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.)

Any club that would have me as a member, part 3

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.

Four members

Square

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.

Five members

Pentagon

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.)

Six members

Hexagon 2

That’s…a lot of interrelationships.  Let’s see what it looks like if we cut it down:

Hexagon 1

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).

In conclusion

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.”

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.”

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.”

Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Color me disappointed but not surprised that The Emerald City of Oz is the last of the Eric Shanower/Skottie Young Oz adaptations for Marvel.  Shanower had said that they’d keep adapting them as long as they kept selling, but I remember thinking when they announced that they were going past the first book: “Are they going to try to adapt all of them, including the not-very-good ones?”

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To explain why I’m not surprised, there are two things it’s important to know about L. Frank Baum.  The first is that, like many entrepreneurs of the Gilded Age, Baum dabbled in a lot of things but wasn’t successful in most of them.  He tried everything from owning a general store to running a movie studio, but the only thing he was really successful at was writing, and his most successful writing overall was the Oz series. (The three Oz books from 1914-1916, Tik-Tok of Oz, The Scarecrow of Oz, and Rinkitink in Oz, were all repurposings of other writings, the last two starting out as non-Oz books but becoming Oz books because those were easier to sell.) Much like Arthur Conan Doyle, he got tired of his most famous creation, and tried unsuccessfully to end it several times. Emerald City was his “The Final Problem”, as it ended with Oz being sealed away from the rest of the world forever.  It was clear in the books leading up to it that his interest was flagging.

The other thing to know about Baum is that he wasn’t a very disciplined writer, and when he wasn’t reining himself in he tended to throw in whimsical ideas that didn’t do much for the story.  The Wonderful Wizard of Oz was one of his best-plotted books: it has a clear structure that allows all the characters their moment to shine both before and after the Wizard gives them their gifts (a structure which the MGM movie threw out with the entire third act, but never mind).  However, there was one point where he got carried away.  Remember the China Country chapter? The one that doesn’t advance the plot at all and could have been omitted without affecting the structure of the book in any way?

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Well, The Emerald City of Oz is about 75% China Country-type chapters.

The first three books in the series, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Marvelous Land of Oz, and Ozma of Oz, are all excellent.  The quality started to drop with the next book, the awkwardly-titled Dorothy and the Wizard in Oz; it’s the first in the series that’s a collection of episodes that don’t have a spine beyond “Get from point A to point B”, and it only introduces one character of note, Eureka (Zeb and Jim don’t count).  The Road to Oz I’ve always thought is better than its reputation–it’s widely regarded as one of the weakest in the series–but the “point A-point B” plotting is explicit in the title, and the last chunk of the novel is basically a string of cameos from Baum’s non-Oz fantasies. It did give us Button-Bright, the Shaggy Man, and Polychrome, however.

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Emerald City removes even the A-to-B travel and is mostly a picaresque of Dorothy and her aunt and uncle visiting the various whimsical communities in Oz–the biscuit people!  The jigsaw puzzle people!  There is a threat to Oz in the form of the Nome King gathering up various monsters to attack the Emerald City, and those chapters are interesting, but they don’t even affect the Oz characters until the ending.  In light of the threat to Oz, however, Ozma throws the country off the Reichenbach Falls and the series ends for good, or at least for three years.

The seventh book in the series, The Patchwork Girl of Oz, was a return to form.  The break seems to have revitalized Baum, and he broke away from the pattern of the previous three books.  The protagonist, Ojo the Unlucky, is the first non-Dorothy protagonist since Tip in Land, and several characters of note are introduced.  We meet the creator of the Powder of Life from Land, Dr. Pipt, and the Woozy, who’s a good secondary character.  Two excellent new characters appear in the forms of Bungle the Glass Cat and Scraps, the titular Patchwork Girl.  There’s a spine to the book again (Ojo’s quest to restore his uncle) rather than just a series of episodes.Image

Sadly, it appears that my worries have come to pass: sales presumably dropped enough on the adaptations of books 4-6 that Marvel wasn’t willing to continue the series through to the point where it gets good again.  This is a shame on multiple levels: not only is Patchwork Girl one of the best Oz books, a character that’s as crazy as Scraps would have been perfect for Skottie Young’s style, and I’m sorry we won’t get to see his version of her.  If another publisher wants to hire these creators to continue the adaptations, I’ll be right on board.

Until next time, the Woggle-Bug says “Did you see that ludicrous display last night?”