Image [&] Narrative #10: Depicting Boredom: On Gestures and Facial Expressions by Greice Schneider

18 Feb

In previous installments, I’ve been tackling the subject of boredom and everyday life in contemporary comics, how it plays a role in the creative process, and how it is experienced in the act of reading. It is time now to address how it can be manifested on the level of content. In this post, I will quickly outline a few possibilities on the use of facial expressions and gestures [1], so central in the dramatic development of the actions in graphic narratives, since it is not possible to rely on motion or vocal intonations.[2] But how to address graphic representation of body movements when boredom is so often associated with lack of movements, constancy and stillness?

Boredom, as a state of apathy, indifference, lack of emotion could be conveyed precisely by an absence of movement. Such a state of physical inertia is very usual in the work of Daniel Clowes, an author who devotes considerable attention to the visage, as seen, for example, in the very first page of David Boring (2000), in which the protagonist’s undisturbed facial expression is highlighted by horizontal features, such as flat eyebrows, eyes partially covered by eyelids and mouth only slightly downturned. This affectless bored expression is placed just next to the title, linking his surname to his expression, in a double panel spread that highlights his face against a dark nocturnal urban landscape.

The whole vocabulary of body movements follows the same logic. Unlike the tension of the “pregnant moment” (and an implied before and after), boredom is better conveyed by the sameness of an “ever present”, suggested, for example, by a relaxed steady posture, shoulders down, body tilting forward, hands supporting head (as an attempt to avoid falling sleep), something found in a number of covers: the fake The Wonder Book of Boredom (suggestively labeled vol. IV – Collecting Sand), by English cartoonist Glen Baxter, featuring a boy holding his head with both hands, glancing at grains on the table; Dominique Goblet’s autobiographical Faire semblant c’est mentir (2007), in a similar pose, legs crossed, holding a glass; or Arne Bellstorf’s American inspired tale of suburban melancholy Acht, Neun, Zehn (2005) , in which the teenage protagonist’s boredom is visually represented through the refusal to charge the face with any kind of affection and the choice of conveying his body as an arch – an almost continuous piece that bends down.

On the opposite extreme of absence of movement, boredom and impatience can also be conveyed by relentless movement, in the form of repetitive actions as the body resists boredom, like tapping the foot or fingers. Linhart describes a form of these small repeating and intermittent gestures as a means of defense against boredom in the assembly line, as life “kicks and resists”:

The organism resists. The muscles resist. The nerves resist. Something in the body and in the head, braces itself against repetition and nothingness. Life shows itself in more rapid movements, an arm lowered at the wrong time, a slower step, a second’s irregularity, an awkward gesture, getting ahead, slipping back, tactics at the station.

(Linhart 1981, p.17).

The representation of these rhythmic gestures poses a challenge for the fixed image, but there are a couple of recurring solutions to avoid ambiguity. The first and more economical approach is to convey multiple repetitive movements in the same panel, with the help of lines and/or “sounds”. Faire semblant c’est mentir (2007) makes use of onomatopoeia (tic tic…) to signal the repetitive insistence of young Dominique playing with scissors. This rhythmic effect is also taken into consideration when drawing the words. The same repetitive pattern appears in a sequence from Acme Novelty Library #17 (2006), in which an art teacher Chris Ware (appearing here as a character), after spending some time doodling to kill time, starts tapping his pencil over the table, yawning and supporting his head with his hand.

Another facial sign of boredom and indifference can be found in the direction of the gaze. While a look directed to a specific element (even if outside the panel) indicates interest, curiosity, attunement to the external world, a wandering look suspends the curiosity about what happens in the surroundings, shifting the attention to the inner life of the character (or absence of it). This use of unfocused eyes is very frequent in the work of Adrian Tomine. In his New York Sketches (2005); the author portrays people in public urban environments (like the subway), paying close attention to their distracted attitudes during the journey – the situation of waiting in a confined space often leading to a state of impatience. The woman on the left, for example, seems lost in thought, staring at nowhere specific. On additional side notes, Tomine acknowledges repetitive movements, revealing both character’s state of restlessness: she was “unable to sit still for more than a few minutes”, and “his mouth moved as if he was chewing”.

Of course the examples described above show only a few possibilities on how characters can perform boredom, but they already reveal the ambiguity and interesting dynamics that define it, oscillating between states of complete stillness and relentless movement.


Baetens, Jan. “La Main Parlante.” Image [&] Narrative. Issue 9 (2004):

Bellstorf, Arne. Acht, Neun, Zehn. Reprodukt, 2005. Print.

Bremond, Claude. “Pour Un Gestuaire Des Bandes Dessinées.” Langages 3.10 (1968): 94–100.

Clowes, Daniel. David Boring. New York: Pantheon Books, 2000. Print.

Goblet, Dominique. Faire Semblant C’est Mentir. Paris: L’Association, 2007. Print.

Linhart, Robert. The Assembly Line. University of Massachusetts Press, 1981. Print.

Tan, Ed. S. “The Telling Face in Comic Strip and Graphic Novel.” The Graphic Novel (2001): 212. Print.

Tomine, Adrian. Adrian Tomine: New York Sketches 2004. Buenaventura Press, 2005. Print.

Ware, Chris. Acme Novelty Library #17. ACME Novelty Library, 2006. Print.

Greice Schneider recently finished a PhD on boredom and everyday life in contemporary graphic narratives at K.U. Leuven, in Belgium. She is a founding member and a member of the editorial board of The Comics Grid. She is on the editorial board of Image [&] Narrative.

Click here to read previous instalments of the Image [&] Narrative column.

[1] – For more on gestures and comics see (Baetens 2004) (Bremond 1968) (Tan 2001).

[2] – Such an approach should avoid the temptation to universalize by identifying a constant repertory of facial expressions and gestures recognizable across the world. Although it is difficult to support the idea that a determined combination of positions can directly correspond to a specific emotion, no matter what context, it is reasonable to assume that a shared vocabulary of gestures and facial expressions often plays an important role in graphic storytelling.

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Posted by on 2013/02/18 in Uncategorized


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