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


This study has investigated the construction of fictional consciousness in texts comprised of a visual as well as a verbal track through consideration of the following. The existing discourses relevant to the work’s genre and subject matter should be considered when taking account of a reader’s activity in constructing a fictional mind, particularly when sanctioned pre-existing narratives are likely to interfere with this process. The novel under discussion was placed in its wider context in section 2 to explore possible external influences on the reader and to provide examples of real-life responses in the form of critical reviews and comments posted online. Section 3 provided a brief overview of some of the issues which comprise current debates in comics scholarship by way of showing how this particular field of enquiry differs from research devoted purely to prose narratives. Having highlighted some of the issues raised in comics research, three of those issues were explored in more detail in section 4.

The visual rendering of a character’s face and body was discussed in section 4.1. It was suggested that readers construct a fictional consciousness in part from watching the character’s actions. However, it was shown that the reading of facial expression in comics is not as simple as has previously been supposed. Facial expression in comics tends towards the caricatural and is interpreted in the immediate and wider context, and in the presence of other visual and verbal clues. Furthermore, the medium allows for other devices to assist the reader in interpreting characters’ feelings, such as the visual depiction of conceptual metaphors of emotion. Readers assess fictional consciousness in watching what characters do and listening to what they say, and the representation of speech and thought in comics was explored in section 4.2. The work of Geoffrey Leech and Mick Short provided the basis for the discussion, the focus of which was the speech/thought balloon and the opportunities this device affords for the comics writer. Of particular note was the option to depict the tone and attitude of the speaker through typographical variants of the balloon and its contents. Pictorial metaphor provided the focus for section 4.3, with reference to Peirce’s work on signs which he categorised as iconic, indexical, or symbolic. El Rafaie’s study of the reading of political cartoons provided some insight into the kind of reader competencies necessary for the interpretation of signs, and Forceville’s taxonomy of pictorial runes exemplified the kind of medium-specific conventions with which comics readers should be familiar. Examples of pictorial metaphor in TIW were provided to show how Iris’ fictional consciousness and her emotional response to her illness can be represented through the visual track. 

The final section took the concept of focalization for its subject, a concept that is central to the study of fictional consciousness in prose narratives. It was suggested that this concept as it exists in research devoted to literature, specifically in Genette’s theory, requires some adjustment before it can be usefully applied to narratives in other media, and the work of film scholars was brought in to expand the concept to include visual images. Film researchers have claimed that an image or a sequence can be constructed of composite viewpoints with more than one narrative level running concurrently. This removes the onus to identify a single focalizer for an image and conveniently accommodates the continuous shifts and transitions in viewpoint inherent in comics. In addition, the problem of not being able to sustain a single consciousness over an extended sequence in comics can be countered if an external point of view can be the basis over which a subjective viewpoint runs. There is justification for arguing that a single consciousness is conceivably ever-present on one or more of the narrative levels. Furthermore, all potentially troublesome claims to an entirely objective viewpoint or an aspect-neutral background can be disregarded if every image is regarded instead as a composite viewpoint. Focalization has to take into account what the reader brings to the image and Borkent adds the concepts of embodiment and domains to represent how the reader fills out a two-dimensional image into something that approximates a real-world event occurring in space and time. This study thus begins and ends with the reader in terms of the existing knowledge that is brought to the text. 

The field of narratology, although focused primarily on prose narratives, contains much that is useful for the study of comics and narratives in other media, providing medium-specific adjustments are made. Directions for further research should include a more positive and thorough engagement with European comics scholarship, which has a much longer history than its Anglo-American counterpart and has reached greater levels of sophistication; this could help in shaking the influence of Scott McCloud, who is still widely referenced without question. McCloud remains a pioneer of comics studies and deserves recognition as such, but his theories do not always stand up to greater scrutiny. His prioritisation of sequentiality is particularly troublesome because it denies comics one of their defining aspects. A key feature of comics is the non-linear nature of the reader’s path through the text. Miodrag notes that by contrast ‘Groensteen’s notion of arthrology describes the relationships, both linear and translinear, between panels’ (2013: 109) and she goes on to suggest that ‘it is these non-linear relations that truly distinguish comics from other forms of narrative sequence’ (112). Future research should also include studies of fictional consciousness in a far wider range of texts, including those which lean towards the abstract rather than the representational. 

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Borkent, M. (2017) Mediated characters: Multimodal viewpoint construction in comics. Cognitive Linguistics 28(3): 539–563.

Branigan, E. (1984) Point of View in the Cinema. Berlin: Mouton.

Branigan, E. (1992) Narrative Comprehension and Film. London: Routledge.

Bridgeman, T. (2005) Figuration and configuration: mapping imaginary worlds in BD. In C. Forsdick, L. Grove, & L. McQuillan. (Eds.) Francophone Bande Dessinée. Amsterdam: Edition Rodopi, 115–136.

Chatman, S. (1978) Story and Discourse: Narrative Structure in Fiction and Film. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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El Rafaie, E. (2009) Multiliteracies: how readers interpret political cartoons. Visual Communication 8(2): 181–205.

Emmott, C. (1997) Narrative Comprehension: A Discourse Perspective. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Emmott, C. (2002) ‘Split selves’ in fiction and in medical ‘life stories’: Cognitive linguistic theory and narrative practice. In E. Semino & J. D. Culpeper. (Eds.) Cognitive Stylistics. Philadelphia: John Benjamins, 153–181.

Forceville, C. (2005) Visual representations of the idealized cognitive model of ‘anger’ in the Asterix album ‘La Zizanie’. Journal of Pragmatics 37: 69–88.

Forceville, C. (2011) Pictorial Runes in ‘Tintin and the Picaros’. Journal of Pragmatics 43: 875–890.

Forceville, C., Stamenković, D. & Tasić, M. (2018) Facial expressions in comics: an empirical consideration of McCloud’s proposal. Visual Communication 0(0): 1–26.

Genette, G. (1980) Narrative Discourse: An Essay in Method. Ithaca: Cornell University Press.

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Horstkotte, S. & Pedri, N. (2011) Focalisation in Graphic Narrative. Narrative 19(3): 330–357.

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Leech, G. & Short, M. (2007) Style in Fiction: A Linguistic Introduction to English Fictional Prose. 2nd ed. Harlow: Pearson.

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McCloud, S. (1993) Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art. New York: HarperCollins.

McCloud, S. (2006) Making Comics: Storytelling Secrets of Comics, Manga and Graphic Novels. New York: Harper.

Medley, S. (2010) Discerning pictures: how we look at and understand images in comics. Studies in Comics 1(1): 53–70.

Mikkonen, K. (2008) Presenting Minds in Graphic Narratives. Partial Answers: Journal of Literature and the History of Ideas 6(2): 301–321.

Mikkonen, K. (2017) The Narratology of Comic Art. Abingdon: Routledge.

Miller, A. (2007) Reading Bande Dessinée: Critical Approaches to French-language Comic Strip. Bristol: Intellect Books.

Miodrag, H. (2013) Comics and Language: Reimagining Critical Discourse on the Form. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi.

Morgan, H. (2009) Graphic Shorthand: From Caricature to Narratology in Twentieth-Century Bande Dessinée and Comics. European Comic Art 2(1): 21–39.

Oliver, A. (2017) The Inflatable Woman – Rachael Ball’s Debut Graphic Novel is a Visionary Entry in the Graphic Medicine Canon. Broken Frontier. Available at: [Accessed October 27, 2017].

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Palmer, A. (2004) Fictional Minds. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Palmer, A. (2007) Universal Minds. Semiotica 165: 205–225.

Pham, S. (2015) The Inflatable Woman. Graphic Medicine. Available at: [Accessed October 27, 2017].

Rimmon-Kenan, S. (2002) Narrative Fiction. 2nd ed. London: Routledge.

Segal, J.Z. (2007) Breast cancer narratives as public rhetoric: genre itself and the maintenance of ignorance. Linguistics and the Human Sciences 3(1): 3–24.

Segal, J.Z. (2012) Cancer Experience and its Narration: An Accidental Study. Literature and Medicine 30(2): 292–318.

Stoddard Holmes, M. (2014) Cancer Comics: Narrating Cancer through Sequential Art. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 33(1): 147–162.

Tan, E.S. (2001) The Telling Face in Comic Strip and Graphic Novel. In J. Baetens. (Ed.) The Graphic Novel. Louvain: Leuven University Press, 31–46.

Tensuan, T. (2011) Up from Surgery: The Politics of Self-Representation in Women’s Graphic Memoirs of Illness. In M. A. Chaney. (Ed.) Graphic Subjects: Critical Essays on Autobiography and Graphic Novels. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 180–193.

Versaci, R. (2007) This Book Contains Graphic Language: Comics as Literature. London: Continuum.

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Read Part 1 here: Introduction and Summary of story.

Read Part 2 here: Context.

Read Part 3 here: Current Debates. 

Read Part 4 here: Face and Body.

Read Part 5 here: Speech and Thought Representation.

Read Part 6 here: Pictorial Metaphor. 

Read Part 7 here: Focalization. 

Fictional consciousness in comics: Ascribing a mind to Iris Pink-Percy in Rachael Ball’s ‘The Inflatable Woman’: Part 7 of 8


The concept of focalization is central to discussions of fictional consciousness in prose narrative, but as we shall see, its application to the same in comics is problematic without some medium-specific adjustment. In the section to follow, I outline Genette’s theory of focalization and discuss conceptual modifications imported from film scholarship to address the difficulties created by the constantly shifting focalization in visual narrative. Included in the discussion is Branigan’s assertion that several different narrations can run simultaneously in images, and Borkent’s exploration of the concept of embodiment from cognitive linguistics demonstrates how visual modality allows the reader to construct composite viewpoints. 

In a 2008 article which takes for its subject the presentation of minds, Mikkonen concludes that frameworks for the exploration of mind construction current in literary scholarship require some reassessment if they are to be usefully and productively applied to comics. The concept of focalization as it exists in research devoted to prose narratives is one such concept which requires a medium-specific reevaluation if it is to be a helpful tool in the study of fictional consciousness in texts which comprise a visual as well as a verbal track. Gérard Genette’s theory of focalization continues to provide the basis for investigation of fictional consciousness in spite of the many subsequent revisions it has undergone since the publication of Narrative Discourses in 1972 (1980 in English translation), and Ann Miller devotes a chapter of her 2007 book Reading Bande Dessinée to the application of Genette’s theory to French-language comic strips, with some modifications adopted from film scholarship. 

Miller begins by restating that focalization falls under Genette’s ‘mood’, a category which reflects the linguistic concept of modality in that it ‘enables information to be affirmed with greater or lesser degrees of certitude or subjective investment’ (Miller, 2007: 105). Focalization, according to Genette’s model, is displayed in the processes of selection and restriction by which narrative information is conveyed. Genette separates the focalizer (who sees?) from the narrator (who speaks?), and he divides focalization into three types depending on the level of restriction to information, where zero focalization is an entirely unrestricted omniscient point of view, internal focalization presents the view of a particular character, and external focalization is limited to strictly behaviourist accounts with no access to mental processes. 

In zero focalization, the narrator has knowledge of the character’s thoughts. As we have seen, in the comics medium thoughts can be rendered by way of various devices such as thought balloons, dreams, visions and fantasy sequences. In figure 18 below, Iris is seen contemplating her forthcoming mastectomy and how it will affect her fantasy persona; in figure 19, Iris’ dream features a metaphorical pre-echo of her imminent cancer diagnosis in the form of a huge boulder which is heading her way.

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Figure 18 TIW p. 215

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Figure 19 TIW p. 11

In the case of internal focalization, the information rendered is dependent on and coloured by the orientation and perspective of one of the characters. What is narrated is likely incomplete and possibly unreliable, but in representing that particular character’s experience of being in the story world, the narration is endowed with its own epistemological veracity. In terms of purely physical viewpoint, internal focalization can take the form of the restricted field of vision of a particular character; in comics, this means that the panel shows the reader only that which the character can see at that moment. An example from TIW (see figure 20 below) shows Iris in hospital following her mastectomy. The image shows her hands and the rest of her body under the bedcovers, and the reader is positioned in a way which makes it clear that the image represents Iris’ field of vision. Mikkonen notes how it is possible to reveal this subjective viewpoint by the inclusion of body parts which belong to the character doing the seeing at the edges of the image (2017: 161). 

p. 262-263

Figure 20 TIW p. 262-263

Conversely, characters are only seen from the outside in cases of external focalization. This category is exemplified in behaviourist fiction, in which no access is granted to the inner life of the character apart from that which the reader can glean through observing the character’s actions and speech. Figure 21 below shows Iris after having made an appointment with the doctor. Iris herself says nothing, but the reader can deduct from the worried expression created by her frown and lowered brows that Iris is anxious about the outcome of the examination. The constant tapping of Iris’ pencil demonstrates her mental distraction, and the sequence of the panel triad will lead the reader to assume that Iris has been tapping her pencil continuously for an hour; the clock in the first panel reveals the time to be 3pm and Iris’ appointment is at 4pm. Pictorial runes exaggerate the effect of the tapping pencil: the pencil’s movement is shown through repeated versions of its form alongside motion lines, and the volume of the tapping sound is increased by the echoes which shadow the sound effect.

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Figure 21 TIW p. 30

Genette discusses five categories in all: order, duration, frequency, mood and voice. The first three categories are largely concerned with narrative time; as we have seen, the mood category deals with narrative perspective, and the final category of voice ‘addresses the question of who tells the story, and what traces of the narrator’s presence may be discerned in the text’ (Miller, 2007: 105). Heterodiegetic narrators are external to the storyworld and can utilise all three types of focalization; by contrast, homodiegetic narrators exist within the storyworld and cannot logically use zero focalization (with, as always, the exception of experimental texts). 

Although Genette’s work remains a popular starting-point for further enquiry, it has been subject to numerous revisions and refinements by narratologists and interested parties from other disciplines. Genette himself reformulated ‘who sees?’ as ‘who perceives?’ in his 1988 revision of Narrative Discourse; Mikkonen notes that this was an attempt to capture not only what is seen, but to represent the ‘affective, perceptive, and conceptual centre orienting the narrative’ (Mikkonen, 2017: 151). In other words, this was a revision which represents a movement away from the purely visual aspect of focalization implied by earlier formulations. Mieke Bal, one of Genette’s earliest revisionists, preferred to jettison external focalization altogether, and redefined this category in terms of the relation between the seer and the seen. Bal’s modifications to Genette’s framework have been well-documented, and others have debated what should be understood and encompassed by the term focalization: Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan (2002) argues in favour of the inclusion of mental processes and ideological orientation alongside the purely perceptual facet of focalization, a position that is opposed by first-generation narratologist Seymour Chatman (1978). Achim Hescher (2016) would discard focalization entirely in the case of comics, but this position is certainly opposed by Mikkonen (2017) and Baetens and Frey (2015), who argue that while existing narratological theories are obviously unsuited in their present form for wholesale transferral to the study of comics, they contain much that is useful nevertheless, provided medium-specific adjustments and additions are implemented. 

By way of adapting Genette’s work to render it more suitable for application to comics, Miller supplements Genette’s framework with the work André Gaudreault and Francis Jost, who argue that Genette’s three categories of focalization refer to knowledge, whereas ‘ocularization’ represents the visual perspective of a character, thus separating what a character knows from what they see. Furthermore, Gaudreault and Jost identify a subcategory of ocularized shots which ‘bear traces of the subjectivity of a character through deformation’ (Miller, 2007: 106), as can be seen in figure 22 below. As Iris succumbs to the anaesthetic, the sides of the frame gradually encroach across the panel until an entirely black panel indicates that Iris is now unconscious. The numbers of the surgeon’s countdown also become increasingly wobbly and malformed as the surgeon’s voice become fainter and more indistinguishable for Iris.

p. 242-243

Figure 22 TIW p. 242-243

Subjective traces ‘may be further extended through images which represent purely mental processes such as dreams’ (Miller, 2007: 106). Gaudreault and Jost argue that the status of these images is made clear by modalization operators such as a foregrounded change in the panel’s shape to indicate a dream sequence, but if these operators are not present, the reader has to distinguish between what is real in the storyworld and what is real to the character: internal focalization presents character perception as fact. Iris’ second dream in chapter 8 features a deliberately misleading opening sequence which shows Iris waking on the morning of her scheduled mastectomy. The dream-status of the following episode is uncertain for perhaps twenty panels. Iris’ encounter with the paper dolls in chapter 5 is even more puzzling: Iris is intoxicated, of course, and this sequence could be written off as a drunken nightmare if it were not for the continued presence of the paper doll bearing the personal ad which leads Iris into communication with Henry. The doll can be seen pinned to the wall above Iris’ computer from this point onwards, and it is Iris’ action of discarding and burying the doll in chapter 16 which marks the end of her fantasy-romance. The doll’s sudden appearance in an unfamiliar location at this crucial juncture in the narrative imbues it with metonymic significance: the doll is a stand-in for Henry and the fantasy world Iris formerly cherished. Nevertheless, the question of the doll’s physical existence in the storyworld remains unclear. 

It would be useful at this point to summarise that which has been discussed so far. Graphic storytelling allows for zero, internal and external focalization in heterodiegetic narration. Panels that are externally focalized naturally do not include subjective imagery or a point-of-view shot which would suggest the filtering consciousness of a character. Characters are depicted from an external viewpoint and thought balloons do not feature in externally focalized images because this device allows access to a character’s mental activity. At the other extreme, zero focalization implies omniscience and access is given to the characters’ inner life, although it is rare that all characters are treated equally in this regard (Miller, 2007: 110). It is more common that one or two characters will be selected for such privileged access. In TIW the reader has access to Iris’ thoughts and feelings, and very occasionally those of Maud, although in the case of the latter access is usually restricted to a thought balloon containing a question mark to indicate Maud’s confusion or her frustrated attempts to understand Iris’ behaviour. 

Internal focalization provides access to one particular character’s mind. However, ‘it is rare that images are restricted to the ocular viewpoint of that character’ (Miller, 2007: 109), although examples can be found. In figure 23 below, the reader sees Maud from Iris’ perspective, indicated by Maud’s gaze and her placement in the frame, and the tails of Iris’ speech balloons which point to the speaker at a position somewhere outside of the panel’s frame. Film theorist Edward Branigan, whose work I shall turn to shortly, contends that the point-of-view shot is composed of two shots (Branigan, 1984: 103). Following Branigan’s analysis, Iris’ presence at the window is established as a point in space in the panel on page 296. In the next panel, her glance is directed towards an ‘off-camera’ object, in this case, Maud. The ‘camera’ is located from Iris’ position in the panels on pages 298 and 299 and focuses on Maud-as-object. Maud’s thought balloon on page 299 indicates her puzzlement that Iris could have forgotten her hospital appointment. (In fact, the presence of this thought balloon in an ocularized image means that the reader is presented with two inner lives simultaneously: Iris’ field of vision and Maud’s mental confusion.)

p. 298-299

Figure 23 TIW p. 298-299

Ocularized views such as the example discussed above are possible in localised instances, but while it is a relatively simple matter to sustain one particular fictional consciousness in prose texts, it is impractical, difficult, and arguably undesirable to do so in comics (Mikkonen, 2008: 316). Focalization in comics is constantly shifting and as a result of this perpetual movement, Miller states that graphic storytelling ‘tends to exhibit a certain permeability between inner and outer worlds’ (2007: 119). Film scholars have noted a similar phenomenon with respect to their own medium, and Branigan cites the example of Robert Montgomery’s 1946 film Lady in the Lake, which sustains the point of view of the investigating detective, Philip Marlowe, throughout its duration (Branigan, 1992: 142-160). Montgomery as Marlowe is visible onscreen only in reflections or when his hands come into the frame, and the camera renders as accurately as possible this character’s ocularized view. However, cinema audiences quickly wearied of the experiment and found the viewing experience to be frustrating. A far more successful experiment with first-person consciousness can be found in Channel 4’s sitcom Peep Show, which features ocularized shots simultaneously with voice-overs, so the viewer sees what the character can see and hears what the character is thinking. This inner access is restricted entirely to the two main characters, Jeremy and Mark, played by Robert Webb and David Mitchell respectively. The popularity of this show attests to its success, unlike the now infamous failure of Montgomery’s film. Peep Show’s appeal rests on the fact that internal focalization is often deployed to set the visual and verbal tracks against each other for comic effect, and the shifting viewpoint between the two leads allows the audience to witness Jeremy and Mark from external as well as internal positions. 

The work of film scholar Edward Branigan has already been briefly touched upon, but I wish to consider in more detail now his argument that several different narrations can operate simultaneously. Branigan defines the character as an agent who provides information by simply living in their world and talking to other characters who inhabit the same world, and focalization depends upon that character experiencing something. Branigan draws a distinction between looking/listening, which is intersubjective and can be reported by a narrator, and seeing/hearing, which is a personal experience and can only be recounted through means of internal or external focalization. 

Character experiences can be rendered internally through point of view shots and dream sequences, or externally through close-ups and eyeline matches. As well as seeing and hearing, Branigan notes that focalization extends to ‘thinking, remembering, interpreting, wondering, fearing, believing, desiring, understanding, feeling guilt’ (Branigan, 1992: 101).

On the question of different narrations running concurrently, Branigan quotes fellow film scholar Stephen Heath, who argues that there is no real dichotomy between a subjective point of view shot and an objective non-point of view shot. The latter can be the basis over which the former runs, and an external shot can be overlaid with consciousness. This line of reasoning has enormous consequences for the interpretation of visual narrative in that it removes the onus to positively identify a single focalizing source for each panel, and it becomes possible to describe an image in terms of numerous levels of focalization. As previously stated, visual narratives feature numerous transitions from panel to panel and cannot sustain the depiction of a single consciousness without contrivance. Heath’s argument suggests there is ground for claiming that fictional consciousness in visual narrative could be sustained over extended passages if it is transposed over a basis of externally rendered images. 

To exemplify this point, the image from TIW below (figure 24) presents an apparently objective narratorial third-person perspective because Iris is not present and there is nothing to suggest that this is an ocularized image based on her field of vision. Nevertheless, traces of Iris’ subjectivity are present and her mental preoccupations are clearly reflected in the symmetry of the image which is neatly divided into two. Her computer takes centre-stage, with Henry’s kiss forming the focal point of the entire panel. The paper doll seen to the left of the computer represents the fantasy world of Iris’ online romance, but the letter from the hospital which is pinned above the computer on the right-hand side provides a stark reminder of the reality of Iris’ cancer and her imminent mastectomy. The panel following (figure 25) shows continuity of spatial arrangement in that the computer screen is still visible, thus indicating to the reader that the location is identical to the previous panel but the ‘camera’ has moved closer to the letter so that its text is fully legible. This refocusing of the reader’s attention on Iris’ real situation is a narratorial move to underline the escapist nature of her fantasy.

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Figure 24 TIW p. 140

p. 141

Figure 25 TIW p. 141

To demonstrate composite viewpoints over a more extended sequence, I refer below to pages 131-139 in TIW, which depicts a messaging conversation between Iris (balletgirl42) and Henry (sailorbuoy-39). The reader is aware that Iris has misrepresented herself to Henry, and she is writing as balletgirl42, a persona she has invented as a distraction from her diagnosis. What is unapparent to the reader on a first reading, however, is that Henry’s persona, sailorbuoy-39, is also a fiction: he too, is not what he claims to be. The voices of the two characters – or at least, their personae – appear onscreen in the form of messages, and the messages are depicted as panels within the wider surrounding panel. As such, the frame of each message operates in the same way as a speech balloon. The frame of the panel on page 132 (figure 26) takes the form of the computer screen and water drips from the bottom, leaking out of the frame’s dimensions. The frame’s contents have also switched, and now include an image of the lighthouse Henry is describing.

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Figure 26 TIW p. 132

 Horstkotte and Pedri would likely label this a shift in visual vocabulary (2011), and this shift marks the movement into Iris’ consciousness and her fantasy of Henry. (Of course, it is also true that these images represent Henry’s own fantasy version of himself.) The reader reads Henry’s words and witnesses Iris’ fantasy simultaneously (figure 27).

Figure 27 TIW p. 135-136

On another narrative level, the reader knows that Iris has been diagnosed with cancer and is shortly to undergo a mastectomy; this narrative level is still present throughout Iris and Henry’s conversation, and resurfaces in the image of the letter from the hospital.

In a 2017 article published in the journal Cognitive Linguistics, Mike Borkent considers how viewpoints are constructed from ‘multiple modalities’ (2017: 539) and he brings more recent cognitive theories to the study of focalization. He argues that theories of ‘embodiment, domains, mental simulation, and mental space blending’ (2017: 539) can provide a framework for the analysis of multimodal viewpoint construction in comics. Borkent considers carefully the communicative and expressive possibilities of the comics medium and notes that the range of signs through which comics relay their narratives (referred to previously in the discussion of Peirce’s classifications) have their own ‘viewpoint prompting features and conventions’ (2017: 541). Images communicate through iconicity and on the surface seem to do little more than point to the storyworld existence of an object through the depiction of something resembling that object, but even in this case, Borkent maintains that the ‘variable formal features’ of such images ‘can significantly reconstrue content’ (2017: 540). Iconic signs in comics interact with other signs in turn to construct viewpoints that are multimodal and multilayered. 

Borkent uses the cognitive linguistic concept of embodiment to explain how comics readers ‘activate lived experiences – from basic sensorimotor schemas up to cultural knowledge – to flesh out and interpret limited communicative cues’ (2017: 542). This is to say that readers’ gap-filling activities extend far beyond mentally completing the spaces, or gutters, between panels. Real-world knowledge is drawn upon to complete the information given in the panel. Borkent notes that the panel itself ‘acts as a window of attention’ (544; cf. Cohn 2013, Bridgeman, 2005, and Jahn, 1996) presenting a view into the storyworld that is not unfiltered: the composition of the panel and its style of presentation can be mobilised to influence the reader’s inference processes. Such processes might include completing a half-shown image, filling in a blank background, and importing ‘cues from prior panels to contextualise the action’ (Borkent, 2017: 544), all of which is reminiscent of Catherine Emmott’s work on contextual frame theory which focuses on how readers build mental frames of reference in relation to characters, settings, and so on, to create, maintain and update a storyworld (1997). An artist does not have to produce endless replications of one panel because the reader will assume that information not shown is still present; furthermore, this kind of ellipsis enables the foregrounding of communicative signs which contain salient narrative information. In addition, readers interpret signs with the aid of domain networks. The concept of ‘domains’ originates from research in semantics, and refers to pockets of stored information which people activate whenever that particular domain is encountered. In the example from TIW discussed in this section, the domain is ‘online dating’, activated by the images of the personal ad on pages 125 and 126 (see figure 28 below). The reader is able to make inferences connected with this domain, concerning roles, values, interactions and ideology. Given that Iris and Henry are both less than honest about their true identities, the sub-domain of catfishing is also activated for those readers who are aware of such things.

Figure 28 TIW p. 125-126

Read Part 1 here: Introduction and Summary of story.

Read Part 2 here: Context.

Read Part 3 here: Current Debates.

Read Part 4 here: Face and Body.

Read Part 5 here: Speech and Thought Representation.

Read Part 6 here: Pictorial Metaphor. 

Continued in Part 8: Conclusions and List of references. 



Fictional consciousness in comics: Ascribing a mind to Iris Pink-Percy in Rachael Ball’s ‘The Inflatable Woman’: Part 6 of 8

Pictorial Metaphor

This section is concerned with ‘the literal depiction of textual metaphors’ (Miodrag, 2013: 92) and how this can contribute to the construction of a fictional consciousness in the visual portrayal of an emotion or a state of mind. Versaci writes that ‘we see comics as a metaphoric interpretation of reality and are therefore accepting – whether we are aware of it or not – of the subjective nature of “truth” in comics’ (2007: 74). We saw an example in section 2 of a real reader interpreting a visual metaphor in an episode from TIW, in which the image was held to be directly representative of the character’s mental activity. The use of pictorial metaphor is a very particular and medium-specific method of revealing fictional consciousness, and the deployment of visual metaphor can show emotional response in an immediate and visceral fashion.

Many critical studies of comics refer to the work of American philosopher, semiotician and scientist Charles Peirce (1839-1914), who differentiated three categories of sign: iconic, indexical and symbolic. Iconic signs are motivated and resemble that which they signify. Peirce’s indexical sign is, as Miodrag notes, ‘causal, based on real connection’ (2013: 173), and Forceville describes indexical signs as having ‘a metonymic relation’ with their referents: he gives the example of footprints in the sand, which ‘indexically signify the person who left them’ (2005: 73). Symbolic signs, however, are entirely arbitrary and purely conventional. Any one sign may feature qualities of all three classifications listed above and may not fit comfortably into a single category. Peirce’s work is naturally interesting to comics scholars because comics exhibit all three of these signs in many and various ways.

In her 2009 article on the interpretation of political cartoons, Elisabeth El Rafaie testifies to the ‘prevalence of symbols and metaphors’ (181) in such texts and examines the necessary competences to understand these cartoons. She concludes that ‘interpretation is a matter of drawing on many different types of literacy, ranging from a familiarity with cartoon conventions and a broad knowledge of current events to the ability to draw analogies’ (182). When presented with three political cartoons, the responses of participants in El Rafaie’s experiment differed according to their final interpretation of the cartoon and ‘what they actually saw’ (182, emphasis in original). To explain these results, El Rafaie raises the question of abstraction. Cartooning always features a degree of abstraction, which ‘involves reducing resemblance in order to amplify meaning’, and the ‘greater the degree of iconic abstraction, the more interpretative work and knowledge of cultural conventions are required on the part of the viewer’ (183). Reader competency, therefore, involves not only the ability to interpret iconic abstraction, but a level of familiarity with conventions of the medium, one of which is a set of commonly-used signs which Forceville labels ‘pictorial runes’ (2011).  

According to Peircean descriptors, the status of pictorial runes occupies a curious middle ground between the arbitrary ‘through endless reuse’, and the motivated in the original reasons behind their appearance (Forceville, 2011: 887). Forceville defines runes as ‘non-mimetic graphic elements that contribute narratively salient information’ (2011: 875). They are a limited set of elements and they can work in combination. Runes therefore share some characteristics with linguistic systems in that they are a relatively closed set of fixed forms which display a rudimentary syntax(876). Runes are the ‘pictorial equivalents of what in language would be labeled metaphors, metonymies, or other tropes’ and take the form of ‘abstract-looking flourishes’ (876) which seldom communicate meaning on their own. Forceville lists runes as speed lines, movement lines, runic droplets, spikes, spirals and twirls. Speed lines show the trajectory and velocity of an object or a character, whereas movement lines show trajectory in connection with a body part or object. Runic droplets appear around a character’s head and represent water, sweat, tears or spit. Spikes are similar to droplets, and indeed, these two runes are often seen together; the primary function of spikes, however, is to indicate the production of sound. Spirals show negative emotions such as anger, disgust, or frustration, and twirls, which are more ‘loopy’ than spirals, can indicate movement, or dizziness and confusion if appearing above a character’s head. 

Nevertheless, the use of runes is not unambiguous. Different artists can use runes in different ways, and usage can differ even across and within the work of the same artist. The positive identification of runes is also not entirely unproblematic, as can be seen in the example from TIW below (figure 14). On the morning of her mastectomy, Iris dreams that she rows out to sea, past the lighthouse where she was hoping to find Henry, and reaches instead an island where a strange monkey-like figure asks her to mend a small doll by sewing its leg together. Iris does so, only to witness the monkey-man tear the doll’s torso so ‘the soul can get in…and out’ (TIW 194-195).

p. 192-193

Figure 14 TIW p. 192-193

The same spiked lines accompany the monkey-man’s action and Iris’ reaction, evoking a different emotion in each case: the ripping of the doll is a horrific, shocking act and the spikes highlight the aggression with which this action is carried out. On a verbal level, the ‘RIP’ sound effect in this context could also be read as the abbreviation of ‘Rest In Peace’, given that what the reader is witnessing here is clearly an anxiety dream about Iris’ forthcoming surgical procedure. Iris’ horror is clear from her expression: eyes and mouth open, hands raised to her face, and the spikes emphasise her shocked response. In both panels, the spikes also serve to direct the reader’s eye in framing the central image. Three spikes emanate from the tear in the doll’s side, but it should be clear by now that none of the spikes discussed in this example are the runic spikes which indicate the production of sound. The purpose of these spikes is solely one of emphasis and directing the reader’s eye. To conclude this section, the following examples provide a selection of the pictorial metaphors used in TIW, all of which contribute to the construction of Iris’ consciousness. We have already seen in section 4.1 above that Iris is pursued throughout by two grotesque figures which represent Death, and reference was made in section 4.2 to the proliferation of breast-like images in the novel. One of the novel’s more insightful reviewers, Sheila Pham, notes that ‘[t]he breast is a recurring image, analogous to different objects, such as a mound with a tree growing on top where the nipple would be’ (2015, and see figure 13 above). As Iris rows away from the island under lowering skies in the nightmare sequence discussed above, she accidentally decapitates the ‘baby’ with her paddle. The doll-baby’s head with its halo of blood has the appearance of an excised breast, the two small dots for eyes representative of Iris’ two tumours (figure 15).

baby doll head

Figure 15 TIW p. 200-201

When Iris is told she will have to undergo a mastectomy, two round breast-like panels show the doctor’s mouth where the nipple should be (figure 16). 

p. 62-63

Figure 16 TIW p. 62-63

Iris’ metaphorical transformation into a moth at this moment is indicative of her feelings of physical fragility and temporal intransigence. The Iris-moth flutters towards the light of hope which is ‘reconstruction’ only to burn when Nurse Bobby cruelly points out that the surgeons are ‘not rocket scientists’ (TIW p. 68 and see figure 17). Bird imagery pervades the novel, with Iris herself often represented by a motherless baby bird to convey both her vulnerability and her sense of fragility and isolation. As for Henry, his appearances are often filtered by Iris’ consciousness, and this point is pursued further in the section on focalization below.

p. 67

Figure 17 TIW p. 67

Read Part 1 here: Introduction and Summary of story.

Read Part 2 here: Context. 

Read part 3 here: Current Debates.

Read Part 4 here: Face and Body.

Read Part 5 here: Speech and Thought Representation. 

Continued in Part 7: Focalization. 

Fictional consciousness in comics: Ascribing a mind to Iris Pink-Percy in Rachael Ball’s ‘The Inflatable Woman’: Part 5 of 8

Speech and Thought Representation

Just as readers ascribe mental activity to a character by watching that character’s actions and facial expressions, readers also make assessments based on a character’s utterances both in the form of speech and thought.
In their immensely popular and seminal work Style in Fiction ([1981]2007), Geoffrey Leech and Mick Short set out a taxonomy of the ways in which speech and thought can be represented in prose fiction. While not all of their categories can be accommodated by the comics medium, it is worthwhile to investigate the points of cross-over and divergence. The speech categories are as follows (Leech and Short, 2007: 268):

speech categories

If Direct Speech (DS) represents the words of the character, then any move to the left on this continuum indicates an increased narratorial presence in the utterance, and movements to the right of DS demonstrate a stripping-away of the narrator; utterances in Free Direct Speech (FDS) therefore, are in prose fiction devoid of any narratorial markings such as quotation marks, and the utterance is presented as if produced entirely of the character’s own volition. It is arguable that Indirect Speech (IS) can only occur in graphic narratives when one character is recounting the words of another. Both IS and FIS (Free Indirect Speech) require the presence of a narrator, and this is a highly contentious area in comics studies.
I have provided examples below from TIW to exemplify two of Leech and Short’s categories of speech representation. The first, and most obvious, is the use of the speech balloon to represent DS. In figure 6 below, Iris is in conversation with Granma Suggs. The reading path in the Western tradition travels across the image from left to right and top to bottom, and the conversation between Suggs and Iris follows this path. Suggs makes five utterances and Iris two in this single image, but the direction of the tails of the speech balloons and the spatial layout makes it clear who says what when. Of note here is Ball’s idiosyncratic use of speech balloons to encapsulate sound effects (‘knock knock’), although in this instance it is entirely possible that Dr Magic does actually utter these words.

p. 160 face and body
Figure 6 TIW p. 160

The example in figure 7 below shows how NRSA (Narrative Report of a Speech Act) can be employed in this medium. The utterances of those wearing the ‘I kicked the ass of cancer’ T-shirts cannot be heard by Iris, a fact which is reinforced by the verbal track (her question ‘What?’). The speech balloons do not contain recognisable lexical items, but indecipherable symbols. This device, used several times and in various circumstances throughout TIW, constitutes an NRSA because while the reader is aware of the utterance and the context in which it has been made, the actual words used remain a mystery. In this particular example, it is clear that Iris cannot hear the words spoken because she is distanced from those speaking; however, when those on the platform issue a collective ‘Bye!’, as indicated by the speech balloon with more than one tail, Iris can just about hear this word, demonstrated by the fractured appearance of the lettering.

p 502 speech and thought
Figure 7 TIW p. 502

The image in figure 8 provides an interesting example of an utterance that is a mixture of DS and NRSA: Iris’ stricken explanation is offered in between sobs, inside a segmented speech balloon. It is possible that the words written here present Iris’ utterance in its entirety, but it is equally possible that her conversation is truncated into a series of subject headings to convey to the reader the substance of a far longer utterance as Iris tells Maud of her diagnosis and her fears. Iris’ words are represented as NRSA but with elements of DS: the reader knows an utterance was made and is also cognisant of some of the words used, from which the substance of a much lengthier speech can be guessed at.

p. 86
Figure 8 TIW p. 86

The comics medium in general offers only limited space for verbal utterances and Ball has found an economical solution here. Lengthy utterances encroach on the image inside the frame and risk tipping the balance too far in favour of the verbal track. This latter consideration explains in part the relative scarcity of thought balloons in comparison with utterances in DS; this observation refers to TIW and other comics in general, although exceptions can, of course, always be found. For example, Guy DeLisle tells a fictionalised account of the story of Christophe André’s kidnap and escape in Hostage, in which utterances in captions represent the thoughts of a man who cannot communicate with others because he is a prisoner and because he cannot speak either Chechen or Russian. The eponymous hostage is left alone for long stretches of the narrative. He talks out loud to himself on occasion, but by far the majority of his utterances are rendered in a form of Direct Thought (DT): words that appear in a caption that is a coloured differently from the rest of the text (see figure 9). This form of caption-box in comics is conventionally reserved for the narrator’s voice, but in this particular story, the captions communicate both narrative information and the protagonist’s thoughts. The reader is thus informed of narrative developments, and in the same manner is apprised of the hostage’s anxiety through his mental cogitations. Without the latter, DeLisle’s text would lack both tension and narrativity.


Figure 9 Hostage by Guy DeLisle, p. 286-287

thought representation

Having touched on the mechanisms for representing thought, I return briefly to Leech and Short in order to reproduce their categorisat¬ions of thought presentation as shown above (2007: 276). Leech and Short point out that in prose fiction, Indirect Thought (IT) is the norm for thought presentation, as opposed to DT being the norm for speech presentation. The reason is simple: the rendering of a character’s thoughts verbatim is perceived as highly artificial in prose fiction (277), and it is more usual for a character’s thoughts to be filtered in some way through the narrator. Many comics arguably lack a narrator entirely, and the option of IT in comics is therefore problematic, to say the least. Writers and artists do, however, make use of DT, but its use is necessarily localised. If used too often, DT very quickly appears contrived, and, as is the case with lengthy spoken utterances, risks overloading the verbal track at the expense of the visual. If the verbal track is allowed to significantly outweigh the visual, there comes a point where the identity of the text as a comic comes into question and the visual track is reduced to mere illustrations of the verbal. Even here, however, exceptions can be found: Posy Simmonds makes free and abundant use of passages of prose text in conjunction with stretches of narrative that is more recognisable as comics in format. (Simmonds, 2001, 2009, 2018). The panel in figure 10 below shows an example of DT in TIW, one of only a handful of similar examples in the book.

p. 17

Figure 10 TIW p. 17

Other thought balloons do appear from time to time, often containing nothing more than a question mark to indicate confusion on the part of a character. What has not yet been touched upon is the use of silence in comics. Baetens and Frey note that ‘the number of graphic novels including large wordless sections and sequences is steadily increasing’ (2015: 152). Some texts, such as Shaun Tan’s enduringly popular The Arrival, are entirely wordless (Tan, 2006), and this silence ‘invite[s] the reader to gain understanding through observation and deduction, and to decode the narrator’s (or the protagonist’s) intentions, to let symbols and icons “talk”, [and] to deliver information on the implicit level’ (Adler, 2011: 2278). Indeed, in TIW, approximately 40% of over 700 panels have no dialogue (although a percentage of this figure includes panels which feature a sound effect). This figure represents a high proportion of panels which exclude the verbal track, forcing the reader to engage with the visual, and to follow Iris’ story through what can be deduced from her facial expressions, postures, gestures and actions. As Adler points out, ‘[s]ilence functions…not only as a simple absence of speech…but also as a vehicle of a large variety of emotions and mental states connected to the protagonists’ (2011: 2278). Figure 11 shows Iris, exhibiting hair loss from chemotherapy, in the hole at The Helping Hand. Polly, a resident at the clinic, visits Iris and advises her to ‘think about all that sadness and tomorrow, leave it down here’ (TIW, 481). The three wordless images in figure 11 are powerfully eloquent of Iris’ silent despair.

p. 482-483
Figure 11 TIW p. 482-483

Speech and thought balloons are capable of rendering far more than just the lexical items of a verbal utterance: the visual track can be deployed to communicate tone, volume, and other extra-linguistic information besides. Baetens and Frey mention ‘grammatextuality’, a concept coined by French theoretician Jean-Gérard Lapacherie, which refers to the visual form of the words in comics (2015: 153). The concept includes ‘the form of the lettering, the configuration of the words in the speech balloons and the insertions of these balloons in the panels, the presence of letters and other written symbols within the fictional world, [and] the presence of…onomatopoeias’ (154). An example from TIW is shown in figure 12 below. Iris has been told that her right breast is to be removed following the discovery of two cancerous tumours. The appearance of the hand-lettered word ‘mastectomy’ which hangs over Iris’ head communicates to the reader Iris’ misgivings about the operation. This is emphasised in the visual track by Iris’ wide-eyed expression and the absence of the lower half of her face as a visual pre-echo of the removal of her breast.
p. 64
Figure 12 TIW p. 64

In another example from the same moment in the narrative, Iris’ understanding of her situation is rendered as shown in Figure 13. Iris is asked if she understands the information she has just been given. This panel gives us the response ‘yes’ and ‘I’ve got breast cancer’. The word ‘yes’ appears to come from the tree which features as part of the text’s many pictorial metaphors, but the words ‘I’ve got breast cancer’ form the tree’s roots, thus rendering visually Iris’ understanding that the cancer is rooted within her and is growing inside her breast; the breast itself is represented as the hill upon which the tree (the nipple) is standing.

p. 60

Figure 13 TIW p. 60

Miodrag notes that ‘bold format, underlining, capitals, and shifts in text size visualize the modulations of tone that are natural to speech’ (2013: 71). The convention of using capital letters for the equivalent of shouting has passed into more modern forms of communication such as email and text messages: the larger the font and the heavier the type, the louder the volume. Miodrag is careful to note however that ‘[s]pacing and typography…are vital elements in comics’ visual arsenal, but do not operate as signs standing in for an identifiable signified’ (78). Her main concern, as we have seen, is to dismiss arguments that insist on the parity of word and image, but she concedes that ‘the speech balloon remains a convincing proponent of comics-as-language (or, at any rate, as symbol system) insofar as it reads as a conventionalized sign, recognized as a visual signifier of sound whose border and script affect how we interpret particular instances of its use’ (101). Miodrag notes that the speech balloon is exclusive to comics and that readers recognise ‘by learned convention their relationship to the diegesis: not visible in the world-of-the-work as they are to the reader, these forms represent diegetic material nonetheless, visualizing for the reader what is audible for characters’ (100-101). Achim Hescher also mentions this quality of speech balloons: ‘[b]alloon speech is verbal (as speech or writing) and pictorial (in its outline or shape), and diegetic as speech; the balloons, in contrast, are non-diegetic (for the characters see no speech balloons floating around them)’ (2016: 149).

Read Part 1: Introduction and Summary of story here.

Read Part 2: Context here.

Read Part 3: Current debates here. 

Read Part 4: Face and Body here.

Continued in Part 6: Pictorial Metaphor here.

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

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).