"We've really seen a deconstruction of the superhero," says Voiles. "The themes skew much more adult now. They're looking at what motivates the hero. It's not just good versus evil, where you throw a mask on some guy and say he's good. There's a lot of gray in the books these days."

The more realistic hero actually sprang from the '60s, when Marvel editor Stan Lee and gifted artists like Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko birthed the new breed in books like The Uncanny X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man. At the time, DC stalwarts like the Flash and Green Lantern, my early favorites, were one-dimensional good guys whose exploits usually followed a simple formula:
1. Hero meets bad guy.
2. Bam! Pow! Whak!
3. Hero defeats bad guy.

Sure, Superman occasionally mused in his Fortress of Solitude, and Clark Kent made some fumbling attempts at romance with Lois Lane, but the typical DC hero had little personal life and certainly no angst-­ridden thoughts about life inside the mask and tights.
Marvel's cooler crusaders had their own awesome powers. They knew how to put the hurt on villains, but they also threw temper tantrums, suffered bouts of jealousy, and, especially in the case of the mutant X-Men, often felt alienated from the citizens they tried to protect, many of whom saw them as freaks to be pitied or feared. The good guys and gals win in the Marvel universe, but not before some emotional convolutions that would have been utterly, well, alien to their simpler predecessors.

Tom Spurgeon, former editor of The Comics Journal and coauthor of Stan Lee and the Rise and Fall of the American Comic Book, sums up the Marvel difference this way: "If the characters weren't three-dimensional, they were at least two-dimensional, and that was a big change. They even fought with each other, and they weren't always the most stalwart members of the community."