Larger Than Life: Local comics collectors size up superheroes on the big screen

Superheroes are big this summer – at the movies and especially at the St. Louis Science Center, where the Marvel Super Heroes exhibition opened just over a month ago. You can learn a lot there – how, neurologically speaking, the Hulk gets so angry, how synthetic materials could soon have the strength of Spider-Man’s webs, how thunder and lightening are produced by the weather Storm controls. Growing up, something I learned about from reading Marvel comics was the power of the pen.

The stories and the artwork in comic books made an impression on me, but it was just as exciting to read the letters from readers, usually printed on a page near the end of the comic – my friends and I were always surprised by how passionate they were. The best letters often appeared in old comic books from the late 1970s, and the one name I always looked for was David C. Zimmermann, who was from St. Louis. His letters were always the most interesting, his opinions the strongest, and when he wasn’t happy with the way an issue turned out, his writing was so powerful it had the same effect on me as seeing the Incredible Hulk smash through a brick wall in the pages of a fast-paced story.

Most of the letter-writers commented on at least one of the live-action Marvel Comics TV shows of the time, like The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man and two TV specials featuring Captain America. In the last eight years or so, superheroes have exploded onto the big screen, with everyone from the X-Men and Spider-Man to Batman and Superman starring in blockbusters. With this summer’s spate of sequels like Spider-Man 3 and Fantastic Four: Rise of the Silver Surfer, I couldn’t help but wonder if longtime comic book readers were enjoying them, if they were happy with the Hollywood versions of their favorite characters or if they were disappointed with the way they were produced on the big screen.

To help find the answers to these questions, I went straight to David Zimmermann himself, now warehouse manager of the Packaging Store in Webster Groves and whom I finally met just a couple years ago. Zimmermann started collecting comic books at the age of 8 but had discovered the Batman TV show with Adam West six years before. “I always liked Adam West and the way he played Batman,” Zimmermann said. “He played it straight. If he had walked around trying to play it as a comedy, I just don’t think it would have worked, but because he took the role seriously, I think that’s what made it all the more entertaining and believable. I also think it was the first TV show I ever watched. I was about 2 and my folks said I’d never miss Batman. I think the appeal was the bright-colored costumes, the men in masks and the villains, of course.”

Zimmermann said he first started seeing many of the Marvel Comics superheroes on TV in 1977, the beginning of comics characters being adapted for the live-action screen. “I had already been reading the comics; I was really familiar with the characters and I was pretty excited to see them on the screen. The Incredible Hulk in particular really didn’t look a lot like the comic book, but … based on its own merits it was a good show. Spider-Man was a little bit closer, but they couldn’t really do much with special effects back then. The Captain America shows were just pretty sad from what I remember – they were way off the mark on that one. But the success of those shows, I guess, ha[s] really helped the properties stay in the public’s eye and in Hollywood’s eye. And then with the success of movies like Superman and Batman, I think that really helped Marvel bring their characters to the screen, too.”

He went on to say, “If you are a comic book purist and you want everything to be exactly as you see it on the paper, you’re going to be disappointed because Hollywood, even if they take a really fantastic book, they’re going to change it. … I just learned that you have to kind of set the comic books aside and enjoy or not enjoy what you see on the screen. Just take it for what it is. I think the Spider-Man movies and the three X-Men movies were excellent, but that doesn’t mean that every movie Marvel does afterwards is going to be excellent. The Fantastic Four certainly was lacking something. The Hulk was certainly well made, but I don’t think it was nearly as entertaining as it could have been. The Daredevil movie just wasn’t really my taste because it was so closely based on the Frank Miller stuff. I didn’t really enjoy those comics … as much as some of the other creators.”

Some comic book readers do prefer to see things appear the way they are presented in the comic books. Such is the case with Willie Watkins, who grew up reading comics and currently works for the Double Helix Corporation’s Community Access Television operation. He also remembers watching the Spider-Man TV show and thinks today’s films are an improvement over the show. “I was very disappointed with the way they made his eyes look,” Watkins said. “Because in the TV show, … his eyes were round, and having read the comic books, I knew his eyes were more oval-shaped, more like they are now. But I … watched the series until the very end. I definitely liked the Spider-Man films a lot more than the TV shows.”

Anyone who was disappointed with the way Spider-Man looked in the TV series may enjoy seeing Spider-Man 3, which opened in theaters last month. For the first time, Spider-Man can be seen on screen in his black costume, a look that became popular in the comic book in the mid-1980s. Brendan Fowler, manager of the comic book store Comic Relief Again in Ballwin, seemed to enjoy the new look. “I liked the way they did the black costume,” he said. “I’m glad they didn’t do a flat black like they did in the comic; I thought that would have looked silly. I liked the fact that they had the textures on the costume.”

He also enjoyed the overall quality of the film. “The special effects were amazing; probably the best special effects of a superhero or comic book movie to date,” Fowler said. “It wasn’t as good as No. 2 – [the second movie] is still probably the best Spider-Man – and the plot was a little forced, but I did enjoy the movie.”

Some collectors also have enjoyed the recent movies, including Gunnar Swensen, a local musician whose collection includes complete sets of titles like The Fantastic Four, The Amazing Spider-Man and The X-Men. A lot of his comics are valuable, so Swensen stores them in a large safe in the basement of his home. When I interviewed him there, he said that although he’s certainly a big fan of the current Spider-Man movies, he enjoyed the movie adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City the best.

Sin City was one of my favorites; … I think they really pulled off the movie adaptation of that. [Of] all the comic movies I have seen, that one was the best by far, as far going from a comic book to film. I think the techniques they used in filming and lighting and all that stuff really captured the comic better than any I’ve seen.”

Despite the good films, Swensen, like many other comic book fans, hasn’t traded in the art of collecting in favor of going to the movies. When reading comics, Swensen said, “you can interpret the comic a little different. I think there’s more room for interpreting something when you’re reading it than when you’re watching it. It requires more participation when you’re reading it than when you’re just watching.”