Any club that would have me as a member, part 4: Going solo

In previous installments, I covered the composition of various sizes of superhero teams, and the difference between characters who join a team and characters who are created full-formed as part of a team.  This time around I want to ask: Can characters created as part of a team do well on their own for more than the length of a miniseries?

The premise is simple: Characters created as part of a team are created with team dynamics in mind, which means that their personalities and concepts may be more one-sided than those of a standalone character.  Obviously a character can be rounded out as needed, as usually happens when a supporting character gets their own title.  How often does this actually work, though?  How many of these characters last more than a year on their own?

I’m going to be focusing on Marvel here, because there aren’t many DC characters created for a team that got their own ongoing series. (The first one that comes to mind is Katana, and she changed a lot over the 30 years between her creation and her series.)  Specifically, their first two constructed-from-scratch superhero teams: the Fantastic Four and the X-Men.

Two of the FF have never had their own ongoing solo series.  Reed had Before the Fantastic Four: Reed Richards, which was three issues, while Sue had to share her Before the FF series with her brother.  Franklin Richards has had more solo comics than both his parents put together.  To a certain extent this isn’t surprising, since in the field they’re support rather than frontline fighters.

The Human Torch had a 12-issue series in 2003, and before that he had his own feature in Strange Tales from issues 101 to 134.  It didn’t remain a solo feature for its entire run: the Thing became the co-star in issue 123, and he and the rest of the FF showed up from time to time before that.  Since the original premise of the feature was kind of strange (Johnny goes to high school and tries to have a secret identity, despite having a public identity in the main title) and he presumably wasn’t doing well on his own if a co-star was needed, it can only be considered a qualified success at best.

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The Thing has never had a solo series that lasted more than three years. “But wait!” I hear you cry. “Marvel Two-in-One lasted almost ten years, with 100 regular issues and seven Annuals!  It began in January 1974 and ran until June 1983!” you finish, because you are looking at Wikipedia at this point.

Yes, but MTIO is a team-up title, not a solo title.  And this shows us one way things can work when a team character splits off on their own: give them other characters to bounce off of.  Ben didn’t stay on his own forever in his longer-running titles; in MTIO he worked for Project: Pegaus for a while, and in his 1983 series he hung out with the West Coast Avengers and the Unlimited Class Wrestling Federation.  His 2006 series, which lasted for eight issues, included a large number of guest stars in the poker game issue.

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This makes sense: Ben’s personality works best when interacting with others, allowing him to make grouchy wisecracks.  He’s used to working with others, and most of the time he’s had his own series he’s been in the FF as well. (The exception is the 1983 series, where he hung out on Battleworld for a while after Secret Wars and then bummed around on his own once he got back, with the She-Hulk filling in on the FF.)

In summary: The member of the FF who’s been most successful on his own works best when he’s with others, not solo.

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What about the X-Men?  They’re more popular than the FF (generally) and have a cast of thousands to draw from.  Surely they have a character who’s done well on their own?

Well, with one exception (who we’ll get to, but you’ve probably already guessed), no, not really.  They’ve had a lot of mini-series, but few ongoing series, and generally they do better on their own the less tightly interwoven with the team they are.

Of the original X-Men, only one has had an ongoing solo title (Cyclops) and it hasn’t been released yet.  The Beast had a feature in Amazing Adventures, but it only lasted 6 issues plus an origin reprint.  The others have only had limited series.  Havok starred in Mutant X, but that was a team book; ditto Mimic and Exiles.

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Moving on to the all-new, all-different-except-Xavier-and-Cyclops team, they’ve done a bit better, but not by that much (exception aside).  Banshee has only had a one-shot that he had to share with Sunfire.  Colossus had one miniseries and a few one-shots.  Nightcrawler is getting a new ongoing, but his previous one only lasted 12 issues, and other than that it’s been miniseries and one-shots.  Storm’s only had miniseries, although she was a major supporting character in Black Panther’s series for a while.

Kitty Pryde? Miniseries.  Rogue? A couple of miniseries and an ongoing that only made it to 12 issues.  Gambit? Three ongoings that made it to 25, 12, and 17 issues.  Jubilee?  One ongoing, six issues.  Emma Frost? 18 issues. The trend is pretty clear: Most X-Men who were created specifically for the team have a hard time making it past 12 issues on their own, and these are undeniably popular characters.  The one who did best is a loner, and the one who did second best started out as a villain.

Which brings us to Wolverine, the major exception.  I count 48 titles on GCD that have his name in the title, ran for more than one issue, aren’t reprints as far as I know, and aren’t about Ultimate Wolverine or Dark Wolverine. (Some of them are teamup titles, admittedly.)  He’s had two spinoff movies on his own.  No one can deny that his solo career has been a major success.

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We might ask whether his success proves shows that team-created characters can do well on their own, but the first question is: Does he count as a character that was created for a team, since he first appeared as an antagonist in Incredible Hulk?  To a certain extent, yes, since Len Wein knew that there was a new, international X-Men team coming out and had him in mind for the title.  However, he first had to stand alone, even though the only attributes he displayed in his first appearance were “scrappy little Canadian with claws”. (He was also intended to be a teenager whose claws were part of his gloves; but then, Storm and Nightcrawler’s visuals were originally designed for the Legion of Super-Heroes, so plans do change along the way.)

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I think the key to Logan’s standalone success is the same thing that made him popular in the X-Men to begin with: he plays by his own rules and can kick ass when on his own.  When Dave Cockrum was drawing the book, his favorite character was Nightcrawler, and Wolverine was the cross-grained twerp who kept arguing with Cyclops.  As a result, there were a lot of “kill that annoying Wolverine” letters at the time (which goes to show why creators shouldn’t always listen to fans).  John Byrne like Wolverine better and pushed for him to have a bigger role, which led to his breakthrough moment: him standing in the sewers under the Hellfire Club, having just killed a couple of guards and out for blood.

Wolverine is theoretically a loner, but that’s partially an informed attribute; looking at his history shows him to be a joiner, albeit one who’s still happy to go off and do his own thing. (As an aside, this is how roleplayers who want to play loner characters should handle it: work with others with a show of reluctance, rather than insisting on splitting from the group and never interacting.) It’s this flexibility that has made him a solo success.  He doesn’t require another character to bounce off of, but he works well with a partner. (Interestingly, he’s often paired with teenage girls, in an opposites-attract kind of way.  His interactions with Molly Hayes of Runaways are pure comedy gold.)

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He shares a number of these attributes with Gambit, who takes them in a somewhat different direction.  Although Gambit, as a thief, can work well on his own, he’s also a social animal in ways Logan just isn’t.

Overall, it appears that the team-created characters who work best solo are those that have solo potential built into them from the beginning, unsurprisingly.  Some characters have personalities that are too narrow to work solo (we’re not likely to see a Metal Men solo spin-off any time soon), and some are defined enough by their ties to others that it’s hard to see them breaking those ties to set off on their own (Sue Richards is a good example).  It also helps if the character has a solo concept that’s separate from their powers and their role on the team–Gambit as cat burglar, Wolverine as wandering ronin, etc.  Some characters still need someone to work with rather than being completely solo, even if it’s someone with whom they don’t normally interact.

And that, folks, is how you decide which die to assign to Solo, Buddy and Team in Marvel Heroic Roleplaying.

Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says “No, but I got a dark brown overcoat!”

(Cover images courtesy of the Grand Comics Database.)

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