Reading Comics ‘At the Movies’: On Roger Ebert and Comics Criticism

You never know who is going to be the biggest influence on your career. You may read the criticisms of philosopher, novelist and critic Jean-Paul Sartre or New York Times literary critic and editor Anatole Broyard, hoping for how they wrote to suddenly come from your fingers. Or you might, more accurately, recall the portly gentleman who perfected the opposable thumb as a sign of enjoyment or disdain.

It was only recently that I figured out how much film critic Roger Ebert has influenced my work as a critic and writer. It wasn’t his passing last Thursday, although it was certainly a reminder. It was several months ago when I happened to go through an old stack of papers and found notes from my graduate thesis which was partially inspire by a review Roger Ebert wrote. You see, he and I shared one thing in common: we both love the Alex Proyas film Dark City.

“‘Dark City’ leaps into the unknown,” Ebert wrote in his review of the film. “Its vast noir metropolis seems to exist in an alternate time line, with elements of our present and past combined with visions from a futuristic comic book.” Based on that review and Ebert’s comparison of the film to Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and the commentary he recorded for the DVD, I would craft a thesis that explored Dark City’s existential roots, its debt to Marxist critical theory and its noir meets science-fiction style. I understood that this was “a film to nourish us,” and I devoured every aspect of it, including those who enjoyed it as much I did.

It was my very first venture into criticism, and I realize now, nine years later, that it was a glimpse of my future career as a comicbook critic. It also demonstrated how much I owe Roger Ebert.

When I write about, say, Superior Spider-Man and how the series doesn’t seem to be honing in on a narrative thread–killing a villain–to full satisfaction, I recall Ebert’s many criticisms of a number of films lacking narrative fidelity. Not that he would express it in those terms, but the spirit of that critique is within the same emotion.

Ebert would take the fundamentals of a film and relate them back to the common understanding we have of everyday life. His criticisms were fluid, workman like, in that they would espouse both the literary and colloquial traditions. You didn’t need a graduate degree in film or have read vast amounts of philosophy to understand what he did or did not like about a movie.

As the New York Times wrote in their obituary of Ebert, “his credo in judging a film’s value was a simple one: ‘Your intellect may be confused, but your emotions never lie to you.’”

When I set out to write comicbook reviews and criticism, I kept much of what I observed about Ebert’s movie reviews in my mental periphery. I added my own style, trying to add as much defense of my judgments, as well as distancing my personal opinion from my objective analysis, just as any good writer would. There are merits to any given work whether I personally liked it or not.

Ebert seemed to have embodied that objectivity rather naturally. While I put up walls to separate my personal tastes from my critical reviews, he just did it. Now he did on occasion (all the time) write a witty disparaging line or two in a review, such as in his review of Armageddon: “No matter what they’re charging to get in, it’s worth more to get out.” But his real temperament was to take the good, the bad and the mediocre in stride and relay the essence of a movie.

As is the case with most things, your opinion may vary.

As I read Superior Spider-Man #7 last week I was hoping to find actual follow-up to the plot point of Spider-Ock killing the villain Massacre. I expressed last week too that I thought not addressing it upfront and its repercussions stretches the already thin suspension of disbelief needed for the book.

While on some level Spider-Ock’s more aggressive tactics cause suspicion amongst the members of the Avengers, the actual point of Spider-Man killing a villain is secondary to his violent take down of Screwball and Jester. And that a vigilante killing a surrendered villain isn’t the cause for media and public scrutiny lacks plausibility. It’s a moral issue to be sure–justifiable homicide or some variation on that–but that the point about a hero killing is second to him beating up pranksters is difficult to digest. Perhaps it’s a matter of degree or a matter of time.

The multiple motivations for Spider-Man’s friends, colleagues and allies to be concerned about this shift in attitude are certainly understandable, but killing someone in the way presented in Superior Spider-Man #5 demands follow-up on a different level than what has been presented so far. We firmly understand that Otto Octavius is demonstrating how not to be hero, though his arrogance would tell him he is better at it than Peter. We also understand the psychological reasons for Otto’s actions–which writer Dan Slott must be given credit for highlighting the damaging effects of bullying. Yet when introducing a hot button, morally debatable action, the writer seemingly drops the topic for a superhero intervention concerned with attitude as opposed to a seriously dire action.

This seems to be a trend with comics, heroes killing villains without much consequence. It wasn’t too long ago that a hero holding a gun was questionable behavior. Now we can’t be bothered with fully incorporating the narrative repercussions of murder.

Ebert once said, “A lot of people just go to movies that feed into their preexisting and not so noble needs and desires: They just go to action pictures, and things like that.” What I see from Superior Spider-Man, while nobly attempting to define the meaning of hero in the present, is nearly a comic feeding into our indifference to plausibility–the type of sentiment that only rises up when we want to insult something–it has become a preexisting desire to avoid the hard questions in popular entertainment. We can’t say that Slott hasn’t made hard choices in this current run. We can’t say that Slott hasn’t written pieces of a compelling story. But we must question as to whether this portion, this specific point hasn’t been addressed to its fullest capacity?

I can’t definitively answer that question, as the beauty of comics is that the next issue could resolve the whole complaint. For now the critique stands, but it could be rescinded in the near future. The real point though is that the juicy, controversial element of this book so far is not the last thing that happened. It’s the thing in the middle that’s dangling instead of being tied off.

Opinions will vary. And as I think back to when I first started writing comics criticism, and to the rules I set up for myself as a critic, separating my personal opinion from my critical opinion, I realize that perhaps I don’t trust my own judgment. In that, Roger Ebert has shown me something else. The natural objectivity he exhumed might have been a learned trait. And that the expression of opinion, the written word so thoughtfully conceived, is the true art of this profession and of the man. Going forward, I will let my intellect and emotions confront each other, and sort out who wins on the page.