When is a Grid Not Just a Grid?
Originally posted as part of the Groensteen and Page Layout Roundtable at Hooded Utilitarian.
The previous contributions to our roundtable have raised important questions about Thierry Groensteen’s approach to page layout in Comics and Narration. While a rich array of images in Adrielle Mitchell’s post encouraged us to consider how frame irregularities produce meaning, Roy Cook set the stage for an important conversation about the values comics readers attribute to different panel arrangements. Roy’s post really got me thinking about the way Groensteen privileges the layout pattern of the “waffle-iron” by identifying stability, simplicity, and transparency as fundamental attributes of the orthogonal shapes. Groensteen further conceptualizes the grid in the narrative rhythm of comics as the “basic beat” against which the visual and verbal elements of comics can improvise.
From this perspective, it’s not difficult to see how one might characterize the grid as “regular” or “neutral” or “invisible,” but I remain troubled by the relative nature of these terms, who defines them and in what context. To complicate the issue, my first instinct was to seek out comics that delight in the wildly experimental layouts that Groensteen might find “more sophisticated (or more hysterical),” but Adrielle’s post provides several excellent examples already. So I thought I would ask instead about comics that use the grid, but in unexpected ways: how do comics adapt the basic panel layout in order to stray from what Roy described as Groensteen’s “waffle-iron way of truth”? When is a grid not just a grid?
I wonder, for example, how a comic like “The Harvey Pekar Name Story” fits into our understanding of frame regularity and rhythm. Though we may be inclined to make assumptions about its uniformity at first glance, R. Crumb has not simply drawn 48 identical copies of the same man in the squares of this four-page comic about the different Harvey Pekars listed in the phonebook.
An archive of my online writing on comics, literature, and culture. (Illustration above by Seth!)