"After Spider-Man, everyone recognized the formula that Stan Lee figured out — quite correctly — that to make the character in costume more compelling, you have to make the alter-ego as much, if not that much more interesting," said Joe Quesada, Marvel Comics editor in chief. "You have to show the human side of the costumed character. You can't have the character in costume always have the victory well in hand because that situation gets played out after a while."
Spider-Man has shown that comic readers want their heroes superhuman, yet flawed. Readers turn to heroes for escapism, but they also want a dash of reality. Spider-Man reflects the longtime appeal of the flawed hero. Samson's hair was his source of strength — and easy target for Delilah. Achilles had his heel.
"All of our heroes in our society tend to have a chink in their armor, making them more endearing to the American sensibility," said Inge. "They tend to have a compromised morality. … Huck Finn was not an ideal character. He did some questionable things to get what he wanted and faced a moral dilemma with Jim the slave before he ended up doing the right thing."
New York State of Mind
Much of the dash of realism in Spider-Man is rooted in its setting. Superman and Batman protected the fictional cities of Metropolis and Gotham, respectively. Peter Parker is a New Yorker who lived in Queens as a teenager and later moved to Hell's Kitchen as a struggling freelance photographer in his adult years.
Many readers can identify with the real-life situations he encounters in a real city. That is why Spider-Man was the first character who directly addressed the Sept. 11 terror attacks in a storyline, not a specific tribute comic that featured only art. That issue, Amazing Spider-Man No. 36 was one of Marvel Comics' best sellers last year.
"Stan Lee and Steve Ditko made such a compelling cast of supporting characters and a prolific world for Peter Parker to live in," said David Gabriel, executive director of the New York City Comic Book Museum. "Spider-Man is set in the real city of New York, and he has to deal with a set of real problems you would encounter in a city. We've seen him grow from a teen to now in his late 20s. He's had trouble finding an apartment, holding a job, getting a girlfriend and maintaining a relationship, getting married, and losing a wife … all the things everyone can identify with."
Spider-Man also changed the way teenagers were portrayed in comics. Before his debut, teenagers were mainly sidekicks to stronger, more dominant heroes and they rarely had an entire book devoted to them. After Spider-Man, writers found that teenagers could be leading heroes, producing titles such as D.C. Comics' Teen Titans, The New Mutants in Marvel, solo series for Robin and Batgirl, and the 1990s' Static Shock of the now-defunct Milestone comics.
And they did not have to be built like Greek gods. Peter Parker's newly acquired super strength did not translate into a super physique.
"Spider-Man started a whole revolution of comics," said Quesada. "He was a teen when most heroes before him like Superman and Batman were not only god-like but they were mother-father types — they were older."
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