Surprise, they're us – in colorful tights

Shouldn't we find the idea of costumed crusaders silly? Why are both children and adults still attracted to superheroes?

The key seems to be in the ways we see them as just like us, in between their forays to stop the bad guys and save the world. We identify with frail Clark Kent, fallible Peter Parker, and tortured Bruce Wayne. Superman, Spider-Man, and Batman are the disguises they wear to hide their true identities, not vice versa.

Today's comics explore "the humanity of the superhero, and I think, honestly, that 'Superman,' the movie [1978], did that first," says Al Gough, the co-writer of TV's "Smallville," which tells the story of Clark Kent as an awkward contemporary teen. "It was very much ahead of its time. It treated its characters with respect and not ... like cartoons.... It made them feel like fleshed-out characters."

He also told Stephen Humphries, who wrote today's cover story on superheroes: "When you see 'Spider-Man,' it's very colorful ... but it's a very real story. It is grounded in reality."

The world in 2002 still needs superheroes, says Bradford Wright, author of "Comic Book Nation."

"Villains in the comic books have been trying to destroy buildings, set off nuclear bombs, and foment international chaos for decades," he says. "Now, unfortunately, the world we live in looks more and more like a comic-book version of itself.

"That may make it more difficult for superheroes to evoke the kind of heroic fantasies that sustain their audience. But I hope that they can, because we need them more than ever now."

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