Can’t Help Thinking

When you sit down to read your comics each week, how much of that time do you spend with your brain turned off? When you’re shopping for them, are there books you buy explicitly for the purpose of switching off and “going with it”? (If your answers are “none,” “no,” and/or “tut tut, I say, the very idea,” I may have a site for you to check out. More on that in a minute.)

X-Men's Beast, just hangin'. Academically speaking.I’m not here to judge (not exclusively, anyway) but I have to be honest: even as someone with a fully staffed, well-tended peeve menagerie, there are not too many things that drive me crazier than the phrase “turn off your brain” when it comes to entertainment. I certainly understand the underlying impulses—for crying out loud, I spend eight hours at work every day multitasking, problem-solving, and devising ways to look busy without doing anything, so the last thing I need is to come home and look at something that requires concentration and reasoning skills—but I can’t help thinking this talk of “thrill rides” and “dumb fun” ends up letting creators off the hook for dumping garbage onto our eyeballs, and the more we let them off the hook the more eye-stinging garbage is going to overtake us. I can’t imagine grabbing a book off the rack and saying, “Oh boy, I can’t wait to see what I don't think about this.” Sure, there are times when I just want to sit back and turn my brain off; I call them “sleep.”

(Also: I’ve been to work. I’ve worked with all kinds of people at all kinds of jobs, and I’m sure you have too. Let’s not kid ourselves. Nobody at work is thinking that hard. They spend eight hours a day replying to e-mails they didn’t read.)

Even though a lot of the comics I read are about ludicrous people doing improbable things, I tend to approach them from the opposite direction. The way I see it, I spend a lot of time engaged in hopelessly mind-numbing tedium. After a few excruciating hours of sitting in traffic, arguing with a two year old about whether she will or will not wear pants today, and meetings where PowerPoint presentations are read out loud to me, I sit down with a good book just to take a valiant stab at turning my brain on just once before bed. I like chewing on the politics of Civil War or wrapping my head around what in the hell is happening to Bruce Wayne right now. If nothing else, it’s nice to think about more interesting problems than the one I have with the kid and the pants.

And for all my harrumphing about “turning your brain off,” I’m a lightweight in this department. I have a friend who thinks about all this stuff all day, vastly more seriously than I do. This friend is a university professor who does nothing but study media and the moving image. She’s getting a Ph.D. in TV. I hear about the research she’s doing, and I don’t know whether to report the scam she’s running to the dean or eat her heart to gain her strength. On the one hand, I’ve never been more jealous of anyone in my life. On the other hand, I wouldn’t go back to school if they were holding my child hostage inside a Microfridge at my old dorm.

This friend of mine is the one who pointed me in the direction of In Media Res, the site I mentioned earlier. In Media Res is a project trying to bridge the gap between academia and pop culture. I’m an absolute sucker for this kind of thing; I start out thinking, “Well, aren’t we taking The Expendables just a weensy bit too seriously here, professor?” and thirty minutes later I’ve read ten pages of “Aging and Action Authenticity” and “Please Feed the Trolls: 4chan and Vernacular Media Policy.” Roll your eyes if you want, but whether it’s Mad Men or Batman, this is the stuff we care about, argue about, and look forward to all week. Some of us get more emotionally invested in what is happening to the Hulk than we do in what is happening to Haiti. We ought to be firing up some brain cells every so often thinking about what this stuff is saying to us and what it’s saying about us. As I look at the curator of the discussion about John McClane’s age and the authenticity of Die Hard 4, I can only imagine how frustrating it must be for her devoting her considerable mental faculties to studying media and what they say about us as a culture, only to be taken less seriously than a kid’s volcano science fair project by people who turn on the TV to turn off their brains.

As much as I enjoy reading academic discussions on “Nature Boy” Ric Flair, it looks like the real meat and potatoes will be coming in a week or two:

In Media Res is seeking curators for its theme week on Science Fiction and Fandom (9/6/10-9/10/10). We are looking for a variety of topics relating to science fiction, fan practices, and fan culture. Examples of potential topics include conventions (Comic-Con, Dragon*Con, etc.), acts of fan-production (fan films, fan fiction, costume creation, prop creation, collecting licensed and fan-produced merchandise, etc.); role-playing; fan clubs; etc. If you would like to apply to curate, please send a description of your proposed topic to

I’m tempted to submit something. If nothing else, it’ll give me something to think about.


Jim Mroczkowski is thinking about writing a paper of Shia LeBoeuf’s Transformers just to see if it can be done. No evidence of any thought can be found on his Twitter page.


  1. Some of this article, specifically the analysis of media/pop culture, reminds me of many of my cultural history classes.

    It isn’t a scam. You can learn a lot about a time period by analyzing what a people create even for entertainment/informational purposes.

    I read comics for the storytelling. My mind should not be turned off.

  2. What do you have against Sea Bear and Grizzley Shark, Jim? What?!

  3. I don’t think of reading comics or other forms of entertainment as shutting my brain off. because I want to absorb what it is saying or doing as best as I can.  But I do want the outside world to go away for a few minutes and not have my life interfere with what is unfolding on the page.  I want the real world to shut off more than the entertainment I am consuming.

  4. I like to look at the creativity or "brains" put into something, even if it’s silly fun. For example I saw Piranha 3D this weekend. It’s a movie that doesn’t take itself seriously, tounge planted hard within the cheek. But I love seeing the creativity in the humor, the well constructed set pieces the director has created, the choice of the actors and so on. Even in pure joy entertainment, there’s something to look at and enjoy on some level and using your brain to do it.

  5. Nice article. I also view it more like turning my brain on when I’m reading my weekly stack. My brain’s off enough during the day. I think people often confuse entertainment that excites you as a mindless activity. Escpecially in western culture, where anything that involves "non-doing" is interpreted as lazy, unproductive, and self indulgent.

    The fact of the matter is that when I’m watching a film that I love, or reading a title I look forward to, my mind is working overtime. Can you imagine reading a Morrison book with your brain "turned off"? Someitmes my brain shut itself off when reading a Morrison book just to avoid permanent damage. But when I wake up and wipe away the drool, I usually jump right back into it.

  6. For me, the value of comics lies in the art first, then the story, but the story deals with the fundamental question that comic books can present that is always thought-provoking to me, which is the question between what is right and wrong, good or evil, justice vs injustice.  Comic books have heroes, and heroes deal with adversity and drama and failure and triumph.  These are things that I like to relate to in my own life.  Not saying I’m a hero in the world, but maybe I try to be within my own daily existence.  The trials and tribulations some people go through and the way we overcome them is something that takes an effort, and comic books can for some inspire with a hero’s strength, determination, and intelligence.  These are some of the values I try to see in comic books and in media-culture today, and to see them by no means can you simply shut off your mind.  Comic books may be an escapist medium for some, but that doesn’t preclude the fact that to an active mind, these things are apparent in comic books and in pop-culture today.

  7. Interesting, thanks for pointing out that site!

  8. The phrase "turn your mind off" I think is an excuse that people use when they want to justify and rationalize why they like seemingly stupid stuff, for fear that people will perceive them as morons for liking what they like. I imagine a conversation like this…

    "You like Judge Dredd?? That movie is so stupid! You must have the brain capacity of a child to be entertained by that!

    "No dude, it’s ok! I just turn my brain off while watching it, and therefore I can enjoy it like the simpletons it was made for!"

    "Ah, how ironic and hip! Sorry that I doubted your intellectuality. Come, let us dine on couscous."

    I enjoy many stupid things in all diferent types of medium, but I feel that trying to justify liking something by saying that you intentionally make yourself stupid for the running time is an incredibly curious statement.

    It’s true that there are many snobbish people who look down on comics like Kick-Ass and movies like the Toxic Avenger as stupid and base forms of entertainment, but why do we have to play into their game? Why can’t we like what we like without sacrificing our self esteem and see these people for what they really are: Soulless and dickless snobs who take joy in shitting on what we like? 

    I love The Toxic Avenger, it’s one of my all-time favorite movies. And like alot of people on this site, I don’t have to give excuses on why I enjoy it so much.

  9. Yes, yes, yes, a million times yes!

    I’ve always believed that pop culture is worthy of serious study, and I hate the concepts of "overthinking" and "dumb fun."  This probably explains why I, too, am in grad school to study comics, TV, film, and fandom — in fact, I just moved across the country to start the PhD program last week.  (I’ll be guarding my still-beating heart from you, Jimski.)  I’ll admit I’m still a little gunshy about submitting to In Media Res, but it’s a very valuable resource.  We should all be making such productive use of our very capable, analytical brains.

  10. Where is @PraxJarvin?  This is what he does.

    Culture in all its forms is deserving of study, but I will readily admit that I read/watch/play many things with my brain turned way, way down.  I love the American Pie trilogy.  It is not intellectually stimulating, but it reminds me of my adolescence and early adult life.  It isn’t a very accurate portrayal of adolescent life, but it entertains me.

    I then pick up an academic journal article (such as the very solid and informative "The Credibility Revolution in Empirical Economics" by Angrist) or a really stimulating issue of Batman & Robin and turn my brain back on.

    Media (in all its forms) has a role to play. 

  11. As the inventor of the Twitter hashtag #bigsexy, I certainly *understand* the concept of watching something with higher-brain function turned off.  It’s just when it becomes a mandate and people who insist on using their brains are treated as killjoys that it bugs me. 

  12. Count me as one of those who reads comics, watches TV and movies, reads novels, and listens to music to relax and mellow out. While I don’t mind analyzing some of those things to a small degree occasionally, I do enough scientific analysis and writing in my job as a biologist. For me, analyzing my leisure activities beyond a certain point becomes overanalyzing and not very much fun. Kudos to those who love spending so much time analyzing and discussing comics online, but there’s only so much of it I can take. I’d rather be on my couch reading comics/listening to music/watching TV and movies than sitting at my computer writing and reading about those media.

  13. I think there’s a difference between "writing and reading about media," which is a personal choice and not for everyone, and thinking critically about what you’re watching/reading/playing/listening to.  There are many, many things I adore that probably don’t stand up to any measure of quality — I marathoned season 3 of Boy Meets World this weekend, after all.  But as I watched it, I also couldn’t help noting how the show wrestled with class issues.  There’s a difference between structured analysis and simply using your brain and noticing things as you consume media — even if you don’t do anything more with those observations.

  14. Great article. I agree with a lot of what has been said above.

    I think often there’s a false opposition set up between "fun" and "thinking", though. If the intellectual side of the "entertainment" appeals to you, then thinking about it can be a lot of fun. I often think about how so many people say that they "shouldn’t have to work" in order to enjoy certain books or comics. But, in my experience, that "work" easily becomes fun in and of itself.

    On the other hand…

    I’ve never gone to the Medias Res site, so I can’t judge that, but frequently I find that academia + pop culture brings out the worst aspects of both. The downside of academic investigations is that sometimes they turn into "jargon for jargon’s sake", where the critic tries to "show off" by being as obtuse as possible, turning simple ideas into complicated treatises that seem more impressive than they really are. And the downside of pop culture is that, let’s face it, oftentimes the subject matter is stupid. So what you end up with is academic treatises about things that don’t matter, studies that are so ridiculous that they don’t say much about reality and don’t add to the study of anything.

    There’s obviously exceptions, of course. I genuinely feel that Morrison’s Batman is worthy of any sort of academic study applied to it. What are the themes of the run? Fathers and sons, family tradition, surrogates ("replacement Batmen"), mind-control, and the nature and iconography of evil (Batman-as-Hades vs. Hurt-as-Devil). These are big themes that say something about mankind. Investigate it all you want; it will bear any sort of academic rigor. On the other hand, maybe it’s just me, but I don’t think action movies like The Expendables say much beyond their rather low appeal to audiences who enjoy violence, nostalgia, ’80s actors, and a combination of the three.

  15. @froggulper  There is certainly a lot of bad academic writing in EVERY field. 

  16. @froggulper What ohcaroline said.  Believe me, I understand that sometimes jargon is just jargon, and I strive to avoid that as much as possible in my own writing.  And I object to the idea that some pop culture is just "stupid" — even the stuff that’s "stupid" has value as a cultural artifact, because it says something about a place and a time and the people who make and consume that product.

    I, personally, would be much happier analyzing The Expendables than anything Grant Morrison has ever written.

  17. @throughthebrush – Agreed. I should’ve added the caveat that "relaxing and mellowing out" doesn’t always equal "turning my brain off." In fact, I would say that most of my at-home music listening is done critically, in that I get a lot of enjoyment out of putting on a record and intently listening to the music (e.g., paying attention to the arrangement, listening to how jazz musicians interact with one another, listening to the sound quality and timbre of the different instruments) rather than just having it on in the background while I do other things. The same could be said for how one approaches reading comics (appreciating panel layouts, pencils, line work, etc.), watching movies (noticing interesting camera work or shot composition), and every other form of media. There’s a difference between being able to appreciate the craft while you’re reading/listening to/watching it than analyzing it in writing after the fact. I try to the do the former when I can, but suck at the latter so don’t bother with it.

  18. I don’t suppose anyone is arguing that movies like The Expendables are great vessels of thought, but I don’t think that should be reason for them to be looked at as inferior. I think that’s part of the reason why people try to justify liking these movies by saying "don’t worry, this isn’t the normal thing I like. I just turn my brain off, and then after it, I turn it back on and enjoy smart and intellectual things." I feel one can like anything with their brain turned on without shame.

  19. I feel no shame in saying Expendables and Piranha will make my top ten of this year, just kick ass awesome movies. Badge of HONOR

  20. Well, well, well things don’t come any closer to "in my wheelhouse" than this. I actually had a paper published (hapless self-promotion: last year that deals with a bit of this. The paper is about Rambo, a movie many would describe as a "shut off your brain" popcorn flick. There’s actually a fair bit going on in the film – intentional or not – that can be worthy of study, politics manly. As an anthropologist, I’m particularly fond of two questions: What sort of culture produces Rambo? What does it say about a person/polity/culture that views Rambo? I found about some groups of Australian Aborigines who reappropriated Rambo (a symbol of the individual resisting the status quo) into a symbol of power for a maligned minority. Rambo appeared on trucks, tattoos and even blankets! (In certain Middle Eastern cultures, Helicopters AK-47s and bombs can be found on prayer rugs mixed in with religious inconography)  This all to say, something as "mindless" as Rambo has cultural significance beyond just "Is hollywood promoting violence?" Seeing how other cultures use and reuse concepts originated in ours is fantastic. Sergio Leone created some of the most beautiful looking and best westerns through his Italian eye.

    As well, there are some theories about 70s-80s Horror films promoting conservative social values. Usually the most promiscuous, drunk or drugged out member of the terrorized group is taken out first, while the tamest of the bunch usually survives by virtue of being "pure." Of course, exceptions abound. But these are examples of popcorn flicks having relevance or meaning!

    As per comics, well, they’re just interesting and worthy of thinking about. Brushing them off as "kid’s stuff" really does injustice to, first and foremost, the wonderful and thoughtful works that have been  produced but also to the shlocky stuff. Blackest Night can definitely be read as a meditation on death influenced by Geoff Johns’ personal experiences. As well, it can be looked out for playing with the Zombie concept, where only the dead who have an emotional connection with the living come back. Etc. This is all to say… just because it’s smashy-smashy, explosion, explosion, doesn’t mean you should switch your head off. Engage with the text, see what it’s trying to say around the big zombie splash page.

    As well, I would be remiss if I didn’t plug ImageText, the online comics journal ( It’s been a great boon to me academically, as well, some of the articles have really taught me a lot about comics. In particular, Benoit Peeter’s "Four Conceptions of the Page" from ImageText is a must read. A fascinating look at what can be done with a single page in comics. 

  21. I get what you’re saying Jim but sometimes people just enjoy the brainless stuff. I’ve really been enjoying Loeb’s Hulk run. It’s not a classic comic by any stretch but sometimes brainless fun is what the mind craves. I’d compare the desire of books like this to the same impulse I have to sometimes watch summer blockbusters instead of hard-hitting documentaries all the time. 

    I don’t really know if that kind of stuff really needs to be examined in the way In Media Res is. Sometimes entertainment is just there for entertainment’s sake. I’d much prefer them to spend their time looking at the better examples of pop-culture and writing about them.

  22. @davidtobin "Better examples" is a relative term. 

  23. IF you are talking about First Blood, there is absolutely stuff of quality to be explored in that film.

    Even blockbuster trash reveals cultural anxiety.

    Similar to the horror films, early gangster rap music like Ice-T and Geto Boys had a strong moral center.

    Movies that contain brainless fun piss my brain off and make it hard for me to enjoy films that could finance a small country for a year but instead make terrible stories.

  24. It should be noted, on some level everyone is interacting with these things even "brain turned off" stuff. If you’re watching the Expendables there’s going to be a point where it’s weighed against something else, even on a surface level. "This didn’t have as many explosions as Die Hard 4, but Statham was better at acting than in Transporter 3" Or such. You’re doing it passively all the time! 

    @froggulper It sounds to me like you’re saying "I don’t like the conclusions these people are making, therefore, no one should do it." And as others have pointed, the study of pop culture is not the only one rife with bad academics. I’m sure there are some long dead authors whose heads would spin at the conclusions some English Professors have made about their works. Advocating not studying something just baffles me. Seems tantamount to reckless ignorance.

    @prax Cool links man. Food for thought.

    @DavidTobin No one is saying you shouldn’t enjoy or it, or that you always need to be examining these things. But that it’s a bit of a cheat to say you never think about, or compare it to something, or make assumptions about what it’s trying to do. 

  25. I’d like to think that given the amount of time and money we spend buying these things, devouring them and then talking about them that most of us are after more than the opportunity to switch our brains off.  In fact, as time wears on I’m more determined than ever to find the pop culture that is worthy of existing, that challenges me and to ignore the things that seem only to exist to soak up my hard earned wages and do nothing to stimulate me.  Although, I do believe there is a worthy and important distinction between escapism and frivolity…i.e you can still be challenged by something escapist, that kind of material just happens to be exceptionally good at transporting you to it’s world.

  26. Here’s the thing: I want to enjoy my entertainment.

    HOWEVER, there is a time when thinking about it makes it more fun and a time when it makes it less fun. Knowing which is which is how we differentiate friends from assholes. 🙂

  27. Thank you for this.