonomy” (249). Furthermore, “[such a] a modification of the composition principles has as a goal the creation of a kind of discourse, evoking thus a particular modality of the intellect’s way of working” (257), revealing that way the fashion after which each reading protocol implies, by necessity, a new cognitive disposition in the reader.

Alex Baladi - Nuit profonde

As for Baladi, his strength is found in the fact that his panels “interpenetrate each other. This dovetailing is quite different [from integrations studied before], given that in Baladi we do not have only a panel that flows into another, with its contour lines proportionally deforming to create room”, but rather through a structure that makes “panels overlap [chevauchent] each other, educing ambiguous figures” (275).

The author never forgets to integrate this highly formalist discourse in History, whether internal to the authors – by pointing certain developments within an artist’s oeuvre – or of the medium itself. For instance, the author shows how important it is for us to consider the modes and formats of the work’s publication history, as in the paramount case of Schulz or Segar, underlining at the same time the fact that, because they were working with a frankly more reduced number of panels, composition work for newspapers was way more flexible than that in book or magazine form, with internal rigid rules. But the author is not implying any sort of teleology relating to each typology. We will not find in this book any argument towards the historical preeminence of regular compositions, for instances, that would purportedly slowly but irresistibly “evolve” towards more complex forms… Not at all. The author actually encourages comics historians – a subject or discipline Chavanne has no wish to invade – to complete this needed task, no matter what the cost: “It is quite probable that, as new studies come about, many of our preconceived ideas are questioned, perhaps painfully” (56).

Format is a constant source of information for the author. Actually, Chavanne attempts a finicky exactitude by providing us with very precise measurements of the pages and panels, not to mention where they were published. It reminds us of a very important article written by Pascal Lefèvre, The Importance of Being Published’” (in Comics & Culture, 2000), which discussed the role of the formats and sizes in the analytical consideration of a comics work. And in fact, even if there is a coincidence in typological terms, it won’t be the same thing to peruse comic art in a 1920 Sunday page, a contemporary comic book, a classical French-Belgian album, a tankonbon, a L’Association’s Patte-de-Mouche or in a “book” (i.e., the fluctuating yet nondescript, general formats of a novel, customarily in use in graphic novels).

This intensity of focus by the author in covering all possible bases where comics production and creation are concerned, that will have their own necessarily impact on the compositional options – whether the artists themselves are conscious of that or not when they’re creating them – leads to special cases in which the author produces a reasoning about the importance of the ontogenetic analysis of the works. It is very natural that most students of comics art engage in aestheticizing readings constrained to the final, published form of a given work (sometimes, confining themselves to only one of the existing versions: let us remind ourselves of Hergé’s revisitations to his many Tintins, the reworked versions of Gilbert Hernandez or Chris Ware of their major works, Maus‘s own revisions, etc.). Sometimes, a more attentive look to the structures of the compositions of those published versions can offer us with clues on how any given comics author set up his or her scaffolding, perhaps correcting a previous option, for instance. How does one detect that? Following Chavanne, and depending on the case, by checking the different width of inter-panel white space, by checking a pencil line that was not entirely erased, a visible correction, the lack of balance between the panel’s relative sizes, and so on. It is the access to the preparatory materials of a work, though (breakdowns, pencil roughs, etc.), that can exponentiate such knowledge and, that way, bolster the interpretative work. “The different modalities of the panel organization on the composition space can be therefore solicited outside a historical approach of a work or an author. But they can also collaborate, evoked by an author within the same work, and its juxtaposition can become a tool at the service of the artist’s expression” (160).

Such an expression, the intuitive dimension of the artist, is respected by Chavanne’s oeuvre, which has no wish whatsoever to impose this analytical approach, neither in a previous preparatory role nor as an obligatory (discursive) model guiding the artist’s own practice, which only underlines his humbleness as a theoretician but, at the same time, by stressing the pertinence and utility of the instruments he creates. He makes this point across: “deciphering a book is a complex task, and quite difficult to complete in one sole sitting, and many portions remain obscure even after several [attempts]: the purpose is cut, fragmented, and demands a reconstruction work that will never be complete not definite” (197).

Chris Ware - Jimmy Corrigan, whirpool

From the outset, Composition de la Bande Dessinée becomes compulsory reading in the analytical study of comics. To not know it will, in my very personal view, come close to the legal principle of Ignorantia juris non excusat, i.e., not knowing it will not be an excuse for those who wish to engage with a serious study of comics, formally-wise, buttressed by such a toolbox as devised by Chavanne. The example shown here by Chris Ware [above] imitates overall the movement of the whirpool, complicating the possibilities of the reading protocols. 

Not only are these tools easy to understand as they are also easy to apply, no matter how open-ended they might become. “Composition is an infinite art. Not only due to size variations through which one can modulate panels, not only due to the many functions of the nature of the framing and the inter-panel space (or its absence), not only due to the number of strips of the compositional plane and the number of panels aligned one next to the other: fragmentation is a larger device to the extent that it opens up a potentially unlimited field of composition, that is to say, the art of placing images next to one another, and therefore the art of comics” (149, our emphases).

Joe Matt - Playtime

Despite the monumental nature of Composition de la bande dessinée, I do not think it would be abusive to ask ourselves why Chavanne has not included other works that are frankly more experimental where comics’ composition is concerned. We don’t mean pages from the Abstract Comics anthology, or from Martin Vaughn-James’s The Cage, Richard McGuire’s “Here” or Niklaus Rüegg’s Spuk, all of which, at the end of the day, produce actually conventtional page layouts. But rather a handful of examples, from a few pages of Fort Thunder’s Paper Rodeo newspaper to the last issue of Alan Moore’s and J. H. Williams III’s Promethea, or Joe Matt’s “Playtime” page [above], among so many other possible examples. It’s up to us to understand if Chavanne’s models are able to engage with such extreme cases, or if they warrant further elaboration.


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