My family likes to laugh at this: I was 10, and we were on vacation, driving up California’s breathtaking northern coast.

Every couple of miles, my folks would say, “Ooh, look at the rocks! Look at the ocean! Isn’t it beautiful?” And my siblings would clamber to the window for a better peek.

I, on the other hand, never looked up. I was lost in comic books.

“You see that?” my father asked.

“Mm-hmm,” I mumbled.

I missed Big Sur, Carmel and Pebble Beach for the Silver Surfer, Captain America and the Fantastic Four. When my family reminisces about that view, they tease, “How would you know? You never saw it.”

Comics had that kind of hold on me. I had thousands. I learned to read on comic books. I learned to imagine, to detect dialogues, even to be more empathetic. I mean, when a nice teenage boy is bitten by a radioactive spider and gets stuck with superhuman powers that make his dating life a mess, how can you not relate?

Which brings me to our cultural explosion of the weekend, the release of the movie “Spider-Man,” a $100 million-plus blockbuster considered such a surefire franchise that studios, writers and producers fought over its creation for a decade.

My reaction?

There goes another one.

From Batman to Superman

Now, don’t misread me. “Spider-Man” may be a great film. I thought the original “Batman” was terrific. And even the first “Superman” had its own campy moments.

But when these films are born, something else dies: the idea that these wonderful superheroes are who you always thought they were.

That was the magic of comics.

Stan Lee, who created the Spider-Man character 40 years ago, recently wrote about the character’s popularity. “Spidey’s costume is completely user-friendly. Any reader, of any race, in any part of the world, can imagine himself under that costume — and fantasize that he is Spider-Man.”

Precisely. And that’s what I did — along with millions of other kids. Those introspective thoughts that haunted Peter Parker, Spider-Man’s real-life persona, were expressed in my voice. His spider webbing, I imagined, shot from my wrists.

But when a real live actor takes over — Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, Christopher Reeve as Superman, Michael Keaton, Val Kilmer and George Clooney as Batman — imagination suffers. The visual image is so strong, the commercials so omnipresent, the McDonald’s tie-ins so dang everywhere, your personal connection is blown out of the water.

I cannot look at a Superman comic now and not see Reeve. Movies do that, for better or worse.

From Hulk to Thing

Now, I don’t want to get too deep here. They are, after all, only comics.

But for those of us who grew up with these foldable paper stories (that sold, during my time, for a mere 10 cents or 25 cents for the special edition), something very human was established. Particularly with Marvel comics like Spider-Man, Fantastic Four, Hulk, Captain America, Silver Surfer, Daredevil, Sub-Mariner and Thor. These characters were often our first exposure to bravery, evil, faraway places, even romance.

Peter Parker’s heartache over the distant Mary Jane or the Thing’s pining for a regular life with his sweetheart — except he was a 500-pound rock pile, which made it tough — were our first intimations that love might not be the bump-free road that our parents promised.

I had my own picture of Spider-Man. He was lonely, a little nerdy, his spider suit would rip, and he couldn’t always get his girlfriend’s affections. Could I relate? Couldn’t you?

But when I saw him, it was either with my face, or someone else’s from my imagination. Certainly not Tobey Maguire, whom I just got done watching in
“The Cider House Rules.”

I’ll go see the movie. I may even like it. But I won’t surrender anything to it the way I once surrendered the California coast. Only imagination can take you that far. It’s the reason Stan Lee, all those years ago, created a comic book, not a screenplay.

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com

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