Many superheroes are known simply because they’re too super to not be noticed. This has nothing to do with their degree of power -- I’d argue that Superman and Captain America are both equally well-known, yet Superman outmatches Cap in every physical category it’s possible in. One’s “superness” isn’t a question of power, it’s a question of how they make themselves known. Superman and Captain America are unshakable, unquestionable in their beliefs. They will not stray from what they believe to be right and true, regardless of who tells them to move, and they display this steadfastness in the light of day for all to see. There are no moral grey areas to them; they hide nothing about themselves (except, of course, their identities).
Other heroes, however, are known for different reasons. For some, it’s their unique power sets or individual origin stories. But one common thread that we find in all heroes is their villains. Not in how the villains relate to each other, but in how a hero’s villains relate to the hero they most often find themselves fighting. More often than not, a hero’s "rogues gallery" presents a twisted mirror image of the hero in question. In our favorite capes’ opponents, we can see a reflection of the person on the front of the book, as well as one of ourselves, shown in the obstacles we face in our common lives.
I find that this relation is no more obviously present in anyone than Spider-Man. Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider at a young age and decided to use his new found spider powers to help the helpless. Science foisted strange new animal-based powers upon a normal person, and that now-extra normal person used his powers to help civilians and stop bullies, the natural extension of his high school self.
Looking at his enemies, we find a strangely high occurrence of animal-based foes. Before The Lizard was The Lizard, he was Dr. Curt Conners, one-armed biogeneticist. A self-testing of his new method went wrong and mutated him into the Lizard, an evil, instinctive split personality and monster, extremely powerful, malicious in nature with a bully’s appetite for blood.
Mac Gargan was a private eye hired by J. Jonah Jameson to investigate Peter Parker’s connection to Spider-Man. After coming up with nothing, Jameson recruited him for a barely-tested science project to turn Gargan into the Spidey-slaying Scorpion, one of the spider’s natural predators. Gargan, however, went mad with power and used his new abilities to commit crime and further his own lot in life, making adult the predilection to take people's lunch money.
Aleksei Mikhailovich Sytsevich was a two-bit thug in eastern Europe when he was approached by shady international agents who wanted to use him for a new science experiment. They grafted a super-durable and strong polymer suit to his skin, giving him enhanced strength, durability, and speed. Sytsevich used his powers to become The Rhino, and took to taking whatever he wanted by force.
In each case, science changes a human, either voluntarily or not, into something more than human, and that person then chooses whether to fight bullies, or become one. Spider-Man uses his powers for the greater good, and we see his distorted mirror image in his enemies who choose to fight for themselves and their own ends.
Few heroes are known better than Batman, and even still, Batman is known as well as he is for the villains he has to deal with. Bruce Wayne is a man who sees a city he cannot abide by, and despite being no more than an average (extremely wealthy) man, he finds a way to force his city to get in line with what he thinks it should be. Wayne uses his infinite wealth and resources -- along with his incredible mind -- to remake himself as the Batman, a larger than life character in a city full of darkness.
Similarly, his villains are, on the whole, regular people who use their minds in some way to make their environment as they believe it should be. Two-Face sees justice and equality only in chance and random happenstance, and seeks to create his own kind of underworld justice system with the two sides of the coin. The Joker is famous for being the most lunatic of all Batman’s rogues, and his complete lack of a sensible, rational mind colors how he sees the world. To him, order makes no sense, and he strives to remake Gotham City into a lawless city of chaos. The Scarecrow was once a sane asylum doctor, but found our fears made us more honest about the world around us, and he works to make a city that is fully aware of its terrors and faces them head on, whether it wants to or not.
We see it in other characters, as well. Captain America is a government-created super soldier meant to embody the traits that make his nation great: truth, freedom, and the American Way. Opposite him is The Red Skull, a Nazi-created Übermensch chosen because he was what the Third Reich fancied itself to be: ruthless, unyielding, and unstoppable.
Iron Man is a billionaire inventor who augments himself with armor and gadgets who routinely finds himself up against the likes of Justin Hammer, a foil for his inventor side, and Whiplash, a foil for the armor side. The X-Men are a progressive genetic minority, and are constantly fighting off attempts on their existence from small-minded hate groups both pro- and anti-mutant. Thor, Asgardian god of thunder and the storm, constantly finds himself at odds with Loki, Asgardian god of mischief, or the ancient ice-giants of Jotunheim.
In comics, we find a strange sense of yin and yang, lightness and dark, in heroes and their villains. We find this in life, too. When a tower rises, its stones are pulled from ever-deepening quarries in the earth. When we are too rigid, we find our problems refuse to yield, too. When we cannot make up our minds, our obstacles refuse to give us a clear, steady target to aim at. In this, comics, and storytelling in general, presents a slightly obscured reflection of our own reflections as well. It’s why it’s such a valuable medium to begin with.
Image courtesy of ADB Designs