Sometimes it's hard to believe that Superman is over 70 years old, and yet he's become a part of American pop culture. Then again, Romeo and Juliet are hundreds of years older, and the heroes of mythology are thousands of years older, and they're still going strong.
I wonder if somewhere deep in our brains there's a little cell that lights up when we hear stories about beings more powerful than us. Or smarter than us. Or braver, or stronger. Why is that? Do we want to know that it's possible to be better than we currently are? Or do we want to know that there are other people out there who are grander than us and can take care of our problems for us? Are heroes reflections of who we are or visions or who we want to become? Are they idols to worship, or saviors to deliver us?
Some have considered superheroes (or aliens, or supernatural events) a proxy for the human genetic need to believe in something greater than ourselves. Dean Hamer called it the "god gene." Except we don't need to believe that superheroes in order to be attracted to them. I don't think a Kryptonian is going to fall down to Earth and save us anytime soon, and yet I respond to the idea of "Superman" on a very visceral level. Maybe heroes tap into a genetic desire for self-preservation and safety.
Or maybe it's one level higher. Maybe the superhero attraction taps into our hard-wired moral predilictions. Maybe we don't think there's enough justice in the world, so we like reading stories about justice-seekers who right the wrongs of their fictional universe. Maybe if these fictional heroes can do good in their world, we can apply the same methods to bring justice to ours.
Maybe it's more vague, more "human." Maybe we just need to look in a mirror from time to time. Maybe the attraction just comes from seeing a character who reminds us of ourselves, whose heart is in the right place, whose suffered a few losses, who tries and fails and decides to try again, or who's lost something and moves beyond it, and maybe we need someone like that to look up to as a template of human behavior.
All these thoughts are swirling around in my head. I see comics as a very primal force that meets some deep-seated needs in my brain. I think that is why I like some books and not others: the books I don't like fail to meet some hard-wired need in my brain. That little Greater Than Me cell isn't lighting up in my brain, and I'm not happy. The story isn't connecting with me on an emotional level, or an idealogical one, or a moral one, or a human one. When a character doesn't act better than I do, then it's not a story worthy of myth. Then it's just real life.