Thierry Groensteen: A response to Renaud Chavanne

After the publication of my review of Renaud Chavanne’s Composition de la bande dessinée, and the related interview, in IJOCA, Thierry Groensteen contacted me. The French theoretician realized that there was faulty or incomplete information where his work and person were concerned, and asked for a droit de réponse, which I promptly translated and submitted to the same journal. I also published it at the time in a Portuguese translation, with the expectation, repeated here, that the misunderstandings were not aggravated by my own misinterpretation of either Mr. Groensteen’s or Mr. Chavanne’s work, translation problems (French into English when I am not a native speaker of either), or other types of problematic intervention. I’d like to take this opprtunity to, once again, than Thierry Groensteen, whom I had met before during the first Conferences of Comics in Portugal (2011), which I had organized and to which I had invited him, along David Kunzle, to be a keynote speaker. With the exception of this introductory note, the following text is all by Mr. Groensteen. 

A response to Renaud Chavanne

In Renaud Chavanne´s interview conducted by Pedro Moura published in the last issue of IJOCA, my colleague establishes a few parallels between his latest book, Composition de la bande dessinée (2010) and my own older essay, Système de la bande dessinée (1999).

Considering how I do not see myself entirely reflected in how he discusses my theoretical approaches, I wish to elucidate here a few points – without polemics -, thanking IJOCA for publishing these notes.

First of all, I wish to leave a personal note on how surprising it is that Renaud Chavanne, in his book, never refers to concepts that had been presented previously by his predecessors who had already analyzed aspects pertaining to the filling out of the space of the page, especially Benoît Peeters and myself. One could expect him to discuss our proposals, but he rather prefers to reinvent his own theoretical apparatus from scratch, as if he was the very first person to deal with it.

As I have written since in my Bande dessinée et narration (2011) [Moura’s review in Portuguese], I think it’s regrettable that Chavanne has chosen the word “composition” in order to address that which is commonly called, in French, “mise en page” [lit. “setting of page”, or layout]. This lexical choice brings about the inconvenience of making the term composition unavailable to designate the disposition of the elements within the image, from the opposition of masses, the organization of force lines, and so on, which is precisely what the more common use of the word implies.

Thierry Groensteen - Systèmes

However, it is imaginable that the author has made this paradoxical choice consciously, precisely in order to obscure the work of his predecessors. If he had used the term “mise en page”, it would be rather difficult for him to not evoke to several works that came before and that amply discussed this very same theme.

In his interview with Pedro Moura, Chavanne seems to believe that “composition” is the equivalent to that which I call “spatio-topical system”, and that “mise en page” is, in my writings, the concrete transcription, for each page, of whatever choice is done in relation to such system. But this is not accurate. First of all, the spatio-topical system is not, in my writings, an operational concept. It is rather a composed term, an abstract category that I propose, at one point, in order to bring together two dimensions of a different nature: that of space (whose main traits are a format and a surface) and that of place [lieu] (which indicates a precise placement in the page and in the book). As I have attempted to demonstrate that these two dimensions were complementary, I needed a term that would allow me to accentuate this articulation. Thus, Spatio-topical. But in relation to all that that pertains to the organization of the page (that which Chavanne calls composition), my concept is, of course, from the very beginning, that of mise en page, which relates in a coherent paradigm with those other two concepts of découpage [breakdown] and tressage [braiding].

I speak of a spatio-topical system when I examine, one by one, the spatial units of the language of comics: the panel, the speech balloon, the strip, the page, because these units, in effect, make a system when together.

In sum, in the presentation he does of my theoretical proposals, Chavanne seeks to introduce a degree of confusion where these is none. (On the other hand, I do not exclude the possibility that the English rendition of my essay, from the University Press of Mississippi, has made things less clear to the English readers).

The strong point of Renaud Chavanne’s book, which I willingly acknowledge, is the remarkable multiplicity of the examples of pages that he calls up and analyses. It is true that Système de la bande dessinée has much less close analyses. But that is solely, to start with, a question of publishing opportunities: the collection that accepted my book does not usually present illustrations at all, and it took some degree of effort to be able to introduce a dozen of them. (It was the publisher who chose to integrate my book in that collection, not me). Also, the goals of our books are somewhat different (Chavanne is addressing a very precise question, whereas I am addressing a rather larger scope of issues). Moreover, in a more methodological plane, I find it interesting to go back repeatedly to the same few examples in order to bring about partial but succeeding readings that demonstrate all that one can elicit from one single comics page.

Thierry Groensteen - Lignes de vie, cover

Chavanne also points out that I have not recycled my own concepts that much in my subsequent writings. As a matter of fact, I make a very clear distinction, between theoretical works, art books (such as L’Art d’Alain Saint-Ogan) and popularization works (such as La bande dessinée, mode d’emploi [Moura’s review in Portuguese]), or those that zero in on specific iconographic themes (as in the case of the human face in Lignes de vie [see cover]). I don’t think it would be very gracious of me to force feed everywhere a complex theoretical arsenal, that I would have to explain time and again at each presentation. But Chavanne can be reassured: I do use it once in a while, when the occasion arises or when I feel the need to use it. Hence, in my study on Martin Vaughn-James’ The Cage, for instance, I make evident how that work makes use like no other of the operation I had called tressage [braiding]; a concept which I am actually revisiting for a new, expanded study, which will unfold it and make it more explicit.

To finish, I would like to make a last correction: I have never been the director of the CNBDI, but solely the Director of the Musée de la bande dessinée, one of the departments that composes the CNBDI.

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