Hearts and bulbs

Here’s another great recent Savage Chickens comic by Doug Savage. I’ve commented on this great strip before, and here’s another good “meta”-comic:

As we all know, hearts are symbolic of love (especially over the head), while lightbulbs over the head represent inspiration. I call “over the head” symbols like these “upfixes” since they are like affixes that are “up” (a term coined by my mentor, Ray Jackendoff).

Of course, as in the last panel, a heart and a lightbulb together show a love of lightbulbs, not a love of inspiration or ideas. This combination also does not give you inspiration about love either. What’s interesting about Savage’s observation here is that it nicely shows that you cannot combine the upfixes together. This is a first interesting trait: these upfixes have meaning on their own, but not in combination.

Related to this, the nature of the lightbulb upfix is to give you “value added” for its meaning. It no longer is just a lightbulb, but out of the relation above the head generates a new conventionalized meaning of inspiration. By adding the heart, it effectively removes this additive meaning, making the lightbulb simply a lightbulb once again.

The heart also changes meaning a bit as well. When the heart is an upfix, it describes the mental state of the person: The chicken is in love—with what, it doesn’t matter. However, in the third panel, their combination makes the heart modify the lightbulb now—it’s a love of lightbulbs—not merely reflecting a general mental state of the lover (the chicken).

Finally, this combination also changes the thought bubble. In the first two upfixes, the thought bubble mostly gives a depicted link between head and upfix. It doesn’t mean thinking about love or about inspiration, but just reinforces these signs as being mental states. However, it is mostly unnecessary. The heart or the lightbulb would retain their meaning without the thought bubble. In the combination though, the bubble now returns to it’s usual meaning as encapsulating thoughts. Having a heart and a lightbulb floating above the head wouldn’t work as an upfix, nor would it work to convey thoughts.

Altogether, this simple, quirky comic tells us a lot about the structure of these types of signs!


  • Hello.
    Your ideas about comics conventions functioning linguistically are very interesting.
    I'm not entirely sure I agree with all you've said in this post, though.

    1/ In the case of a simple "upfix" ("surfix"?) the bubble is somewhat redundant and, when containing a heart or bulb icon, runs the risk of being interpreted as the act of thinking about love or inspiration: the object is contained within the bounds of thought. Anything within a thought-bubble could be understood functionally akin to something in a speech-bubble: an object of rational consciousness occurring within the subject – hence the tail which indicates location (similar to the extruding arrow used with the kind of inset panel which shows a magnified detail, or interior contents, of the object pointed at. In this thought-based mode, structured language is expected, hence icons coalesce into a rebus form.
    Whereas, crucially, the heart and/or the bulb uncontained, like other upfixes such as stars or flies, aren't signifying symbolic, reflective thought as much as something on a more spontaneous level: intransitive action, made visible almost as a kind of aura or radiation.

    2/ The heart and the bulb simultaneously above the head, without a bubble, could potentially denote either an inspiration borne of love or a love borne of inspiration, depending on the order which they were read in and provided that there was no blockage between the two icons (such as radial lines). Alternatively – and perhaps more commonly, especially if rebus formation wasn't graphically assisted in some way (say, via alignment and/or coupling of icons) – they could be read as an admixture of effects, perhaps in an instance of mystical revelation or euphoria.

    Thanks for making me think about this.

  • Thanks for the comment Briany! I totally agree that the thought bubble is unnecessary here. Upfixes do not need bubbles, and would work fine without them just being an "aura" above the head. In fact, if you keep them in bubbles and move the bubble to the side of the body, they no longer seem to function as upfixes. So, the bubble in this case is just an "add on" to the upfix that no longer functions actually as a thought bubble, but as a facilitator of the upfix.

    I tried to state this in the post, but perhaps I should have been clearer (that's why in the third panel, the bubble returns to being about thoughts, not just being an "add on").

    I don't think that things in the content of bubbles must be structured language. There are many instances where thought bubbles especially include images, and in fact whole panels can be shown as thought bubbles. So, I don't think that the thought bubble turns something into a "rebus."

    I'm not sure I agree that the combination of these forms as is leads to a combination of the upfixes. A lightbulb next to a heart, without the thought bubble, wouldn't function well as an upfix. It would be "ungrammatical."

    I do think that a combination is possible… a "heart-shaped lightbulb" might give the effect you're thinking of. In this case the signs get blended together into a single "combo up fix." So, maybe there is a space constraint on upfixes that require a single sign without allowing a mixture of multiples?

  • The use of images within thought bubbles did occur to me, but as they are "thoughts" – and I expect "thoughts", as a class of cognition, to be fundamentally linguistic whatever the experience of them seems to evoke – I didn't want to extend the statement beyond the clumsy level of verbosity I'd already reached.
    It now occurs to me: if the contents of an image-based thought bubble – given that the contents are cartooned – aren't structured language, then what's this blog all about? Are cartooned images without ideographic/pictographic juxtaposition or linear sequentiality beyond its scope, do you think?
    (How deep actually is that rabbit-hole?)

    Regarding combos / space constraints: there are instances of, say, a question mark next to an exclamation mark forming a compound upfix, so why not other icons? There is also the convention of radial iconic effects, such as: sweat/tear-drop;, hash-marks etc for expletive ranting; and simple radial lines, which can occur at the same time as the overhead indicators to synthesise a complex, intransitive behaviour.
    We are, after all talking about a (conjectural) form of grammar which has at least two dimensions, rather than the linear procession of verbality.

    The heart-shaped lightbulb is a brilliant device, indeed. I suppose any shape recognisable by outline alone could replace the bulbous portion of the light-bulb, due to light-bulbs having enough visible "anatomy" to accommodate such diacritic(?) accessories.*

    All in all, what works in these situations is what works: Comics relate to language as poetry, rather than analytical philosophy or legal documents. Still, This kind of descriptive/responsive study is compellingly fascinating in and of itself.
    Bravo, etc.
    * Diacritic markings – accents, umlauts etc – I wonder…

  • Just had another thought:
    If a speech bubble contains an image, don't we infer that this symbolises the act of using language to describe whatever is shown by that bubble-bound image?

    The qualifier again: what works, works – and there's usually a certain amount of active, synthetic participation involved in the process of reading a comics page, perhaps because it's a relatively new type of discourse.

  • Actually, I would disagree that thought bubbles or speech balloons necessarily depict solely verbal language information at all. There is a lot of evidence that these forms are not at all bound to verbalized language. I have a paper about all this that is "in press" which will hopefully be published before too long. Besides, "thinking" itself can involve visually imagery without language, so why shouldn't thought bubbles?

    My work argues that the structure of the graphic medium—drawings and sequential images in particular—are analogous to language in other modalities (speech, sign language). If you mean that bubbles and balloons contain "language" that includes this visual language of pictures, I'm okay with that.

    In neither case though are thought bubbles used for "thoughts" when used with upfixes.

    Regarding combinations: the "!?" combination acts fine together likely because it is used in combination in writing as well. They are inherently symbolic to their meanings. Another symbolic meaning combo might be upfixes of hearts with dollars signs. In all of these cases the base signs carry only that symbolic meaning.

    This is different from lightbulbs, which create new meaning as an upfix. Dollars plus a lightbulb would have the same effect as in this strip—they would not mean inspiration about money, since they are not combinable.

    Things like giant sweat drops or hearts/$/Xs in the eyes are a different class of sign than upfixes. So, these may be combinable because they are non-competing and not combinatorial in the same sense as two upfixes trying to merge.

  • Write a Reply or Comment