Sounds to me like the community is polarized in their opinions. I suggest making a setting in user preferences. I know that the goal is to keep the settings as simple as possible, but I believe that this one could really merit the society at large.
I myself am strongly in the graphical emoticon camp and would like to see a wide library of clear, visually pleasing emoticons (the current ones are not bad, but could be better). To me emoticons are the online equivalent of nonverbal cues in real life. When I talk to someone face-to-face I can use a number of different facial expressions and voice tones to convey my emotions. This is impossible online, unless you’ve an accomplished writer who wields words like a surgeon’s scalpel. Most people (me included) cannot do that, so they rely on emoticons.
The japanese(?) emoticons like (╯°□°）╯︵ ┻━┻ are pretty cool, but I find them unredable for most part. This one’s still understandable, but others aren’t. So graphical ones still win.