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

It was only recently that I figured out how much film critic Roger Ebert has influenced my work as a critic and writer. You see, he and I shared one thing in common: we both love the Alex Proyas film Dark City

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.





3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".


'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.


Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".


PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.


Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.


Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.


Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.


Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.


What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .


Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.


A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.


Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.


PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.


'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Bright Eyes' 'Down in the Weeds' Is a Return to Form and a Statement of Hope

Bright Eyes may not technically be emo, but they are transcendently expressive, beatifically melancholic. Down in the Weeds is just the statement of grounding that we need as a respite from the churning chaos around us.


Audrey Hepburn + Rome = Grace, Class, and Beauty

William Wyler's Roman Holiday crosses the postcard genre with a hardy trope: Old World royalty seeks escape from stuffy, ritual-bound, lives for a fling with the modern world, especially with Americans.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.