There is a picture of me in one of my mum's meticulously dated photo albums wearing a Spider-Man mask on December 25th, 1980, when I was a bright eyed cherub of five good years, full of excitement, wonder and dreams. Sort of.
Flicking through the next few pages of that same photo album, you would be forgiven for thinking they were also taken around that same Christmas, due to the regular recurrence of my alter ego, Spider-Span. In truth, however, these now mildly mortifying photos are months and years apart, and in fact, I type this article for you now with my head tilted back and sideways so I can see through the eyeholes of a child's mask. In short, Spider-Man rules!
Throughout my youth, across my teens and into an unripe manhood, I have endeavored to read all the great literary classics of our age, and have benefited greatly through the intellectual evolution and philosophical understanding of humankind these works of erudite, cultural exploration have provided. Yep, The Hulk, Batman, Ghost Rider, The Punisher, The Fantastic Four, Usagi Yojimbo, The Silver Surfer, Akira, Spider-Man - I've read 'em all, and I continue to read them now, lest my knowledge of classic literature slip below the highest of academic requirements.
Creating a good super hero is no simple task. What is it that we want from, say, the Punisher? I've no problem admitting I find sex and violence to be highly entertaining, and what I want from the Punisher is an inch thick slice of the latter (though probably not so much of the former, if I'm being truthful). It won't do, however, for Stan "The Man" Lee to simply bung a chrome-plated leviathan of a gun in Frank Castle's hand and have him wandering the streets murdering the criminal class in imaginative and gruesome ways; no, no. That wouldn't do at all.
Despite the fact this is essentially how the Punisher spends his violent and eccentric life, we have to believe that what he does, he does for the right reasons (at least, as far as he believes them to be). His appeal would be irretrievably diminished if Frank Castle simply wasted a bunch of wise guys, stopped off at SUBWAY for a chicken teriyaki on hearty Italian, went home to his suburban duplex and put his feet up to watch Scrubs before having an early night 'cause he's taking out the Vitelli gang tomorrow. Nor must he simply engage in nonstop onslaught where his every waking hour is filled with the mayhem and bloodshed that make him such an interesting fellow to read about.
Although it may not be close to the fore of our minds when journeying with the Punisher, it is our subconscious interest in the life and tribulations of his mortal alias, Frank Castle, as he tries (and fails) to reconcile his past by proactively saving other people from criminals akin to those who destroyed his world, that actually captures our imagination. We must believe Frank is doing the unspeakable things he does because he is trying to help people. All super heroes have this central driving force at their core, even if it isn't something we initially recognize as a major part of their appeal.
What is particularly enthralling about reading comic books is their abundance of character development. With a good 30 years of history for even a "young" super hero, comics easily lend themselves to that most important aspect for audience identification: depth of character. Although we may think we like Lord of the Rings because of the huge battle sequences, or Spider-Man because he can climb walls, none of that would make any difference to us if we weren't emotionally involved with Frodo or Peter Parker.