It was vitally important to me that Spider-man be the kind of character with whom any ordinary Joe could identify….
Our villains would no longer necessarily be the epitome of evil incarnate; our heroes had not only feet of clay, but kneecaps and thighbones as well.
But how could the reader learn what motivated them?… Those of you who are steeped in Marvel lore, who have faithfully followed the adventures of our amazing arachnid, how well you know our penchant for thought baloons wherever we have the slightest millimeter of empty space within a panel. Our characters soliloquize enough to make Hamlet seem like a raging extravert. Never before have comic books exhibited such interminable soul-searching; such agonizing reappraisals on the part of hero and villain alike; such a dogged quest for truth, understanding, and basic motivation, even while Spider-Man is getting his lumps.
Thus, for the first time, comic book stories began to be written with the same concern for human speech and characterization as movies, novels, and plays. (p. 34)
To me, the most gratifying result of our new approach was a startling change in the comic book audience. The age range of our readers—previously six to about 13—suddenly zoomed to college age and beyond. In fact, the additional sales were coming mainly from older readers, and the beauty of it was that we were gaining those older readers without losing the younger ones.
It seems that Spider-Man and other Marvel Comics titles were being accepted and enjoyed on two levels. For the younger reader, there were colorful costumes, action, excitement, fantasy, and bigger-than-life adventures. For the newly proselytized older reader, we offered unexpectedly sophisticated plots and subplots, a college-level vocabulary, satire, science fiction, and as many philosophical and sociological concepts as we could devise. In the beginning, the satire wasn't completely intentional. I merely tried to imagine what would happen if someone with superhuman power really existed, and if he dwelled—for example—in Forest Hills, New York. Then I tried to confront him with real-life situations and problems. I thought I was being realistic; older readers thought I was waxing satirical….
I was also delighted to discover that our younger readers were not turned off by the college-level vocabulary we were dishing out. They seemed to absorb the meaning of words like cataclysmic, misanthropic, subliminal, phantasmagoric….
Beyond grownup language and drawing, there seems to be something about Peter Parker and his costumed alter ego that mesmerizes his millions of admirers, including myself….
For all his power, brains, and fame, the poor kid has far more problems, far more hang-ups than a sterling soul like you. As you read his weird and wondrous adventures, even as you thrill to his superhuman process, you find yourself pitying the guy, sympathizing with anyone who can have as many tough breaks and as much crummy luck as he does. Sure, he's a superhero. Sure, he's a regular one-man army. Sure, he's practically indestructible. But you're a lot better off. You seem to handle life's little vicissitudes far better than he can. Even though he's a living legend, you can feel superior to him. Now, how can you help but love a guy like that?
And perhaps, when all is said and done, that's what Spider-Man is telling us about ourselves and our time. Even though it is fashionable to lament our lack of heroes—the vanishing of our Joe DiMaggios or Winston Churchills—it's just possible that the day of the bigger-than-life hero is gone forever. We've grown too sophisticated. We've become too cynical….
So here's to Spider-Man. Here's to the new breed of superhero. He'll never disillusion us because we'll never expect too much from him. We can understand him and sympathize with him. If his powers are greater than ours, so are his problems. He's our kind of guy. (p. 36)
Stan Lee, "How I Invented Spider-Man," in Quest (copyright QUEST Board 1977), Vol. 28, July-August, 1977, pp. 31-6.