Talking Sense(s): A Review of Montreal’s first CRAS Comic Forum by Marilyn Lauzon and Mathieu Laflamme

22 Jul

CRAS Image 1

CRAS [1] (an acronym for Colloque de recherche en arts séquentiels, which roughly translates as Sequential Arts Research Forum) is an organization set up by three Quebecer students pursuing their master’s degree in French literature at Université de Montréal. The forum aims to provide francophones with a platform for scholarly exchanges on comics and graphic novels and, by doing so, to contribute to their cultural legitimacy in the province of Quebec, where their production is thriving, but research on their subject, still marginal. CRAS’s first event, called “Au sens figuré: esthésie et bande dessinée”, took place at the La Quincaillerie bar on May 30, 2013 as part of the side events presented by the FBDM (Festival BD de Montréal). The event brought together ten speakers, including special guest Zviane, who explained how being a kinesthetic learner affects her creative process as a comic book artist. In the following article, we will try to outline the main ideas raised by the speakers and the audience during the event. Please take note we will also publish papers derived from the presentations on CRAS’s website ( in the following months.

CRAS Image 2

Sense memory

Throughout the forum, many presentations explored the relationship between the senses and memories of both characters and readers. For example, speaker Thara Charland showed how François Samson Dunlop and Alexandre Fontaine Rousseau, in their comic book Pinkerton, call upon the reader’s visual memory by using typefaces that are well-known to Quebecers, such as that of the French-language newspaper Le Devoir, in order to subvert the meaning of the text, most often for comic effect.

In Louis Rémillard’s La descente de la Petawawa, which tells the story of a canoe camping expedition, speaker Eric Bouchard explained that, in order to supplement sounds and colours in this mute, black and white comic book — in order, as Bouchard put it, to “oversee” (sur-voir) these colours and to “overhear” (sur-entendre) these sounds —, the reader must call upon his memory of the wilderness. By doing so, he is expected to appropriate the vague narrative, to supplement it with a narrative of his own.

Eric Bouchard called this strong dependance of the work on its reader an “esthétique en creux” (which roughly translates as “negative-space aesthetic”), to which he opposed the aesthetic tout en relief of Audrey Spiry’s En silence, in which strong, bold colours are used as parts of a new visual language to connote the relationships and emotions of the characters (this new language lets the reader know, for example, that a character is about to break up with another by using cold colours on the first and warm colours on the second). Apart from colours, effects of anamorphosis, distortion, decomposition and recomposition all serve to show the characters’ inner lives without resorting to captions, which is to say the images of En silence are saturated with information they wouldn’t normally convey, as if the reader suddenly had a new sense manifested through synesthesia.

Speaker Jacques Samson, for his part, showed how the character Basile Far, of Frédéric Bézian’s Aller-Retour, undertakes a journey of self-(re)discovery by visiting locations of his childhood. The character’s memories are triggered by his physical sensations as he wanders: he pieces them together as if they were clues to an investigation. According to Samson, Aller-Retour is a strong example of how locations play a foremost role in autobiographical narratives.

Finally, the player’s memory is put to use, in its relation to the senses, through the various works of comic book artist Dash Shaw. Speaker Emile Dupré noted that, in Bottomless belly button, Shaw replaces the onomatopoeias the reader expects with captions, writing, for example, “ocean sounds” on a drawing of waves. As in Louis Rémillard’s La descente de la Petawawa, Bottomless belly button forces the reader to draw on his own memories to supplement the poverty of the narrative and the absence of onomatopoeia, which results, for a single panel, in as many potential sounds as there are readers. Emile Dupré notes that sensory information (scents, sounds, etc.) is sometimes referred to visually by small lines emanating from an object. When present for the first time, these lines are accompanied by a caption, (e.g., “sunlight makes dust in the air visible”). This process thereby creates a new language for the representation of physical sensations. Emile Dupré also addressed another comic book by Dash Shaw: Body World which, just like Bottomless belly button, establishes its own internal code for sensations, but in which it is not so much the reader’s memory of his personal life that is called upon, but that reader’s memory of the work he is actually reading. In the psychedelic world of Body World exists a drug which allows the characters to share the sensations of other characters. The visual representations of these sensations gradually form a palimpsest, and it is up to the reader to try to remember, by recognizing recurring elements from panel to panel, which sensation originates from which character.

Seeing, touching: senses implied in reading digital comics

The issue of reception was not only addressed in terms of the relationship between senses and memory. Indeed, speaker Anthony Rageul, also took an interest in the involvement of the reader in digital comics. Rageul argued that the digital raises the issue of the body in the process of reading, since the finger arises as a sometimes decisive intermediate between the eye and the comic. This new mode of perception associates the senses of sight and touch in various ways, such as adequacy, discrepancy or rupture. There is adequacy, for example, when the reader clicks to set the pace of his reading, which gives him a sense of control over the development of the plot. To demonstrate this, Rageul showed digital comics by artist Balak. As for discrepancy, it occurs in digital comic Hobo Lobo of Hamelin, in which the parallax scrolling technique used by artist Stevan Živadinović gives the reader some degree of control over the strip as a whole, but not over the relative movements of its different layers. Finally, Rageul explained the process of rupture through his own digital comic Romuald et le tortionnaire, in which alternate images are displayed whenever the reader places his cursor over trigger areas. By moving his cursor out of these areas, the reader restores the original images, which gives him the impression that everything is reversible and therefore makes him an ideal torturer because he doesn’t take his role seriously. The reader, however, is confronted with a tragic conclusion when his cursor suddenly loses its power: the fate of Romuald is irreversibly sealed and the comic, in what constitutes a strong example of the rupture process, has thereby abused the reader’s trust by breaking the causality link between his hand moving the cursor and the images he sees.

Hearing comics

Another issue that fuelled many discussions throughout the day was that of sound transcription. Speaker Thomas Roy took an interest in the post-apocalyptic world of Robert Kirkman’s The Walking Dead, where noise pollution came to an end along with most of humanity, allowing survivors and zombies to be keenly aware of each other’s presence by the means of the sense of hearing. Thus, onomatopoeia are more often used to translate sounds as they are heard rather than as they are produced. Hearing, in this world where everyone, living or not, is both prey and predator, seems to gradually replace sight as the most important sense for survival. It is also, however, the sense through which some of the characters lose touch with reality, as both Rick and Michonne experience auditory hallucinations at some point during their respective grieving processes. Though they sometimes put the characters at risk, these hallucinations can also be considered as a coping mechanism on which they must rely to survive.

The sense of hearing was also addressed by Amy Brouillette, who spoke of Craig Thompson’s Blankets. The main character of this comic book suffers from many invectives throughout his childhood. At first, he considers sounds to be a threat, but reappropriates his senses during adolescence as he finds comfort in the sound of a furnace. This sound’s graphic representation surrounds the character just like a blanket under which he can hide from the world.

In some panels, most often full pages breaking with the more classic layout used through the rest of book, sounds acquires their own textures and patterns and visually interact with each other and with the character, thereby producing a surreal, dreamlike effect.

Xavier Guibert also discussed hearing in his presentation on manga, as he explained the different writing systems of the Japanese language that can be used together in the same phylactery (to transcribe a character’s words and describe his intonation, for example). Thus, thanks to these writing systems, it is sometimes possible to convey information that would otherwise necessitate the use of a caption.

What’s more, the opposition between handwriting and typescript commonly used in manga to distinguish between different categories of text raises the problem of translation, as it is usually reduced to a simple opposition between speech and onomatopoeia, with the former in the phylactery and the later out of it.

The diversity of onomatopoeias in Japanese (over four thousand five hundred), as well as their very frequent use, allows for much more precision than in other languages, but is also dependant on a relation to sound that is completely different from what is usually found in comic books in English or French.

Japanese onomatopeias, however, are not the only way to convey information about what a comic book character is saying — or hearing, for that matter. Indeed, speaker Eric Bouchard showed that, in Cyril Pedrosa’s Portugal, for instance, phylacteries appear in different shades of yellow depending on how much the main character understands of what the other characters are telling him in Portuguese, thereby allowing the reader to closely follow his progress in the learning of that language.

Speaker Thara Charland, for her part, identified music and lyrics as the engine driving the narrative in Alexandre Fontaine-Rousseau et François Samson-Dunlop’s Pinkerton. As she demonstrated, however, silence also plays an important role, as it is associated with a discomfort the protagonists can hardly endure. Therefore, whether it be through its structure mirroring that of the music album by alternative rock band Weezer, or the very wordy dialogues that often cover much of its panels, Pinkerton appears first and foremost as an album against silence.

Kinesthesia in the creative process

Our special guest Zviane explained how being a kinesthetic learner affects her creative process as a comic book artist: indeed, she explained that she needs to mentally (if not physically) touch objects in order to draw them successfully. She recounted that, when she was young, she did not intend to become a visual artist and that at that time, she was more interested in arts that used the body as a medium to share feelings and emotions, such as drama and music. Ultimately, though, this is also how she came to consider drawing : an art closely related to the body. This is, she said, the reason why she took interest in the movements of her characters and in the pace their dialogues rather than in the quality of the drawings themselves. Zviane told the reasons why she started drawing was she needed to keep her hands busy in order to focus. For her, comics and music are two means among others to figure the physical tensions spread over time.

Zviane frequently represents music in her comics, and she will do so again in her next work, Les secondes, a trailer for which can be seen on YouTube. In this animated teaser, the viewer can see the musical score by Darius Milo take the place of dialogue in boxes reminiscent of speech bubbles.

Disclosing Patterns

Finally, sight was also the subject of some of the presentations, including that of speaker Adrien Genoudet, who explained some visual processes employed by Marc-Antoine Mathieu. Genoudet used examples from the entire work of the comic book artist in order to illustrate recurring uses of zoom and spiral, which sometimes allow the reader to enter the work itself (from the first page) or to dig deeper into the story (as in 3”), but also to move from place to place, or even from one layer of reality to another (for example, in Les sous-sols du Révolu, from the world represented inside a picture to the museum in which that picture hangs).

In the works of Marc-Antoine Mathieu, special attention is being paid to both the reader’s and the character’s gazes, with the latter often guiding the former.

The Reader as a Voyeur

Through Guido Crepax’s Valentina and Sylvie Rancourt’s Melody, speaker Virginie Fournier presented two uninhibited heroines who take charge of their sexuality, though the emotions they elicit from the reader are far from being the same. Indeed, while Valentina is represented as extremely sultry, in a manner that reminds the aesthetics of femme fatale Louise Brooks, Melody, for her part, is drawn in an extremely naive style, despite the fact that she is a nude dancer.

The appeal to the senses is not at all the same in these two radically different productions: while the reader assumes the position of the voyeur in Crepax’s suggestive work, he is more of a witness to Melody’s nudity, so constant and puerile it appears commonplace and desexualized to him.


This forum was a very exciting day for us, and though we tried to report it as accurately as possible (to the extent of what our notes made possible), we still find it quite difficult to synthesize all the issues that were raised. It is clear, however, throughout our considerably diverse corpus, some of these issues overlapped: the association between physical sensations and memories of the characters and of the readers; diverse graphical representations of sensations experienced by the characters; the representation of sounds (through the use of onomatopoeias in particular) and the problems of their translation; corporeality associated with the act of reading (whether through eroticism or through interactivity in digital comics); the reader’s gaze guided by certain visual processes, and the creation of internal codes for an original representation of various sensations.

Finally, the lack of any presentation specifically dedicated to the senses of smell or taste perhaps expresses a difficulty both artists and readers may have in experiencing these senses in an original way through the specific medium of comics, which in itself could as well be the starting point of a study on “the neglected senses of comics.”

CRAS’s next event will be announced this fall : to stay informed, please visit our webpage and like our Facebook page. You can also write to us in English or French at this address :

See you next year (hopefully)!

Marilyn Lauzon is a graduate student in French literature at Université de Montréal. She specialises in the francophone field, studying the representations of male sexuality in the Haitian corpus. She has developed a deep interest in comics in the last few years and has brought the idea of a comic forum in Montreal, which, thanks to the help of her partner Mathieu Laflamme and her close friend Florence Grenier-Chénier, lead to the CRAS organisation.

Mathieu Laflamme is completing his Master’s degree in French literature at Université de Montreal and will soon begin his doctoral studies in comparative arts at Université du Québec à Montréal. For his Master’s degree, he wrote a creative research thesis in which he took interest in repetition as defamiliarization. For his doctoral thesis, he intends to write on what he describes as the “machinic art” of visual artist Tony Orrico, composer Steve Reich and writer Samuel Beckett. Mathieu Laflamme set up the CRAS organization with his partner Marilyn Lauzon and his friend Florence Grenier-Chénier as “a way to catch up”, having only recently been introduced to the world of comic books and graphic novels.

[1] – In French, the acronym CRAS is pronounced the same way as the word “crasse” [Kras], which is defined as a layer of dirt. From the outset, the organization thus claims a slightly irreverent flavor.

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Documentation from CRAS is now available in Comics Forum’s affiliated conferences section. Click here to access.

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Posted by on 2013/07/22 in Conference reports


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