[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?