In the first half of this article, I went over the structure of teams with one to three members, but at those numbers there’s not as much to work with. In this half, I get into the real meat of the article as I look at numbers four and up, which is where the real patterns start emerging.
As you can see from the diagram above, the four-member team is the first time we have more sets of 2-person dynamics than we have members of the team (6, to be specific). This is also the point at which we really start seeing a template that can be applied to the group as a whole.
TV Tropes has their own examples, based on humors or worldview, but my preferred model is adapted from the essay “George by Default” by Steve Ahlquist in the back of his comic Oz Squad (issue #1):
There is probably a very popular sociological theory which I don’t know the name of that holds that any group of four people interacting socially can be mapped onto any other socially interacting group of four people. […] Hence, it can be clearly seen that Peter Tork was, in fact, the Ringo of the MONKEES. Mike Nesmith was John Lennon (because he was the brilliant, quirky conscience of the group). That leaves Mickey Dolenz as George by default, as Davey Jones is obviously Paul.
Following the inescapable logic down a step on the musical ladder we discover that Snorky of the BANANA SPLITS is Peter Tork, aka Ringo Starr. Despite the fact that Mike Nesmith created ELEPHANT PARTS, we cast him as the lion of the ‘SPLITS, namely Drooper, the lanky feline in the Lennon glasses. Astute observers of the BANANA SPLITS will notice that the function in the group dynamic of these individuals is absolutely the same in all cases. We are led to Fleagle, the large Beagle, who becomes Davey/Paul, as Bingo the gorilla’s delightful mugging tends to remind me of Mickey, our de facto George.
[…] Remember that in mapping these groups onto each other, we are actually mapping them onto an invisible, theoretical Platonic Universal Quartet, each member of which functions within the group to promote their core dynamic. This suggests the Invisible Girl is George/Bingo, based on who in the group receives the least exposure. The Thins is John, at constant odds [with] the group’s [outspoken] leader, Mister Fantastic’s Paul McCartney. This may well make Alicia Masters Yoko Ono, and, if I understand current plotlines, make Yoko a Skrull spy! I’d watch that girl if I were you. Bringing up the rear is Johnny Storm, in the role of Sorky the elephant.
By now, everybody must be wondering what this has to do with OZ SQUAD, and in a weird sort of way I am too. All kidding aside, this idea is integral to the manner in which OZ SQUAD is composed. Because OZ SQUAD is a quartet, they are mappable onto all other quartets, making Dorothy Gale Mister Fantastic, Nick Chopper, the tin woodsman, Mickey Dolenz, the Scarecrow John Lennon, and the Lion Bingo the Gorilla.
This model is simpler (if more subjective) than either of TV Tropes’, even if I don’t agree with him one hundred percent with his assignments (and it was John who was the Skrull spy). Since this is primarily a look at superhero teams, I’m using the Fantastic Four as the base model, which leaves the following roles:
- The Leader (Reed). Pretty much every team configuration has a character who’s either the explicit leader, the dominant one, or just the most likely to accomplish things. In a group of this sort, the leader is less likely to be a Hero type (see the 5 members entry for more on this). In some cases, this character just isn’t any of the other three–they show initiative but in a relatively levelheaded way.
- The Contentious One (Ben). The one who’s at odds with the Leader, or just everybody. This can be overt, as it often is with Reed and Ben, or more passive-aggressive.
- The Hotheaded One (Johnny). The one who charges in or does dumb things unencumbered by the thought process.
- The Quiet One (Sue). (Also, in some older Marvel teams, the Girl, that being all the characterization required at the time.) The one who stands out the least or spends the most time by themselves. This character may well be quietly competent and get things done; the difference between them and the Leader is that they’re less likely to take the initiative or drive others.
Admittedly George was “The Quiet Beatle”, which fits his assignment by Ahlquist, but what really matters here are their fictional personas as defined in A Hard Day’s Night. In AHDN, George and Ringo both go off on their own, but George goes off because he gets fed up and winds up falling in with a fashion designer, while Ringo goes off because he’s being overlooked and has some time by himself. That clearly makes George the Hotheaded One and Ringo the Quiet One, at least in that era.
Four-member teams aren’t the most common in superhero comics, so I’m going to look at other quartets as well. (Ironically, the original Wizard of Oz quartet doesn’t actually fit this model very well, because the characters don’t diverge from Dorothy’s path very much.)
- Original Teen Titans: Robin (Leader), Wonder Girl (Contentious), Kid Flash (Hotheaded), Aqualad (Quiet)
- Original Defenders: Doctor Strange (Leader), Hulk (Contentious), Sub-Mariner (Hotheaded), Silver Surfer (Quiet)
- Original New Mutants (after Karma’s disappearance): Cannonball (Leader), Mirage (Contentious), Sunspot (Hotheaded), Wolfsbane (Quiet)
- Avengers (Cap’s Kooky Quartet): Captain America (Leader), Hawkeye (Contentious), Quicksilver (Hotheaded), Scarlet Witch (Quiet)
- Power Pack: Alex (Leader), Jack (Contentious), Julie (Hotheaded), Katie (Quiet)
- Original Doom Patrol: Chief (Leader), Robotman (Contentious), Negative Man (Hotheaded), Elasti-Girl (Quiet)
- The DP is an unusual case, because the Chief isn’t a field member, making him as much a Mentor as a Leader. In a way the fractured structure fits the damaged nature of the team, however. (Despite the comparisons often drawn between the DP and the original X-Men, the FF model is undeniable–as it is with the X-Men, in fact. See Grant Morrison’s “This Man, This Monster” pastiche in Doom Patrol #53 as an example.)
- Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Buffy (Leader), Cordelia (Contentious), Xander (Hotheaded), Willow (Quiet)
- Note that this inverts the usual gender dynamics of the superhero version of this team (although not entirely–that would involve having the Quiet character be male).
- The Incredibles: Mr. Incredible (Leader), Elastigirl (Contentious), Dash (Hotheaded), Violet (Quiet)
- This is very much a second-generation iteration of the concept. The similarities between this team and the FF (and Doom Patrol) are hard to ignore. It’s changed up by the family dynamic, however. Helen’s conflicts with Bob aren’t because she’s short-tempered and thinks he’s not running the team correctly; they’re valid marital/family conflicts, albeit with a cinematic twist. This also means that the Quiet character, while still female, isn’t the only female representation in the group, and thus isn’t falling into the role by default.
The reasons for this pattern are fairly clear: it’s a simple system of opposites. Every team needs a leader, or at least someone who sets their direction or gets things done. To provide intra-party conflict, someone needs to disagree with the leader or try to do their own thing. Another character tries to get things done, but overdoes it; their opposite is understated. The natural pairings here are Leader/Quiet One and Contentious/Hotheaded One; we see this in the FF, where Reed and Sue started out as a couple and Johnny and Ben wound up partnered together in Strange Tales.
By now, things are starting to get complex. There are ten pairs of interrelationships, and when teams are being created from scratch they may not have their personalities strongly defined at the start. This can lead to a relying more on archetypes, and in turn characters’ personalities may be defined by their role on the team.
Before we begin, it should be noted that the five-member pattern differs from the four-member in that it is sometimes used deliberately as a model. The four-member team either comes about because of straightforward storytelling and character logic, or because somebody’s following the patterns established by a similar, earlier team (see the FF/Doom Patrol correlations, for example). While the five-member team came about in similar ways, one archetypal version was refined by the various Super Sentai series, stripping down the roles, color coding them, and setting a pattern for a number of sentai and anime/manga teams. The roles are based in part on this configuration, so they aren’t entirely subjective.
At this point I need to address TV Tropes’ entry on this subject, because it’s a pretty well-known summation of the setup. However, I’m going to use the terms my friend Josh coined when he observed this phenomenon. (Some terms overlap, because see previous paragraph–real pattern, independently observed.) I’ll get into the terms I disagree with in their individual listings, but more to the point, despite their insistence that “The Five-Man Band only occurs when the team as a whole fits, not just a few characters“, a lot of their comic book example are blatantly shoehorned to make them fit. The Boys entry uses one character in two slots and puts two characters in another (one of whom doesn’t really belong there), and the original Teen Titans entry uses Wonder Girl in two contradictory roles. There are also a lot of attempts to cram in teams with a lot more than five members, which is fine if there’s genuine overlap on one or two, but the Young Justice entry has nine characters in eleven slots, which is stretching the number five to its breaking point. (Also, Namora is not a Sixth Ranger in the Agents of Atlas–she’s a core member from the beginning. Triathlon/3-D Man is a Sixth Ranger, but Namora is a second Big Guy.)
However! I’m not primarily here to poke holes at a crowdsourced reference site, just to point out why I’m listing my own system rather than just linking to their article. Here’s the team layout I go with, many of which are self-explanatory. For a familiar example, I’m using the lion Voltron team and the Gatchaman/Battle of the Planets team, both of which fit to a T. (I’m not going to go beyond that in breaking down other anime/manga teams that fit, since there are a lot of them and the article is ostensibly about superhero teams.)
- The Hero. TV Tropes has this as the Leader, but notes they can be a Hero as well. I don’t disagree that this character is sometimes just a leader in the sense described in the four-member entry, but particularly in Japanese material there are cases where the team is clearly a central character and their four sidekicks rather than a true team of equals, and this term encapsulates that better. Beyond that, there’s not a lot to say that I haven’t said already.
- Voltron: Keith. Gatchaman: Ken/Mark/Ace/Hunter/Ken.
- The Other Guy. This is a case where I don’t like TV Tropes’ term. The meaning of The Lancer isn’t clear if you don’t read the entry, and I originally thought it was a Robotech reference. It also oversells this role a bit. The secondary character can be the one who’s set as the opposite to the Hero, but there are times when they’re just another member of the team, and the “Other” captures the miscellaneous nature of the role. (“Vell, look–Zaphod’s just zis guy, you know?”)
- Voltron: Lance, and Sven during the short time he was around. (Note that Lance doesn’t really come off as a foil to Keith–he’s an example of the miscellaneous Other.) Gatchaman: Joe/Jason/Dirk/Joe/Joe.
- The Big Guy. The most physically driven of the team, if not always the physically largest–basically does what it says on the tin.
- Voltron: Hunk. Gatchaman: Ryu/Tiny/Hooty/Ollie/Rocky.
- The Chick. In older material, particularly from Marvel, this could be the entirety of the characterization; now, it can be the most sensitive team member instead (and doesn’t have to be female, although they tend to be).
- Voltron: Allura. Gatchaman: Jun/Princess/Aggie/Kelly/June.
- The Pet/The Smart Guy. The Pet is younger, smaller, and/or more annoying than the rest of the team. They may be a literal pet, or just the child-identification-character-that-children-don’t-like character. The TV Tropes role is the Smart Guy, and these can overlap, but the Pet role isn’t represented in the TV Tropes scheme, so I’ll use whichever one is more appropriate. (Note that they classify Keyop from BotP as “Smartass Kid”, which isn’t listed as an option on the Five Man Band entry.)
- Voltron: Pidge. Gatchaman: Jinpei/Keyop/Pee Wee/Mickey/Jimmy.
Although this pattern was perfected in Japanese media, there are Western examples as well. The one I’ll focus on is the Original X-Men, because they demonstrate how characters can fit these roles from the beginning while still having room to evolve. (Other teams that fit the model: Challengers of the Unknown, Inferior Five, Forever People, original Legion of Substitute Heroes.)
- Professor X: The Mentor, and thus not part of the five-member structure.
- Cyclops: The Hero/Leader. Even though he’s not officially so designated at first, he’s clearly in this role from the beginning; he’s leading the charge and speaking on behalf of the team from issue #1. He’s also the one who’s too tightly wound; in #1 he snaps at Angel and Beast for playing around in the Danger Room. Neither of these traits has changed in 50 years. He’s also the first original X-Man to get an ongoing series that’s named after him (Beast had a feature in Amazing Adventures but not the title).
- Marvel Girl: The Chick. Does what it says on the tin. She also has the only non-physical power of the field team, and is the only one without a decent codename.
- Angel: We’re into the roles that aren’t quite as obvious now. TV Tropes argues over whether Angel or Iceman is the Lancer, based on who argues with Cyclops more. That’s the advantage to the Other Guy designation: there are fewer expectations attached, and Angel fits them better than the others, so that’s where he goes. Later reinterpretations of the original team have played up his role as romantic rival to Cyclops, which also fits this niche.
- Beast: Originally an unquestioned Big Guy, until Stan stopped writing him like Ben Grimm and made him the smart one. He still fits that role, however, since Smart Guy isn’t a required slot in this scheme. (In early issues, his dynamic with Iceman was pretty much the same as Thing/Human Torch.)
- Iceman: Again, the Pet is the best designation for him; he’s the youngest and the least mature of the group, spending his time joking around and complaining that the others treat him like a kid. (This has changed the most over time, although he’s never had a strongly defined persona.)
The Beast’s role has shifted the most based on which team he’s on. On the original team, his intelligence was a personality note, but he wasn’t a full-on science genius. That side of him developed more in his Amazing Adventures series, which is also where he underwent his physical transformation. In the Avengers, his physical side was more prominent, as was his sense of humor. I can’t speak to his role in the Defenders particularly; in X-Factor his physical side was emphasized for a while since he was losing his intelligence as his strength grew. Since he returned to the X-Men in Morrison’s run, his main role has been as scientist-in-residence, with his physical outings relatively rare.
The upshot appears to be that when creating characters in this sort of scheme, they don’t tend to start out as very nuanced. As they develop, they can grow in new directions or just become a more refined version of how they started out.
This layout also gives us an example of the difference between a constructed team and one assembled from pre-existing characters, especially those with their own features, by looking at the original Avengers. Wasp is the Chick, of course. Beyond that, the Big Guy is probably the Hulk, but Thor could fit that role as well. When the Hulk leaves and Captain America joins, Thor can be the Big Guy, but then you have three main characters with varying degrees of alpha-maleness to try to fit the other roles, and no natural leader. (In later material Iron Man has been retroactively cast in this role, but that’s less true in the original run.)
That’s…a lot of interrelationships. Let’s see what it looks like if we cut it down:
That’s a little more manageable. At this point, the team is getting big enough that it’s hard to develop it as a whole, so it’s easier to look at patterns of relationships within the group. While there are some superhero teams that fit this dynamic, I’m going to use as example a group where the planning behind it is fairly clear: the main cast of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.
The MLP crew can be broken down into pairs, either aligned or opposed in some way. Examples include:
- Pony type: two each of unicorn, Pegasus & Earth pony.
- Primary attribute:
- Physical: Rainbow Dash & Applejack
- Mental: Twilight Sparkle & Rarity
- Emotional: Fluttershy & Pinkie Pie
- Opposing attributes:
- Knowledge vs. Intuition (Twilight Sparkle/Pinkie Pie)
- Outwardly directed vs. Inwardly directed (Rainbow Dash/Fluttershy)
- Refined vs. Rough & tumble (Rarity/Applejack)
These are the most obvious, and I’m not going to dig for more subtle ones, but these set up a web of relationships that have set up several episodes by themselves.
A superhero example is the original Runaways; while they aren’t quite as clear-cut, there are still opposing pairs within the group: intellectual vs. emotional (Alex/Karolina), magic vs. science (Nico/Chase), outward vs inward (Molly/Gert), for example.
(And to jump back to the first article in this series, Friends has similar opposing pairs, which is why Twilight Sparkle/Pinkie Pie=Ross/Phoebe. For the record, Fluttershy is Chandler because, like Chandler, she’s very good at what she does but awkward when interacting with others on their terms. (This is also the aspect of Chandler that Christopher Priest based Everett Ross on.) Applejack is Joey, but I can’t decide who Rarity and Rainbow Dash are between Rachel and Monica.)
Seven and up
At this point, there isn’t a major recurring pattern (with one exception I’ll note below). There aren’t too many teams of this size created from scratch (Sovereign Seven is the only one that comes to mind offhand) and the group is more likely to be the result of brainstorming than a deliberate pattern.
The exception is teams based on the Justice League. The original JLA was founded on the pattern of “everybody who has their own feature except Green Arrow for some reason”, and as main characters they didn’t really have clearly distinct personalities or dialogue styles at this point. However, they have themselves become a template: most of the times a JLA analogue appears in another universe, it’s the Power 7 they’re emulating. This includes Grant Morrison’s JLA and teams that appear in titles like Top Ten or The Boys (although, interestingly, not the Squadron Supreme, the original analogue–probably because the Avengers were a smaller team at the time).
Apart from the fact that this article was a lot longer than I expected, what have we learned? Four- and five-member teams have the strongest patterns, and analogies can be drawn between their members. Teams constructed from scratch are more likely to fit these patterns than those assembled from established characters, since they can be invented to fill a given niche. And the larger the team, the less developed each individual needs to start out.
Next time, the final part of this series: How well do team-created characters stand on their own? Until then, the Woggle-Bug says “Alas…earwax.”