Review: The System of Comics by Thierry Groensteen
Submitted by Neil Cohn on August 31, 2008 - 23:30
The best thing about the new translated work The System of Comics by Thierry Groensteen is that it hopefully reflects an increase of English translations of international works on comic theory. There are numerous offerings by European, Japanese, and South American authors that rarely make their way into American scholarship, and more exchange of ideas can only be fruitful to the field. Groensteen is regarded as one of Europe’s leading historians and theorists of comics, and in its original French, the Systeme de la Bande Desinée is heralded by many as a "must-read,” so it would be a logical starting point for such a trend.
Moreover, Groensteen’s book is offered by many as a “serious” alternative Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which has gained massive popularity, especially in America, yet remains dismissed in many scholarly circles since McCloud himself is not an academic. Comparisons between the two works has become commonplace (including the book’s own introduction), and this review will be no exception. For his own part, Groensteen does not engage with McCloud's theories except in a singular passing endnote, which is a shame since their ideas share many similarities.
While my French is not sufficient to assess the overall quality of translation, it certainly did not read comfortably. At times, the English felt unnatural, and word-choice often seemed clumsy if not uninformed. For instance, calling the psychological device of an "eye tracker" an "eye path follower" betrays a lack of competency and/or desire to find the accurate vocabulary (whether on the part of the translators or author is unknown). Additionally, while the endnotes were often helpful, the absence of a reference section is quite noticeable, and the endnotes do not include all the cited bibliographic information. As an “academic” book, such an oversight is a bit peculiar.
Nevertheless, the writing should only be a surface issue to the actual ideas in the book. Perhaps the most appropriate place to start is where he does: with the definition of "comics.”