Introduction: Three Medium-Specific Characteristics of Comics

The following section focuses on three medium-specific characteristics of the formal properties of comics: the portrayal of the character’s face and body, speech and thought presentation through speech balloons and other devices, and pictorial metaphor. Each aspect will be explored in relation to the text under discussion following a brief outline of that aspect as it is represented in comics scholarship. 

It is important to note from the outset that comics is a medium, not a genre (Wolk, 2007: 11; Baetens and Frey, 2015: 7). Comics resists the attempt at explication in terms of literature, film or art, and remains a separate storytelling medium with its own inherent complexities. Nevertheless, as Baetens and Frey point out, ‘many aspects of narratology apply to the graphic novel, and it would be absurd not to benefit from the existing narratological research on storytelling’ (2015: 163). Relevant scholarship from related disciplines can provide a helpful springboard, certainly, but comics research makes it clear that narrative cannot be studied independently of the form it takes; for example, concepts such as world-making, space and characterisation throw up new issues when applied to graphic narratives (164). Miodrag makes a similar point on the application of other analytical paradigms to the study of comics; she writes that ‘we cannot simply build comics theory from pieces of existing theory without attuning these to the art form’s particularities’ (2013: 60), and she goes on to add that ‘comics weave a connective tissue that enmeshes a multitude of textual fragments that can never be summarized by a single (or even taxonomic set of) “core” feature(s) that will comprehensively account for how we read them’ (67). I have chosen the three aspects under scrutiny in this section because each has something pertinent to offer to the discussion of fictional consciousness and the creation of the character of Iris Pink-Percy. 

Face and Body

Readers ascribe mental activity to characters in comics in watching their actions and in reading their facial expressions as a gauge of the characters’ emotional response to events. This section begins with reference to the work of Harry Morgan, who maintains that character acts as a cohesive force in this medium, binding the narrative together with the repetition of the character’s image in each panel and across the pages; equally, Jan Baetens and Hugo Frey also note that the character is constantly before the reader’s eyes. Alan Palmer argues in his influential monograph on fictional minds that every action performed by a character has mental activity behind it, and it is therefore possible to assess fictional consciousness without necessarily being given access to a character’s life by a narrative intermediary. Paul Ekman claims that six basic human emotions are easily identifiable by the facial expressions which accompany these emotions, and Ed Tan suggests that more complex comics avoid any schema of recognisable emotions. Moreover, empirical research carried out by Charles Forceville and his colleagues reveals difficulties with the interpretation of facial expression not anticipated by Scott McCloud’s proposed taxonomy. This leads the discussion to a consideration of representational versus caricatural depiction, and the representation of emotion through visualisation of conceptual metaphor.

In a 2009 article, Harry Morgan, author of Principes des littératures dessinées and one of the leading theoreticians of graphic storytelling, argues that character is the only real constant in such narratives: ‘[i]t is the character that gives the image sequence its semantic cohesion and it is around the character that the storytelling is organised’ (35). Morgan writes that character provides the reference point for a reading of frame and sequence, allowing the reader to understand temporal and spatial sequential logic. In other words, the character is the first thing the reader looks for, and the reader follows the character frame by frame: where they are, what they do and when they do it. Baetens and Frey support this claim in their assertion that ‘[e]ven if graphic novels do tell stories, their first concern is not infrequently the portrait of the characters and the multiperspectival representation of their bodies’ (2015: 176). They refer to the structuralism of the 1960s which reduced characters to agents or actors ‘in abstract structural diagrams’ (174); as such, a character’s appearance or psychological profile would be of little importance. A character in comics, however, is constantly present before the reader’s eyes in a series of portraits. Baetens and Frey understand this as a characteristic of comics which marks them out as a very specific form of storytelling with an important contribution to make to contemporary thought and the ‘rediscovery of the body in cultural theory’ (177), and they refer to the rising popularity of the ‘actionless’ or ‘abstract’ comics (180) to support this argument; however, their claim that what the reader is confronted with is the character’s body and face and not the character’s thinking (174) is perhaps more contentious. For example, this separation of mind from body is not easy to square with Alan Palmer’s work on fictional minds, and his claim that ‘[u]ltimately, it is impossible to separate physical actions from the mental life that lies behind them’ (Palmer, 2007: 214). Palmer’s concept of ’situated identity’ maintains that ‘we are not so much what we say we are, but what we do. Action is public and so is a fairly reliable, though not infallible, basis on which other individuals can judge the workings of our minds’ (Palmer, 2004: 168-169). In prose narratives ‘[an] action will be described in a certain way for a particular purpose, and different descriptions of the same action can obviously vary greatly in the ways in which they ascribe agency, responsibility, praise, criticism, blame, and so on’ (Palmer, 2007: 215). It is surely the case that the same holds true for comics if the way in which an action is depicted within a panel or sequence of panels is equivalent or comparable to a prose description. What follows is an examination of the possible ways in which a reader could construe a character’s inner life from the depiction of a physical form. I consider Ekman’s work on basic emotions and Tan’s article in response to this research on the ‘recognition of emotional expression in characters’; this is followed by a discussion of Forceville’s empirical consideration of McCloud’s theory of facial expression which leads in turn to a considerations of caricature, and the visual rendering of conceptual metaphors to depict emotion. In 1992, emotion psychologist Paul Ekman put forward an argument for six basic emotions which are in turn identified by each having nine characteristics, all of which must be present. Ekman claims that these six emotions are anger, fear, sadness, enjoyment, disgust and surprise, although he acknowledges that there is some dissent over this number on the part of other scholars (170). Ekman argues convincingly that emotions are the product of evolution: ‘the primary function of emotion is to mobilise the organism to deal quickly with important interpersonal encounters, prepared to do so in part, at least, by what types of activity have been adaptive in the past’ (171). Emotions provide information about ‘antecedent events, concomitant responses, and probable next behaviour’, and are ‘crucial to the development and regulation of interpersonal relationships’ (177). Ekman also groups emotions into families. He has identified more than sixty ‘anger’ expressions (172). The more contracted the facial muscles, the more intense the emotion experienced (173). Ekman claims that there ‘is robust, consistent evidence of a distinctive, universal facial expression for anger, fear, enjoyment, sadness and disgust’ (175), but the ‘evidence for a unique facial expression for surprise and contempt is not as firm’ (176). Ed Tan is interested in the application of Ekman’s theories to comics (2001), and he focuses on the recognition of emotional expression in characters. He concludes that it may well be the case that comics he describes as ‘popular’ employ a schema of ‘facial cues’ that supply recognisable emotions, but, more interestingly, he also suggests that ‘[t]he more complex graphic novel may renounce from using the schema altogether, either because it is too explicit, or because the emotions that characters have are too complex to be ‘told’ through the face’ (45). Forceville, Stamenković and Tasić put these theories to the test earlier this year, and conducted an experiment to test Scott McCloud’s claim in Making Comics (2006: 80-101) that the six basic emotions identified by Ekman can be drawn by competent artists, and that readers can recognise both these emotions and the degree of the emotion’s intensity. McCloud contends also that artists can draw combinations of the basic emotions to produce depictions of many more complex emotions; Forceville, Stamenković and Tasić note that McCloud is suggesting that the potential combinations should yield ‘2300 different drawn faces’ (2018: 6). The data obtained from the experiment, however, demonstrates that McCloud’s claim cannot be wholly substantiated in practice. While McCloud’s competence as an artist is not in doubt, respondents did not recognise emotional expressions in line with McCloud’s claims. The identification of the basic emotion expressions demonstrated reasonably consistent results, but more complex expressions proved far more controversial, to the extent that ‘participants sometimes saw other components not intended to be there – in certain cases, these elements even overruled the effects of the intended primaries’ (16). The result was ‘a considerable degree of unpredictability’ (19). Of course, facial expression is not the only criteria by which people assess other people’s mental state, and, as acknowledged by Forceville, Stamenković and Tasić, a participant in an experiment viewing a decontextualised face is presented with an artificial situation that never arises in real life (or in comics). Facial expression is interpreted in conjunction with a host of other clues such as utterance, posture, background story, and so on. Forceville, Stamenković and Tasić also note that ‘we should not underestimate the degree to which, both in real life and in comics, we anticipate fellow humans’ or comic characters’ emotions’ (21). What has not been touched upon as yet is the actual rendering of faces in comics, which more often than not leans toward caricature instead of faithful representation. To return to Harry Morgan’s article entitled Graphic Shorthand, he notes that ‘characters can be reduced to a few fixed traits, so as to be identifiable at first sight’, and in fact, ‘complexity comes at the expense of clear characterisation’ (2009: 24). Stuart Medley contends that ‘in experiments intended to determine what kinds of images allow for easy identification of objects, the most realistic image has been persistently demonstrated not to be the most communicative’ (2010: 55, emphasis in original). Medley points to the ‘sense among some comics critics, and many creators, that…realism is not the pictorial ideal’ (67) and he seems to be implying that comics are inherently caricatural in nature: ‘[t]he degree of distillation or abstraction, the removal of realistic detail that all comics artists must address, is important to the way comics are perceived’ (68). Emotions can be represented metaphorically in visual images. In a 2005 article, Forceville asserts that comics have the ability to ‘privilege aspects of ICMs [Idealized Cognitive Models] that are less dominant, or even absent, in its linguistic manifestations’ (69). The example he chooses to explore is that of anger as depicted in the Astérix album La Zizanie (Asterix and the Roman Agent in its English translation). Forceville refers to the work of Zoltán Kövecses, who, like Ekman, suggests that ‘conceptualizations of emotions are to a considerable extent universally shared’ (Forceville, 2005: 71). Forceville lists the visual, non-linguistic features representative of anger in this album and demonstrates how these features exemplify the conceptual metaphors associated with anger, such as ANGER IS THE HEAT OF A FLUID IN A CONTAINER (for example, a character goes red and begins to emit steam as if physically boiling). He notes, however, that it ‘is important to emphasize that no pictorial sign single-handedly cues anger: signs combine to suggest anger and the more signs are used, the more clear-cut and/or the more intense the anger is’ (84). Equally, it is not the case that a particular sign always denotes anger. In another context, the same sign could convey a different emotion altogether. 

I have provided below three images from TIW to exemplify the points discussed here. Iris’ features, with the exception of her eyes, are caricatured rather than representational. The first example (see figure 3 below) presents the reader with a relatively easy passage to decipher. Iris sends a message, and waits for a reply. Her expression in its basic outlines is legible as ‘anxious’ in conjunction with the position of the hand at the mouth, and in context with the preceding panel. Similarly, Iris’ relief and joy when the new message arrives is easy to read. As she smiles and clicks on the icon to display the message, a small love heart (a symbolic sign in Peirce’s framework, outlined in section 4.3 below) flutters to the right of the panel. This love heart will be the last thing the reader reads on this two-page spread and is therefore in a position of maximum weight and significance. 

p. 128-129

Figure 3 TIW p. 128-129

Susan Osborne, writing for A Life in Books (2015), noted that ‘the skinny spectres of death pop up frequently’, and the second example (see figure 4 below) shows the two grotesque figures who follow Iris from the point of diagnosis until she purges them during her Early Death Experience at The Helping Hand. Iris’ expression in this image shows the defining features of fear identified by McCloud: her brows are lifted over wide eyes, and her lips are ‘tightly stretched apart and opened’ (McCloud 2006: 93). One might ask, however, whether this expression would be recognisable as fear when removed from its context. What makes the emotion legible in this case is arguably dependent on other factors such as the presence of the two memento mori figures with skull-like features. Iris stands in a spotlight with a strong shadow cast behind her, rendered speechless by the utterance of the smaller death figure, and she is trapped by patterns of stripes, bars and checks. (In fact, this latter detail is in evidence throughout many of the book’s images.)

p 78-79 face and body

Figure 4 TIW p. 78-79

Iris’ emotional state is interpreted through both visual and verbal tracks in this section’s final example (see figure 5 below). She is very small, and situated in a room that is sparsely furnished with only an uncomfortable-looking chair and a mirror, and she is seen as if at a distance or from a great height. In conjunction with the recitation of a poem from a narratorial voice-over whose speaker is a child addressing its mother, the visual imagery highlights Iris’ fragility and vulnerability at this point. The visual and verbal tracks work together in this example to show the reader Iris’ mental activity: she feels alone, she has no visible comforts, she is afraid, she feels vulnerable, and she exhibits a sense of guilt that is related to a child’s fear that they are being punished for an unknown misdemeanour.

p. 42-43

Figure 5 TIW p. 42-43

Continued in Part 5: Speech and Thought Representation. 

Read Part 1 here (Introduction and Summary of story).

Read Part 2 here (Context).

Read Part 3 here (Current Debates).


4 thoughts on “Fictional consciousness in comics: Ascribing a mind to Iris Pink-Percy in Rachael Ball’s ‘The Inflatable Woman’: Part 4 of 8

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