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  • Fast Tracks to Narrative Empathy:Anthropomorphism and Dehumanization in Graphic Narratives
  • Suzanne Keen (bio)

Fast tracks for human emotional responses precede cognitive processes, according to the neuroscientific investigation of emotions such as anger and empathy1 and the psychology of "mind-reading," via fast, unconscious recognition of facial expressions.2 Even simplified line drawings of facial expressions3 activate the "quick and dirty"4 subcortical bases of emotions that are followed by slightly slower cognitive responses routed through the neocortex. In comics and graphic narratives, illustrations of faces and bodily postures may capitalize on the availability of visual coding for human emotions, eliciting readers' feelings before they even read the accompanying text.5 Little is known, however, about the relationship between the emotional responses evoked by visual artists' strategies of anthropomorphizing animal faces or dehumanizing people's faces and bodies, on the one hand, and the invitations to narrative empathy proffered by graphic storytelling, on the other hand. Drawing on my previous work on empathy vis-à-vis print narratives (see Keen, Empathy and "Strategic Empathizing"), the current essay explores the opportunities and challenges that graphic narratives pose for research in this domain. Specifically, I seek to open a conversation about the impact of emotionally charged sequences of word-image combinations used in the service of what I term ambassadorial strategic empathy. At issue are graphic narratives that reach popular audiences (including teenaged readers) with appeals for recognition and justice and ambitions to form citizens' sense of responsibility for suffering others.

I focus on two case studies that highlight how questions of medium specificity need to be taken into account in research on narrative empathy. J. P. Stassen's (2000, trans. 2006) Deogratias: A Tale of Rwanda, a graphic narrative about a boy caught up as an unwilling participant in the Rwandan civil war and genocide, renders dehumanization vividly: the boy turns into an animal in four stark frames of transformation. Brian K. Vaughan's 2006 Pride of Baghdad (art by Niko Henrichon) employs more traditional anthropomorphism to depict the perspectives of a group of lions escaped from the Baghdad Zoo during the invasion of Iraq. Both narratives employ what I have theorized as ambassadorial strategic empathy [End Page 135] to elicit readers' emotional response to victims caught up in wars not of their own making. Strategic narrative empathy on the part of authors indicates their manipulation of potential target audiences through deliberate representational choices designed to sway the feelings of their readers (though actual readers' responses vary). Ambassadorial strategic empathy attempts to reach readers outside the boundaries of the depicted social world in an effort to change attitudes and even solicit assistance in the real world (Keen, "Strategic Empathizing" 478-80). Typically, an author employing ambassadorial empathy addresses chosen others with the aim of cultivating their empathy and at least implying an appeal for justice, assistance, or recognition (483).

Such considerations raise the question of the intended audience and their likely responsiveness. While the relatively high quality of serious graphic narratives has in recent years attracted an older, more educated, and more diverse audience, comic books have been historically denigrated as the ephemeral reading of immature male adolescents. Widely regarded as an addictive form of story-telling, comics have not typically been credited with the capacity to invite catharsis or narrative empathy leading to socially beneficial action in the real world. Instead, they have often been castigated as trash devised to seduce the semi-literate (see Pratt). Stassen plays with this generic history when he shows his young protagonist, the pubescent Deogratias, attempting to win favor with a girl by giving her a romantic magazine of romans-photos, Rêves and Passions. Narratives of this kind work by evoking fantasy empathy for the lovers in the story, providing escapist pleasure-reading through frames like film-stills. But do they make readers into lovers? Deogratias discovers right off that the transaction between representation of romantic love and acquiescence to his advances is not so straightforward. The girl rejects both. The chain of transmission of affective purpose that runs from author to audience cannot be so confidently scripted. While this may appear consoling in the context of graphic narrative's promiscuous transmission...


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pp. 135-155
Launched on MUSE
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