I’m not a fan of the idea of “mindless entertainment.” Not the entertainment media itself, mind you, but the perspective that one can consume whatever garbage is thrown at your eye and/or ear holes with your brain in a willfully torpid state. I’m not down with the notion that it’s okay to numb ourselves to the whys and hows of what feelings are stirred in oneself when engaging with a piece of entertainment, no matter how vapid it may be. All entertainment, and certainly comics, tap into the parts of our brains that empathize and there’s nothing about that process that is mindless. Raw consumption is dull and emotionless, but if any type of art makes you feel something, even as basic as “thing goes boom boom makes me smile” then there’s a part of you that owes it to yourself to ask “why do I feel that way?” and “how did the entertainment make me feel that?” As for how comics play into this? Well, if entertainment is a bastion of emotional education and awareness, then comics are always in the running for teacher of the year. All the tools to discovering why what might feel “mindless” is actually a far more thoughtful process than you realize are laid bare right in front of you almost more so than any other medium. What is media at all if not a means by which one mind attempts to communicate directly with another mind?
We throw around the term “mindless entertainment” with the implication being that our analytical brains can take five and grab a coffee while our baser instincts get to revel around in the stimulus-filled mosh pits of entertainment, free from having to compartmentalize and evaluate and dig ever deeper. That’s fine enough, certainly not every piece of media is rich with depth or sub-textual brilliance even as a deluge of overthought readings flood the internet. While the subjectivity of quality can always be debated, the implication that even the shallowest of work is an excuse to intentionally ignore what is happening to our emotional intelligence while experiencing entertainment is a disservice to our increasingly apathetic real world lives. Entertainment, at its most complex and at its most painfully elementary, can teach and stoke the tiniest embers of empathy in our minds. It only ever truly fails when we feel nothing and can understand that we feel nothing. But, even as we soak up the endorphins rushing so fast and furious flooding our synapses while indulging in so-called “mindless entertainment” we cannot shut ourselves off to the emotional connection that fuels them regardless of genre or depth or method.
This is a twofold experience I’m thinking about here; firstly, is the forefront emotion and connection formed subconsciously while reading, and the second is the semi-conscious level of appreciation for craft. The former is simple enough and, obviously, the most essential. This is the visceral part, the part where you just don’t feel for a book or character, you fucking feel for them, know what I’m saying? Batman just punched his way out of a coffin? Arrgggghhh yes I feel like wrestling a helicopter!! Raina and Craig’s relationship ends in Blankets? Noooo I’m trapped in a glass box of emotions filled with tears. Mark’s dad was actually the bad guy in Invincible? Fuuuuccckkk that guy, I hope the aforementioned helicopter hits him right in the face and also spoilers for a thirteen year old comic, I guess! When we say we can relate to a character, we’ve formed a bond of empathy with them; we relate, of course, because we can imagine ourselves in their position. It’s not necessary to have experienced the same exact circumstance as said character, say the loss of a loved one by a supervillain or a rejection by an interdimensional goddess or betrayal by your ward, but the character has been presented both through dialogue and the visual art in a manner that is familiar. That’s a pretty much a dry way of saying that we often see ourselves or see who we want to be in a lot of fictional characters. All of this is the “what” and it’s the “how” and “why” that prop it all up as something infinitely rewarding.
So, yeah, that subconscious connection where we just let our minds go unobstructed by analysis with whatever stimulus is in front of us is the “mindless” part I suppose. There’s nothing unique to comic books about this of course, so where comics set themselves apart as an immersive experience is where they grant you the power of control. When you engage with a comic book, as opposed to film, but similar to other forms of static art and writing, you ultimately dictate the pacing. Skilled creators will can and often do craft a level of natural pace into a comic, but they’re powerless to the whims and wants of a reader wanting to spend that extra ten seconds staring at a particularly well rendered panel. Unlike film, the comic reader has the freedom to move their eye wherever they please on a page so they can go back and re-read the entire page, or take another glance at a panel they glossed over too quickly because they were merrily chugging along with the well-crafted beats presented to them. I suppose you can do this if you were to pause and rewind a film as often as you wanted while watching something, but if you do this please don’t ever invite me over for movie night you weirdo, cool thanks.
Even if you don’t have an understanding of the specific skills and techniques used to create comics, there is still a level of awareness of these things as we engage with them. Comics are having a conversation with you on two levels: the overt actual story/idea being told and the more subverted method by which they are doing so. Both of these levels are available to your brain the entire time. It is primarily a visual medium which means the entire breadth of iconography can be incorporated to tickle your emotional fancy and the answers as to why they are doing this are being absorbed by your brain simultaneously to simply “going with it”; the delicate balance of time and space that only comics can do, the rendering style, the color palette, the yada yada yada of it all. Comics have before them the ability to generate a level of engrossment beyond other medium because there is virtually no limit to how they can create a sense of identification. It’s why IKEA instructions are just comic strips that feature that little naked dude with an Allen wrench. It’s an advantage inherent to cartoons, be they animated, static, or a sequence of static images. The act itself is intimate to a degree of your choosing. While animation shares the same boundless fluency in visual language, the level of intimate control comics grants you in terms of pacing how deep you want to dive is unparalleled. Couple all this crafting and sub-conscious connecting with the visceral, more “mindless” act of simply reacting with your innate emotional knee-jerk and you have a step-by-step guide on empathy.
“Don’t overthink it, it’s just mindless entertainment my friend!” is an unfortunate and intentional choice for ignorance as to what our brains are actually doing. Look, the world can be a pretty shitty place sometimes. You turn on the news or peruse the internet or check out some social media and you’re basically confronted with a gazillion reasons to turn your brain off and just feel dead inside. So we often retreat to entertainment just to escape it all. I get it. But if we turn our brains off to the degree suggested by “mindless entertainment” we’re only furthering the killing process of our emotional intelligence and contributing to all that crap we were trying to escape in the first place. Not everything is Ulysses, granted, and sometimes folks in capes punching stuff is as straightforward as it sounds. But if it brings you joy, or makes you furious, or bums you right the hell out, ask yourself why. Then ask how it is doing that. Comic books command a level of interaction with how your eyes must move from panel to panel filling in the gutters between them that few other means of entertainment offer. In doing so, even if you’re not fully aware of it, your brain is piecing together an appreciation for how it all works, a sub-conscious how to of how to relate with an experience outside your own, and informing the more visceral emotions that hit hardest. Pick up a comic, let whatever feelings it stokes wash over you, and appreciate how their craft and your brain pieced it all together in an effort that is hardly mindless. You feel me?