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Blending in Cartoons: The Production of Comedy

Abstract and Keywords

Blends have usually been regarded as a type of metaphor. However, Mark Turner in his recent work and also in his presentations uses quite a few cartoons by way of illustration. In such examples, it is the incongruity in the blend that results in the comic reception of the cartoon. The chapter analyzes how blending combines assimilation with incongruity. It also discusses the incongruity of picture and subscript in cartoons and considers to what extent the linguistic elements of a cartoon are part of the blending mechanism or a mere juxtaposition of different media. The chapter therefore engages with the theory of the comic and with the cartoon as a genre from a cognitive perspective, but it also aims at refining our understanding of blending as a mechanism and a strategy of signification with reference to visuality and the combination of visual and textual media.

Keywords: blending, cartoon, narrativity, humor, visual metaphor

This chapter explores the concept of blending in the visual medium of the cartoon and discusses whether and, if so, how humor is generated by the process of blending incongruous scenarios. I start with an introductory section that is designed to ease the reader into the topic, illustrating the issues that I will be concerned with on the example of a cartoon used by Mark Turner in his recent work on blending. This is followed by a few remarks on the cartoon as a genre among visual media (section 2) and an introduction to blending theory as one of the major players within cognitive studies (section 3). I then turn to metaphoric cartoons without a verbal component and discuss the processes of blending in these, using two illustrative examples (section 4). Section 5, by contrast, analyzes two cartoons that do have a verbal subscript and text within the cartoon. Finally, section 6 draws together the results of my analyses. I argue that although blending constitutively underwrites the semiosis in cartoons of types (those that are merely visual and those that also have textual elements), humor in cartoons relies more on the clash between, than on the overlap or blending of, incompatible frames or scenarios. I also devote some reflections on the narrativity of cartoons, thereby contributing to scholarly debates about the links between narrative and blending in the work of Fauconnier and Turner as well as Dancygier.

1. Introductory

Blending in CartoonsThe Production of Comedy

Figure 8.1 “World Food Crisis”

© Patrick Chappatte, Permission to reprint this cartoon is gratefully acknowledged.

In the literature on blending, cartoons have frequently been resorted to as illustrative material. Thus, Mark Turner talks about the “World Food Crisis” cartoon1 (figure 8.1) and explains how the scenario of a Westerner filling his car with rice or grain-based ecological fuel as depicted in that cartoon is juxtaposed with the world of the hungering masses from Africa and Asia in the figures of two small (p. 156) individuals clamoring for the food that they have lost to ecology. By putting the African and Asian individuals within the same “world” as the fuel-guzzler, the cartoonist reminds us of the fact we are all too prone to forget, namely that the plants used to produce bio-ethanol are missing on the food market and are literally taking the rice or grain out the mouths of needy people in other parts of the world. By blending the consumer of grain-generated fuel with those deprived of their sustenance, the cartoon literalizes the deprivation, creating a scenario that does not in fact exist, namely the physical co-presence and communication between the hungry and Western consumers. Besides calling attention to the market economy subtending this outrage (feeding one’s car by condemning people to starvation), the blend tells an implicit story about Western fashions (“Go Green” on the car’s bumper sticker), the production of ecological fuel, and the Western consumer’s blindness to the origins of bio-ethanol.

Cartoons often exceed signification by pictorial representation. Turner’s example is a cartoon with a subscript “World Food Crisis” and texts within the cartoon world—the sign indicating that the fat man is using biofuel to fill his car. It moreover conveys its meanings by cartoon-internal (“diegetic”) signaling, for instance in the supplicatory gestures of the two representatives of poverty and hunger. As Turner describes the cartoon, “The vaguely Asian character is lifting a rice bowl with both hands in a classic gesture of supplication. The edemic character, lethargic, dangles his hands at his side and watches wide-eyed. The American says, casually, one hand in his pocket, ‘Sorry, I’m busy saving the planet.’”2 We therefore have a blend in which the two worlds are (p. 157) superimposed, but where that scenario would not be easily comprehensible without the texts inside the cartoon (though the subscript might be dispensed with): the driver’s “Sorry, I’m busy saving the planet,” the bumper sticker, and the petrol pump’s sign of “Bio Ethanol. Pure Corn.” In my examples that I will discuss later, cartoons with or without text will be distinguished.

A second feature to be noted is the cartoon’s implied narrative. The cartoon tells a story in which the fuel has been taken from the hungry at an earlier point in time and is now, later, used by the man in the center of the cartoon. The begging Asian and African subjects are therefore both contemporary as well as anterior to the present moment (they have gone hungry for a long time). If one focuses merely on a sequence of events, the full implications of the juxtaposition do not necessarily emerge; however, by foregrounding experientiality as a narrativity marker, the link between the complacent unawareness of the fuel-guzzler and the wretchedness of the deprived becomes more pointed.

Note also how the driver is not only big but also fat and clearly affluent and how the two figures on the left signal their poverty by the scantness of their clothing, their boniness and, above all, their minimal size. In fact, they have the size of children. (Perhaps a hint at the colonial infantilization of the colonized?) While the motorist looms large and takes up most of the space in the picture, the two beggars are marginalized and appear as alien intrusions on the scene. Their clamor is nearly elided by the big fuel sign. This takes me to the third important narrative constituent of the cartoon blend, its message, ideology or “point”: the merging of the two input spaces of the blend is deliberate; it is engineered by the cartoonist for a very specific purpose. Although the food crisis subtext is not a metaphor in the strict sense of the term (unlike the “Life without parole” cartoon depicting, possibly, an unhappy marriage),3 the blend does share an ideological thrust. It is, in short, a condemnation of the Western lack of awareness of the consequences of following Western priorities or concerns without first checking on possible repercussions elsewhere—elsewhere being either nonexistent or at the furthest margins of Western consciousness.

Finally, a fourth aspect of the cartoon that should be noted is its humor. Despite the critical tone of the message, the cartoon is funny. In this instance, the very blend could be argued to contribute to the humor, since the actual “meeting” of the two starved individuals with the motorist is not only impossible but a kind of exaggeration. The deprivation does not result from the motorist’s taking the food away from the hungry, but from food prices skyrocketing and thus making it impossible for the poor to buy sufficient food. The scenario of the destitute turning up on the doorstep of the fuel-guzzler is comic because it is fantastic. The Asian and African indigents would not arrive to beg in America or Europe but in Asian or African towns; they would not get across our borders or be allowed to show up at our gas stations. Moreover, there is another blend within the blend in the cartoon depicting a starving person from Africa meeting one from Asia. Taken literally or realistically, the fictional world of the cartoon is a spoof, a counterfactual fantasy. As Turner notes: (p. 158)

It is geographically impossible that two impoverished and hungry people who are on different continents can be standing next to each other. It is strictly impossible that the American could utter (without distance technologies) a spoken expression in English that would be heard by them on separate continents, neither of which is North America. The American moreover has no rice, certainly no cooked rice to put into a rice bowl.4

The comedy therefore resides in the clash of depicted elements, in the incongruity of the blended worlds. This poses the question why metaphoric blends are not invariably comic (or not primarily comic). One of the conundrums I will try to trace in the following will be the sources of humor in blends and the reasons for a suspension of humor. For readers unfamiliar with the technical aspects of cognitive blending theory, some basic explanations will be delivered in section 3 below.

There are, thus, four features of visual cartoon blends that I have noted in reference to Chappatte’s “World Food Crisis” cartoon: (1) the distinction between images with or without text; (2) the generation of an implied story; (3) the purpose, message, or ideology transmitted by the cartoon; and (4) the comic quality of the cartoon. What I want to do in this chapter is to analyze two cartoons each of an image without and with (sub)text, to examine how an implicit story is generated in these four cartoons, and to contrast critical cartoons with a “political message” with merely comic cartoons in an effort to elucidate the sources of the comic.5 My approach is narratological and imports findings from cognitive blending theory (or conceptual integration theory) to deal with issues relevant to literary and cultural criticism.

2. The Cartoon as Genre

Surprisingly, there is very little theoretical criticism on the cartoon, although extensive work on caricatures, predictably focusing on the political and ideological implications, can be found.6 Narratology, for obvious reasons, has mostly concentrated on the telling of stories by means of picture series, therefore discussing comic strips rather than single cartoons.7 Besides comic strips, photos by themselves and in sequence8 as well as paintings9 have been the focus of narratological analysis. Cartoons, but also films, have served as the illustrative material used to explicate visual metaphor (see especially the work of Charles Forceville), and some of these studies discuss cartoons,10 though they also deal with sequences of images in commercials.11 (I refrain from citing any of the very numerous studies on film narratology.)

When there is only one picture or a piece of sculpture, the narrativity of the situation represented is usually aligned with the story which the picture is meant to illustrate. The moment that the photo, painting, or drawing captures as in a snapshot derives its significance from the framework within which it is to be set. Thus, the famous Laocoön statue—an older and two younger men fighting with snakes—makes narrative sense (p. 159) for the viewer on the basis of its denomination (Laocoön referring us to the Iliad) and its placing within a sequence of events described in the epic.12 The experientiality of the sculpture thus depends on our grasping of the scene as one of the crucial stages in the plot, as being the tragic climax of Laocoön’s fruitless warning against the Trojan Horse. It is also connected with our knowledge that the three protagonists will soon be dead. Identification of the story underlying an image occurs often through attributes of the protagonist, especially in portraits of saints (Catherine’s Wheel), or contextually through the knowledge that the represented moment must be an illustration of a biblical scene or an episode from Greek mythology. A woman bathing with two old men peeping on her is thus easily identified as Susanna from the Book of Daniel, chapter 13; or a representation of two Greek fighters, one of whom is a woman, as a retelling of Achilles’s battle with the queen of the Amazons. (In fact, even Greek vases often add the names of the represented figures, thus enabling the viewer to identify which story has been depicted on the vase.)

When we get to the cartoon, similar rules apply. I am here using the term cartoon to refer to a drawing, usually published in a newspaper or magazine, that does not have an exclusively mimetic purpose of illustration. (A drawing of a court scene where no cameras are allowed would not be a cartoon, nor a drawing of one’s own daughter.) Typically, a cartoon abstracts from mimetic illusionism to reduce the represented objects and people to mere outlines emphasizing some features more than others for the purpose of humorous exaggeration or in order to highlight functional elements.13 Although there is a gray area, and the boundary between cartoons and drawings remains fuzzy, exaggerated portraits of known people are clearly not cartoons but caricatures. Historically, the delimitation of what is a cartoon may be even more difficult to determine. The Renaissance emblem, for instance, resembles the cartoon in many ways, including the fact that the scene it represents is fictional. Allegory and metaphor, important elements of the cartoon, are also constitutive of emblems. Much eighteenth-century graphic art hovers between the cartoon and the caricature. Whereas James Gillray’s prints of the French Revolution and William Hogarth’s “Gin Lane” (1751) could be treated as cartoons, eighteenth-century representations of Edmund Burke as an emaciated Catholic and of Warren Hastings as a nabob on an elephant are clearly caricatures. Yet Hogarth’s caricature of religious enthusiasm in his “Credulity, Superstition, and Fanaticism” (1762),14 in which a church congregation is shown to pay little if any attention to the preacher, who in turn is presented as a rather despicable and ridiculous specimen of that guild, can be read as a cartoon. The print depicts an exaggerated fictive scene of religious nonobservance and near-demonic, enthusiastic sermonizing, thus making fun of religious fanaticism in the preacher and hypocrisy in his listeners. However, in view of the depiction of George Whitefield (1714–70) in the picture and due to the contemporary relevance and critical intention of the piece, one can also see the print as a caricature, taking it to lampoon current mores—it would then be a merely exaggerated quasi-realistic depiction of the world. (If, as I suspect, some of the people in the print are actually historical figures, then the print would need to be treated as a caricature.)

(p. 160) One can, therefore, add to the definition proposed above that cartoons are a fictional genre of visual art and that they may, but need not, share with caricatures a strategy of exaggeration or detractive distortion for the sake of ridicule or censure. More importantly for our present purposes, cartoons and caricatures both can, but need not, display metaphoricity in the graphic delineation of their subject, nor do they have to be based on a blend of two (or several) input spaces.

Having provided a brief introduction to the cartoon, it is now time to turn to a condensed account of cognitive blending theory for those readers unfamiliar with the concepts and terminology of cognitive metaphor theory and its recent developments.

3. Blending as a Cognitive Resource

What is a blend? Blends in cognitive studies refer to conceptual overlay; a functional joining of two “mental spaces”15 that helps to create innovative meaning potential and facilitates mental reorientation. As Dancygier puts it, citing Deacon,

blending is an interpretive process which relies on our generic symbol-processing and referential capacities. That is, the ability to use linguistic symbols in new combinations, to juxtapose them or compose them into new configurations opens our capacity for coining new meanings to nearly limitless possibilities. One might read this to mean that the potential for our linguistic abilities to be used in the construction of new meanings is not inherently limited and relies on the fact that manipulation of symbolic concepts is the daily bread of our cognition. . . . The composition process of this blend creates a concept not available in the component expressions, and, even more important, evokes an emotional response opposite to the original. This is also one of the points Deacon makes when he stresses the fact that emergent reference may involve conflicting emotions.16

Blending theory, as an expanded model of accounting for metaphoric transfer, has become a familiar tool in literary and linguistic criticism. It is also still most easily explained in reference to metaphor. When George Lakoff, Mark Turner, and Mark Johnson first evolved cognitive metaphor theory,17 they replaced traditional terminology of vehicle, tenor, and the ground with the concept of a transfer from a source domain (the former vehicle) to a target domain (the former tenor) and argued that the ground (or, rhetorically speaking, the tertium comparationis) was not a static, essentialist pool of attributes shared by source and target but a semiotic interpretative construction generated by the very process of metaphoric transfer. To use Barbara Dancygier’s example: In the phrase emotional roller-coaster,18 the source domain is a feature from amusement parks that is transferred to the target domain of emotional instability, highlighting the nauseous, abrupt up-and-down mood swings veering from exhilaration to depression and back (or oscillating between anxiety and overconfidence). The implication of the metaphor is less to indicate that there is a similarity between amusement parks and our psychic landscape than to foreground that, (p. 161) surprisingly, abrupt changes of feeling may leave the patient as exhausted and emotionally depleted as a trip on the roller coaster, which typically induces a queasiness in one’s stomach (though it is also experienced as intoxicating rather than annihilating). The access to the source domain therefore opens an appreciation of the psychic experience as passively endured violence, as being flung about without the chance to stop the process; though, unlike the trip in the roller coaster, the experience is involuntary, not sought for its thrill.19

Although Lakoff, as a linguist, moved into metaphor theory via the more general cognitive insights of frame theory and saw metaphor as a problem of conceptualization, the more literary offshoots of literary metaphor theory were more interested in elucidating the generation and comprehension of metaphors than in the transfer process itself. Blending theory arose from the collaboration of Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner and extended the focus on metaphor to the consideration of larger intermental processes that allow humans to manipulate frames and become creative, discovering new perspectives, combinations, and alternative solutions to problems.20 According to Turner, blending provides us with an eminently successful mechanism of survival and with the intellectual capacities of invention and analytical thinking that have resulted in human evolutionary advantagement over animals.

For our purposes, it is important to note that blending theory has recently modulated into what is now called conceptual integration theory, to which the process of blending is central on account of the purported innovativity engendered by the process. Blends produce new meanings that exceed those that would naturally arise from the combination of input spaces. These recent extensions of blending theory now treat the more traditional source and target domains as input spaces, with the resulting blended space, or simply blend, allowing for interpretations that are genuinely insightful. A typical example given for the usefulness of a blending analysis is the phrase My surgeon is a butcher, where the added implication of incompetence is generated from the confrontation of the two input domains. Blending theory moreover allows for more than two inputs, and it retrieves the attribute of similarity between input spaces that the source-target domain model had discarded. By noting that the blend operates on the basis of a particular structure that collapses and analogizes elements from both of the input spaces, a so-called generic space is hypostatized that contains this basic structure. In the case of the surgeon as butcher, this generic space would hold the person treating a dead(ened) object on a table and attacking it with a sharp, potentially lethal instrument. This structure then analogizes the butcher and surgeon, the ax and scalpel, and the animal carcass and anesthetized patient as well as the butcher’s block and operating table. The implied message that the surgeon might turn the patient into a piece of meat, that he is unskilled, adds a new perspective to the scenario.

In what follows I will be concerned with blending because humor arises from incongruities, and comic cartoons are funny because they contain clashes of frames that generate the humor. The issue of frame overlap and the semantic conjunction of incompatible input spaces is therefore fundamental to the workings of cartoons.

(p. 162) 4. Blending in Metaphoric Cartoons

As we have seen above, cartoons and caricatures both can, but need not, display metaphoricity in the graphic delineation of their subject, nor do they have to be based on a blend of two (or several) input spaces. We have, thus, largely nonmetaphoric blends (as in the “World Food Crisis” example) or in the commercial that Fauconnier and Turner discuss,21 in which the children of today are blended with the future doctors performing a bypass. On the other hand, visual metaphor does involve a blend (since metaphor is a basic subcategory of blending), but the blend need not be pictorial, since one input space can be linguistic and only the other visual. In the already mentioned “Life without parole” cartoon depicting a couple in their flat, the image itself is nonmetaphoric; it becomes metaphoric when the subscript is added to it.

Blending in CartoonsThe Production of Comedy

Figure 8.2 “Fish Wedding.” Clipart by Dennis Holmes Designs,

Permission to reprint this cartoon is gratefully acknowledged.

Since metaphor inherently relies on blending, with two input spaces (source and target domains) imposed on one another, metaphoric cartoons are clearly instances of visual blending. What I want to look at in this section are two cartoons that have no title or subscript and therefore generate the blend entirely by pictorial means. (The title of figure 8.2 is my own and was added for easier reference.)

The first of these cartoons, figure 8.2, shows two fish at their wedding. The animals are rendered by means of anthropomorphic metaphors. Thus, the two fish are clearly distinguishable as bride and groom, “dressed” appropriately (for humans) in wedding veil and top hat, bow tie and cane. The “bride” holds a bouquet in her pelvic fin and smiles seductively (notice the exaggerated “lips” and elongated eyelashes) in the manner of females of our own species, while the “groom” has his mouth open as if he were holding forth.

(p. 163) The image is markedly incongruous. The piscine wedding has to occur out of the water (with a pool forming between the two fish) but it does not take place inside or outside a church. The fishiness of bride and groom is underlined by their dorsal fins, which emerge from behind the veil (and would have made wearing a frock coat impossible for the “groom”). And of course the whole idea of marriage for fish is absurd since animals have no legal or religious commitments.

Blending in CartoonsThe Production of Comedy

Figure 8.3 “Prison.” Miguel Herranz,

Permission to reprint this cartoon is gratefully acknowledged.

What does the cartoon effect? One can read the cartoon satirically as an image for possible excesses of (human) wedding ceremonies. On the other hand, in praise of matrimony, its message could be “Even fish do it”—thus helping us to see a common human ritual as universal. Outside any context, the cartoon engenders comedy by means of the incompatibility of source and target domains and draws attention to the ingenious choices of the artist, who has managed to put two fish into a recognizable wedding scenario by presenting them in upright position (using the caudal fin as feet and the pelvic fins as hands) and providing them with the insignia of bride and groom. On the other hand, the image does not allow one to forget the incompatibility between the human and piscine worlds—the pool of water and the dorsal fins clash with the human source domain. This incongruity generates the humor of the cartoon. The idea of marriage is defamiliarized by being transferred to an absurd referent, the world of fish. The incongruity subtending the cartoon becomes even more striking when one remembers that fish, for us humans, are primarily edibles. Thus what the image stages is the marriage of seafood.

The next cartoon, figure 8.3, is of a clearly more satirical nature, and it takes a while to realize what is going on. In this image we see a convict behind bars looking out at us. (p. 164) However, we then notice that the convict seems to be outside the prison since he is located in a landscape with mountains, whereas we, the viewers, are seemingly the ones located inside the prison—we are looking at the walls framing the barred window. One way of interpreting this image is to argue that we are inside prison, but that those outside are also prisoners, as indicated by the convict dress. Without taking the viewer position into account, but focusing on the prisoner clasping the bars—a gesture typical of the incarcerated—one can also interpret the cartoon as demonstrating that those that believe themselves to be in freedom are actually in prison. (It makes little sense to assume that the image presents the incarcerated to be free agents who merely believe themselves to be in jail, although—given a particular context—such an interpretation could be convincing.) The most logical way to characterize the cartoon out of context is therefore in the freedom is prison metaphor.22

How does the blend work here? The image signals freedom as a landscape with mountains, resorting to the associations of horizons with the liberty to travel or range abroad. Landscapes can of course evoke different associations (mountains as barriers, ecological utopias, etc.); here it is the juxtaposition with a wall and barred window plus convict that pushes the interpretation in this direction. The barred window is more clearly focused on one specific meaning, the source domain of the metaphor. For this reason, it takes the viewer a while to figure out how to deal with the perspective and the landscape in the background.

The humor of the cartoon in this instance does not derive from the juxtaposition per se, but from the uncanny and unexpected way in which the spatial setup has been manipulated. If we had had a beach scene with people swimming, cruising about on yachts, sitting in deckchairs sipping cocktails, and the cartoon had superimposed a series of bars over this scene, the same freedom is prison metaphor might have been read off the image; and there would not really have been any humorous element in this cartoon. Here, however, the initially perceived incompatibility of the inside of the prison being like a landscape introduces an incongruity in the blend that can be exploited for the sake of comedy. There is an exaggerated opposition between the “prison” of the bars, the wall, and the convict dress (redolent of obsolete forms of incarceration) on the one hand and the tourist-poster-like landscape in the background on the other.

One first conclusion we can draw from the discussion of figures 8.2 and 8.3 is the fact that blending per se does not cause humor, but that for comic effects to arise from blends some incongruity needs to be particularly foregrounded, though that foregrounding can consist in the absurdity of the imposed source domain.

5. Blending by Means of Textual Source or Target Domains

Blending in CartoonsThe Production of Comedy

Figure 8.4 “American Debtor’s Prison.” Andrew Wahl, Off the Wahl Productions.

Permission to reprint this cartoon is gratefully acknowledged.

Figure 8.4, another prison cartoon, is entitled “American Debtor’s Prison.” There are various credit card brand names depicted on the “wall” surrounding the barred window. Thanks (p. 165) to these brand names, the cartoon could probably work without the explicit title. It blends the image of a credit card with the typical prison image of a person behind bars, using the prison metaphor as source domain: being in debt is being behind bars. By specifically visualizing debt as caused by credit card overuse, the cartoon introduces another type of exaggeration or rational incompatibility. Using one’s credit card is a sign of unlimited freedom—at least in terms of credit card marketing. That overuse of credit freedom may push one into debt and hence into “prison,” that is, the inability to pay and therefore to afford buying anything at all (notice the nakedness of the figure behind the bars in the cartoon).

The title “Debtor’s Prison,” however, adds an additional allusion, namely a reference to the historical institution of debtor’s prison, an allusion that enhances the comic incompatibility between the credit card as prison metaphor. Traditionally in Britain, until the late nineteenth century (1867), debtors could be imprisoned by their creditors in order to coerce them into paying their debts. Though paying up rather than actually going to prison was the intended effect when creditors sent their defaulters to jail, in practice those too broke to pay ended up in prison without any chance of getting out, since they were unable to procure the money to pay off their debts while incarcerated and because (p. 166) they accumulated further debts for fees inside prison. Pre-Victorian prisons housed the families of debtors alongside the defaulters themselves because the rent for a room in prison was so horrendous that families could not afford to pay for accommodation both inside the prison (for the father) and outside (for the wife and children).

Blending in CartoonsThe Production of Comedy

Figure 8.5 “I Don’t Believe in Sex after Marriage.” Andrew Exton,

Permission to reprint this cartoon is gratefully acknowledged.

With these historical facts in mind, the comic quality of the cartoon emerges forcefully, since it suggests that the credit crunch is a modern-day type of debtor’s prison. There are indeed several structural parallels that subtend the blend. Thus, the historical debtor’s prison affected the debtor and his whole family, as does the wage earner’s credit crunch today. Since the creditor has his flat impounded and his TV and car seized by the credit card company, his family will be sufferers with him. Moreover, getting into debt due to overconsumption was a common cause of imprisonment for debt in the eighteenth century in Britain (as witness numerous literary instances); hence, if debtor’s prisons still existed, those defaulting on their credit card payments would most likely see themselves incarcerated. Just as, historically, many debtors had little chance of liberating themselves by their own efforts, those affected by personal debts today find it hard to escape from their predicament. One can, therefore, construct a generic space for the blend in which spending too much money and, as a result, being deprived of liberty constitute the core framework that then plays out in both input spaces and merges in the image of the credit card as jail space.

My final example returns to the marriage topic. Figure 8.5 presents a cartoon that is not readable without its subscript, the utterance of the bride on the wedding night. The cartoon itself does not visually constitute a blend; it simply sets up the honeymoon suite with the couple in bed. Only through the utterance of the recently wedded wife do we blend two contexts with one another, and—by the sheer clash of expectations—introduce the humor into the blend.

Not believing in sex after marriage is clearly a contradiction in terms since marriages are supposed to be consummated, with weddings traditionally giving couples the license to have intercourse (blocked before the ceremony by expectations of virginity for women) and legally binding the partners to afford each other sexual access, thus treating intercourse as an entitlement. (Only recently has this entitlement been limited by the prohibition of marital rape.) Marriages that had not been consummated could be annulled since the primary purpose of marriage (canonically and judicially) was the conception of children, though companionship and the avoidance of “fornication” were treated as additional legitimate arguments for the institution of marriage. Thus St. Augustine in De bono coniugali (On the Good of Marriage) argues for friendship between married couples, the procreation of children, the “natural companionship. . . between the sexes” and the “moderation of lust” or the avoidance of “youthful incontinence.”23 As Lawrence Stone puts it, “an incapacitating state of mind or body—such as lunacy or male impotence (and, very rarely, female frigidity, or physical deformation of the vagina)—which prevented the essential purpose of marriage, namely sexual intercourse”24 could result in the annulment of marriage in the ecclesiastical courts. Even in the twentieth century, annulment or “voidance” based on lack of consummation was legally included in section 12 of the English Matrimonial Causes Act of 1973.

(p. 167) The marriage suite honeymoon scenario hence includes a script of wedding → honeymoon = consummation of marriage. Though this script is independent of any requirements of virginity on the side of the female partner, the whole aura of the wedding night clearly derives from its being the first sexual experience for the woman—the mystique of that event evaporates if both partners have had sex before that moment. The second script that relates to the bride’s comment could be seen as a supportive modern variant of the wedding night ritual—not believing in sex before marriage underwrites the special nature of the wedding night, complementing the wedding → sex structure by a prequel: no sex → wedding → sex. A blend of these two scenarios is therefore almost no blend since both input spaces belong to versions of the same script.

When the bride breaks her part of the bargain by refusing consummation, one is hard put to find a scenario or input space that could serve for a blend, although the situation is a recurrent one in saint’s legends, where female saints like St. Cecilia, St. Aethelthryth, or Catherine of Sweden25 declare to their husbands that they are wedded to Christ and intend to practice sexual continence even during their married lives. In the legendaries, the husbands’ mundane script of marriage as sexual congress is replaced by a divine script of the saint’s spiritual marriage to Christ, with the woman sacrificing her sexuality, not to a secular husband but to God, who wishes for its transformation or suspension.

The comedy in the cartoon could, therefore, be said to arise from the incongruity between the secular setting of the honeymoon suite and the inappropriate behavior of the bride, who adopts the abstemiousness of a female saint but does not look and behave like a saint at all. The blend results in a contradiction, which we find funny because we recognize the pun with the common “I don’t believe in sex before marriage” motto. We also assume (the bride not being a latter-day saint) that she has trapped the groom into marriage without wanting to fulfill her part of the contract and wonder why she would have wanted to marry at all. One can also picture a naive bride who had not (p. 168) realized about the nexus between marriage and sex (perhaps someone raised by radical Christians who fail to give their children a sex education).

This last cartoon raises a number of interesting questions about blending. In the now almost canonical my surgeon is a butcher or my job is a jail metaphoric blends, one can easily see how generic space and input spaces converge into the blend, which preserves the same structure and merges the semantics of the input spaces. Figure 8.5, by contrast, cannot be handled so easily. It is possible to say My surgeon behaves like a butcher, which will give one more or less the same sense as the metaphor; but My wife behaves like a saint will not capture the problem (and refuses to have sex is merely literal). Though this may be a linguistic problem, the structural conundrum consists in the replacement of action by nonaction. The contradiction between the two scenarios is fundamental—can one have a blend of black and white? Are we to picture a reconception of marriage as sexless? Or a modern-day reinterpretation of Christian notions of sainthood as absurd? (Yet the Christian correlates are nowhere explicit in the cartoon.)

Metaphors like the surgeon as butcher already encourage us to invoke a scenario and even a ministory, but this cartoon is much more insistent in generating explanatory narratives (Is she sane? Does she want to get at his money? Is she naive?). On the one hand, such questions relate to theory of mind—we take these fictive personae in the cartoon to be “like” humans and wonder about their emotions, intentions, and possible reactions. On the other hand, this additionally implies that we fully attribute experientiality to the scene: we ask, “What would it be like if. . .?” My last example cartoon therefore clearly displays narrativity. My final section is devoted to elucidating this phenomenon of implied narrativity more fully.

6. Implied Narratives

In an essay for a proceedings volume,26 I first introduced the term implizites Erzählen (implied narration) in discussing another wedding cartoon. In that cartoon (“Didn’t You Get My Email?”),27 the newly married groom, exiting from the church with his wife on his arm, confronts a second lady in wedding dress who has just arrived. This cartoon shares with “I Don’t Believe in Sex after Marriage” the quality of eliciting an implied narrative and speculative engagement with the motives and feelings of the cartoon characters. Both cartoons direct us to a story rather than merely a “message.”

Why do these cartoons elicit the reconstruction of a story and therefore produce an implied narrative? Does that narrative arise from the blending process or is it separate from it? Why do the other cartoons not elicit a story in the same way (except perhaps the “Debtor’s Prison” cartoon)?

To start with: it seems to me that the “Didn’t You Get My Email?” cartoon does not necessarily involve a blend, or, rather, what one could conceive of as a blend is very similar to a pun. Yet one could also argue that the wedding frame is blended with the “missed email” scenario. However, these do not share a common structure. The comedy emerges (p. 169) precisely from the incongruity of the wedding scenario with the missed email frame, especially since it is not common for decisions about one’s marriage to be made in the electronic medium. A blend can, however, be posited to underlie the cartoon if one focuses not on the wedding but on the jilting of the second lady. The cartoon presents an egregious case of jilting that is condensed into the scene before the church. Instead of promising marriage to one woman, then calling it off and (much later) marrying somebody else, in this story the groom has been operating on the model of ordinary business or private appointments that are canceled by email. In fact one can easily imagine the case where somebody calls off a meeting with his or her partner in order to have illicit sex with a lover and is surprised in flagranti by the entry of the partner, to whom he/she then says “Didn’t you get my email?” This, too, would be considered funny and incongruous but not because of the use of email as a medium for the lie but because the cheating partner does not show any guilt and puts the blame squarely on the shoulders of the victim of the deceit.

My conclusion from these arguments is that blending is not necessarily the cause of the humor in cartoons. It is not the case that the incongruity of input spaces is necessarily responsible for the comedy, although that may be the case. Other types of incongruity may also be operative. A complementary question might be whether and in what manner blends can be dynamic and process-oriented rather than static. Most of the blends analyzed by cognitive studies scholars in work that I am familiar with are static: the blends impose one input space on the other according to a common structure in generic space. I have not seen any discussion of a narrative structure, a script, in generic space. In the analysis of the “Didn’t You Get My Email” cartoon, the jilting scenario would provide a script that could be posited as the generic space structure common to “normal” jilting and the hilariously contracted impertinence pictured in the joke.

Although dynamic blends are possible sources of humor, the cartoon does not necessarily require the presence of a blend in the conceptual integration theory meaning. It can be conceived of as a juxtaposition of incompatibles whose conjunction in the picture—that is to say, whose ostensible blending—is in fact belied by the “deep structure” of that “blend,” which demonstrates the incompatibility between the scenarios.

This takes me to a much more radical reanalysis of blending in cartoons. While the surgeon as butcher or job as jail blends are treated as valid arguments in terms of which some “metaphoric truth” is being conveyed, the cartoons that we have looked at in fact foreground the incongruity between scenarios since this is the source of the humor they generate. Rather than merging the two input domains into a blend that then serves an argumentative purpose, the cartoons highlight the clash between input spaces and underline the absurdities of the juxtapositions of incompatible scenarios.

That this should be the case is, however, due to the visual nature of cartoons. Much that linguistic metaphor seriously proposes becomes sheer comedy when subjected to the pen of a cartoonist. One can easily imagine Achilles pictured with a lion snout and mane, holding his shield with lion paws, but this is not condign to arguing for his courage or ferocity but will likely elicit (unintended) humor as if Achilles had joined the Walt Disney set of The Jungle Book. Likewise, picturing a surgeon with a cleaver in an (p. 170) operating theater might either be frightening or extremely humorous, but it would fail to make the intended point of bungling.

There are, however, cartoons whose blends are not primarily funny; the comedy in these serves the message of irony as it does in the “World Food Crisis” cartoon, the “Debtor’s Prison” cartoon or the “freedom behind bars” cartoon. When there is a serious topic or the cartoon has a political message, its comic potential is backgrounded or comes to support the message. Put differently, if the incongruity is emphasized and there is no serious message to be extracted from the cartoon, then the comic effect wins out and the blend is perceived to be a juxtaposition of incompatibles.

What about implied narratives? As we have seen, narratives can be elaborated on the basis of cartoons. These narratives may focus on a series of connections in temporal order (in the “World Food Crisis” cartoon the use of plants to produce fuel and the resulting famine) or on a real sequence of events or actions on the part of the cartoon characters: the debtor using his credit card and getting into debt; the bride refusing sex before marriage and then reiterating her repugnance after the ceremony; the groom jilting one of his flames and doing so on too short notice and by email, thus producing the scene before the church. We have also observed that the more narrativity a cartoon elicits, the more speculation there is about the motives of the protagonists, thereby establishing narratives via experientiality. In the lost email cartoon, such speculations will elaborate on the obvious cowardice and perfidy of the groom (who did not have the common decency of personally confronting his fiancée to call off the wedding) or on the fiancée’s inability to handle the electronic medium (or both).

These speculations, too, are cognitively based since they depend on scripts and cultural models of behavior that we rely on in our interpretations of the world. Cartoons, one can therefore argue, are a very happy hunting ground for an analysis of blending, humor, and narrative. And all three of these are determined by our cognitive frames and processes.

Works Cited

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                          Exton, Andrew. “I Don’t Believe in Sex after Marriage.” Cartoon.

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                                                                  McHale, Brian. “Narrativity and Segmentivity, or, Poetry in the Gutter.” In Intermediality and Storytelling, edited by Marina Grishakova and Marie-Laure Ryan, 27–48. Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010.Find this resource:

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                                                                            Schüwer, Martin. “Erzählen in Comics: Bausteine einer Plurimedialen Erzähltheorie.” In Erzähltheorie transgenerisch, intermedial, interdisziplinär, edited by Vera Nünning and Ansgar Nünning, 185–216. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2002.Find this resource:

                                                                              Smith, Ken. “Laughing at the Way We See: The Role of Visual Organizing Principles in Cartoon Humor.” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 9 (1996): 19–38.Find this resource:

                                                                                Steiner, Wendy. “Pictorial Narrativity.” In Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, edited by Marie-Laure Ryan, 145–77. Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2004.Find this resource:

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                                                                                              Wahl, Andrew. “American Debtor’s Prison.” Cartoon.

                                                                                              Wolf, Werner. “Das Problem der Narrativität in Literatur, bildender Kunst und Musik: Ein Beitrag zu einer intermedialen Erzähltheorie.” In Erzähltheorie transgenerisch, intermedial, interdisziplinär, edited by Vera Nünning and Ansgar Nünning, 23–104. Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2002.Find this resource:


                                                                                                (1) . Mark Turner, “The Mind Is an Autocatalytic Vortex,” in The Literary Mind, ed. Jürgen Schläger and Gesa Stedman (Tübingen: Narr, 2008), 13–43. See Patrick Chappatte, “World Food Crisis,” International Herald Tribune, April 11, 2008, accessed March 26, 2013,

                                                                                                (3) . See Jim Swan, “‘Life without Parole’: Metaphor and Discursive Commitment,” Style 36.3 (2002): 446–65, and Monika Fludernik, “The Metaphorics and Metonymics of Carcerality: Reflections on Imprisonment as Source and Target Domain in Literary Texts,” English Studies 86 (2005): 226–44.

                                                                                                (5) . I dispense with a general introduction to the comic. There is too much literature on this subject and no agreed-upon model or definition. Major works on this subject are Henri Bergson, Laughter: An Essay on the Meaning of the Comic, trans. Cloudesley Brereton and Fred Rothwell (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 1999); Simon Critchley, On Humour (London: Routledge, 2002); Northrop Frye, “The Argument of Comedy,” in Narrative Dynamics: Essays on Time, Plot, Closure, and Frames, ed. Brian Richardson (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 2002), 102–9 and Helga Kotthoff’s linguistic exploration of the comic in conversational narratives in Humour in Context: Perspectives on Sociolinguistic Dimensions of Conversational Joking (Konstanz: Fachgruppe der Sprachwissenschaft der Universität Konstanz, 1994).

                                                                                                (6) . See, e.g., Werner Busch, “Die englische Karikatur in der zweiten Hälfte des 18. Jahrhunderts,” Zeitschrift für Kunstgeschichte 40 (1977): 227–44; David Kunzle, The Early Comic Strip: Narrative Strips and Picture Stories in the European Broadsheet 1450–1825 (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1973); and Jürgen Döring, Kunstgeschichte der frühen englischen Karikatur (Hildesheim: Gerstenberg Verlag, 1991). See also Charles Press, The Political Cartoon (London: Associated University Press, 1981); Dietrich Grünewald, ed., Politische Karikatur: Zwischen Journalismus und Kunst (Weimar: VDG, 2002); and Christina Oberstebrink, Karikatur und Poetik: James Gillray, 1756–1815 (Berlin: Reimer, 2005).

                                                                                                (7) . See, for instance, Martin Schüwer, “Erzählen in Comics: Bausteine einer Plurimedialen Erzähltheorie,” in Erzähltheorie transgenerisch, intermedial, interdisziplinär, ed. Vera Nünning and Ansgar Nünning (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2002); Jeanne Ewert, “Art Spiegelman’s Maus and the Graphic Narrative,” in Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, ed. Marie-Laure Ryan (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004), 178–94; Brian McHale, “Narrativity and Segmentivity, or, Poetry in the Gutter,” in Intermediality and Storytelling, ed. Marina Grishakova and Marie-Laure Ryan (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010), 27–48; Karin Kukkonen, “Comics as a Test Case for Transmedial Narratology,” SubStance: A Review of Theory and Literary Criticism 40 (2011): 34–52 and “Metalepsis in Comics and Graphic Novels,” in Metalepsis in Popular Culture, ed. Karin Kukkonen and Sonja Klimek (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2011), 213–31. The recent standard study on comics in German is Stephan Packard’s Anatomie des Comics (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2006).

                                                                                                (8) . See Markku Lehtimäki, “The Failure of Art: Problems of Verbal and Visual Representation in Let Us Now Praise Famous Men,” in Intermediality and Storytelling, ed. Marina Grishakova and Marie-Laure Ryan (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010), 183–207; and Jan Baetens and Mieke Bleyen, “Photonarrative,” in Intermediality and Storytelling, ed. Marina Grishakova and Marie-Laure Ryan (Berlin: de Gruyter, 2010), 165–82.

                                                                                                (9) . See Werner Wolf, “Das Problem der Narrativität in Literatur, bildender Kunst und Musik: Ein Beitrag zu einer intermedialen Erzähltheorie,” in Erzähltheorie transgenerisch, intermedial, interdisziplinär, ed. Vera Nünning and Ansgar Nünning (Trier: Wissenschaftlicher Verlag Trier, 2002), 23–104; and Wendy Steiner, “Pictorial Narrativity,” in Narrative across Media: The Languages of Storytelling, ed. Marie-Laure Ryan (Lincoln: University of Nebraska, 2004), 145–77.

                                                                                                (10) . Charles Forceville, Pictorial Metaphor in Advertising (New York: Routledge, 1996).

                                                                                                (11) . Forceville, Pictorial Metaphor; Charles Forceville, “Metaphor in Pictures and Multimodal Representations,” in The Cambridge Handbook of Metaphor and Thought, ed. Raymond W. Gibbs Jr. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 462–82; Charles Forceville, “Pictorial and Multimodal Metaphor in Commercials,” in Go Figure! New Directions in Advertising Rhetoric, ed. Edward F. McQuarrie and Barbara J. Phillips (Armonk, NY: ME Sharpe, 2008), 272–310. Note also on film metaphors: Jan Alber, “Cinematic Carcerality: Prison Metaphors in Film,” Journal of Popular Culture 44.2 (2011): 217–32.

                                                                                                (12) . The statue is called “Laocoön and His Sons” and, according to Pliny the Elder, was sculpted by three artists from Rhodes. The date of creation remains controversial (late second to mid-first century b.c.). The statue was found buried in 1506 and was acquired by the Vatican.

                                                                                                (13) . Compare Ken Smith, “Laughing at the Way We See: The Role of Visual Organizing Principles in Cartoon Humor,” Humor: International Journal of Humor Research 9 (1996): 19–38.

                                                                                                (14) . See William Hogarth, “Credulity, Superstition and Fanaticism,” (1762), available at

                                                                                                (15) . The terminology was coined by Gilles Fauconnier in his 1994 study Mental Spaces: Aspects of Meaning Construction in Natural Language (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).

                                                                                                (16) . Barbara Dancygier, The Language of Stories: A Cognitive Approach (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 7. She refers to Terence Deacon, “The Aesthetic Faculty,” in The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity, ed. Mark Turner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), 21–56.

                                                                                                (17) . See George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980); George Lakoff, Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What Categories Reveal about the Mind (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); Mark Turner, Death Is the Mother of Beauty: Mind, Metaphor, Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); George Lakoff and Mark Turner, More Than Cool Reason: A Field Guide to Poetic Metaphor (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989).

                                                                                                (19) . Funnily, on the day I was adding this section to the chapter, the horoscope in the supermarket newsletter suggested that my feelings were currently taking a roller-coaster ride (a faulty prediction) and that this was an opportunity for future happiness: “Ihre Gefühle fahren Achterbahn. Endlich können Sie wieder ausgiebig das Leben genießen. Viel Spaß dabei!” (Edeka diese Woche 19/2013: 31).

                                                                                                (20) . See Fauconnier, Mental Spaces; Gilles Fauconnier, Mappings in Thought and Language [1997] (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Mark Turner, The Literary Mind (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996); Mark Turner, ed., The Artful Mind: Cognitive Science and the Riddle of Human Creativity (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006); as well as Gilles Fauconnier and Mark Turner, “A Mechanism of Creativity,” Poetics Today 20.3 (1999): 397–418; and Fauconnier and Turner, The Way We Think: Conceptual Blending and the Mind’s Hidden Complexities (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

                                                                                                (21) . Fauconnier and Turner, The Way We Think, figure 4.2, 65–67.

                                                                                                (22) . However, one can also—perhaps counterintuitively, given the convict’s glum expression—read the cartoon as a happy prison image: the convict is in prison but has turned his incarceration into a locus amoenus. The metaphoric reading would then be “Prison is happiness / freedom of mind.”

                                                                                                (23) . Augustine, “De bono coniugali and De sancta virginitate,” Oxford Scholarship Online, April 2004.

                                                                                                (24) . Lawrence Stone, Road to Divorce: England 1530–1987 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992), 191.

                                                                                                (25) . See Dyan Elliott, Spiritual Marriage: Sexual Abstinence in Medieval Wedlock (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1993).

                                                                                                (26) . Monika Fludernik, “Erzählung aus narratologischer Sicht,” in Erzählen in den Wissenschaften: Positionen, Probleme, Perspektiven, ed. Balz Engler (Fribourg: Academic Press, 2010), 5–22.