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.”

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