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Feelings in the Gutter: Opportunities for Emotional Engagement in Comics

By Will Simpson

Narratives, both fictional and non-fictional, clearly are related to and affect the emotional states and responses of those who engage with them. However, the medium in which a narrative is rendered influences the ways in which readers are afforded opportunities to engage emotionally. Comics are one such medium, and they offer readers particular opportunities for emotional responses. Comics are often thought to be of little artistic interest and “have often been castigated as trash devised to seduce the semi-literate” (Keen 136), but they are actually rich for emotional response. I argue that the particular communicative multimodality within comics, as well as the necessity, nature, and extent of reader engagement, offer readers uniquely constituted opportunities for emotional engagement and responses.

From their cultural development in the newspaper comic strips (or “funnies”) in the late nineteenth century, to the rise of superhero, horror, romance, and adventure comic books in the mid-twentieth century, comics have held an important place in the landscape of American culture (Kukkonen 102-110). For example, comics provided cheap entertainment to Americans during the depression, as well as during and after the Second World War (see Wright 2-29, 57-108). In the post-war period, the radical potential of comics were recognized by highly vocal detractors, who saw them as a corrupting influence on the youth of the country. This charge was especially placed at the feet of popular horror comics. This fear of certain narrative content within comics, combined with the view that the medium itself was intended for children, resulted in a decades-long clash over what content was appropriate within comics.1 In the late 1980s, comics began to be recognized for their potential to tell more complex and sophisticated stories. Comics continue to exemplify their cultural relevance in the U.S., and exploring the unique opportunities for emotional engagement that comics provide may help to illuminate their enduring popularity, as well as their increasing artistic respectability.

Here, I will use the term “comics” to refer to narratives communicated through textual and visual languages,2 which typically rely on both linguistic modes in order to be understood adequately (Wartenberg 101). The focus of this article will be comics within the U.S. Because comics is a medium adhering to cultural conventions, this distinction is important to mention. The arguments made here will not necessarily apply to Japanese manga, French art-comics, or other comics outside of the U.S. Any careful examination of the relationship between the form of comics and readers’ emotional experiences will necessarily be culturally specific as the typical formal features of comics are culturally sensitive. I will assume the typical formal conventions of U.S. comics and bracket the question of the ways in which conventions from other cultures’ comics traditions may influence the emotional experiences of readers, as such questions are beyond the scope of any single article. The distinctive formal construction of the comics medium, employing both textual and pictorial elements in particular ways to construct narratives, is what allows unique opportunities for the reader to emotionally engage.

Emotions as Processes

It is necessary to outline the understanding of emotions with which I am operating in order to adequately detail an understanding of the emotional responses afforded by the typical formal features and narrative content of comics. While this account of the nature of emotions is not necessarily generalizable to all (or even most) cases of emotional responses, the particular philosophical model of emotions I affirm is most relevant to understanding our typical engagement with comics. Utilizing an account of emotions as processes can best account for our emotional engagements with comics, as it best accounts for all experiences that we tend to associate with emotional experiences. Additionally, exploring what is unique about the opportunities for emotional engagement that comics offer aids the exploration of what distinguishes them from opportunities for emotional engagement offered by other media, such as film, theatre, or literature.

Within the literature on philosophy of emotions, a division exists between various “perception” theories of emotions and various “judgment” theories of emotions. Perception theories tend to focus on the bodily and felt aspects of emotions, while judgment theories tend to emphasize the conceptual and cognitive elements of emotional responses. However, both of these standard models are found wanting when exploring emotional responses to comics narratives. Understanding emotions as multi-stage processes that involve both physiological and conceptual elements better accommodates the emotional engagements comics typically afford.

Perception theories of emotions tend to frame emotions as physiological in nature and as “bodily changes of various sorts” (Robinson 36) that are available to the emoting individual to categorize upon reflection. The “James-Lange” theory posits that emotions are just perceptions of physiological changes in an individual, and those physiological changes may precede the person’s understanding or conceptualizing of the emotional state constituted by those changes. William James argues that “bodily changes follow directly the perception of the exciting fact, and that our feelings of the same changes as they occur is the emotion […] we feel sorry because we cry, angry because we strike, afraid because we tremble” (189-190, emphasis in original). Many current influential thinkers defend various perception theories of emotions, including philosopher Jesse Prinz (Gut Reactions) and neuroscientist Antonio Damasio (“Fundamental Feelings”). Perception theories of emotions are sometimes labeled as “non-cognitive” (Debes 6), because they privilege the physiological, sensorial, affective, and non-conceptual aspects of emotional responses. That is, perception theories typically conceive of emotions as being primarily defined in terms of felt bodily changes.

Prinz, who put forth an influential and nuanced account of emotions that relies heavily on non-cognitive elements, argues that:

Emotions are not in fact cognitive, most of the time. They are not generated by acts of cognition, and they are not conceptual. We have conceptualized versions of our emotions, and we can use these in cognitive acts, but in ordinary cases emotions are not cognitive at all. (50)

For Prinz and others who promote non-cognitivist and perceptual accounts of the nature of emotions, certain conscious conceptual elements may accompany emotional states, but they are not considered constituent elements of those emotions.

Perception theory, however, cannot account for our typical engagement with comics precisely because of the role conceptual content plays in the reading of comics. Comics usually deal with conceptual content that is communicated in multiple ways. Clearly, conceptual content is delivered in comics through both their pictorial and textual elements. This is a problem for versions of perception theories that hold that emotions are not constituted by such content. Typically the images in comics are representational (often mimetic) and the textual elements conceptually reference aspects of the storyworld of the comic, many of which are directly involved in readers’ emotional responses to the narrative.

The concepts referenced by the text and artworks of comics clearly influence the types of emotional engagements that readers may experience. Because of this, these typical critiques of perception theories (e.g. that they cannot adequately account for clearly conceptual emotional states) seem to hold in relation to our emotional experiences of comics. For example, in order for a reader to be relieved that Batman defeats the Joker’s plot to poison the Gotham City reservoir in Batman: The Man Who Laughs (Brubaker), the reader must think that certain propositions hold with regard to the storyworld of the comic (Figure 1). For instance, she must think (believe, judge, evaluate, etc.) that the goals of the Batman character are admirable and she must understand the narrative as depicting the successful realization of those goals. Her relief cannot be explained only in terms of her perception of a physiological response. In fact, it is possible that her physiological response would not be intense enough to reach the threshold of her awareness, but it still could present a subtle emotional tone to her experience that she does not perceive.

Figure 1

Perception theories of emotions will have difficulty reckoning with emotional states that are conditioned on judgments or conceptual content, but that involve physiological shifts that the emoting individual does not perceive. Emotions potentially involve both conceptual content and physiological events. Therefore, an adequate model of the nature of emotions must be able to accommodate both conceptual and physiological elements. In this example, we must invoke the readers’ conceptualizations of and judgments about the narrative content of the Batman comic in order to fully understand her emotional experience. She is relieved that Batman has saved the day. We must also incorporate her understanding of the narrative as a series of representations rather than as something happening in her immediate environment. However, as we will see, overemphasis on only the conceptual elements of emotional responses can also be problematic.

Judgment theories of emotions (Robinson 8-14) focus on the role of the propositional and conceptual content associated with emotions. This type of view emphasizes the evaluative judgments that the emoting individual makes regarding the intentional objects associated with emotions (e.g., what situation the emotional response is directed toward or is about).

Thinkers going as far back as the Stoics have advocated judgment theories of emotions (Nussbaum 185). Judgment theories have an intuitive appeal. It is clear that emotions often involve judgments about their intentional object(s). For example, if I experience of fear in response to seeing my neighbor George, doesn’t that entail that I have made an evaluation of George (implying that I hold certain beliefs) and I have judged him to be a threat? Many judgment theorists would say yes. So, according to this type of view, emotions must be directed toward, and feature an evaluative judgment regarding, their relevant intentional object(s). We cannot merely feel fear, anger, or sadness in regard to a particular situation without having made a judgment about that situation, these theorists claim.

Judgment theorist Martha Nussbaum writes, “severing emotion from belief, […] severs emotion from what is not only a necessary condition of itself, but a part of its very identity” (189). So, for judgment theorists like Nussbaum, emotions are inherently conceptual phenomena. In order to have a truly emotional response to a situation, one must hold certain beliefs about and embody a certain perspective toward that situation.3 To experience an emotion is, at least in part, necessarily to make an evaluative judgment about the intentional object(s) to which the emotion is a response.

There are problems with judgment theories of emotions, as well. A general, and well-noted, critique of theories that privilege the conceptual content of judgments associated with emotions is that judgments alone are “neither necessary nor sufficient for an emotion” (Deonna and Teroni 54). To address the question that I introduced above: No, I do not have to judge George to be a threat in order to feel a fear response to him. I may consciously judge George to be a perfectly amiable person and still experience a feeling of fear when in his presence that I find inexplicable. Alternatively, I may feel perfectly calm around George even though I know that he is a very violent man.

With regard to comics specifically, judgment theories of emotion will have trouble offering an account of emotional responses to the less straightforwardly conceptual or representative elements of comics art. As I will explore in detail below, many of the visual artistic and design elements in comics potentially can shape the affective responses of readers in ways that don’t involve explicit judgments on the part of the reader. For example, the color palette used in a comic may influence the emotional tone of the narrative and, therefore, affect the emotional responses typically experienced by readers.

If a comic features dark, sketchy, and high-contrast visual art, which leads a reader to have an unsettled feeling, it is likely to contribute to the emotional response of the reader without fully determining her conceptualization of the content of the storyworld or her understanding of the narrative events of the comic. For example, in figure 2 the dark and grizzly tone of the comic can is communicated through the conceptual content of the panel (i.e., the brutal murder of a young woman), but the reader may also experience the dark tone via the tendril-like inking and gray blotchy watercolor independently of consciously registering the conceptual content of the panel. In other words, the contents of the reader’s visual field may condition a physiological response that is part of her emotional experience but that does not obviously rely upon her evaluative judgments about any conceptual elements of the comics narrative with which she is engaging.

Figure 2

While both judgment and perception theories of emotions have strengths, the common distinction between models that emphasize cognition and those that de-emphasize it may be an overly generalized and potentially misguided one. Philosopher Jenefer Robinson, drawing heavily on empirical psychological work showcasing an appraisal model of emotions (see Robinson 57-99), argues that emotions should be understood as multi-stage processes, rather than as states. Robinson’s argument that emotions should be understood as sequences of events is convincing and highly illuminative when considering emotional engagements with comics. Indeed, this model of emotions as processes elucidates the multifaceted ways in which comics allow us to emotionally engage (e.g., mimetic artwork, non-representational artistic features, textual elements, narrative structure).

The understanding of emotions that will most clearly illuminate our emotional engagement with comics is the view that emotions involve both physiological responses and conscious conceptual elements. Robinson details the typical unfolding of the process of an emotion, writing:

An affective appraisal draws attention to something in the environment significant to me or mine and gets my body ready for appropriate action. Then immediately cognitive evaluation kicks in, checks the affective appraisal to see if it is appropriate, modifies autonomic activity, and monitors behavior. More complex cases of emotion in human beings might involve affective responses not to a perception but to a thought or belief, and the cognitive monitoring may be correspondingly sophisticated, but at the core of emotion will always be physiological responses caused by an automatic affective appraisal and followed by cognitive monitoring. (59)

In other words, in the multi-stage process, emotional reaction is discursive, with both physiological and judgmental responses occurring. So, while those elements of emotions that are usually the focus of perception theories are key to emotional responses, in characteristic cases of emotions, those elements are then regulated by the elements of emotions that are usually the focus of judgment theories.

One aspect of Robinson’s account that makes it ideal for exploring emotions in relation to comics is that, on this account, emotions do not necessarily involve any particular beliefs about the fictionality of the intentional object(s) of the emotional response. This point is key because, whether a comic is fictional or non-fictional, the reader of comics is responding to a depicted storyworld represented visually within the comic. The reader of comics, then, may respond emotionally to both the perceptual experiences afforded by and the conceptual content presented in a comic, regardless of whether or not she takes the events represented to be actual historical events or impossible fictional ones. Robinson argues:

Pre-cognitive affective appraisals do not discriminate between the real and imagined scenarios: I respond emotionally to whatever seems to have a bearing on my interests and on those to whom I am close (my family, my group, my fellow humans). It does not matter to my emotion systems (fear, anger, sadness, etc.) whether I am responding to the real, the merely imagined, the possible or the impossible. (145)

For example, if the reader sees the depiction of a beloved character lying in a casket at a funeral, she may experience sadness in response. In this example, the reader of comics has an affective appraisal response (i.e., an automatic response to “those things in the […] environment that matter” [Robinson 42]) in response to her conceptualization of a funeral that is prompted by a visual representation, rather than in response to the sight or experience of an actual funeral.

The subsequent cognitive monitoring (i.e., information processes by which we “control and modify our responses” [Robinson 89]) of her own physiological response, which constitutes the affective appraisal of the perceptual experience and resulting conceptualization, allows her to distinguish appropriate from inappropriate actions in response to the depiction of the dead character in the comic (Robinson 153). For example, simply furrowing her brow or even crying may be appropriate, while purchasing flowers as a condolence will likely be an inappropriate response.4

Note that the response of purchasing flowers to mourn a character who is depicted as deceased will typically be inappropriate (and therefore, not undertaken) whether the comic is understood to be fictional or non-fictional. The relevant distinction when thinking about our behavior in response to narrative works, as philosopher Derek Matravers rightly argues, is not between fictional and non-fictional narratives, but between “confrontations and representations” (53). In other words, it does not matter whether or not a reader believes that the events depicted in the comic actually happened, or even whether those events could have actually happened. Either way, the reader is engaging with and responding to representations of events, characters, and settings that are not happening currently in her immediate surroundings.5 Affective appraisals and cognitive monitoring are both possible in response to fictional and non-fictional comics narratives.

Another example of emotional engagement, which highlights the usefulness of understanding emotions as processes, is perceiving a character who is depicted as threatening. In Understanding Comics, theorist Scott McCloud offers the two panels featuring an axe murder that, if presented in the right context, might elicit a fearful response in the reader (Figure 3). However, while an anxious facial expression or nervous chuckle may be an appropriate (even inevitable) response, cognitive monitoring will typically keep the reader from trying to duck the swinging axe or save the screaming victim. This distinction between appropriate and inappropriate action responses is the same even if the axe murder is taken to be an historically accurate depiction.

Figure 3

When the reader of comics enacts closure (the type of cognitive engagement typical of comics that allows readers to fill in narrative gaps), she will typically understand the storyworld of the comic to be a coherent one. Therefore, readers may respond emotionally to either depicted content or to implied content that is available only via the enactment of closure. The images of the comic provide guidance to the reader in imagining and inferring the narrative content that is not directly represented in the work. The content represented in a particular panel’s artwork is constantly perceptually available to structure and enrich the readers’ understanding (and imagining of) narrative events (Sartre 23). All of the narrative content, explicit or implicit, potentially can shape and be shaped by the reader’s emotional experience.

In fact, many of our emotional responses to comics will be conditioned by what we imagine and infer as readers. Contrarily, as I discuss in detail near the end of this article, our emotional responses to certain elements of comics may influence our imaginative engagement with the work and thereby influence our enactment of closure (i.e., how we understand the coherence of the storyworld). For example, we may imagine a particular character’s movement as being a particular speed because of the comic’s sketchy art style or muted color palette.

In the following section, I concentrate on three ways in which the formal features of comics afford emotional opportunities: the depiction of characters, artistic and design style, and the need for readers to enact closure. Each of these elements (as well as the amalgamation of these elements) contributes to the totality of reader experience and the opportunities for emotional responses with regard to comics.

Emotional Salience in Comics through Character Depiction

Comics have the capacity to depict characters’ emotional states, behaviors, and psychological dispositions rather than only describe them. The capacity for comics to depict instead of linguistically reference the emotionally salient features of the storyworld provides opportunities for reader engagement via the reader’s visual system that are unavailable in solely textual narratives, such as novels. For example, depictions of faces can allow readers to infer the mental states of characters, empathize with the depicted characters, and arrive at emotionally salient judgments regarding the characters’ psychological and behavioral tendencies.

The visual narrative language used in most American comics depicts characters, events, and contexts iconically (that is, mimetically via resemblance) rather than only symbolically (that is, via arbitrary or conventional representations) (Cohn, Visual Language 19). Iconic representation within comics offers a low comprehension cost for the reader (Boyd 105), allowing her to see and easily garner information about aspects of the storyworld of the comic and not only imagine them.6 As Suzanne Keen notes, in such narratives “verbal description of emotional states can be replaced by drawings of bodily postures and facial expressions that readily communicate feelings to readers” (146). So, certain emotionally salient features of a narrative can be shown to the reader as well as being described or suggested by the textual elements of the comic.

For example, if a character is described as “distraught,” a reader may imagine that character wearing any range of appropriate facial expressions or bodily postures. Whereas, if a character is represented as in the image below, the reader may ascribe any number of appropriate emotionally salient labels to the facial expression depicted (Figure 4).7 While a literary text offers readers textual descriptions of the storyworld, comics8 offer both textual conceptual information9 and also mimic the visual experiences one would have if one were actually confronting those aspects of the storyworld. This allows for the reader to imagine and infer information about the storyworld as a result of her direct perceptual experiences.

Figure 4

Iconic representations of characters allow opportunities for readers to have emotional contagion responses to depictions of emotionally salient facial cues. Emotional contagion occurs when one experiences (to some extent) the emotional state that she observes in another as a result of how she perceives the other’s emotional state. The process of emotional contagion “requires direct sensory engagement and involves automatic processes” (Coplan, “Catching Characters’ Emotions” 26). It occurs when observers of others’ emotions unconsciously mimic the emotionally salient aspects of the individual(s) they are observing, those mimicked facial and bodily responses influence the observer’s self-perceived emotional state, and the observer “[ends] up ‘catching’ the emotions of those they observe” (Coplan, “Catching Characters’ Emotions” 28).

In other words, you as a reader may have an automatic physiological affective appraisal response to depictions of particular aspects of a storyworld, including characters’ facial expressions. When reading a comic, you see a distraught character and your physiology mimics the character’s distress without any conscious volition on your part. As you begin to cognitively monitor your own physiological response, you realize that you also are feeling distress and can come to understand that feeling in terms of the narrative events in which the character is situated. You need not be aware of the stages of this process; rather, you simply feel distress as you read about and view the distressed character.

However, philosopher Noël Carroll argues that the effect of emotional contagion is often overestimated when attempting to understand readers’ emotional responses to narratives. As evidence, he cites the epistemological asymmetry that often exists between characters within a storyworld and those engaging with the representation of that storyworld.10 “In some cases we know more than the characters; we tremble for them as they plunge ahead ignoring clear and present danger. On the other hand, Sherlock Holmes always knows more than we do, so we never share his aplomb in the face of peril” (Carroll, “On Some Affective Relations” 168). This asymmetry between reader and character may undermine emotional contagion in cases where the narrative is crafted to guide the reader toward an emotional response that diverges from that of the character being depicted or described.

Carroll puts forth an alternative explanation for cases that are generally understood as emotional contagion, or as he calls it, “infectious identification” (“On Some Affective Relations,” 171). His alternative, which he terms “criterial prefocusing,” emphasizes the ways in which the elements of narratives craft an expected emotional response from a reader, rather than relying on the emotions of the characters to be the sole or primary influence over readers’ emotional responses. Carroll offers the following example:

When the monster in the concluding scenes of Bride of Frankenstein is reviled by his reanimated betrothed, we feel sorry for him. Our emotion does not match his. We do not feel the pain of the unrequited lover. Indeed, I doubt that any viewers, no matter how desperate, harbor any desires for the frizzy-haired, electrified corpse, played by Elsa Lanchester. But we do respond to the monster’s misery with sorrow. It is in this sense that we share his misery. We are not miserable for being lovelorn but we do pity the monster. (“On Some Affective Relations” 172)

Thus, in cases of criterial prefocusing, “the situation [in the storyworld] has already been prestructured for our attention” (Carroll, A Philosophy 262) by the author, who has chosen which elements of the narrative she will highlight or emphasize in order to attempt to evoke the emotional response she desires from the audience. In other words, Carroll holds that various narrative elements, beyond just the representations of characters’ emotional states, shape the audience’s attention in a way that makes certain features of the storyworld differently emotionally salient than they would be from the perspective of any character within the narrative.

While I agree that criterial prefocusing may explain many of our emotional engagements with narratives, this does not rule out the potential effect of emotional contagion responses altogether. This is especially true given the understanding of emotions as processes involving involuntary affective appraisals and given the representational visual nature of comics, both of which make emotional contagion likely.

Readers of graphic narratives have opportunities for both empathic and sympathetic responses to characters, due to the inclusion of character depiction. While emotional contagion is automatic and initiated by subpersonal processes, sympathy and empathy both involve more conscious and conceptual engagement with a work. Philosopher Amy Coplan writes, “sympathy involves caring about another individual—feeling for another. It does not as such involve sharing the other’s experience” (Coplan, “Empathic Engagement” 145). Sympathy, then, involves aspects of conscious thought in a way that emotional contagion does not.

Sympathy can be understood in this context as a reader’s emotional response that is distinct from and conditioned upon the depicted or described emotional state of a particular character or characters. For example, seeing the character in figure 4 looking distraught may cause the reader to feel sorry for him. The sympathetic reader does not simulate within herself the first-personal emotional perspective of the character, but rather experiences her own distinct emotional perspective based on her conception of the depiction of the character’s emotional state, as well as other relevant narrative factors.

Emotional affordances are also available to readers of comics in the form of empathic responses. “Empathy” is a somewhat contested term and there are many “competing conceptualizations” within the philosophical literature, which encompass “several loosely related processes or mental states” (Coplan, “Understanding Empathy” 4). Coplan defines empathy as “a complex imaginative process involving both cognition and emotion,” through which the individual’s (in this context, the reader’s) experiences are similar to the target’s (character’s) “emotional states, while [the reader is] simultaneously imaginatively experiencing his or her cognitive states” (“Empathic Engagement” 143, 144). So sympathy may be experienced for those characters one feels for but doesn’t necessarily identify with, while empathy involves imaginatively simulating for oneself the first-personal experiences of a character.

Peter Goldie complicates the picture of empathy by distinguishing between what he calls “in-his-shoes” perspective-shifting and “empathetic” perspective-shifting (303). These both involve attempting to predict and understand the responses and feelings of another. The in-his-shoes approach involves imaginatively putting oneself into the position of another and the empathetic approach entails that someone attempt to simulate elements of the other person’s “characterization.” Elements of characterization, in Goldie’s view, include “not only traits of character and of personality, but also intellectual traits and abilities, such as open-mindedness and quick-wittedness, and emotional dispositions, such as being compassionate towards the homeless, or loving one’s spouse” (308). Goldie argues that the fully empathetic approach to perspective-shifting does not and cannot represent our typical attempts at understanding the positions of others because elements of characterization play a “covert, non-speaking part in the deliberation” of perspective-shifting that cannot be replicated consciously by the individual attempting the empathetic approach (316). The requirements for a fully empathetic experience are simply too demanding. That is, I can attempt to feel, believe, respond, and know in ways that are identical to a particular character, but I will be unlikely to succeed because elements of my own characterization will still be quietly shaping my perspective. While I affirm Goldie’s position on the unlikeliness of what he calls the empathetic approach, both the in-his-shoes approach and the empathetic approach to perspective-shifting are compatible with the ways in which character depiction affords opportunities for emotional engagement to readers of comics.

Empathetic and sympathetic emotional responses potentially are afforded to readers of comics through what they see, and the types of visual representations used in a comic can affect the likelihood of various types of emotional responses in readers. In his seminal work Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud argues that more abstracted depictions of characters (e.g., cartoon style drawings) allow readers to more easily identify11 with characters so depicted, whereas more detailed and realistic depictions serve to create distance between the reader and character by representing them as part of “the world outside” (40), or the environment of the reader (Figure 5). McCloud writes:

By de-emphasizing the appearance of the physical world in favor of the idea or form, the cartoon [drawing style] places itself in the world of concepts. Through traditional realism, the comics artist can portray the world without–and through the cartoon, the world within…viewer-identification is a specialty of cartooning. (41-42, emphasis in original)

Figure 5

Taking McCloud’s point into consideration, artistic style may serve to vary the range and types of opportunities readers have for emotional engagement with particular comics and characters depicted within those works. Sympathy (that is, feeling for a character) may be more or less likely than empathy (that is, imaginatively simulating the emotional and cognitive states of a character) as a function of the artistic style employed in depictions of that character within a comic. Specifically, sympathy in readers would be more likely than empathy in cases where the character is represented in a photo-realistic drawing style.

Empathy, according to McCloud, is more likely in cases where the characters are depicted in abstracted and cartoony styles, which allow for easier reader-identification. McCloud offers the panel below (figure 6) as an example, in which the background and setting are depicted photo-realistically and the main character is depicted in a cartoony drawing style, allowing “readers to mask themselves in a character and safely enter a sensually stimulating world” (43). McCloud’s analysis offers a plausible hypothesis for how readers’ emotional responses may vary depending on degrees of realism with regard to depictions of characters, rather than only as a function of the content represented in character depictions. The divergence in the styles of representations of character and environment is not necessarily unique to comics (this effect could be achieved in film, for example), but it is much more likely to appear in comics than in other narrative media because of the use of static visual artwork in comics, which allows for the easy incorporation of stylistic diversity within and across depictions.

Figure 6

As in all narratives, reader responses of both sympathy and empathy will be conditioned on “the life experience and even the emotional state of each reader” (Duncan et al. 153), but her emotions will interact with and be affected by her visual perception in the case of comics. As Suzanne Keen notes, “[m]any narrative artists aim at moving readers’ feelings, and graphic narration brings a tool kit of visual arts techniques to enhance the effort” (136). The depictions, rather than only descriptions, of characters’ facial expressions and body language shape the potential that the comics medium has to influence readers’ affective engagement.

However, depicting characters’ emotional states through facial expressions and body language does not involve only mimicking the actual visual experience of such emotions. Some empirical evidence suggests that certain cultural artistic conventions (beyond mimetic representation) are used in communicating emotional content to readers of comics (Ma et al. 5). In the following section, the examples of these culturally sensitive artistic conventions will highlight the overlap between emotionally salient imagistic representations of characters and the particular artistic style being used. This leads us from mimetic depictions of characters experiencing emotions (that is, artworks mimicking actual visual experiences of emotionally salient features of the storyworld) to the role of artistic style and design in graphic narratives more broadly.

Emotional Salience through Artistic Style and Design Elements

Artistic style and design elements can influence readers’ emotional responses to and their understandings of the emotional content and perspectives of comics in several ways. One way that comics creators depict emotional salience stylistically is through “hermeneutic images” (Duncan et al. 159). Hermeneutic images do not represent diegetic aspects of the storyworld. Rather, they represent the subjective experiences and perspectives of particular characters. Psychological hermeneutic images depict emotionally salient aspects of the characters’ or authors’ psychological perspectives toward elements of the narrative or storyworld by metaphorically (rather than iconically) depicting them.

For example, in her graphic novel Bitchy’s College Daze Roberta Gregory depicts her parents in a style that metaphorically represents their emotional states and character traits through artistic depiction. She depicts her mother as “so vacuous that her face consists of only a smile and big eyelashes” and her father with “a mouth full of long fangs and squiggly lines emanating from his body” (Duncan et al. 160). These stylistic choices represent the emotional salience of Gregory’s perspective on her parents and the nature of her own feelings regarding them (Figure 7). Thus, her artistic style guides the emotional responses, perspectives, and experiences of her readers. The reader is afforded the opportunity to adopt, at least during the reading of the comic, the author’s (and protagonist’s) emotional outlook on the situation presented in the work.

Figure 7

Craig Thompson’s graphic novel entitled Blankets also contains examples of hermeneutic images that serve to communicate the author’s perspective and evoke similar emotional experiences in the reader. Thompson recounts an occasion when he attempted to renounce his love of drawing in the name of religious devotion. Through the teachings of the religious community in which he was raised, he came to see drawing as “escapism” and “the most secular and selfish of worldly pursuits!” (Thompson 58, emphasis in original). In order to make a new spiritual pact with his god, Thompson burns all of his artwork. The full-page panel that depicts him burning the drawings includes sketches flowing from his mouth as his eyes roll back in his head (Figure 8). Thompson offers this stylized hermeneutic image in order to visually communicate his emotional state at the time.

Figure 8

In cases such as these, the reader experiences an opportunity for an emotional response that is uniquely provided by the formal features of comics. The reader’s emotional experience will not only be in response to the conceptual or propositional information communicated by the comics narrative in question, but she will likely also respond to the perceptions involved in her visual experience of the artwork. Emotions, being processes, typically involve “a non-cognitive appraisal. I can be afraid without judging that there is a snake before me; I may merely register a curly stick-shape on the forest floor” (Robinson 55). In other words, psychological hermeneutical images convey information through more than their role as representations, because they can condition affective appraisals in the reader even before she consciously registers the conceptual information that the images are meant to communicate.12

Stylistic choices are not only important when depicting characters and their emotional states. Artistic style can also affect the emotional tone of a work for the reader in other ways. A simple and cartoony style may suggest simple and predictable narrative content with a generally positive or neutral emotional tone. As comics theorist Barbara Postema puts it, “[i]n comics, style is so pervasive that it encompasses the entire experience of the comic…Style becomes the substance of comics, through which each text speaks in a voice that is completely its own. Style signifies in comics” (122). For example, a bright and simple artistic style may signify narrative themes that are, metaphorically, bright and simple. Contrarily, dark and sketchy artwork may signify more complex or deeply emotional narrative themes. Images can communicate emotional tone, in addition to their role as representations of objects, events, or characters within the storyworld.

In cases where art is used in this way, the emotional salience of the narrative is suggested through general artistic presentation, rather than only through the content of depictions. Stylistic choices also involve “[augmenting] basic lines and shapes with more visual cues, such as textures, lighting and shading, symbols and letters, colors, and special effects, such as exaggeration…These cues may further facilitate people’s interpretation of emotion representations” (Ma et al. 4-5). Artistic and stylistic elements can shape both readers’ emotional experiences of a comic and their understanding of that comic’s thematic meaning(s).

There is some evidence that general stylistic elements may contribute as much or more to the emotional experiences of readers than do more direct depictions of characters’ emotions. One study found that perceptions of instability in static artistic images were associated with negative emotional states in perceivers, even more than the content of the images: “Although both explicit emotional depiction and perceived dynamics enable emotional attribution, the latter seems to represent the more powerful source of information” (Pavlova et al. 1112). This further corroborates that artistic style and design elements can serve to influence how a reader emotionally engages with a comic.

The artistic style of a comic can also be used to contrast conventional narrative expectations in order to influence the expected emotional responses of readers. In cases like these, the narrative content and artistic style of a comic can “form a disjunctive interdependence that disturbs readers by upsetting their previously-held beliefs” and can “generate powerful, long-lasting emotional responses in readers” (Cioffi 99, 97). A work may use a dark and sketchy style in the telling of an emotionally upbeat narrative, for instance. Alternatively, a simple, bright, or cartoony style may be used to convey a narrative with dark or complex emotional themes. In such cases, “artists are not offering a comfortable world to escape into” (Cioffi 121), but disjointed and emotionally complex and storyworlds.

For example, Chris Ware’s graphic novel Jimmy Corrigan: The Smartest Kid on Earth exemplifies this potential for disjunction between narrative content and artistic style. The narrative focuses on the character of Jimmy, a middle-aged man with few friends, as he meets his father for the first time. The story traffics in the negative affective themes of loneliness, isolation, boredom, and depression. However, Ware’s artistic style is the stuff of children’s cartoons. He uses an abstracted, cartoony, and clean-lined drawing style in order to create dissonance when accompanied by the emotionally weighty narrative content (Figure 9). The effect of this disjunction between narrative content and artistic style is that the emotional weight of the narrative is particularly potent and may affect the reader long after she has finished reading the work (Cioffi 99).

Figure 9

Finally, design elements may also play into how readers experience the emotionally salient content of panels. Comics theorist Thierry Groensteen explores the interplay of design elements and the experiences of comics readers. With regard to the design and structure of panels, Groensteen articulates three parameters that are important for the communication of the meaning of a panel: “The first two are geometric: they are the form of the panel (rectangular, square, round, trapezoidal, etc.) and its area, measurable in square centimeters…The third parameter, which is the site of the panel, concerns its location on the page and, beyond that, within the entire work” (28). While Groensteen doesn’t address the issue directly, these parameters have the ability to affect the communication of emotional salience through panels by emphasizing certain narratively relevant information and/or minimizing other information.

Influential comics artist and author Will Eisner has also acknowledged some of the ways in which the design and placement of a panel manifests the panel’s meaning and shapes the experience of the reader. Eisner argues, “A narrow panel evokes the feeling of being hemmed in—confinement; whereas a wide panel suggests plenty of space in which to move—or escape…The shape of the panel and the use of perspective within it can be manipulated to produce various emotional states in the viewer” (92). For example, a panel’s larger size or centralized position on a comics page may emphasize the narrative importance, and subsequently increase the perceived emotional relevance, of the content or artistic style of that panel. The size, shape, placement, and perspective of panels aid the reader in understanding the emotional tone and feeling of the narrative and storyworld of a comic.

Closure, Imagination, and Emotion

The various opportunities for emotional salience provided by the comics medium, like those discussed above, are conditioned upon and structured by the ways in which readers extract meaning from comics, particularly through a process called “closure.” Because the typical formal features of graphic narratives necessitate the enactment of the reader’s “closure” process, McCloud goes as far as to say “closure is comics!” (Cioffi 67). Closure, in brief, relies on the interaction between the reader and the comic by requiring the reader to imagine and infer narrative elements about the storyworld of the comic, drawing on her previously held experiences and expectations. Closure is the process by which readers understand comics narratives as coherent, despite the fact that not all narratively relevant information is explicitly depicted or described on the comic’s pages.

As Randy Duncan et al. note, “[t]he reader performs an ongoing construction of meaning by considering each panel in direct relationship to the immediately previous panel and in the context of all previous panels” (166). In this way, narratives presented in the comics form presume that readers will approach the work with certain background knowledge and the ability to understand and extract an appropriate meaning (or range of meanings) from the work. Because this type of engagement is required, the process of authoring a comic is “reductive” (Duncan et al. 154) in that the author must whittle down her narrative into a limited set of panels (that is, discreet depictions) that she considers adequate. The process of reading comic, on the other hand, requires readers to enact closure, which is “additive” (Duncan et al. 154), because readers imagine and infer elements of the narrative that are not directly depicted or described.

Emotional responses may be conditioned on the reader’s enactment of closure (inference and imagination regarding narrative elements), but emotional responses may also be conditioned on inference or imagination alone. Also, a reader’s emotional responses to the artistic style or design elements may shape how the reader enacts closure by affecting her imaginative engagement with the work. Figure 10 (below), depicts what I take to be the typical interrelations of the features of the comics text (i.e., style/design elements and artistic/textual content) and the elements of reader experiences I have discussed (i.e., inference, imagination, closure and emotional responses). There are, then, many ways for the elements of a comic to shape the reader’s cognitive and emotional engagement with the work.

Figure 10

The sequence below reveals some of the possibilities for how the comic can shape reader experience (figure 11). This sequence appeared in an annual holiday special issue of The Batman Adventures, a comics title in the style of the popular 1990s animated Batman television series. In this sequence, the villain Clayface clears his throat and spits wet clay mud onto the guns of two police officers who are attempting to arrest him, rendering their guns useless. There are many ways that reader engagement with this sequence could proceed.

The artistic content allows us to infer that the brown splatters in the fourth panel of the sequence are the same clumps of matter that Clayface is depicted as spitting out in the third panel, and we imagine that material flying through the air in the intervening narrative time between panels three and four, thus enacting closure. We also imagine the sounds that arise from this interaction, with the guidance of the onomatopoetic terms incorporated into the depiction. The artistic style of these onomatopoetic terms may influence how we imagine the sounds, with “HAWCCHH” being sloppy and hollow and “PTOO!” being sharp and staccato.

Figure 11

The reader may emotionally engage with this sequence as well. For example, she may feel some amount of disgust from imagining the goopy brown matter launched from the throat of the clay villain. Such an emotional disgust response would be conditioned upon the enactment of closure, when the reader infers the identity of the brown matter in panel four and imagines its texture and viscosity. The reader may experience an affective appraisal of her mental image of the clay phlegm.

Alternatively, the cartoony, bright, and simple artistic style with which the content of the sequence is communicated may lead the reader to have an emotional response of lightheartedness rather than disgust. This emotional response, in turn, may affect the reader’s imaginative engagement (that is, she may imagine the movement/sound of the phlegm in a cartoony style) and, thereby, her enactment of closure will be affected by her emotional response. For example, she may imagine the phlegm as moving at a cartoonishly slow speed through the air toward the police officers’ guns and, thus, she will understand the coherence of the storyworld differently than if her emotional response had been that of disgust. A reader may also infer and imagine the events communicated by this sequence without any resultant emotional response, however. Emotions may arise as a result of the enactment of closure (or inference or imagination alone), but closure does not necessarily involve an emotional response from readers.

Closure is not a hermeneutically unconstrained process, and appropriate interpretations of a given work may fall within a potentially narrow range of appropriate meanings. The constraint of closure arises because panels in comics function as “attention units” and “windows” into the world of the narrative (Cohn, Visual Language 58). As Cohn explains,

Panels…can simulate what our vision would be like if we were watching a scene in person. This creates a sensation that panels facilitate a “spotlight” that reveals only portions of a larger environment. In actuality, these glimpses create the whole view of the environment in the mind of the reader. These various panels represent parts of the scene, which allows us to inferentially [and imaginatively] construct a full understanding of the broader scene. (Visual Language 59, emphasis in original)

A reader’s previous emotional state, expectations, and affective dispositions will affect her experiences of the emotional salience and tone of scenes depicted in a comic because closure necessitates that readers actively imagine and infer narrative content, bringing their own interpretation to the text. However, the range of potential understandings will be influenced by the content depicted in panels, which can function to simulate attentional shifts in the reader’s perspective on the depicted storyworld. For example, the emotion of pity toward Clayface would be an unlikely and inappropriate response to the above sequence because of the narrative events depicted.

Noël Carroll notes that in the context of “mass fictions, the emotions keep us focused on the plot on a moment-to-moment basis. They organize our attention in terms of what is going on in a scene, and they also prime our attention to the kinds of things to expect in future scenes” (A Philosophy 249). So, the guiding of reader attention is conditioned upon the ways in which panels are constructed and the narratively relevant information that their structuring serves to emphasize, while the resulting reader awareness of the emotional salience of that information helps to ensure continued reader attention and to condition expectations for the remainder of the narrative. Emotional engagement often keeps us reading, but understanding the events that are represented is accomplished through closure, which also may be influenced by our emotional engagement.

While other narrative mediums (e.g., theatre and film) can require imaginative work that is similar to closure, comics require inferential and imaginative work on a more fine-grained level, as comics require readers to infer and imagine all motion and duration within the narrative. Therefore, the way that readers typically engage with comics, because of the formal structure of how comics communicate information, can determine the emotional impact of various aspects of the comics narrative.


Comics offer their readers unique and medium-specific opportunities for emotional engagement, with emotions being understood as processes involving affective appraisals, physiological shifts, and cognitive monitoring. The typical formal features of comics and their implications for reader engagement allow for emotional experiences in ways that are distinct from fully textual works, visual artworks, or films. Comics afford emotional experiences to readers through character depiction, artistic style and design, and closure.

The mimetic nature of character depiction can provoke emotional contagion, empathic, and sympathetic responses, while criterial prefocusing can shape readers’ perspectives, resulting in various emotional experiences. Both artistic style choices and design elements can shape the emotional experiences of the reader by setting the emotional tone and expectations about the narrative even before she engages with the representative content of the narrative. Finally, the active reader engagement required by the process of closure entails that a reader’s outside knowledge and preliminary expectations can influence her emotional response to the narrative. Also, what she imagines and infers about the storyworld can shape the character of her emotional engagement with the comic, and her emotional responses to the comic may influence how she imagines the storyworld and, therefore, her enactment of closure. That is, the relationship between closure and emotional responses is bi-directional via imagination (see figure 10).

Further research regarding the relationships between emotions and comics can build on the conclusions reached here. For example, applying a process model of emotions will be useful in exploring any additional formal features of comics that have the potential to shape the possibilities for readers’ emotional engagements. Additionally, future research should explore formal conventions of comics that have developed in cultural contexts other than the U.S. Such future work can take into account not only the formal conventions of the comics in various cultures, but also culturally-dependent conceptualizations of emotions. Such conceptualizations of emotions may influence the cognitive monitoring that follows the affective appraisals in emotional responses. Finally, readers’ emotional engagements may be time sensitive and may extend beyond the time spent reading the narrative. Emotional responses have the potential to shape a reader’s behavior and perspective after she has finished engaging with the work13 and future research can explore the ways in which time may affect readers’ emotional engagement with comics.

Thus, an understanding of emotions as processes illuminates (and can continue to illuminate) the ways in which the formal features of the comics medium, in addition to any particular comic’s content, afford particular types of opportunities for readers to engage emotionally. In other words, we respond emotionally to comics not only because they often deliver highly captivating narratives, but also because of how comics communicate those narratives to us.


[1] The psychologist Fredric Wertham argued that comic reading was part of the social world, which promoted pathological thinking and behavior among children. The political clout garnered by the anti-comics movement resulted in the implementation of the Comics Code Authority, which regulated the content of comic books (see Nyberg, “Seal of Approval”).

[2] I will use the term “graphic novel” to refer to works composed in the comics medium that are longer than an average “comic book.” In other words, “graphic novel” will indicate a work of a particular length and not a work that diverges from the comics medium in any of the relevant formal features. I will avoid discussing “graphic narratives,” which is a broader categorization that may include everything from Japanese manga to cave paintings.

[3] Nussbaum particularly associates the cognitive elements with the distinction between the identities of various emotions, writing, “the cognitive elements are an essential part of the emotion’s identity and of what differentiates it from other emotions” (191).

[4] This aspect of conceiving of emotions as processes is relevant to the philosophical problem known as the “paradox of fiction.”

[ 5]Matravers writes, “In representation relations our mental states are not caused by perceptions of the objects of those states, and do not result in actions toward objects in our egocentric space (although, of course, they can still cause actions)” (50).

[6] This is not to suggest a passive reader experience. Imagination, expectation, and reader inference play a large part in the comprehension of comic narratives (McCloud 67).

[7] The reader need not explicitly verbalize or label (internally or otherwise) what she takes the nature of the emotional state depicted to be or her judgments regarding that state. Her experience of those depicted emotional states, being visual, has the potential to be automatic via emotional contagion.

[8] Graphic narratives, more broadly, also function this way. However, I use the term “comics” because of the culturally-specific nature of the focus of this article.

[9] Comics offer conceptual information two ways: textual content and polymorphic panels that represent conceptually, rather than mimetically, their depicted content (Cohn, “The Limits of Time and Transitions,” 129-134).

[10] Although Carroll does acknowledge the potential role that mirror responses can play in contagious “affective states,” he does not believe that these constitute “full scale emotional states” because they “do not necessarily involve appraisals, though they may afford data pertinent to forming an appraisal” (“On Some Affective Relations” 179-180).

[11] It seems that McCloud is using the term “identification” to mean roughly what Coplan means by “empathy.” Coplan avoids the term “identification,” claiming that its use in the literature on empathy tends to be “somewhat vague or ambiguous” (“Empathic Engagements” 141).

[12] Because emotions are processes, the reader will also cognitively monitor those initial affective appraisals and therefore will be unlikely to respond as she would if the visual experience she is having was not only a representation (see the example of the depicted funeral above).

[13] Keen discusses the role of depicted emotionally salient aspects of graphic narratives and their potential for encouraging prosocial behavior and ethical social change. How to practically realize such potential is an open question (Keen 152-153).

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