Exploring empathy using comics and graphic novels

Published on: 29 May 2024

Comics writer and illustrator Neill Cameron discusses the powerful ability of cartoons to convey emotion.  

Comic books or graphic novels, if you’re feeling fancy are an incredibly powerful way of engaging young readers’ empathy. As a creator of comic books (and indeed graphic novels), you might expect me to say that. But there are a couple of specific features of how the medium of comics works that I think can help explain how they do this so well. 

The first is to do with the visual language of comics: the power of cartooning. Obviously, a lot of comics are drawn in quite simplified, cartoony styles. And it is this simplicity that gives them an incredible ability to communicate emotion. In his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about cartooning as an act of amplification through simplification. By representing a character with just a few lines on a page, we are forced to strip out any unnecessary, extraneous visual information, so that all we are left with is character: emotion, in a clarified and distilled form.  

The second factor is to do with the very structure of comics: the active role the reader plays in them. A comics page presents a series of disconnected images, and when we read it, we use our powers of imagination and inference to go into that blank space between images and connect those separate images into a meaningful narrative. Young readers in particular can have incredibly intense relationships with the comics they love, and I think this is a big part of why that is. Theres something private, personal and empowering about reading a comic; being an active participant, a co-creator of a story playing out in your head as it is constructed from static images on a page. 

Combine those two things the power of cartooning to communicate emotion, and the reader’s active role in constructing a narrative and you begin to see why comics hold such incredible potential for engaging empathy in young readers.

Because in comics we don’t need to tell you how a character is feeling. We simply show, through a few lines on the page, and encourage the reader to project themselves into these simple cartoon images and feel the feelings for themselves.  

Showing feeling through pictures

This is something I try to make use of in my own comics a lot. Alex and Freddy, the robotic brothers who are the stars of my graphic novel series Mega Robo Bros, are kind of this idea of amplification through simplification, embodied. Their whole heads are literally just giant pairs of eyes. Freddy (the younger brother) in particular is just an absolute ongoing riot of unfiltered emotion, continually playing out across those giant eyes for all to see. Alex (the older sibling) can be a lot more guarded and harder to read. But through body language, and the odd moment where his mask of self-control slips - when there is no-one around to see but us, the readers a huge amount of emotional information can be conveyed. I tend not to use devices like thought balloons or first-person narration in Mega Robo Bros. Because, again, I don’t want to tell you how Alex is feeling. I think it’s so much more powerful to just draw it, and let you feel it for yourself. 

Comics are such a powerful language that I always struggle a bit when I try to write about them. Because I feel ham-fisted and clunky, attempting to communicate with just words. I almost feel like English is a second language for me; the language in which I feel most confident and articulate is comics. There’s a lot in Mega Robo Bros Alex in particular deals with a lot over the course of the series in terms of growing up, dealing with anxiety, feeling uncertain as to how he fits in with the world and his relation to things like gender and sexuality that I would just not feel confident enough to express what I'm trying to articulate with prose. But I can do it in comics. 

How comics can reflect experiences

Because comics are such a powerful way of communicating, they’re a great way of both reflecting experiences the reader can relate to, and of engaging readers with narratives, perspectives and voices beyond their own experiences. The increasing popularity in recent years of ‘graphic memoirs’ works such as Raina Telgemeier’s GhostSmile, or Guts, or Pedro Martin’s Mexikid  bear testament to this, as does the recent growth in comic books using an anthology approach to explore different aspects of particular issues, such as The Power of Welcome by Ada Jusic et al on refugee experiences, Drawn To Change The World by Emma Reynolds et al on climate change, or Sensory: Life on the Spectrum, edited by Bex Ollerton, on autism. 

Reading comics is not a passive activity. It’s an active work of empathy and imagination. And I think this is why comics have so much power to communicate, and why they mean so much to the readers who love them. 

The Mega Robo series by Neill Cameron is out now. 

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