The visualization of anger in comics by Charles Forceville

10 Feb

Ensuring readers’/viewers’ continued interest in a story requires that they are aware of the goals of one or more protagonists, and make an emotional investment in their success or failure; we hope that the hero or heroine will succeed, and fear that the villain will. We thus empathize with the story’s good guy(s)/girl(s) and antipathize with its bad ones. Of course goodness and badness can be complicated affairs, and we may end up having mixed feelings about characters.

Empathizing and antipathizing inevitably involve our awareness of the emotions felt by the characters themselves. We co-suffer in the sense of the luxurious substitute emotion evoked by fiction that Noel Carroll calls “art-emotion” (1991: 143 et passim) when the hero is wounded or loses his best friend; we rejoice if the heroine is proud to have saved the prince or the planet.

Comics have means for conveying characters’ emotions that partly overlap with those of other media and that are partly unique to the medium. In this short paper I will review some studies I have done on the representation of anger in comics (see also my students’ work as summarized in Forceville 2011a). My original framework was conceptual metaphor theory/CMT (Lakoff and Johnson 1980; for the current state of affairs, see Gibbs 2008, Kövecses 2010). Within this framework Zoltán Kövecses (1986, 2000, 2005) has systematically discussed the way emotions are metaphorically conveyed in language. Since anger is the emotion he has written about most extensively, this has become the paradigm emotion that others in CMT have decided to focus on. That is what I did when I tried to apply Kövecses’ theories to the visual realm, more specifically to comics (Forceville 2005). But this practical reason for privileging anger should ideally serve as a launching pad for broadening the discussion to the representation of emotion in comics in general.

So how do we know that a comics character is angry? Obviously, one way to infer this is because s/he says so. “I am mad as hell,” or “Why the f*** are you late again, you moron: now we missed our plane!” are clear linguistic cues to the speaker’s state of mind. I will not say much about this verbal source of information since it is not specific for the comics medium and is studied abundantly in Kövecses’ work. I only want to mention onomatopoeia. Onomatopoeia is richly exploited in comics, as it is the device par excellence to suggest sound. One onomatopoeia that appears to be a reliable signal for anger is “Grrrr!” Onomatopoeia is in comics often marked visually by deviant letter fonts: capital letters, bold face – or both – may be used to suggest shouting, and since shouting is one of the symptoms of anger, such type fonts can contribute to the information that a character is angry. This example nicely serves as a transition from the verbal to the visual; from here on I will only discuss various visual cues alerting us to the presence of anger.

In the first place, there is mimetic or iconic information pertaining to the angry character’s body: the symptoms that we recognize, usually in hyperbolic form, from real life. (These symptoms, which – unlike the emotions from which they originate – are visualizable, would be called “indices” in a Peircean framework and “metonyms” in CMT framework.) Facial expressions are particularly important sources of information: a red complexion; a wide-open mouth or its opposite, a tightly closed mouth – often reinforced by clenched teeth; closed eyes accompanied by furrowed brows. Basing himself on the work of the psychologist Paul Ekman, Scott McCloud presents a fascinating account of how facial traits typical of six basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, and surprise) can be combined to depict other emotions (e.g., “fear” + “sadness” – “devastation,” McCloud 2006: Chapter 2). The importance of eyes and mouths as indicators of anger is very noticeable in manga, where these signals are caricatured in the so-called Super Deformed (SD) style (see Cohn 2010). SD style can turn even the loveliest, most charming girl into a little monster when she is angry by representing her eyes and mouth as face-exceeding circles or quadrangles. In bodily postures, the arm/hand position in comics is usually significant: we see a lot of clenched fists, hands hidden in pockets or behind backs, and fingers pointed at wrongdoers. In Azumanga Daioh, Michael Abbott and I found one other, unusual variation on the depiction of hands of angry characters: they literally lose their hands, their arms temporarily ending in stumps, as if they were amputated (Abbott & Forceville 2011). Another feature that is typical of anger is excessive shaking and jumping, whether depicted as overlapping images or showing a character seemingly floating above the ground (Forceville 2005; Eerden 2009).

A second stylistic device that can be used for suggesting anger is the text balloon. The balloon, prototypically oval or rectangular with black letters on a white background, can vary in a number of visual dimensions (see Forceville et al. 2010; Forceville submitted). For the representation of anger, the following are relevant: angry characters often sport balloons with spiked contours and a jagged tail, and their color may be red. The redness as sign of anger possibly has its source in the redness of angry people’s faces. It transpires not just in balloons, but sometimes also in elements within those balloons (question and exclamation marks, pictograms) or outside them.

A third type of comics mark that helps cue emotion are the flourishes that are sometimes called “pictorial runes” (Kennedy 1982, Forceville 2005, 2011). They mostly, though not exclusively, convey information relating to characters’ emotions. Pictorial runes comprise a small set of items, whose meanings seem to be fairly fixed – but in order to gain more insight in this issue, empirical testing is imperative (Ojha and Forceville in prep. provide a starting point). There is one rune that is associated specifically with anger: the “spiral” (figure 1; to be distinguished from the “twirl,” figure 2), which may occur both on its own, or as a “multiple” of two or more, arranged as a halo around a character’s head. Shinohara and Matsunaka (2009) found a pictorial rune that originates in manga: the “popped-up vein” (figure 3). This rune seems to have evolved from a hyperbolic version of an embodied feature conveying anger (much like the lobster-red face) into a signal that has increasingly lost its link to the body, since it appears also in places where a popped-up vein could never appear realistically: in a character’s cheeks or hair, or in text balloons.

A fourth comics device for communicating anger is the pictogram, or symbol (the name varies) that may occur in balloons or elsewhere in a panel. Pictograms are used to convey emotions and states of mind. Typical pictograms used for anger are skulls, stars, Chinese characters, and lightning. Often a number of them occur together.

Does this exhaust comics’ stylistic devices for anger? That cannot be attested with certainty. In principle one would assume that the forms of panels, too, can be used to convey emotions when they deviate from the norm (in conventional European comics: a grid pattern with rows and columns). For instance, panels, just like balloons could suggest anger by having a spiky form. I have hitherto found no examples of this, but Van der Heijden (2011) persuasively shows how deviant panel borders help suggest fantasy or confusion in Charles Burns’ Black Hole, while David Mazzuchelli also experiments with panel form (and many other things) in Asterios Polyp, so deploying panel form and borders for conveying emotions undoubtedly is feasible. Another issue is whether there may be elements not directly pertaining to angry characters that may help cue their state. Shinohara and Matsunaka (2009) suggest that (quasi-)weather conditions sometimes fulfill this role in manga: an ink black cloud surrounding somebody standing in a room can thus convey his or her anger. Finally, Heldorf (2012) correctly points out that the assessment of a character’s emotional state is also informed by the awareness of the response volunteered by that character’s interlocutor. Visual signs of intimidation or retreat in one character may warrant the inference that his/her interlocutor is angry, just as threatening behavior in one protagonist toward another may help us recognize fear in the latter – simply on the basis of our understanding of stereotypical scenarios.

Systematic work on the representation of anger and other emotions in comics is just beginning. Since emotions can by definition not be directly depicted, their presence must always be inferred on the basis of symptoms. The medium of comics has developed a wide variety of stylistic means to convey emotions, and studying emotions in comics provides thus both an exciting angle on emotion research and an excellent avenue into theorizing the stylistic repertoire of the comics medium (see Forceville et al., in prep.).


Abbott, Michael, and Charles Forceville (2011). “Visual representations of emotion in manga: LOSS OF CONTROL IS LOSS OF HANDS in Azumanga Daioh volume 4.” Language and Literature 20: 91-112.

Carrroll, Noel (1990). The Philosophy of Horror or: Paradoxes of the Heart. London: Routledge.

Cohn, Neil (2010). “Japanese visual language: The structure of manga.” In: Toni Johnson-Woods (ed.), Manga: An Anthology of Global and Cultural Perspectives. London: Continuum, 187–202.

Eerden, Bart (2009). “Anger in Asterix: The metaphorical representation of anger in comics and animated films.” In Charles Forceville and Eduardo Urios-Aparisi (eds), Multimodal Metaphor (243-64). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Forceville, Charles (2005). “Visual representations of the idealized cognitive model of anger in the Asterix album La Zizanie.” Journal of Pragmatics 37: 69-88.

— (2011a). “Structural pictorial and multimodal metaphor.” Lecture 7/8 of Course in Pictorial and Multimodal Metaphor.

— (2011b). “Pictorial runes in Tintin and the Picaros.” Journal of Pragmatics 43: 875-90.

— (submitted). “Creative visual variation in comics balloons.” In: Tony Veale, Kurt Feyaerts and Charles Forceville (eds.), Creativity and the Agile Mind. Creativity and the Agile Mind: A Multi-disciplinary Exploration of a Multi-Faceted Phenomenon.

—, Lisa el Refaie, and Gert Meesters (in prep.). “Stylistics in comics.” In: Michael Burke (ed.), The Routledge Handbook of Stylistics. London: Routledge.

Gibbs, Raymond W., Jr., ed. (2008). The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Heijden, Govert van der (2011). “Metaforen in Black hole: Picturale metaforen in lijnen en vormen.” University of Amsterdam, dept. of Media studies. Unpublished ms.

Heldorf, Jonathan (2012). “Visual representations of the idealized cognitive models of anger, and an investigation of response emotions in Calvin and Hobbes.” University of Amsterdam, dept. of Media studies. Unpublished ms.

Kennedy, John (1982). “Metaphor in pictures.” Perception 11: 589-605.

Kövecses, Zoltán (1986). Metaphors of Anger, Pride and Love. Amsterdam: Benjamins.

— (2000). Metaphor and Emotion. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

— (2005). Metaphor in Culture: Universality and Variation. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

— (2010). Metaphor: A Practical Introduction (2nd ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

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

Ojha, Amitash, and Charles Forceville (in prep.). Experiment on the comprehensibility of pictorial runes in comics.

Shinohara, Kazuko, and Yoshihiro Matsunaka (2009). “Pictorial metaphors of emotion in Japanese comics.” In: Charles Forceville and Eduardo Urios-Aparisi (eds), Multimodal Metaphor (265-93). Berlin: Mouton de Gruyter.

Charles Forceville is associate professor in the Media Studies department at the University of Amsterdam ( He authored Pictorial Metaphor in Advertising (Routledge 1996) and co-edited, with Eduardo Urios-Aparisi, Multimodal Metaphor (Mouton de Gruyter 2009). Committed to cognitive, socio-biological, and relevance-theoretical approaches, his work is expanding from multimodal metaphor to multimodal rhetoric and narrative more generally. Genres and media he finds pertinent include documentary, fiction film, advertising, animation, and comics. He considers particularly the last two as ideal for charting how visuals, in combination with other modalities, can communicate information and generate meaning. For more information click here.


Posted by on 2012/02/10 in Guest Writers


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