Renaud Chavanne: the “Composition” interview.

Published in Portuguese for the first time in 2011, and then in English at the International Journal of Comic Art (Vol. 14, no. 1, Spring 2012), along with its review, which I posted here. It’s long and winded, folks.

Renaud Chavanne: I thank you for the time you’ve dedicated to the reading of Composition de la bande dessinée, and for having put your ideas forward. I don’t want to pass the opportunity in acknowledging how I feel honored by those efforts, and how I enjoy these exchanges very much, for their fair value. I had a similar discussion with Harry Morgan, when L’Explosion came out, and I cherish those magnificent discussions. So thank you. On the contrary, the exchanges with Thierry Groensteen and Benoît Peeters have been, let us say, inexistent. I would like to precise this point in response to something you’ve wrote: “It comes as no surprise to read your work as an extension of Peeters’ and Groensteen’s researches”. In effect, I do acknowledge that Peeters’ work has created very important concepts, a basis in which I’ve built upon. But that same work has remained in an embryonic state, at least the part that I am most interested in. It is very intriguing to realize that Peeters has never revisited that task, nor did he built upon it or completed. For instances, in his recent book dedicated to Chris Ware [La bande dessinée reinventée], we find no sentence whatsoever that associated that particular study of Ware’s art to the first works by Peeters. This is an impressive occultation. Wouldn’t Ware’s oeuvre be a fantastic occasion to engage in a discourse on composition (which Peeters calls “mise en page”) on this very concrete example? Isn’t this precisely what I have tried to accomplished, something that you even press me to continue (as in your question about Ware’s Building Stories, below)? For me, Peeters is more a man with a great intuition than a deep researcher. As for Groensteen, I cannot find much interest in his research for this question in particular, comic’s composition. There are many convincing and ground-breaking arguments in his work, but where composition and image organization is concerned, less so. His notions of arthrology, tressage/braiding, and so on, are quite pertinent, sure, but they end being very generic principles, and do not reach that level of generalized applicability over a wider corpus, that would put theory at the service of the comprehension of the discipline, or more exactly, of the works.

I found your comparison between Composition and an optometrist’s trial frame amusing, in the sense that by changing a lens you think in different manners. If this book leads to such a result, I am happy. And I do agree with you in what you say about the ontogenetic facets of a given work, or the issues relating to style. Genetic issues are in fact dazzling. We learn a lot by observing each individual mark in the final result, or in its reproduction in a book or magazine, which is sometimes the only way we have access to preparatory materials. Where composition is concerned, I do think we can learn quite a deal if we could observe how they’re brought into existence. When does the artist start to think about the questions relating to image composition? Is compositional construction something that is there right before the first drawings? Is it developed at the same time? Afterwards? Is the positioning of these images reconsidered, changed, readjusted progressively? A hundred questions pop into my mind immediately, as soon as I start to think of the work’s creative process from the perspective of composition. Allow me to point out to you a very interesting article by Canadian scholar Philippe Sohet, entitled “Pratiques de la planche: une approche genétique” [“Practices of the page: a genetic approach”, in Relief 2.3: 2008: pp. 348-380], which precisely entails a genealogical analysis of a handful of works. His approach is ingenious: he compares the modifications that an author [Edmond Baudoin, see below] has made in his work as they were published in different places. Those changes offer many lessons. A little like those studies that have been done on the successive editions of Hergé’s Tintin.

Baudoin, a repeated scene

Style questions are also fascinating business. For a comics’ author, the organization of images is an intrinsic part of his or her style, at the same level of drawing. We can observe an artist’s evolution in composing and thus reach some interpretations about his or her work. We can also group artists into schools, currents, by basing ourselves on composition choices. We are engaging with aesthetic issues, but also political and ideological. A cognitive approach is rather more delicate. I think we may be able to subdivide that field into two segments: that of the analysis of the reader’s perception of the work, on the one hand, and the analysis of the way an artist creates his work, on the other hand, trying to ascertain at the same time if and how it is perceived by the reader. The first kind of approach is done by Neil Cohn, who deals with certain questions that are also central for my concerns, like fragmentation, even though we follow different paths. But we do deal with similar questions. Cohn considers comics to be a “visual language”, an expression with which I am not totally in accordance with. I think I am rather more interested in the second cognitive approach: the one which associates with the processes that the artist follows in order to be read by the reader. Many are the artists who declare themselves to want to guide the reader’s gaze across the page. For me, those are the fundamental questions.

It is very telling that in French, you do not use the French word “page” for a comics page, but “planche”. As Charles Hatfield has pointed out, and I quote, it is “a term denoting the total design unit rather than the physical page on which it is printed” (Alternative Comics). So, it’s almost very natural that you follow that. Sometimes you resort to “espace de composition” (“composition space”) or something to that effect, but a “planche” is always beyond a page, closer to the specific comics structure.

RC: In France, we usually consider the planche to be the original material document from which a page will be printed. I wonder if I understand fully what Charles Hatfield means by “a term denoting the total design unit”… And I also wonder if I made myself understood. I am not denying the existence nor the importance of the physical page, the primary material substratum, if we can put it that way, of the planche. I insist, however, in my main point: we overvalue it. The page and the planche are far from being mere supports, or systematic frames (in the largest possible meaning, perhaps we should speak of multiples frames [multicadre]). And I also believe that focusing solely on the study of the page has lead certain analysts to ignore, wrongly, the importance of certain other structures, such as the strip, which are, at least for me, as important as that of the page. Anyhow, many comics have been conceived in a way not to occupy the entirety of the physical page that will present it, as for instance the case of the typical North-American daily strip, or sets of strips, and so on.

Therefore (and I am here assuming a genetic perspective), is the original plan of a comic strip (or a set of two strips destined to be published together) the page itself? A planche? We can see that through these questions the very notions of page and planche are quite problematic when they are employed nilly-willy. Moreover, and still according to a genetic approach, we can see how some pages by some authors are done with the collage of varied and materially distinct stuff. For example, many are the artists that create the originals of the European-style albums’ pages in two loose paper folios (sometimes more) that are then glued on to the other in order to form the definitive planche. This in what the format is concerned (or about the difficulty of drawing in a page that is too big), among other issues.

In this framework of thinking, what is a planche then? The composite gathering that is the original of a page (perhaps that is the way we may understand Hatfield’s “term denoting the total design unit”, in which case I think it is a quite judicious way to understand the planche)? Are the demi-planches that were drawn in a single loose folio also a planche? These notions of page, of planche, are much less evident than it first appears.

The notion of a “composition space” aims, in turn, to delimit whatever set of images (of panels) comes to the fore, and which we have the need to describe as the basis of the images’ organization phenomenon. A page, half a page, a strip, two strips, a group of a certain number of panels, etc. It is a utilitarian concept, then, for the analyst interested in clearly pointing out that composition is something theoretically applicable to whatever group of images comes into view. More, we can observe several levels of composition integrated into one another (I’m afraid that this all sounds somewhat obscure; perhaps we should produce a few examples…).

I also realize that, no matter how much I write, I haven’t started answering your question…

In many respects, you create a complicated mechanism that involves not only a formalist approach – which a cursory look could mistakenly take your work for – , but also reception theories, cognitive approaches, aesthetic evaluation, considerations about style and so on. Comics reading must, as of course, and you mention this, be holistic. However, what is your goal with this book? What would you like to be its particular contribution to the theoretical and analytical tools of comics studying?

RC: This book has a history that you know partially. As for its goals, that are also its motivation, it is to be found in that history as well. Let us attempt a first part of this answer.

Hermann - Les Tours de Bois Maury, Alda

I was enthralled with certain compositions by Hermann, especially from his The Towers of Bois Maury series, whose panel organization is very interesting. I also found in them a complex way of organizing the narrative. All this work exuded an undeniable sophistication, that hadn’t been perceived by the reader that I was back then. The author’s work quality was found in such a level that it eclipsed itself wholly at the service of its objective (in this case, a story). Very complex things were assimilated easily by the reader, thanks to Hermann’s mastery of his medium. That is when I started to try to understand more fully that which I’d only perceived in a vague manner. I wrote a few pages in that time, but they were just a sketch of things to come. In the meantime, I discovered similar structures in Edgar P. Jacobs.

The advantage of working on Jacobs is that his entire oeuvre is relatively limited, so its analysis is much more simple than it would be if I used Hermann, who has dozens of books. That’s how I came to write Edgar P. Jacobs & le Secret de l’Explosion, that you know well. I sent this book to several publishers, such as Groensteen’s (L’An 2) and Peeter’s (Les Impressions Nouvelles), but they refused the project. If I’m telling you this, it’s because you describe my work as an “extension” of Peeters and Groensteen’s researches, but it’s quite obvious that they didn’t see that way. I was then lucky to meet Philippe Morin (from PLG), who welcomed my project, and to whom I am grateful.

We can perhaps imagine that Groensteen and Peeters did not understood the implications of the conclusions of L’Explosion in regard to the entire field of comics, taking it beyond Jacob’s particular oeuvre. Personally, I do not believe in this, because I think things are presented quite explicitly. And after all, you yourself presented your doubts, in your own review of L’Explosion, of its ability to be applied on the whole of the 9th art.

From the outset I was aware that it would be necessary to clearly demonstrate the generalization of the concepts brought together in L’Explosion. The desire to write Composition started right there and then, which should have been a small book with a hundred or so pages, simple and pedagogic. But as I was writing it, the concepts multiplied and led to new ones, and this new phase of observing the comic’s works revealed new things that I hadn’t seen before and voilá, Composition became that big book you have now in your hands.

A second part of the answer is to be found in my conviction that comics should be put side by side with the other arts of the book, more than those of cinema, literature, or any other. Even though literature is a discipline strongly related to the book, very rarely does literature become an art of the book, for a very simple reason: the writer does not usually bear in mind the final form of his work, at least actively and voluntarily, considering that form to think about his text. Quite the contrary to comics, which is an art fundamentally associated to its diffusion format, which has mostly been, at least until our days, that of the book (I don’t mean only books strictly, but also newspapers, magazines, and so on; but not the computer screen, or that of a cell phone, a tablet, etc.). Of course, there will always be exceptions, but in the immense majority of cases, I do think that the artist is also a setter or a composer, in a printer’s workshop sense.

When he or she creates, the comic’s artist has a very developed sense for the final materiality of his work, much stronger than a writer’s. At least, that’s what I think. So you see, under the light of these ideas, what brought me closer to questions of composition in comics.

Composition is a practice wholly dedicated to the creation of a book, as it is to the creation of a comic. It is an intrinsic part of the very substance of this discipline. To create comics is basically organizing images with one another, I think. It’s not only that, sure, but it is that in part, undoubtedly.

A final, third part of the answer is found in yet another conviction: comics should have at its disposition an array of analytical and explanatory tools that are specific to its field. At least, if we believe that comics is a discipline in its own right. If it limits itself by borrowing concepts and notions from other disciplines, then that means that it is not an autonomous artistic and intellectual object. I do believe it’s exactly the contrary, of course, so I tried to build a set of conceptual and analytical instruments that allows us to understand, as I mentioned above, one of comics’ specificities: its capacity to trigger a discourse by grouping together a set of images. That is what I tried to do, first with L’Explosion, and then with Composition.

Do you think one could say that Th. Groensteen’s arthrologie dovetails into your notion of composition as the phrase does to discours? I do not want to explore too much language-centered analogies, but I want to understand the level of analysis in which your tools are applicable.

RC: Arthrology means “the different types of relationships” to which comics submit images (Système de la Bande Dessinée, pg. 25). Within arthrology, spatio-topia covers the “fundamental principles” of the “structure of the relation [mise en relation] of spaces”, of “sharing the space”. Spacio-topia is “one of the keys of the system of comics”. And it is in the moment when one is studying spacio-topia that the notions of the speech balloon, the panel, the frame, the strip and the page are “invoked”. So we may understand that composition, as I see it, corresponds to Groensteen’s spatio-topia.

There are things that are not very clear in Groensteen’s exposition. We can understand that a comics’ artist will make a certain number of choices in terms of spatial organization, and thus of spatio-topia issues. The “mise en page” seems to be the transcription of these choices within the practice of each page. I generally agree with this analysis, but I am not absolutely certain if it’s that interesting to complicate the matters by distinguishing spatio-topia, a sort of abstract and highly intellectualized form, from compositional work, which seems to me a fundamentally manual operation.

A little further in his book (page 28), Groensteen explains that the breakdowns [découpage] articulate the iconic and linguistic materials while the page layout [mise en page] articulates the frames [cadres]. Then he is more precise: “the breaking down and the layout are the two fundamental operations of arthrology”. It’s rather odd, and I must confess I have a hard time connecting one to the other. I seem to think that the breaking down is the spatial structuring “of the sequential phrases” or, to put it another way, the articulation of thought, the construction of speech through a multiplicity of images. But at the same time I do not understand why Groensteen addresses the breaking down only to the articulation of the iconic material. I find that composition (layout) is also applicable to the organization of images, that is to say, to the figures, and not only to the framing.

Groensteen has a tendency to generalize, perhaps too much: he conceives broad, superior structures, such as spatio-topia, that he distinguishes from artistic practice, in this particular case, page composition. Sometimes it feels we’re looking at a concept mill, spinning at full speed, emptied, which forces us to dedicate an awful amount of time to understand what each concept means exactly, and what differentiates one from the other. It’s his Kantian side, perhaps. I don’t find much interest in this kind of reasoning that elevates the discipline’s fundamental concepts beyond its apprehension by the artists themselves. In my way of looking at things, the practice of comics making is basically a plastic one, a visual one, in relation to the matter as it is perceived by the reader’s gaze. I prefer, then, to stay as close as I can to the artist’s hands.

Moreover, it seems to me that our processes are quite different, even if our goals are similar. By inventing a concept such as spatio-topia, Groensteen is putting himself resolutely in the position of an originator of specific tools for comics’ analysis, an approach that I find quite useful, as I said before. By reemploying the notion of composition, I want to put comics back into a specific tradition, that of the arts of the book. This means to set free concepts that are specific to comics, that cannot cut themselves wholly from other practices, whether older ones or contemporary. But while I am trying always to base myself on a material that I exemplify explicitly so that readers can understand and follow my observations and conclusions in relation to comics, Groensteen prefers to privilege a more general and systematic discourse, the fruit of his reflections. The examples he produces throughout Système are few and sparse, and are used more like in the role of an illustration, as in a pedagogical demonstration, than to buttress the exactitude of his discourse and to convince the reader that those insare adequate for the studied discipline.

José Muñoz and Carlos Sampayo - Alack Sinner, Rencontres

Here’s an example: in page 129 of Système, Groensteen comments on an example from Muñoz and Sampayo’s Alack Sinner: Rencontres [above] thus: “therefore formulate this first rule, that the meaning of a panel an be informed and determined by the panel that preceded it much like the one that follows it” [Beaty-Nguyen’s translation]. It’s obvious that no one would think of establishing a rule basing him or herself in the scrutiny of but one sole phenomenon. Actually, this rule predates the example, so the example pops up with a basic pedagogical end. It is admissible, notwithstanding. But then we would also be entitled to ask ourselves from where does such a rule come, or what is its justifying substratum.

This way of doing things has as its consequence a tendency to slide into an argument from authority. We have an affirmation, but no demonstration. Groensteen’s position, not only as a thinker, but also an as institutional agent (ex-editor-in-chief of the Cahiers de la bande dessinée, ex-director of Angoulême’s CNBDI, the many books he penned, etc.), becomes the basis, and we do realize that an extremely powerful one, from which the affirmations he produces are dispensed.

But this process is, for me, inadequate. The reader trusts the author and takes his word as gospel, in what should be a discourse with scientific objectives. Here’s another example, a little ahead (page 131): “we have to recognize that many other works, more traditional and less sophisticated than Alack Sinner to a strictly linear narrative order (of the causal-deductive kind), and never attain a retroactive determination at the level of the sequence. It is rather at the level of the phrase [sintagme] that it becomes dominant. In comics for younger children, the authors simplify the theme, and each panel becomes totally explicit and meaningful in itself”. The author has a hell of a nerve [culot] in this last sentence, which, I must insist, is not sustained in any way: it’s just dropped there, in the expectation that the reader will swallow it hook, line and sinker. It’s a generalization totally devoid of demonstration. On the other hand, in the immediately next lines, Groensteen himself makes his own approach relative, by pointing out an example and concluding, three lines ahead, that “The choice of the net [réseau] as the pertinent level of interpretation in the last instance, is not therefore typical of modern comics that use a more fragmented [éclatée] form of writing, but rather a general principle”. This is a way that Groensteen uses that clearly shows his systematization research. There’s a desire for universality in Groensteen, a sort of theoretical effort that pushes him too much towards the high spheres of the ethereal. Completely the opposite of my method, I think.

None of this means that Groensteen is not a master of his domain, which he is, and I find high interest in the reading of his book. I also have to add that the Groensteen of Système is delving within a fundamentally narrative framework, that is to say, he basically sees comics as a form of narrative [interviewer’s note: as also demonstrated by Groensteen’s latest book, Bande dessinée et narration. Système de la Bande 2]. As for me, I prefer to put myself in a position at the level of discourse, in which narrative is only one modality. This difference is not that small.

I don’t want to say silly things (and I am afraid that I may say a handful of them answering you in such a short notice – to do it well, I would have to reread Système carefully, among a few other books, but I have no choice, or it would take weeks, if not months, to be able to answer you), but I don’t think Groensteen has recycled in a profound manner his own theories in his subsequent works. I’m far from being someone who has read his entire output, but I don’t remember reading one line in books such as Lignes de vie, Artistes de bande dessinée (in which he acted as editor-in-chief), Munographie (same thing), L’Art de Saint-Ogan (also), and even La bande dessinée, mode d’emploi, employing the concepts he developed in Système.

We could say the same about Peeters, as discussed already about his book on Ware: what is the purpose of constructing theories, if we will not use them in order to explain the reality of an art, if it does not open up a path for commentary, analysis, understanding and approaches of the works themselves? After all, what are we really looking for? Are we celebrating an artistic practice that we love? Or are we just using it in order to create our own edifices? I have to admit that for a long time I was tempted by the second answer, but it is no longer the case.

Besides, there would be much to discuss where “centered analogies” are concerned, but I am not going to engage with that issue right now, because that’s precisely something I’m developing elsewhere, and I hope to make that public in the near future.

One of the very effective things you do in your book is to underline the specificity of page composition as a comics tool. You point out to the places in which one may find the same principles and methods (such as graphic design) or similar techniques that may reach similar effects (such as cinema), but more often than not if you bring together two different media it is in order to differentiate them. How important is for you the issue of medium-specificity?

RC: Comics’ specificity is, for me, a given. I don’t even wish to demonstrate it. On the contrary, it is not that useless to make some comparing, some collating and some differentiating with other fields. The ninth art is not indifferent to other disciplines, whether artistic or otherwise. Thierry Smolderen has discussed that very well in his studies about North-American comics from the early 20th century.

Even so, it seems to me that it is important that, when we observe and describe the specific functioning of certain of the comic’s instruments, and in our present concerns, the organization of images, we will reach quite naturally to a demonstration of the specificity of this medium. Many times there is a confusion between comics and cinema, and many are the authors that will say that they’re trying to imitate cinema, or that they chose comics because they couldn’t do cinema. In another register, we can see how the 1990s renovation of French comics detached itself from that cinematographic inclination, so to speak, probably seen as something excessively spectacular, in order to return to a comics production closer to literature. The very formats of the books published then were a palpable proof of such a tendency.

In both cases, at any rate, I think that those positions are ideological. They are more revealing about the ideas shared about this art by those who assume them, than about the reality of the comics themselves. This comics’ production is not comparable evidently to that of cinema, but the same thing can be said in relation to literature. What the authors who have this discourse are trying to say is that they are trying to reinstitute, within the medium of comics, effects that they have observed in other artistic disciplines. They are aware of the capacities that those other arts have in order to produce certain reactions on the people that submit themselves to them, and try to reach similar effects through comics art. That is the transposition work that Manuel Kolp tries to describe in his Le langage cinématographique en bande dessinée (“The cinematographic language in comics”, Université de Bruxelles: 1992). as you see, he also employs “language-centered analogies”…

Do you think that applying your research in the panoramic study of both comics artists and writers would herald results in the appreciation of their distinct yet compellingly collaborative work? I’m asking this because I’ve always felt that the myth of the “complete author” blinds one to other experiences, especially those – granted, perhaps in the minority – in which it is the writer who plans out the page composition. For instances, the Scottish mainstream writer Grant Morrison uses regularly page compositions that open its 2nd dimension to higher dimensions (by using complex, non-linear fragmented compositions), independently of the artist he is collaborating with [I’m using an example drawn by J.G: Jones from Marvel Boy].

Grant Morrison and J.G. Jones - Marvel Boy 4

RC: I think that by writers [écrivains] you mean “scriptwriters” [scénaristes] in French. That’s a good question, one that makes us return to a genetic level of study. I think that there would be a genuine interest in understanding how issues relating to composition are seen and understood by the artists. And, in effect, in the case of a collaboration between a scriptwriter and an artist, it is very relevant to ask ourselves who assumes which role in the organization of the images in the compositional area. As of course, that depends quite probably of which authors we’re discussing. Practices can vary in each pairing of authors. But in this case, we can not forget other things either, such as the external limitations eventually imposed by an editor, by the publication itself, its format, its diffusion processes, limitations that can be technical or ideological, or both.

Renaud Chavanne - Composition, Patrick Cothias and André Juillard -Masquerouge

In one example you give, by Juillard-Cothias’ Masquerouge (Planche VIII, ill. 144 [above, from Chavanne’s book]), we have a strip with a one large image as background, and three superimposed panels. You read it as a 2/1/2 model, though. Can I understand this as you giving priority to the protocols of reading implied in a specific work over a simple, perhaps too superficial counting of delineated/framed panels?

RC: That’s a fair assessment. The panel is a convention, an artifice that it is not indispensable in any case. Its role cannot be denied, sure, but we known that we do not need contour lines or inter-panel white spaces, or any other kind of marks to create a comic. The only thing you do need are images and their organization, which produce a discourse.

Obviously, when the artists understand this trait of the 9th art, they find that a same image can, in effect, compose several propositions by articulating itself with other images, just as different components of an image can be found in distinct panels. I discuss several examples of this kind of composition. There’s that Juillard example, but also one from McMahon’s Judge Dredd (page 172) or Qwak’s (174). We can also consider Killoffer’s and Blutch’s illustrations under that light. Quite probably, Will Eisner was an author that was very interested about that question.

The panel, with its contour line, its white spaces all around, is a powerful convention, but by no means it is an obligation. We have known for a very long time that artists can decompose a movement within one single panel, by presenting different phases of a movement, through the representation of different characters, each in a position of a movement in its successive phases. An extremely famous example is that panel from Hergé’s The Crab with the Golden Claws [below], that has been shown time and again. This observation can be stretched to comprehend other kinds of images, besides the ones that decompose a movement. We can place in the same place (the same panels) images that could also be placed in separate, different panels.

Hergé - The Crab with the Golden Claws

And the opposite thing can also be done: we do find artists using a white line separating figures that could inhabit the same single panel. Picture yourself an image with two characters facing each other, so that you have two profiles. Then separate the two profiles with a white stripe between them (a contour line, or two contour lines and one inter-panel space). The two compositions may be similar, but they are not the same at all.

In some parts of your study, you call our attention to the study of preparatory materials as a form of accessing the ontogenetic process of a given work. Do you think that this is an compulsory step, considering then an aesthetic reading singularly centered in the published, final form an incomplete reading, or is it just yet another factor one should take in account for a description as complete as possible of that given work?

RC: I’m not sure if I fully understand your question…

There is no obligatory step, and we should be glad about that. There are many ways we can engage with the study, the understanding and the commentary of a comics work. And I have no wish to impose a single one. If one analytical method makes us closer to an illuminated understanding of an art that we like, that’s a good thing. But that cannot mean in any way that another method is not equally illuminating and able to produce great readings. We know that the practice of images is an old one in humankind. It is deeply rooted in us, and perhaps it is largely based on non-enunciated and non-conscious principles. In that sense, the observation of the intimate moments of creation would quite probably allow us to be as close as possible to those internal principles.

But observing creation also allows us, almost for certain, to understand non-formulated practices of the artist. For example, I was also flabbergasted by the fact that Jacobs never uttered a single word (at least, not that I know of) about his compositional principles, although he constructs very complex and sophisticated organizations of images. Perhaps he felt that there was no need to discuss them. Perhaps he just did not formulate his practice.

In page 148 you mention “there is, in fragmented comics, strong panels [cases fortes] and weak panels [cases faibles]. The former are not ambiguous, and they take a determined place within the sequence. On the contrary, the weak panels are object of less powerful determinations, and their place in the sequence of the reading can take several forms”. However, I am not sure if you’re referring to something only at the level of page composition, or if you are already taking in account its contents (figuration, semantics, plot elements).

RC: This is basically a question of composition, not of figuration. What I see is that some compositions can be read in several ways. That is the case of the example I propose right after that sentence, and that I comment [by Sébastien Chrisostome]. But those different ways of reading do not affect all the panels. Some of the chains of panels within the composition present no reading trouble at all. Imagine, if you will, a 2/1/1 structure. We could perhaps hesitate on the way we would read the first three panels. How should we proceed? In any case, however, we would never read the fourth panel before the third one. In a 2/1/1 strip, the first and the last panels are strong, and the intermediary ones are weak. In any case, I don’t think that this notion of strong and weak panels is in itself a strong one, though: it’s just a way of trying to understand a situation, the fact that not all panels share the same role in a reader’s hesitant path.

Having said that, the figuration, the plasticity, the color, the guiding lines: all of these elements of the image will help in the reading [direction and order], easing up the passage through those weak panels, or quite the contrary they’ll create obstacles and make real traps from those same panels.

I know it’s a terrible thing to point out, after hundreds of examples you’ve given and with such an incredible diversity of geographical and temporal origins, genres, complexities, etc., further names, but I fell that the last part was a little under-represented. I am thinking of many of the compositions of Fred (especially in the Philémon books), only apparently following the linear, classical protocols, or Marc-Antoine Mathieu incursions into higher dimensions of the book, including using devices that go beyond the material rectangular, flat page… Do you feel that one could go even further by considering other experimental works that go beyond book materiality, for instances?

RC: Where Fred and Mathieu are concerned, I don’t think you’re right. I even think that most of those works follow conventional paths, which are violently questioned for brief moments. But the compositional principles that shake the foundations of the conventions are not explored significantly in those books. However, I reserve my right of not issuing a final judgment before rereading those same works. Perhaps this is something we could discuss later on.

I have many reservations where the materiality of the book is concerned. I do believe, basing myself in Henri-Jean Martin, that the works and even the modalities of thought owe a lot to the material support that carries them, and which have important consequences in the way they themselves work. I think then that, beyond the book, we will see other things emerging with time, and I don’t think comics will remain as we know it. Where I’m concerned personally, I must say that I have been working with computer science for some years now: in the 1990s, I have tried to show the potentialities of digital media to a few artists. But at the end of the day I feel myself attached to the book in a very personal way. It’s an object I love, and I don’t think I have any interest in reading comics out of a screen.

Why is it important, as you say in page 234, that “we should study attentively if [these techniques] have used several times, that is to say, if they are reusable principles, or if they are only one-time findings”? Do you think that an innovative reading protocol is more effective, or aesthetically stronger, if we know that it was thought of before production? Doesn’t that deny the possibility that a production of an invention may be created through intuitive methods, as you yourself accept somewhere else in your book, that is to say, after same creative effort? I’m thinking of many (mostly) mainstream and even for-hire artists who cranked out incredible work (B. Kriegstein and J. Kirby come to mind) with wonderful compositions in spite of lack of reflection/research time (as if they did created in on the fly).

RC: I don’t think you understood fully what I’ve written. What I say is that we have to ask ourselves about the capacity that some innovations have to be frequently reemployed. Some compositions, no matter how able and ingenious, such as Mathieu’s “hole-panel” (in L’Origine), were not generalized by the authors themselves, so we wonder if they would be generalized at all.

The question I ask myself in that passage (page 234) is wondering if it would be possible to dispense with the strip altogether in the long run, and if the compositional methods that go “beyond” the strip allow for the elaboration of constructions susceptible of use in a larger scale.

Renaud Chavanne - Composition, comparitive schema

I hope you do not get mad at me saying this but, considering this is a book about composition, I found the overall design of the book sometimes a little complicated and cumbersome. I enjoyed particularly the “Planches” (Panels) with the pages neatly stuck closely so that a broad sweeping gaze would highlight immediately the common aspects, their model structuring principles, somewhat reminiscent of a Warburgian Atlas guiding us through your reasoning. However, sometimes the text refers to images that are found one or two pages before or ahead, or the Planches interrupt the text for two or four pages, not to mention that the handling of the book itself makes its reading a little difficult. One needs a table to read it. When you mention Ware’s book Quimby the Mouse as “imposant mais peu commode à manipuler” (“grand but uncomfortable to handle”), I scribbled in pencil, “so is this book”… Please don’t get mad!

RC: You are right and this torments me. But you do well in castigating me for the book’s format, and not Ware’s. It’s really hard to compose a book like this one. I did it myself, because it’s something I enjoy a lot, and because I thought I was able to do it (it was also cheaper). Perhaps I could have done better, no doubt about that, and certainly if it was someone else (starting with Mr. Ware, that’s for certain!). I have no excuses for it, but allow me to defend myself by saying that I have some extenuating circumstances, given the fact that the book was done during weekends and vacations. I could have (should have) dedicated the double amount of time to the book, but it would take something like ten years, and not five, as it did, to finish it. I do acknowledge its shortcomings, but I beg you not to be too rigorous about it, and my sincere apologies to Mr. Ware.

Final note: I would like to thank Renaud Chavanne, for sending me his book, as well as for his interest, availability and patience. I would meet him in person in 2013, when he was the keynote speaker, along with Ann Miller, of the 2013 Conferences on Comics in Portugal, which I organized. His kind attention and graciousness humble me. Also thanks to John Lent and Mike Rhode, without whom the landscape of Comic Studies would not only be poorer as unendurable without them.


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