Mise en abyme

in European Comic Art
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  • 1 University of Glasgow, Scotland, UK
  • | 2 University of Southern Denmark
  • | 3 University of Leicester, UK

This edition of European Comic Art was not planned as a themed issue, but during the editing process, we noted that all four articles may be regarded as offering variations on mise en abyme, the use of an image within an image or text within a text, whereby the inner picture or story illuminates the outer work. This is a term whose heraldic origins link it to visual depictions, and a figure that the comics medium, with its single and multiple frames, can deploy to particular effect. We will show in our conclusion how the frame within a frame occurs in the articles introduced below, either literally or metaphorically.

This edition of European Comic Art was not planned as a themed issue, but during the editing process, we noted that all four articles may be regarded as offering variations on mise en abyme, the use of an image within an image or text within a text, whereby the inner picture or story illuminates the outer work. This is a term whose heraldic origins link it to visual depictions, and a figure that the comics medium, with its single and multiple frames, can deploy to particular effect. We will show in our conclusion how the frame within a frame occurs in the articles introduced below, either literally or metaphorically.

Renaud Chavanne's article concerns a type of panel that he categorises as the cube-panel. Unlike the window panel, which allows for a larger world to be projected by artist and reader beyond the frame, the cube-panel creates a hermetically sealed realm, entirely turned in upon itself, prison or refuge. The analysis bears on the six volumes of Inside Mœbius. The title, and the author's self-representation at various ages, imply that the reader will be offered access to the inner life of the eponymous artist. However, this comic is by definition une bande de Mœbius, a Mœbius strip that is a continuous surface with no outside or inside: the artist's avatar is a graphic character like any other, not a pretext for the exhibition of his subjectivity.

What is revealed instead is the creative process that drives him, and this is achieved through a number of figures. The first is the desert, representing a creative void but also, through an untranslatable play on words (Désert B. = désherber [give up smoking weed]), the desire to replace the out-of-body vision of the self that is afforded by weed-smoking with the externalisation enabled by drawing. The second is the bunker, represented as a cube or parallelepiped within the square or rectangle of the panel, the latter sometimes coextensive with the page, as a whole, and which, in certain of its occurrences, contains within it an additional set of rectangles: the comics page on which the artist is shown to be working, and, by extension, the practice of comics. Further motifs take the form of the fall and the flight: the fear of falling, of losing the creative distancing offered by drug consumption, is counteracted by the impetus sustained by improvisation, untrammelled by a prior script. Chavanne shows how colour is used to establish an equivalence between the upper surface of the bunker and a comics panel and how a panel is depicted as under artistic construction just as the bunker that it contains is under artisanal construction, both places that may be inhabited. Chavanne concludes by noting that comics becomes for Mœbius not merely a mode of expression but a way of thinking about the self as an artist.

Thierry Groensteen writes about the five years during the 1980s in which he was the editor of Cahiers de la Bande Dessinée, the groundbreaking journal that played a key role, in France and beyond, in legitimising comics as an object if not yet of academic study then of theoretical discourses. He begins by recounting the early days of Schtroumpf, a fanzine founded by Jacques Glénat in 1969. It only later gained the subtitle ‘les cahiers de la bande dessinée’, and later still, on Groensteen's assumption of the editorship in 1984, lost its original title and with it, the assimilation of bande dessinée as a whole to the Franco-Belgian tradition. The proposal for a new format arose out of Groensteen's perception of the need for an outlet for theoretical work, for engagement with artists whose work rarely received critical attention, and for evaluative appraisal of the plethora of comics albums being produced in a rapidly expanding field. By the early 1980s, the pioneering generation of comics theorists, such as Pierre Couperie and Pierre Fresnault-Deruelle, had ceased to publish or moved into different areas of interest, and Groensteen was faced with the task of recruiting collaborators. His selection process was rigorously eclectic, and one of the strengths of Les Cahiers was, as he remarks, the coexistence of semiologists with philosophers and art historians, elitists with devotees of popular culture, and the involvement of contributors from many different countries and comics cultures, including, notably, our colleague Paul Gravett.

Groensteen is not without a certain frustration that the period of his editorship coincided with the dominance of a somewhat conservative tendency in comics publishing, since it predated the emergence of the small presses that revivified French—and European—comics production in the following decade. The new-format journal, did, however, appear just a year after the announcement of an ambitious project for a French national comics centre to be situated in Angoulême, and may be seen as part of the same legitimising movement: indeed, Groensteen himself would go on to work there. In the meantime, the journal was being edited out of Groensteen's flat in Brussels, and he describes the complex physical labour required by layout and printing. Moreover, while grappling with a challenging workload, he had to contend with ongoing hostility from those, including comics artists and publishers, who considered the journal pretentiously intellectual. The legacy of Les Cahiers encompasses major theoretical works produced by some of its contributors over the following two decades and the awakening of a younger generation to the potential of comics as a medium for artistic expression.

Francisca Lladó discusses El Perdón y la furia [Forgiveness and Fury], scripted by Antonio Altarriba and drawn by Keko, which was produced in 2017 in collaboration with the Prado Museum on the occasion of an exhibition dedicated to the seventeenth-century Baroque painter José de Ribera. The interpretation by the modern-day protagonist, Osvaldo González Sanmartín, of the artist's works, focusing on his interest in magic and his political radicalism, earns him disapprobation and ultimately terrible punishment at the hands of his hierarchical superiors in the university who refuse to see Ribera as other than a devout catholic. Osvaldo seeks lost works by Ribera depicting mythological scenes (two out of the four ‘Furies’), but the boundaries of time frames become blurred as, embroiled in academic rivalries, he begins to take on the qualities of the artist, a process denoted as ‘Riberisation’. Lladó details the changes made by Altarriba to attested accounts of the commissioning of The Furies, with the aim, she suggests, of linking the painter to the heretical tradition of Illuminism, strengthening the mythology around the curse that strikes viewers of his works, and drawing the paintings into the drama of Ribera's grievance against a powerful enemy. She goes on to examine Keko's use of intertextual references, both to previous works by the comics authors themselves, whose protagonists occupied similarly obsessive fictional worlds, and to multiple works by Ribera, whose iconography resurfaces in the depiction of Osvaldo in tortured perspective and arresting chiaroscuro. Lladó quotes the notes given by Altarriba to Keko, showing his concern to capture exact poses and décor from the source paintings, and stresses the care taken by Keko to find models for the architecture of the Baroque spaces inhabited by Osvaldo.

Most strikingly, the comic shows the crazed Osvaldo enacting the fantasy, invented by Romantic poets, that Ribera had painted with the blood of saints, by substituting the blood of a beggar. Lladó identifies the techniques used by Keko to work from Ribera's originals and to evoke the stages in Osvaldo's gore-soaked recreation of them. In her final section, she notes the importance of the references in the comic to contemporary Spain, including the high visibility of beggars on the streets, the art market, and the entrenched conservatism that imposes orthodoxy within academe, the bitterness of disputes given extra resonance by another reappearance of characters from a previous comic by the authors. Lladó concludes by emphasising the multi-layeredness of the comic, a quality fully brought out by her analysis.

Fredrik Strömberg puts to the test the oft-made but rarely substantiated claim that Marjane Satrapi's drawing style in Persepolis is influenced by ancient Persian art forms, namely arabesques and calligraphy, miniatures and friezes. His analysis draws on Ernst H. Gombrich's work on visual schemata, the patterns common to groups of artists that result in stylistic similarities, but Strömberg introduces a key division: he uses the term visual building blocks to refer to practical conventions, the ‘how-to’ level of creating a drawing, and visual ideas for patterns of perception. Internalised visual ideas may be turned directly into building blocks or adapted through a process of accommodation. The result will be the visual elements in the completed drawing. He makes a further classification: schemata may be discerned at the levels of lines, details, characters and objects, and compositions. The analysis of Persepolis begins with a comparison of its curvilinear art with arabesques and calligraphy, in particular with visual ideas from Persian carpets. Their accommodation with comics conventions relating to thought balloons and emanata has the effect, Strömberg suggests, of associating them with the inner life of the autobiographical character. In the next category, details, he compares the facial features of Satrapi's characters to Persian miniatures, finding them to be plausibly related, particularly in the design of the eyes, although it is hard to establish, he acknowledges, whether this is a matter of influence or coincidence. In the category of characters and objects, a connection is demonstrated between the Persian warriors on friezes and the soldiers represented in historic scenes by Satrapi. On the compositional level, Strömberg points to instances of rhythmical, symmetrical rows of bodies in Persepolis, with an absence of perspective that again connects them to friezes. He moves on to considerations about the degree of accommodation needed between each type of Persian art and the conventions of comics: slight in the case of miniatures and, more surprisingly given the divergence of materials, in that of friezes, but greater in the case of arabesques and calligraphy. He contends that the integration of all these ideas from Persian visual culture not only intensifies the thematic of Persepolis but has revitalised comics in general, with a direct legacy that is visible in work by other Middle Eastern comics artists.

In Chavanne's article, mise en abyme operates at more than one level. The recurring figure of the bunker that occurs within the diegetic world may also be read as part of the comics apparatus, a square or rectangular comics panel. As such it enters into a larger, organised array, but it also contains within in it, on occasion, a sheet of paper on which is drawn a multi-panel comics grid, a schematic representation of that same comics apparatus, standing for the activity of the artist. The struggles that Thierry Groensteen recounts may be read as a mise en abyme of aspects of the wider legitimising process: the establishment of critical frameworks within which comics could be assessed on the basis of artistic merit rather than commercial success, the constitution of a group of specialists, often drawn from other disciplines, who could make these judgements, and the scornful opposition of those for whom comics could only ever be regarded as a mass cultural product. The title of the comic discussed by Lladó, El Perdón y la furia, alludes to the themes of pain and revenge to be found in Ribera's paintings. Quoted in the comic, they function as mise en abyme of the larger narrative of the defiance of power that spans both time frames, that of the modern-day art historian and that of his seventeenth-century subject. Fredrik Strömberg's meticulous tracking of the influence of Persian art in Persepolis leads him not only to the obvious conclusion that the visual elements derived from Persian sources resonate with the comic's subject matter but to the more complex proposition that the exercise of combining different art forms, three- and two-dimensional, coloured and black and white, non-narrative and narrative, has opened up new creative potential for comics, a medium whose development has been marked by remediation and hybridisation.


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