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:
“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.)
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.
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!”