Any club that would have me as a member, part 2

In my last post, we explored the genesis of superhero teams: either assembled from pre-existing characters or created from scratch. (There is a hybrid I didn’t mention: a team that’s mostly new characters, but has one or more pre-existing characters.  The first New X-Men team fit this mold, and Cliff Steele has been the veteran in multiple iterations of the Doom Patrol.)

By their very nature, the makeup of a team created from scratch will have more structure than one created from existing characters.  The original accreted teams of this sort were made up of characters who at one time or another had their own title or feature, which meant there was a certain degree of duplication in personality, and the main differentiation was powers. (This is most striking in the original Justice League–this was at a time when DC hadn’t yet given their principals really distinct voices, so everyone’s dialogue more or less sounds alike.  It’s less true in the Avengers, since the characters had more distinction from the start, but Iron Man, Thor, and Ant-Man still have similarities born of being male leads of their own features.)

When creating a team, the twin pressures of roles to be filled and character contrast (to avoid the issues of the JLA mentioned above) tend to lead to patterns, and the number of characters on the team will often dictate the exact roles to be filled.  My goal for this article is to explore the connection between team size and patterns of roles.

Before starting, it should be noted that the size of a team is not necessarily the same as the number of characters in the core cast of a series.  Generally, only characters who have a major role in the field (however that’s defined, based on the nature of the team) count for these purposes. (Oracle would qualify, for example, since she’s directing events, but Sue Dibny and Oberon don’t count as full members of the JLI here.) There are also some roles that operate as part of the team, but aren’t part of the regular structure.  These are:

The Mentor. Examples; Professor X, the Chief, Rupert Giles, Ben Kenobi, Gandalf.  This character brings the team together and gives it purpose, advises and supports the characters, but under most circumstances doesn’t operate along with the team; they’re either not suited for the field or are off doing their own thing.

The White Ranger. (Note: those familiar with TV Tropes may notice some overlap in terminology.  I’ll address that when I get to the 5-member team.) Examples: Angel on Buffy, Mimic, any number of Sentai characters.  A character who operates on roughly the same level as the other members of the team, but has their own agenda.  They will show up to help the team, then disappear to do their own thing for a while.  They may eventually join the team fully, but they’re not usually part of the core structure.

Passive characters: There isn’t a general term for this, but in genre material in particular, it’s possible to have characters who can be physically present and communicate but not have full agency, and they generally don’t count as a full member of the team. Examples would be equipment or a voice inside a character’s head. (In Rogue Trooper, Rogue and his three intelligent pieces of equipment aren’t really a four-member team.)

With that out of the way, let’s begin:

One member

Circle

“That’s not a team!” I hear you cry.  Well, it’s still worth examining, and it depends how you count in any event (see Rogue Trooper, above).  A solo character needs to be well-rounded enough to sustain their own title or feature, although the bar has been low at times (such as characters who only had to sustain an 8-page backup feature in an anthology book).

A member of a team can have their weaker character facets bolstered by a teammate, while a solo character who isn’t fully rounded is more likely to come off as flat.  The solo character can make up for this through the supporting cast; Spider-Man shows different sides of himself to Aunt May, J. Jonah Jameson, his girlfriend of the moment, or the hero he’s teaming up with.  This also shows that the definition of a solo character can be fluid: Batman was created solo, but acquired a partner within the year.  He’s the dominant member of the partnership, but he didn’t become a primarily solo character again for another five decades, yet he still works fine on his own.  Is he a solo character or not? (I’m inclined to say that he can be one, but like Wolverine, he’s a faux-loner–someone who claims not to need anyone and can act alone, but still unaccountably hangs out with others at every opportunity.)

Solo characters who also operate on teams may behave differently when on the team than on their own, since they have to share the spotlight and need to accentuate the quality that they bring to the team.  Sometimes they’re so different as to feel like different characters (such as Animal Man, who was a member of the JLE while Grant Morrison was writing his comic); sometimes the feel of the team comic is nothing like the solo comic, so they have to adapt to fit in.  This often happens to skilled-normal characters on a super-powered team, such as Batman in the JLA.  There’s always a need to explain what Batman or Green Arrow contribute to a team that includes Superman, so one aspect of the character (Batman as detective, GA as the team’s conscience) comes to the fore. (Though the character’s tone doesn’t have to adapt if it can produce a different effect in a different context–the JLI version of Batman wasn’t funny by himself, but his serious and driven nature was funny for other characters to bounce off of.)

Two members

Venn

Still not really a team at this point, but interpersonal dynamics are more important at this point.  There are three major ways to do this (and one minor one):

Equal partners: The most common partnership dynamic in the modern era.  The key here is balancing commonalities and contrasts; the reader needs to believe that the characters would hang out together more often than not, but there should be enough differences that they don’t seem like the same character twice and that their conflicts can generate plots.  It also helps if the characters have different powers/abilities or at least different specialties, although the pitfall of too great a difference in power level is winding up with this:

It seems to be more common for pairs who have their own titles to be formed from pre-existing characters; there’s a certain innate interest in seeing how two known quantities will interact, whether they’re characters of a similar bent who compliment each other (Superman/Batman, Power Girl/Huntress, Captain America/Falcon) or different enough that they can play off each other in unexpected ways (Power Man/Iron Fist, Cable/Deadpool, Green Lantern/Green Arrow).  Created-from-scratch duos seem to be more common as villains than heroes, and the heroes don’t often get their own titles–the only one that comes to mind off the top of my head that qualifies is Cloak & Dagger. (The desire to create pairs that play on words is strong, which is probably one reason they skew toward the villain side–once you’ve created Hammer and Anvil, you don’t need to flesh them out much beyond the names.)

A variant here is the romantic couple who also team up or work together.  It’s rare for a duo to be created already firmly a couple (exception: the Silver Age Hawkman and Hawkgirl) and much more common for existing characters to be drawn together both romantically and professionally (such as Green Arrow and Black Canary, or their Marvel equivalents, Hawkeye and Mockingbird).  It’s rarer, but villains also pair up this way (Absorbing Man/Titania, Icicle/Tigress, Joker/Harley Quinn/Poison Ivy).

Unequal partners: In this pairing, one character is clearly dominant.  In comics, this is usually a hero/kid sidekick relationship, but it exists in other media as well (Lone Ranger/Tonto, Green Hornet/Kato, the Doctor and his companions).  Over time, this type of partnership has become much less common.  Kid sidekicks are largely a thing of the past except in retro or parody comics (there are still junior versions of adult characters, but they generally stand on their own or at least have an independent existence–see the current Hawkeye comic for an example), and later versions of the companion/chauffeur character have become better-rounded and more prominent in the story.

Temporary partners: There are a couple ways this happens, but I’ll skim lightly over them because none of them really involve two new characters.  There’s the classic team-up, whether in one character’s title or a team-up book (Marvel Team-Up, The Brave and the Bold).  These sometimes involve one original character, as a way to give them a boost (Marvel and DC both had summer annual events that introduced a new character in each one, the only one of whom really took off was Hitman) but it would be strange to introduce two new characters as a teamup and then not keep them together.  There’s also the “split the team into smaller subteams” approach most associated with the JSA and JLA, and there’s a lot of room to explore different dynamics within the team there, but those generally aren’t done from scratch with two characters who have never interacted before.

Non-overlapping partners: This is a weird category that has a few examples in the comics world.  In this pairing, there are two separate characters who are both important to the story and are distinct individuals, but aren’t onstage at the same time.  The best examples of this I can think of are Bruce Banner/Hulk and Rick Jones/Captain Marvel. (The other Captain Marvel and the Marvel Family don’t qualify because they’re not clearly distinct individuals.) This can also apply to a partnership where the members are routinely doing different things in different places at the same time, such as Oracle/Black Canary.  Beyond that, this type of pairing is unusual enough that it’s hard to generalize about.

Three members

Triangle

This is the point at which a grouping really becomes a team, and at which team members start taking on defined roles in the group.  There’s more variety of possible interactions because the group has more than one subgroup, and intragroup plots have more potential outcomes. (The question of romance moves from “will-they-or-won’t-they” to five potential outcomes without going outside the team.)

With three members available, each individual doesn’t have to carry as much weight, and greater specialization becomes possible.  In superhero teams, the characters’ powers can complement each other or be completely different.  However, there aren’t many superhero comic teams that only have three members–there’s little reason to keep the group that small.  The Japanese Super Sentai TV series had several with three protagonists, however.

Team of equals.  Each member of the team is equally prominent, with no obvious single protagonist.  A few examples (actually the only ones I could think of):

  • The founding members of the Legion of Super-Heroes (although the team didn’t stay that small for long, so this configuration mostly appears in flashbacks).
  • Spider-Man and his Amazing Friends (Spider-Man is the most prominent, of course, but he’s also the best known, and the other two contribute to every episode).
  • The original Doom Patrol’s field team (i.e. not counting the Chief), although they’re really more of a quartet–see the 4-member team entry.
  • Not a constructed-from-scratch team, but DC’s Trinity of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and Marvel’s core Avengers trio of Captain America, Iron Man, and Thor.

Protagonist and two companions: What TV Tropes refers to as Three Amigos!  This is common in other media and really rare in superhero comics–the only example I can think of is the Marvel Family–so for more detail you can read the article.  In brief, the protagonist is accompanied by two others who complement different aspects of their character.  (The example TV Tropes uses for their illustration is Harry Potter, Ron Weasley, and Hermione Granger.)

Four and beyond…

This article has taken longer to write than I expected, and the next sections will be longer, so I’m breaking it in half.  Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says “Yes, and take it with you!”

Any club that would have me as a member, part 1

(or, Fluttershy is clearly Chandler, but that’s another article)

The two biggest sitcoms of the 1990s, Friends and Seinfeld, approached the creation and growth of their casts in different ways.(I am going somewhere with this.)

Friends followed a more traditional approach, in that the structure and natures of the core cast were essentially set at the start of the series and didn’t change fundamentally over the ten seasons it was on.  They developed, of course, and their interrelationships developed, but the six-character structure gave us three sets of characters who might pair up (although this changed between the planning stages and the debut of the show, as apparently the writers planned for Monica and Joey to hook up) and some clear opposite pairs. (It would be instructive to compare the group structure with My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, but apart from noting that Twilight Sparkle is Ross and Pinkie Pie is Phoebe, that’s another article.) The planned structure of the core cast meant that the major interpersonal changes took place amongst the group (such as the relationship between Monica and Chandler) and there weren’t a large number of long-term recurring characters outside the Main Six. (The only ones who come to mind are Gunther, who was a functional part of the Central Perk setting, Ursula, who appeared irregularly and originated as an inside joke, and Ugly Naked Guy, who was strictly a running gag.)

Seinfeld, by contrast, had a more fluid approach to the main cast when it started.  Character names weren’t entirely set (Kramer was originally “Kessler”, relationships started in places they never really returned to (Elaine was originally Jerry’s ex-girlfriend, but apart from the episode where they hooked up again, that was rarely referred to), and family members were brought up for the sake of a single joke and never referenced again (such as George’s brother).  However, this left a larger amount of room for the cast to expand into.  The nature of the show (“no hugging, no learning”) meant that the characters didn’t develop emotionally, but they did acquire more aspects as time went on, and a number of recurring characters were added (Nelson, George and Jerry’s parents, Uncle Leo). (A telling point is that George’s father was originally played by a different actor; when Jerry Stiller came in, he was so good and had so much chemistry with Estelle Harris that they went back and filmed the earlier scenes with him for reruns.) In short, the cast and its structure accreted over time rather than being planned from the beginning.

Most superhero teams in comics follow one of these structures–the team is either created as a whole from the beginning, or accretes over time.  The major Golden Age teams that were actually groups of superheroes (the Justice Society, the Seven Soldiers of Victory, the All Winners Squad) rather than a group of boy heroes or one hero with a group of sidekicks (the Newsboy Legion, the Boy Commandos, Daredevil and the Little Wise Guys) all accreted from pre-existing characters.  By the Silver Age, there were two distinct trends: the Justice League and the Avengers were formed from pre-existing characters as well, while the lineage that starts with Doc Savage’s assistants, passes through the Challengers of the Unknown into the Fantastic Four and eventually comes to ground with the Doom Patrol and the X-Men, were generally planned from the beginning.  To narrow this down, I’ll look at two teams that have the same publisher and (mostly) the same creators: the Fantastic Four and the Avengers.

The Fantastic Four, as noted above, owe as much to adventurer/explorer teams as traditional superhero teams, and if they’d gone in a different direction from the first few issues they might never have come close to superheroics. (They still feel different from traditional superheroes if handled correctly, but they’ve acquired more of the accoutrements over time.) More so than most teams of this sort, the four original members are the core of the group and the title–there may be occasional roster changes but, as Dream said, great stories will always return to their original forms.  This tendency to revert to the mean can be both good and bad; as Mark Waid observed, there’s a tendency to take the book back to 1968, which makes it harder for changes to become permanent but also makes it easier to downplay less welcome changes.  Members are added to the supporting cast, but apart from family members they don’t tend to stick around (and even some spouses don’t last).

The Avengers, by contrast, were (somewhat blatantly) put together out of characters that were available at the time.  The question of “Who is Avengers material?” is sometimes asked, usually when someone the questioner doesn’t agree with has joined (see: Wolverine).  Originally, the answer was “All the characters who have or had a series and aren’t on a team except Spider-Man”.  Once it became “Cap’s Kooky Quartet”, it established the answer that would continue for the next fifty years: “Anyone the writer and editor feel like”.  While there’s a core of regulars (many readers feel that the team needs Captain America, Thor, or Iron Man to feel like a proper Avengers team), the team dynamics and its stated purpose have varied greatly over the years (particularly in the last decade).

What does this imply for the members of the two teams?  The characters in the FF were created for that team, and it’s an inextricable part of their identity.  The other characters who joined did so on a clearly temporary basis, and it hasn’t stuck to them as a stint in the Avengers does. (How many people think of Luke Cage as part of the FF?) In contrast, the characters most closely associated with the Avengers had a history before the team. (There were a few Avengers who didn’t really appear elsewhere before joining the team, but they’re some of the least popular members– for exmple, Rage, Silverclaw, or Triathlon.) Being an Avenger is something that’s added to the character’s CV, but it’s relatively rare for a team member to have it as their primary or sole identity. (The Vision is the closest one I can think of.)

Beyond that, an Avenger is much more likely to have their own title, and a title that predates their membership in the team (which will be the subject of another article in this series).  This has interesting implications for the range of the role a character can play while on the team.  Any member of the FF is fair game for the writer of the book, although the inherent conservatism of the title limits the level of change most writers will try to use. (Three of the four members have apparently been dead at some point, but it’s never stuck.) In the Avengers, there’s a divide between characters who have their own title and those who don’t, and a further divide between those closely connected to the team by history or by editor and those with more distance (Captain America and Spider-Man, for example).  Past Avengers writers have said they enjoyed the freedom of using characters who didn’t appear anywhere else; they didn’t need to maintain the status quo of the parent title, and characters could go through arcs that a solo character couldn’t (Henry Pym, for example).

The team-by-accretion model is more standard (especially recently, when publishers have been generally reluctant to create an entire team of new characters at once) and more intuitive, since it’s how groups form in the real world.  Therefore, in the next couple of articles in this series I want to look more closely at the planned team–how they’re structured, and what implications this has for characters created as part of the team rather than as individuals in their own right.  Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says, “You’re getting off lightly–I was going to ask for the whole wig.”

Collecting classic World of Darkness, part 6a: Werewolf merchandise

Following the classic age/popularity curve, Werewolf is second for most merchandise, behind Vampire but ahead of Mage.  It doesn’t have as many weird one-off items (such as the Vampire license plate) but is still fairly well represented in the general categories. (One reason for this is that there were fewer licensed items produced by other companies.)  I’ll follow the same format as I did for Vampire; promotional materials and posters will be covered in a separate article.

Dice. The official WtA dice were brown/rust colored, released in a set with 9 regular dice and one Auspice die, with phases of the moon. They came in a box and included a brown dice pouch with the claw mark symbol in white. These don’t show up very often and run expensive when they do.

A set of reproduction WtA dice was available for a while.  The colors were a bit duller than the original, and the Auspice die wasn’t included; if you want to make sure you have an original set, look for the Auspice die and the dice bag.

Miniatures.  Ral Partha released a series of Werewolf miniatures, consisting of some of the tribes in various forms and some Wyrm creatures/antagonists. (Unlike the Vampire minis, these make some sort of sense in play, as Werewolf is more combat-oriented and had systems for map-and-mini play.)

Collectible card game. The Rage CCG was released by White Wolf starting in 1995; two editions of the core set and four expansions were released.  The license was picked up by Five Rings Publishing Group, who released a new set under their ill-fated “Rolling Thunder” program, with a set of regular mini-expansions rather than a few larger sets.  This edition wasn’t compatible with the White Wolf version, and was cancelled after six mini-episodes and one larger one.  Support continued online, with virtual card sets and rules updates.

If you are looking to buy cards, you should be prepared to pay the most for foil cards and cards from the “War of the Amazon” set, which was underproduced.  The “Umbra” expansion was massively overproduced and should be available at giveaway prices; even the foils don’t go for much.  The FRPG sets aren’t as popular as White Wolf’s.

Novels. There were a good number of these, though again not as many as Vampire had.  Their Tribe Novels covered two tribes per book rather than the single focus of VtM’s Clan Novels.  Except for the W20-oriented fiction, these are listed on White Wolf’s checklist.

(Note that one fiction collection, Drums Around the Fire, had the RPG’s trade dress and was trade paperback size, so it’s sometimes mistaken for a game book and included in RPG lots.  There were also two Rage strategy guides that have a similar issue.)

Comics. Moonstone released some WtA comics, and there’s at least one collected edition.  The comics aren’t rare, no matter what eBay sellers might claim; the collected edition is less common.

Book cover. There was a Dragonskin vinyl bookcover released by Chessex, with a werewolf image in silver ink.  Chessex also released a binder for Rage that apparently included some promo cards.

T-shirts. Fewer of these were released than Vampire shirts; the shirts were for the general game line (or Rage) and not individual tribes.  One of the shirts has the same image as the Dragonskin. (These are hard to research because there are a lot of unrelated werewolf shirts out there.) They don’t come up on eBay very often.

Jewelry. Rather than pins, Werewolf had necklaces, “bone chips” on leather cords with the sigil of a tribe or Changing Breed.  The TONS O’SPLATS factor comes in here, as there are twenty-two necklaces, covering the thirteen core tribes and nine Changing Breeds. (The Kitsune and, oddly, the Black Spiral Dancers are left out.) There are two WtA pins, one with four claw marks on a circle and one with four claw marks standing alone.

The White Wolf catalog I have also lists tribe pendants and brooches/pins (including the BSDs this time) as well as pendants and brooches for Rites and a sterling silver klaive.  These turn up very rarely online, if at all.

Coffee mug. This is the only WtA drinking vessel that I know of; it’s red with white marbling and the WtA logo.

High-end collectible. There’s only one of these, a replica Klaive (huge knife/sword).  These run into the hundreds when they turn up.  (There’s also overlap with the sword/weapon collectors’ market, so if you want one it may pay to look outside the usual RPG channels.) (The RPGnet thread linked above has a picture of a sheath, but the available evidence seems to be that it’s not an official part of the product.)

Temporary tattoos: These were sold in packets for each tribe, including the BSDs.  They don’t turn up that often but don’t run to much when they do. (By their nature it’s hard to predict the availability of items that were designed to be consumable.)

Candle? A scented candle was listed for WtA in White Wolf’s catalog.  I’m having trouble confirming the existence of these to my full satisfaction, but I have found a couple of game dealers who list it on their sites.

Apocrypha: As with VtM, I can’t confirm the existence of the Tribe Stickers that were listed in WW’s catalog.

Vaporware: A WtA PC game was advertised in some of their books but was never released.  Other vaporware includes action figures and a WW-produced graphic novel.

I think that hits the main categories.  Next up: Mage!  Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says “Only one of us is going to walk out of here–under his own steam–and it won’t be me!”

With one, uh, atomic word…KIMOTA!

The first two issues of Marvel’s Miracleman reprint are out, and it’s inspired another round of random thoughts.  I didn’t read the Eclipse release from the beginning back in the day, but I picked it up near the end of Moore’s run (annoyingly, I missed getting issues 12, 14 and 16 when they were affordable, but I have the rest).  As such, it’s hard not to read the early chapters through the filter of revisiting the familiar in a new form (at least until issue #2).  With that in mind…

  • It’s nice to see the art being handled with modern coloring techniques.  The Eclipse release did their best, but the combination of old manual coloring being used on art that was originally intended for B&W and shrunk from its original size wound up coming out kind of fugly. (There’s a panel with an open-mouthed baby that wound up with the mouth colored pink–it looks really alarming.) Although it meant a shift in artists (no one really holds up Chuck Austen as the essential MM artist) it was a bit of a relief when they got to the new material. (V for Vendetta also wound up with kind of muddy colors, but they fit the feel of the series better.)
  • Not surprised but interested to see that they reprinted the Mick Anglo story from Eclipse’s MM #1.  Part of what’s interesting about it is that some of the dialogue is altered–the date of the story was actually moved earlier, presumably to accentuate the “naive vision of the future” aspect.  The line from Kid Miracleman about “I’ve broken this one’s jaw!” is new–it might be intended as foreshadowing, but it also does kind of fit the artwork.
  • The reason I can compare the dialogue in that story is that it was originally reprinted in the Marvelman Special, which had three Anglo stories and a new framing sequence.  Eclipse used the framing story for Miracleman 3-D but used a different story.  (As an interesting aside, one of the rarest MM titles is the 2-D version of the 3-D issue.) I’m curious if Marvel will reprint that, and in what form; they’re already reprinting classic stories, so they don’t need the excuse, but the framing sequence does have some story-relevant material and is worth including.
  • On that note, I’m super-pumped that they’re reprinting all the Warrior material, including the side bits and Warpsmith stories that Eclipse didn’t reprint (such as the future chapter that was reprinted in Marvel’s #2).  The comics store of my youth had issues of Warrior and I’ve always regretted not buying them when I had the chance.  I’m looking forward to having a better context for the Warpsmiths once they become part of the story. (I’ll also be interested to see if they reprint any Big Ben stories, though in that case the character’s first publication was in MM.)
  • The storytelling in the Marvelman origin that was reprinted in Marvel’s #2 was a bit odd.  First, we started with a framing sequence of MM’s origin being told on film.  I’m not clear at this point if he was supposed to have a secret identity or not (something that was also vague with Captain Marvel–his connection to Billy Batson seemed to be known, and the Sivanas seemed to know it, but I don’t know if the general public knew the details) but, either way, the idea of having his secrets revealed on film doesn’t fit with my general superhero expectations. (There was a Golden Age Superman story that played with this idea as a joke, with Clark having to distract Lois any time his secret identity might be revealed, but that was explicitly out of continuity.)

It was also distracting to start with a framing sequence but not end with it–we didn’t see Micky leave the theatre, which is a minor breach of storytelling structure.  But I’m probably overthinking this–these stories were done quickly and weren’t intended as high art.

  • I’m guessing that Marvel won’t be reprinting Eclipse’s #8, which was a collection of Anglo reprints due to their flood.  The disclaimers on the reprint of Eclipse’s #9 should also be interesting–will they feel obliged to put the “explicit scenes of childbirth” warning on the cover, or just figure that the mature readers rating will cover it? On the one hand it’s a sad commentary on society that scenes of childbirth need more warnings than scenes of violence, and all that, but at the same time it does present an issue for a parent/guardian that they probably wouldn’t be expecting from a superhero comic.  (I’m not a parent or likely to be one, but I’d rather have to deal with a child who might not be ready seeing the birth scene in #9 than the ultraviolence of #15.  My sister and I grew up with books of the “Where did I come from?” variety, so I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know the process of pregnancy and birth in at least the broad outlines.)
  • I’ll also be interested to see if they reprint Miracleman Apocrypha, the series of non-continuity short stories by a variety of creators.  It probably depends in part on the terms under which Eclipse purchased the stories–the 3 issues of that miniseries probably has more creators to deal with than the 24 issues of the main series does.  I’m guessing we won’t see Miracleman: Triumphant or his appearances in Total Eclipse, apart from the Gaiman story that wound up in the main title.

I see that this has mostly turned into speculation about what they’ll reprint, but then there isn’t much new material to comment on at this time; it’s more a matter of “How will it play out this time?”. I suspect Marvel won’t self-destruct to the degree Eclipse did before the series finishes this time; fingers crossed!

Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says, “Thing about Arsenal is, they always try and walk it in.”