After our discussion on bats flying through windows last Wednesday I’ve been thinking about the portrayal of emotions in comics and graphic novels.
It has always bugged me how many comic drawings are often emotionally ambiguous. Sometimes a character stares out from the panel with a blank look on his face, and god knows what’s racing through his mind. Sometimes the text tells you he is in pain, but as far as you’re concerned his face only betrays stoic composure. A deliberate contrast of inner versus outer emotions, perhaps. Or flat-out suppression and denial of one’s true feelings. Either way, how exactly is something as intangible as emotional expression executed visually on a page? Are there certain methods or tricks that comics masterminds employ?
What about our superheroes and other characters with MASKS – how do we read their emotions without seeing their faces? How much of our interpretation relies on text? Do we even necessarily believe what the text tells us?
In a movie, music often sets the mood for a lot of scenes. The body language of characters and the tone of their dialogue also points you towards the “right” emotions. More importantly, they actually have ACTORS, real people who are capable of shouting, crying, smiling and producing just about any shade emotion they want you to believe.
Comics can’t do that. No matter how realistic the drawings, we know that the characters aren’t real. Unlike movie actors they can never replicate true emotional expressions on their faces. There seems to be an even greater challenge in trying to deliver the “right” emotion for each frame, if there even is one.
If the three examples below are anything to go by, facial expressions seem to be of minimal importance when conveying emotions in comics.
Mr Fantastic may have his back facing us, but no prizes for guessing what he must be feeling. Our knowledge of his personality, the cold, stark walls and flooring, and the unmistakable implication of the doctor’s words all tell us that he must be feeling rather emotionally stretched (so to speak).
Interestingly, a lot is left to our imagination. The artist and writer seem to be relying on their readers’ own assumptions on what a miscarriage would entail. Rather than focus on the doctor’s worried expression, our thoughts and concerns drift to Reed Richards and how we believe he must be taking the bad news.
The despondency Iron Fist feels over losing his parents is also chiefly communicated without facial expressions. While there is no denying the dramatic looks of horror on the characters in the background art, we have little facial indication of how our protagonist feels about this flashback episode.
We gather a lot of Iron Fist’s current emotions from the text. He confesses that he is “crying like a kid”, and that this memory stirs in him “a hollowness deep within”. He stutters (and presumably chokes) through his tears and explicitly laments that it “hurts NOW”. Finally he wails in what seems like a deafening and agonizing emotional climax befitting of the kid he believes himself to be.
A lot is communicated through his body language too. Oh how he buries his face in his hands and crouches over on a flight of stairs, alone and under what seems like the cruel spotlight of self-pity heartrending suffering!
This last one summarily captures my initial misgivings about comics and the believability of emotions in them. How do you fathom a character’s emotions if he insists on hiding behind a Guy Fawkes mask the entire time? When I first read V For Vendetta I was rather spooked by the fact that he was always “smiling”, even when setting off his latest explosive. I was annoyed that I had to depend so heavily on the words to figure out what was going through his twisted mind. Surely he mustn’t be smiling. I mean, we all know terrorists don’t smile. But wait, he seems little playful and speaks to the statue like the gracious lover that he is. Wait, now the heart-shaped box explodes and he muses “how lovely…my precious anarchy”. Perhaps he’s just a little loopy and relishes destruction so much it almost justifies the creepy smile…
Needless to say I soon grew to appreciate the visual irony. Again a lot is left to the imagination, but not before they leave us a lot of clues. I think that’s the beauty of comics (or graphic novels, if this distinction is important to you). You think that the text is filling in the gaps and telling you all that you need to know but subconciously we are also processing the inherent significance of the images – the vigilante appearance of his persona, the strikingly suspicious heart-shaped box, the retrospective irony of his gentlemanly bow, and the practiced manner with which he walks away and appreciates his handiwork from a distance. To say he is bitter, angry, contented, indifferent or (insert any emotional adjective) would be missing the point. While we need words to understand the context of the scene and to be privy to V’s thoughts, words, in this case, ironically fail to truly capture the emotional resonance of the scene.
You know what they say about a picture and a thousand words.