More than a Hero
I would wager that most, if not all, comic book professionals were fans first. They knew the names of all the best writers and artists, and could cite 50 years worth of a hero's continuity, knowing everything from how his costume works to which issue he bought a dog to his middle name. Perhaps they, like myself, valued the ability to escape reality. Comic books offered colorful worlds where the losers by day were heroes by night. When my parents “banished” me to an all-boy's Catholic high school, a nearby comic book store provided all the refuge I could find for the lonely ride home on the train each day. The heroes I read about, especially Spider-man, had genuine problems. They missed trains. They were picked on. They pined for their dream girl from a distance while some jock got there first. Sometimes their bosses gave them grief; other times family members inflicted psychological wounds. In many cases, they lost loved ones and were driven by guilt to better themselves. Super heroes were more than just modern myths, they were a metaphor for the untapped potential in all of us.
Deep down, beneath even the strongest shells of low self-esteem, every geek believes he can be better than the good-looking athletic guys. If he just works out and stays focused, he can transform his body, and he believes he already has an intellectual advantage. He believes on some level that he can be Batman. Many heroes though, despite their gifts, can't be with their one true love. For various reasons he has to keep his abilities hidden, even maintain a separate identity. Sometimes the girl falls for the superhero, and doesn't notice the man. This plays to the fan's fantasy as well, since he can believe that the way people see--or don't see--him is irrelevant, because inside he's something so much more. And maybe someday, he can reveal his true secret identity and be recognized for the greatness within.
As times change, themes change. Superheroes these days might have a wife and even kids, and many secret identities seem to have gone out the window. I don't know if it's a change in society so much as the creators looking to develop the character and do something different, for change's sake. Perhaps the writers themselves have matured past the adolescent stage of beating themselves up and pining for what can never be, and now write about what IS. I think any creative endeavor incorporates some part of the artist, no matter how different he or she might seem from the creation. Still, a lot of those old themes endure, and will continue to endure, as long as there's an audience who will identify with them.
*I apologize to anyone who might consider that a spoiler, except for Jerry, who should have better things to do than read blogs right now. :)