David A. Berona on “The System” by Peter Kuper

David Beronä is the author of a number of books and articles on the subject of wordless comics. In his essay “WORDLESS COMICS: The Imaginative appeal of Peter Kuper’s The System” Beronä aims to provide analysis of Kuper’s wordless graphic novel demonstrating their are 5 key elements employed by Kuper to successfully drive the narrative in absence of the use of dialogue. Beronä describes The System as “ a leading example of the successful flow of action in a lengthy wordless comic”.

Peter Kuper was approached in 1995 about creating a comic for DC. The illustrative style of The System is quite different from other comics published by DC, or any other major comic publishing company at the time, as they were developed from spray painted stencils. A style which may have been in recognition of some of the earliest wordless comics by artist such as Frans Masereel and Lynd Ward which were created using wood cut techniques. The System also defied contemporary comic book convention by omitting the use of speech bubbles and dialogue, instead relying a number of other elements to lead the story’s narrative. The graphic novel contains a number of stories within a story. The characters within the novel often cross paths and Kuper uses this as a method to transition between the different character’s stories. An example (Figure 1) shows the homeless character and his dog passing the interracial couple on the street, as they pass each other the narrative leaves the homeless man and begins to follow the couple.

 

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 (Figure 1. Example of how narrative transitions between characters)

 

Beronä argues that there are five elements used throughout The System which Kuper employs to drive the narrative. These elements include characters and objects, image functions, stereotypes, word images and line meanings. Beronä feels that we can find examples of these elements at use consistently throughout “The System”.

The first of the five elements in Beronä’s analysis is characters and objects. Beronä states that in order to create a diegesis, or a sense of the world within a silent comic, without the use of dialogue, the artist must employ other methods in order to legitimise their characters and objects. In absence of speech bubbles traditionally found in comics the artist must use exaggerated facial expressions, gestures and body posture in order to convey mood and personal emotion. We see many examples within The  System of exaggerated expressions which convey to the reader the mood and feelings of the characters. This point is backed up by Will Eisner, perhaps the most highly regarded artist in the history of modern comics, when he says “By skilled manipulation of this seemingly amorphic structure and an understanding of the anatomy of expression, the cartoonist can begin to undertake the exposition of stories that involve deeper meanings and deal with the complexities of human experience”.

The next element that Beronä suggests is employed by Kuper is the “function of images”. Beronä argues that there is sensory and non-sensory diegesis used within the The System. Diegesis refers to the sphere or world in which a narrated event and other elements occur. Sensory diegesis includes characters, objects and the sensory environment of the world. An example of the sensory diegesis are the crowds we see in the subway stations which serve to create a sense of the mood and atmosphere of the location. Beronä argues that there is non-sensory images within the The System that sit outside the realm of the sensory diegesis. According to Beronä these non-sensory images are used to convey memories, emotions and sensations related to the specific characters but are undetectable in the sensory diegesis. An example of non-sensory diegesis provided by Beronä shows a folk singer in the subway, as she sings the reader sees forests filled with animals appear around her which are in turn destroyed by construction vehicles (Figure 2). These non-sensory images serve to inform the reader as to what characters are feeling and thinking rather than being interpreted as a part of the actual sensory world.

 

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(Figure 2. Example of non-sensory diegesis in The System)

 

The third element that Beronä examines is stereotype. He suggests that  Kuper uses stereotype as a means of presenting expected behaviour and of challenging prejudices. Beronä puts forward that by portraying characters in a particular way visually, both through their actions and their aesthetic, Kuper invites the reader to draw conclusions based on the stereotypes presented. Kuper then challenges the readers prejudices by showing the reality of the lives of his characters in contrast with what the reader may imagined based on the stereotype. In showing this reality, Beronä believes that Kuper is challenging the reader to examine their own prejudices by presenting the characters story as something distinct from the stereotype.

Word images are the next element which Beronä explores. Word images feature very heavily throughout The System and they play a large part in developing the diegesis. Beronä explains that Kuper has used Synecdoche, the idea of using part of a something in order to refer to the whole thing, to indicate to the reader that the story is set in New York. New York city is famous for its signage and the version presented to us in the diegesis of The System is no different. Beronä expands that Kuper uses marketing slogans, brand names, graffiti, posters, newspaper headlines, news on television, electronic ticker tapes and online banking transactions to communicate information to the reader. Word images are a vital through out The System in order to drive the plot and to provide the reader with information about characters and events. Through out The System the reader is aware of a presidential election and its outcomes via word images which are communicated on posters, televisions, signage and magazine covers (Figure 3).

The final element that Beronä examines is the expressive potential of lines. Beronä argues that Kuper’s use of lines within The System helps to create tension at times and also to provide us with a further insight into the characters.

In order to demonstrate the use of these five elements within “The System” Beronä has selected to a small section of the book to apply his analysis to. I have decided to choose separate section to examine in order to support Beronä arguments and to show how these elements are applied throughout The System. The passage I have selected begins on page 98 and runs  through to page 101. This passage also demonstrates very clearly the techniques, mentioned previously, which Kuper employs to transition between the different characters within the story arc in order to progress the story smoothly.

The passage begins with the gay couple at the hospital. The couple hail a taxi as they leave and in the bottom right panel of the page we see the taxi pass the strip club. The next panel shows the door man effectively inviting the reader into the  strip club through the front door, the reader is then welcomed to the strip club by the club staff and finally invited backstage by the host of the club where we meet the stripper character. As the stripper character gets dressed we see a business card fall from her coat, in the following panel the stripper is seen reading the card and we can make out that it is the business card which was given to her by the detective earlier in the story. The next panel shows the detective leaving a bar and thinking about the strippers who have been murdered, depicted by their faces and the murder weapon in thought bubbles surrounding the detective. We can see from this that Kuper very thoughtfully leads the reader through the narrative in a way that flows naturally and is unforced.

As mentioned this passage also demonstrates proof of the five elements of analysis proposed by Beronä. The first element which Beronä describes as “People and Objects” is demonstrated by the gay couple at the hospital. Earlier in the story it appeared that one member of the couple was very sick and possibly even terminally ill. We see at the beginning of this passage however, through the use of facial expressions, gestures and objects that this is no longer the case. The passage begins with the couple smiling broadly at each other while the patient holds up a hospital admittance band which he has now taken off. In the the following panels we see the couple holding up a get well gift, we next see the patient shaking hands with a senior looking doctor. The doctor is pointing at the patient in a way that suggests that he is saying “You take care off yourself now”, we can also see the get well gift in a trash can behind them which suggests that it is no longer needed (figure 4).

 

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(Figure 4. Example of the use of people and objects to drive narrative)

 

The second element which Beronä mentions is image function. As the couple leave the the hospital they hail a yellow taxi cab. These vehicles  are synonymous with New York and coupled with an image of the strip club with flashing lights help to build a sensory diegesis within The System. At the end of the passage we see the detective surrounded by thought bubbles containing the faces of murdered strippers and a bloody murder weapon, this is an example of the non-sensory diegesis which expresses to us the characters thoughts and feelings.

The next element demonstrated is the use of stereotype. We see the detective leaving a bar drunk, we know from the business card that the stripper is holing in the preceding panel that the the detective is called “Detective MacGuffin”. The drunken down and out Irish detective is a pretty strong stereotype in modern culture. We also see the stripper, who when on stage performs as if she is enjoying herself while taking money from seedy business men. Kuper uses both of these characters to challenge our prejudices and stereotypes. We see the detective looking mournful as he leaves the bar thinking about the murdered strippers and he goes on to be the hero saves another stripper from being murdered. We can also see that the stripper is unhappy through her expression each time she leaves the stage. We also get to see how happy she is when she returns home to her son after work and far from what we may imagine her life to be like, we can see her family is the motivation for the work that she does.

The fourth element Beronä discussed is word images. In this passage we see the stripper holding the detectives business card which reminds the reader of the connection between the stripper and the detective. We also see the detective solve a crime by holding up a cellophane bag with the word evidence written on it. The bag contains a blood splattered piece of a page from a bible. The detective holds up the evidence bag to a opened blood cover bible being held by an evangelical preacher. This indicates to the reader that the detective has found the person responsible for murdering the strippers.

Line meanings are the last element discussed by Beronä. In this passage the lines of  the panels and thought bubbles surrounding the detective are wavey as he leaves the bar. This indicates to the reader that the detective is drunk and creates a sense of his inebriation. We also see the use of enemata, lines drawn around a characters head to indicated state, in the form of little bubbles around the detective which provide further indication that he is drunk.

Beronä has provided a very strong and well thought out analysis of Kuper’s work. He has supported his arguments by demonstrating how they are applied within The System and by backing them up with analysis from other respected comic theorists. At face value a reader may skim through The System unaware of how full of meaning, symbolism and thought it really is. Beronä I feel brings to light the elements which make The System such a successful piece of work and show the skills which Kuper employed in making one of the most thoughtful and successful contemporary silent comics.

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