Comic Therapy

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What do cartoon heroes have to tell us about relationships, therapy and the mind?

The Visual Language of Comic Books

Culturally, comic books have come a long way in the last few decades. Once derided as the refuge of the lowbrow and semi-literate, great writers like Neil Gaiman, Warren Ellis, and Alan Moore, just to name a few, have convinced many that the comic book is an art form on par with other forms of literature.

Not only are comic books more respected, but the uniqueness of the comic format is also a topic of study. Scott McCloud’s book “Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art” deconstructs the fundamental ideas that make comics work. My aim is similar to McCloud’s, although I want to look at comics through the perspective of psychology and therapy. The visual language of comics has much to say about the minds of the characters and the readers.

Frames of Mind

The frame is one of the fundamental units of measure in comics. The artist divides the page into a series of rectangular blocks filled with words and images. Yet this simple mechanism has profound implications.

First, the frame divides the world into what has the reader’s attention and what does not. The artist uses the frame to strategically direct attention to specific visual images in order to convey precise ideas and emotions. The frame reminds those of us living in the real world that we too, have a limited perspective constrained inside our own perceptual and mental frames. If we’re not careful, we mistake our own limited frames for objective or total reality, only to suffer a fall when we later learn our frame is at least partially incorrect and incomplete.

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In the English-speaking world, comic frames are almost always meant to be read left-to-right, top-to-bottom on the page, just as we read printed text. McCloud likens this series of frames to the series of still images that make up a celluloid movie film. But whereas movie images are usually separated by no more than 1/24th of a second, the gap between comic frames can stretch from no time at all to millenia. To me, the sequential nature of frames invokes our own shifting perceptions and thoughts. How quickly we can go from joy to despair or from indignation to regret as we move from one mental frame to another. Often I suggest to my clients to listen to their experience, but not to get stuck on one idea or one “frame” too tightly.

It is What You Think

Thought bubbles are one of the signature features of comics. Within these cloud-like apparitions, readers gain the privilege of seeing the unedited thoughts of the characters. Of course thought bubbles don’t exist in real life, but some of us act like they do. We are so sure we know what someone else thinks and intends when in fact we really don’t know and often turn out to be completely off-base.

In comics, thought bubble come equipped with a descending tail that identifies the thought with a character. Too often we forget that our thoughts are particularly our thoughts, not reality or even the “frame” we’re observing at the moment. Comics highlight all the ways that one character’s thoughts can fail to match another’s or what they’re saying. More on that in just a moment.

Say What?

In comics, speech balloons carry the dialog and often much of the plot. Like their cousins the thought bubble, speech bubbles are associated with speakers. Back in the real world, without the benefit of speech bubbles and their identifying tails, it’s all too easy to confuse what someone said for what “they” say, and to elevate what might be a flip comment into consensus opinion. I’m partial to responding to unsupported opinions with a raised eyebrow and a “Says who?”

Once again, allowing speech to stand independently from thought bubbles or the surrounding frame is a graphical depiction of the truth that words don’t have to have anything to do with reality, internal or external. Before getting hooked on something someone said to us or about us, it’s a good idea to remember that words, no matter how biting, are still just words.

Comic artists, deprived of a soundtrack, have used the tools of spacing, fonts, character size, and other tweaks and modifications to the generic word balloon in order to convey not only text, but tone, nuance, and emotion. (For some of the most audacious examples of this bending of the speech balloon, take a peek at Dave Sim’s “Cerebus” series.) Comic “word art” neatly illustrates the real-world lesson that it’s as much about how you say something as what you say, and on the flip side, listening for emotional tone and nuance in others’ speech gives you a leg up in understanding them.

So, Dear Reader…

Many comic books come with an additional perspective, provided by an unseen, unnamed narrator. The narrator’s commentary is invisible to the characters and is usually depicted as a rectangular text box within the frame, sometimes shaded yellow. Deprived of this viewpoint ourselves in our own real lives, if we make an effort to pull back from our own frame to see things a little more dispassionately, as if from a distance, we might be able to read our own real-life story with more clarity and poise.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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