6. Mise en scène & Framing

Questions to ask
  • How are the characters positioned in the scene in regard to each other, in regard to the decor, in regard to the chosen angle?
  • Which decor has been chosen; which props are visible? Do the climate or atmospheric conditions influence the interpretation of the scene?
  • By what are this particular mise en scène and framing motivated?
  • How do the mise en scène and framing evolve from panel to panel in a sequence, or from sequence to sequence?

Theory

The mise en scène and the choice of angle can strongly influence how the viewer perceives a scene. The reader does not have any oother choice than to view the diegetic world in the way the artist has represented it. Though the terms mise en scène and framing originate from other art forms (such as theater, photography, and cinema), these aspects
in the comics medium also play an important but somewhat different role. Contrary to mise en scène and framing in film, in comics these aspects are strongly related, because there is in fact no actual scene that a camera registers. In contrast to a photographic image, in comics there are no actors or objects in front of a camera lens. A cartoonist suggests figures in a context only with drawn or painted dots, lines, or shapes. Drawing a panel implies realizing at the same time a setup and a choice of frame, but for the sake of a formal analysis one can theoretically differentiate between them

Mise en scène in comics concerns the representation of a scene by a specific organization of its virtual but figurative elements such as décor, props, and characters. There are millions of ways to show a scene (see for instance the different ways in which the Last Supper of Christ has been painted). The artist has to choose from many options where and how to position the characters, how to "dress” them, which facial and corporal expressions to use, and which objects and décor to chose.

Framing in comics means two different things, firstly the choice of a perspective on a scene (far away or very close, a low or high angle, etc.), and secondly the choice of borders of the image. Cinema itself offers many expressions to define a point of view (such as close-up, long shot, medium shot, canted angle, etc.). The content of a scene can indeed urge the artist to use a particular shape or dimension: a high tower will by nature ask for a high, vertical frame; a coastline, by contrast, will demand a large, extended panoramic frame. The proportional relationship between the width and the height of frame is conveyed in the aspect ratio.

A frame can serve various functions (Aumont 1990, 109-111; Groensteen 1999, 49-68): 
  1. It is a visual device that figuratively and literally encloses the panel and gives it a particular shape. The reader understands that the border line has a different status than the lines used for rendering figures in the scene: only in very specific cases does the border line become part of the diegesis (e.g., characters standing on it as a floor or leaning on it as a wall). 
  2. A rectangular shape facilitates ranging the panels in tiers. 
  3. Except for split panels, the frame generally singles out every scene as a proper identity. A frame signals that there’s something to see or to read. 
  4. The succession of frames can deliver a particular visual rhythm. 
  5. Finally, the form of a frame can suggest symbolic, rhetorical, or expressive ideas and associations. A scene with explosions can be placed in exploding frames as in Au Dolle Mol (1982) by Santi and Bucquoy. The border line can be decorated as Cosey did for a time in his Jonathan series (e.g., Et la Montagne Chantera pour Toi, 1977).
In two case studies, different approaches of mise en scène and framing will be analyzed more closely: Kisses by Nananan and Little Nemo in Slumberland by McCay.
(Pascal Lefèvre)
revised from Pascal Lefèvre (2012) & (2009).  
Futher reading
  • Pascal Lefèvre (2012) 'Mise en scène and Framing: Visual Storytelling in Lone Wolf and Cub,' in: Matthew J. Smith & Randy Duncan (eds.) Critical Approaches to Comics, Theories and Methods, Routledge, pp. 71-83, print.
  • Lefèvre, Pascal (2009) 'The Conquest of Space. Evolution of panel arrangements and page lay outs in early comics,' European Comic Art, Vol. 2, N°2, 2009, p.227-252, print & online.
  • Jacques Aumont (1990) L'image, 

    Nathan, print.

  • Thierry Groensteen (1999) Système de la bande dessinéePresses Universitaires de France, print.

  • Pierre Masson (1985) Lire la bande dessinée, Presses Universitaires de Lyon, has an interesting case study of one panel from the Tintin album Les sept boles de cristal, on p. 16-18, print.