What is it about?

One strategy that comics artists can use to make clear that a character is emotionally affected is to draw emotion lines (also known under other names, such as "pictorial runes" and "emanata") above or around that character's head. Forceville (2005, 2011) has suggested that the set of such flourishes consists of only a few items, and that these items are used in more or less the same ways by all artists. In a series of experiments we tested to what extent emotion lines helped the awareness that a character was emotionally affected; and more specifically whether the various types of lines (twirls, spirals, droplets and spikes) were recognized as cueing a specific emotion. We used (manipulated) panels both from a Western and an Indian comic, as well as abstract, coloured geometrical shapes (instead of faces) surrounded by pictorial runes. Our results show that runes help communicate emotion. Although no one-to-one correspondence was found between the tested runes and specific emotions, it was attested, among other things, that droplets and spikes indicate generic emotions, spirals indicate negative emotions, and twirls indicate confusion and dizziness.

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Why is it important?

The correct recognition of emotion, and the kind of emotion, in our interlocutors is crucial for successful communication (see Forceville,, Visual and Multimodal Communication: Applying the Relevance Principle, Oxford UP 2020). Unsurprisingly, therefore, this recognition also plays a key role in comics and graphic novels. It is telling that although pictorial runes almost always are important signals THAT a character is emotionally affected, usually the runes alone are not sufficient to signal WHICH emotion is at stake. The pictorial runes, therefore, function mostly together with other cues, such as body postures, facial expressions, and of course the contents of what characters say.


I am very interested in investigating what (kind of) visual information can be objectively attested because it is "coded" (which therefore requires that the reader/viewer has learned the code), and which visual information can only be inferred by combining it with other (textual or contextual) information. Inasmuch as there is a "runic code," which specifies both a limited set of elements AND rules about how/where/when these elements can be used, runes can be said to form a "visual micro-language."

Dr Charles Forceville
Universiteit van Amsterdam

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This page is a summary of: An experimental study on the effect of emotion lines in comics, Semiotica, October 2021, De Gruyter, DOI: 10.1515/sem-2019-0079.
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