[Guest Post by Barbara Postema]

The last time I cried over a comic was recently, when I welled up while reading Dotter of her Father’s Eyes by Mary and Bryan Talbot. I cry all the time when I read novels, or watch TV and movies. This emotional reaction comes quickly for me with all kinds of media, but it’s rare that it happens in response to comics. One occurrence that I can recall was over Farley’s death in For Better of For Worse. The old dog dies of exhaustion after he has saved April from drowning when she falls in the river. Another was years ago, when reading Rosinski and van Hamme’s Chninkel. That covers about twenty years, and is rather few and far between as crying goes, especially considering the amount of comics I read.

It has nothing to do with the emotional content of the comics I’ve been reading. There have been plenty of books to cry about, for all kinds of reasons: the loss of a pregnancy in Michel Rabagliati’s Paul Goes Fishing, all kinds of moments in Bechdel’s Dykes to Watch Out For, or even the Hellboy and Mouse Guard series. These works and many more contain lots of material that would get my waterworks going in other media. It’s also not that as a reader I just don’t respond to comics emotionally. Comics have made me angry, frustrated, happy, and sad; I could only read Jimmy Corrigan in small doses because it was so depressing, and comics often make me laugh (like Calvin and Hobbes, Spirou, and The Return of the Snooter).

Laughter is a physical response, like crying, but it comes from a very different place. It requires a mind that has been alert to the text it’s consuming: laughter often comes from having expectations turned on their head, or even to relieve tension, and so it implies that the reader has been following closely, anticipating what will come next. Movies (and books) make us laugh too: at movies we can sometimes laugh so hard we lose control over it, and I think that’s the crux.

Reading fiction and watching movies are immersive experiences. As a reader or viewer we can lose ourselves, and with it our emotional inhibitions, so that literal outpourings, like crying or laughing uncontrollably, can occur quite readily. Comics reading is not immersive, or rather, it is a different kind of immersion. It engages readers actively, forcing us to participate, making us complicit (to invoke McCloud) in the creation of the story. Charles Hatfield writes that comics require the reader’s “collaboration in making meaning.” From decoding the images, to scanning panels and pages, to reading the text, there are all kinds of cognitive processes at work when reading comics. Comics certainly arouse emotional responses—and yet the physical response of tears is uncommon. Reading comics, it seems to me, often leaves us too present, mentally, to drop our inhibitions and let ourselves go that way. What’s the last comic that made you cry?

About roytcook

Roy T Cook is associate professor of philosophy at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. He works in the philosophy of logic, the philosophy of mathematics, and the aesthetics of comics. He is the co-editor (with Aaron Meskin) of The Art of Comics: A Philosophical Approach (Wiley-Blackwell 2012)

12 responses »

  1. uploader456 says:

    Wonderful ideas. That’s true. You don’t catch many people welling up in art galleries either, yet I’m sure they are often deeply moved by the art. Crying implies a distance from the object, like the mother at a wedding whose son or daughter she sees as inevitably leaving her…

  2. Barbara,
    Your question seems to be one of the most personal(ized) questions asked so far on our blog, and I think it’s fantastic. I wonder if most of the comments will be just as personal and/or introspective.

    I come from a family of non-criers. This doesn’t seem to be a function of gender, either. We feel emotions deeply, but crying isn’t something that we do. Even the word “infrequent” doesn’t capture this; maybe “rare” or “hardly ever” would be the right choice for me on a Likert scale survey.

    Given that, I think that because I expend a great deal of concentration on the academic, scholarly analysis of comics, I have even less opportunity to engage with them emotionally. Do you see your engagement with comics in a professional way as something that could mediate your emotional reaction to them?

  3. Barbara Postema says:

    Thanks, Frank!
    As an academic, whether for teaching or research, I read all kinds of texts, from poetry to novels, comics and films to drama. At times I read more with the professional goggles on, of course, but even that doesn’t stop me from having to dab my eyes sometimes. There’s this short story by Alice Munro that always gets me, even if I’m just scanning it before teaching it (“The Children Stay,” if you’re interested). So it definitely seems to me there is a different affective impact to comics. This is one way of beginning to think through what that’s all about, but by no means the end (I hope).

  4. Hi Barbara,

    Thanks for this post! Your questions takes me back to the last ICAF (smile). When I think about it, there really aren’t a lot of comics that have made me well up, but I do recall having to get the kleenex out for the last few issues of SANDMAN. I remember feeling so moved by the ending, but even more saddened that the series that I had found so fascinating and deeply immersive was over. Other than this, most of my favorite comics have a scene that is especially memorable for bringing a tear to my eyes — the page where the elder Jimmy Corrigan is left abandoned in the White City or the one where the spirit of Billy Glass is forced to leave his body behind after being lynched in BAYOU.

    I am also really curious about the reason why these moments are so rare (for me) in contrast to other mediums, and I think your reference to the collaborative nature of making comics may be on to something. In his latest book, Jared Gardner also talks about the fact that whether you consider comics to be too immersive or not immersive enough, “no one can read a comic book, no matter how well executed…and forget that these are made things: someone drew the comic, someone lettered it, and so on.” That “madeness” also affects how we identify with the stories in contrast to other art forms.

  5. Barbara Postema says:

    Thanks for reminding me of Jared Gardner’s book, Qiana. I went and ordered it right away… I think there may well be something to that awareness of the comic as a “made thing,” which also plays a role in looking at work in art galleries, as the first commenter mentioned. Such works can still have an enormous impact, but we give ourselves over to it in a different way.

  6. roytcook says:

    I think that there is definitely something to the ‘madeness’ of a comic interfering with it provoking tears (but, interestingly, not laughter). But I think this is tricky. While this idea makes it very easy to explain why films provoke tears more often (since the immersive environment of films – especially when viewed in their intended environment, the theater – encourages us to ‘forget’ the ‘madeness’ of the work), it remains difficult to explain, in these same terms, why literature moves us to tears more regularly than comics (at least, this is my own experience, but perhaps I am wrong regarding its universality). After all, literature, as a printed medium, is arguably just as obviously ‘made’. As a result, it is puzzling why we don’t find ourselves less prone to cry when reading.

    There is another tempting explanation for why some types of art provoke tears more readily than others – the difference between publicly and privately experienced art. If we are naturally less prone to show ’embarrassing’ emotions such as tears in public venues, then this explains why we don’t cry when viewing paintings in their intended environment – the gallery – but are willing to cry when reading novels in the privacy of our homes (and, in addition, the ‘illusion’ of a private experience, via dimming of lights, etc., at the movie theater, explains why we are prone to cry there, but to cover it up the minute the lights come up and the credits begin to roll). But this explanation utterly fails for comics, since comics are standardly a privately viewed art form, so we should feel equally free to cry as we do with literature or film. But we don’t.

    Clearly, a very difficult issue, and a great question!

  7. Barbara Postema says:

    Hi Roy,
    Actually, I would disagree that “literature, as a printed medium, is arguably just as obviously ‘made.’” We’re not reading a manuscript in handwriting, and once the manuscript gets typeset and bound, it doesn’t show a trace (aura) of the original maker anymore, strongly reducing their “madeness.” That’s very different from comics where the drawn pictures, and (sometimes) hand-lettered text always reveal that trace. But what may be contradictory is that comics that look less “handmade,” due to very clean linework, custom fonts and computer coloring, for example, don’t get more likely to induce emotion. Rather the contrary.

  8. roytcook says:

    Barbara,

    Point taken about the ‘madeness’ of literature versus comics! But it still seems that the ‘madeness’ of standard gallery art is at least as salient (likely more so) than typical comics (and some gallery art – e.g. medieval tapestries – are narratives similar in some respects to comics), so explanations of tear-proneness will need to take something else into account (perhaps, but not necessarily, the environment of reception). But I don’t think this is all that surprising, in the end, since we should expect any such explanation to likely be quite complex, and involve multiple factors!

  9. Barbara Postema says:

    Yes, you’re right about gallery art. As the very first commenter also pointed out, we don’t see many people weeping in museums and galleries, while you’ll hear plenty of sniffling in movie theatres. I’m pretty sure the narrative aspect has something to do with it, but as you point out, it doesn’t account for everything, such as sequential images on tapestries. There are most definitely multiple factors at play.

  10. […] a vigorously interpretive one. In previous posts, Barbara has touched on the question of immersive reading, while Roy offers a different kind of rereading of a Calvin and Hobbes strip. I wonder what we […]

  11. David Lasky says:

    The heroic death of the family dog in “For Better or Worse” also made me cry. I highly recommend the graphic novel “Laika”, about the Russian dog who is chosen to travel into space.

    • Barbara says:

      Funny you should mention _Laika_! I was reminded of it by someone last week, and indeed I did find it heart wrenching and difficult to finish, though I don’t remember if there were tears or not. Funny thing about animals in books: When I read _Little House on the Prairie_ in fourth grade, I cried my eyes out when Laura’s dog died…

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