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Three Characteristics Every Superhero Team Book Should Have

A new column series, examining the tropes and common traits that make certain books great. This time on the docket is team books.

Superhero team books have long been a staple of comics; early examples include the All-Winners Squad in 1946, and more current examples like the Avengers, X-Men, Fantastic Four and Justice League. Team books allow for multiple characters to be featured at once, as opposed to just single hero on his/her own, possibly supplemented by backup features.

However, not every team book is created equal: for every Young Justice there's an X-Treme X-Men, or Extreme Justice. I decided to take a deeper look at the genre in hopes of answering the question of "Why are some team books amazing, while others should just be left unwritten?"

== TEASER ==

Below you'll find what I noticed makes a team book shine: the chemistry between its characters, the size of the team's roster and the ability of the writer to turn stereotypes into forces to drive the story.

Chemistry

Naturally, if you're going to have multiple people working together in any capacity, you want them to play off of each other. This isn't to say they need to get along all the time, but they at least should fit together in a thematic or personable sense. While personal issues might spark drama while the team isn't "on the job", a good group should at least be functional at their core: when they're out fighting crime.

A bad example of this would be the Teen Titans post-Infinite Crisis, during the "One Year Later" story arc and in the years that have followed. Since breaking up the core team of Geoff Johns' run (Tim Drake, Superboy, Kid Flash, Wonder Girl, Cyborg, Starfire, Beast Boy), the team has gone through heroes like cheap pairs of shoes.

Every time there's a dramatic reveal of a new member of the team, there seem to be one or two that leave. This has done nothing to help the stability of the team, and the book has floundered from its great roots.

While you need to test different waters to see if readers will like the heroes that they're reading about, not giving them time to get a proper sample just serves to weaken the book further. DC even created a secondary Titans book alongside Teen Titans, using a more proven lineup that was known to work in the past.

A team's roster should be diverse enough that it gives the reader a wide variety of characteristics to identify with, but not at the expense of team unity, or practicality. At the end of the day, the characters should be able to be functional as a unit or interact with each other as people. Readers can look to Secret Six as a team who may not always get along (or have the same roster), but still manage to be effective in what they do.

Roster Size

The size of a team can be as much of a detriment to a book as it is an advantage. In books where there are more than a dozen people working and interacting with each other, there's a chance that some might get left by the wayside.

This happened in the recent Justice Society of America run, where the team's roster swelled by over a dozen members in the opening months of the book. This intense member drive was supposed to add some diversity (along with new legacy heroes) to the book, which it did well. However, the problem became that because of so many heroes interacting at once, it became difficult to focus on one without ignoring the others.

And this isn't even all of them.

Because every member can't have "personal" storylines where they are the focus, certain interesting heroes (like Cyclone, Mister America, Judomaster, Damage and the Amazing Man) seem to fall into disuse, only offering quips here and there. Even Sandman, who was a former JSA Chairman, seemed to be limited to only having prophetic dreams and complaining about insomnia. I tended to wonder "man, where have they been all this time?"

Books like Grant Morrison's JLA have taken a more "back to basics" approach to teams which have gotten too large to function. Having a simple seven member roster served to distill the team down to the core "founders" while still managing to bring in new faces as the story demanded. While all characters may not be active in a story, there's still enough of them that when the entire team is in action, there isn't a dilution in dialog.

Writers may also find that breaking up the team into factions (or splitting the team up for different threats) may allow for this problem to be fixed. However, the JSA grew so big they had to split them up into two different books (Justice Society of America, and JSA All-Stars) to fit them all in.

Stereotypes

As I mentioned before, heroes don't always have to get along. In fact, a team where the intra-personal conflicts are relatively minor can come off as boring or formulaic (see Dynamo 5).

However, within a team you need stereotypes to fulfill the basic needs of the story. You need a leader who's relatively comfortable with the rest of the team, a hothead who clashes with the leadership, a potential coupling to explore "romance in the workplace," someone who's not quite sure of their role in the grand scheme of things and possibly an almighty "authority figure" that the team reports to.

The above list isn't meant to be a checklist that writers need to follow - heck, some books have done well without those roles - but to ignore the need for that stability to fall back on can lead to disaster.

Going back to the Teen Titans example, one of my major complaints is that there never seems to be a clear leader at any one time: Wonder Girl may have the "formal" position, but rarely holds any power. Having Cassie bicker about authority with Robin, Superboy, Cyborg, or whoever else never seems to get resolved, and it gets in the way of the team. While I mentioned that personal conflicts are what drive a lot of these stories, never resolving them just means the book will flounder in mediocrity.

A good example would be, well, the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. It has a simple, four-character roster that shows how stereotypes can work together without being unflinchingly rigid.

Leonardo is the stoic leader, but has bouts of insecurity over his methods. Michelangelo is the "party child", but still remains competent enough to benefit the team. Donatello is the turtles' "tech guy", but struggles with pacifism and the fact that he's not as interested in hero work as his brothers. Raphael plays the traditional "hot head", but drives that stereotype with the curbing of his anger issues and his resentment towards his teammates.

Depending on the writer, TMNT can usually be incredibly formulaic or incredibly well-written; it's usually the exposition of the basic stereotypes into something more that will make or break the book.

And ultimately, that's what team books come down to: the team behind it. Following this list to a "t" won't make the best-selling book of all time, but observing what makes genres great is key to recognizing quality in the future. That's what this column is about: taking a deeper look into what makes good comics good, and why bad comics are gathering dust at a bottom of a bin.

---

Matt Demers is a staff writer for Comic Vine, and would love feedback on this new column series. Any ideas for further genres to explore can be PM'd or tweeted to him. Follow him on Twitter or Tumblr

55 Comments
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Edited by thesteve27

First grade was hard for me

Posted by Amegashita

  Nice article, very insightful.

Posted by Doctor!!!!!

Thay need to be..... Disfunctional!!!!
Posted by Baddamdog

Great article

Posted by Chaos Prime

Nice read :-) 

Posted by danhimself

very well written article...I hope that the new TMNT series will be as good as the past Mirage volumes

Posted by Bestostero

hurray for team books!

Posted by ComicMan24

Nice article. And I agree, especially with the first two.

Edited by djotaku

I wonder if what you write about the Teen Titans is behind the move to reboot it in the DCU relaunch?  I mean, some titles are just going on (most of the Batman ones) while others are getting a darn near reboot - Teen Titans, for example, supposedly these members have never met each other in the new continuity.  JLA's description from the recent solicit blog post also seemed to hint at a new look at the founding.

Posted by TheMess1428

I still think that Raphael is still secretly homosexual and doesn't want to come out of the closet. That's why he's such a dick to everyone. lol

Posted by hrdwrkngXsoldier

One thing they shouldn't have is JR Jr art.
Posted by Sobe Cin


Out of all the team books I'm reading right now, X-Factor pops into mind about good chemisty, roster but definately not sterotypes. I think its the differences from each other that make that book so good.

 

But other books like the rest of the X-titles, which I read and do enjoy, tend to have the same roster across several books. I find that down right annoying. I can only read so much about Emma Frost and Wolverine that I just want to throw Pixie across the room. Now with the ways things have been for some time, I don't have a problem with Cyclops poping up in New Mutants or X-Force. He's the current leader of the X-Men well mutants in general right now. But Wolverine is everywhere, and I am getting sick of the lack of continuity because of it.

 

My main book (Uncanny X-Men) features Wolverine and I feel that this is his main storyline. But you have Wolverine, X-23 (Guest rolls), Astonishing X-Men, X-Men, Both Avengers, and now his wide appearance will hit the Avenging Spider-Man book in November. So this boils down to the roster statement. You don't to have too many people in a book, but you also don't want the same person on every team.

 

Years ago, when this started with Wolverine, we then had Secret Invasion. I was praying that Secret Invasion would explain all the different Wolverine appearances, but no. Wolverine just wasn't going to be a skrull.

Edited by Evpraksiya

Guardians of the Galaxy was so good...but to short...the team was great even if it was ...the spoiler thing wasn't working i won't say more sorry...

Posted by War Killer

Great article, really good points! ^_^

Posted by RedheadedAtrocitus

This was a very informative article and I'm glad you pointed it out. I agree on all the main points but especially love the emphasis you put into team size with the JSA as the prime example.  Yes, post-Infinite Crisis the team swelled to such a large size that eventually it was addressed in the waning moments of the Bad Seed storyline, and then we saw the birth of JSA All-Stars.  Yet apparently now come September we won't even be seeing a JSA book which only can lead me to think part of the reason why we won't be seeing such a volume yet is because DC still may be struggling with idea that the JSA is just too darn big. And in the end group teams never do well with too many members.  Too many creates a domino effect by which if one falls they all can potentially fall.

Posted by cobra88king8

That's one thing I like about the Current Avengers and Secret Avengers run, the roster has gotten huge, but the way its handled allows having a large roster but letting a small number of the team in any current arc. It allows characters to have the limelight but allows the team books not get over crowded

Posted by Mrfuzzynutz

good article! 
The Titans failed to me because they never grew as a team. Most of their big fights resulted in huge defeats, or a character would die! 
Wonder Girl is/was a terrible leader

Posted by doordoor123

Great article

Posted by Chaos Burn

they need:
A goody goody leader (Cyclops, Cpt America etc)
A techy (Iron Man, Batman, Beast)
A guy with attitude (Wolverine, Batman)
A powerful, maybe magic type (Thor, Wanda)
A tank (Hulk, Rulk, Colossus)
A girl (Black Widow, Wonder Woman)

Posted by kennybaese

For me it's almost always, more than anything else, about the size of the team. When the team starts together above 8 characters or so, it becomes way too hard for me to keep track of the characters without feeling like I meed a ton of backstory to know who they are and why they act the way that they do. It's part of why Morrison's JLA run is so good. It's all a distillation of the characters and their backstory was left to their own books. Or with something like Secret Six, Simone used the story to tell a greater narrative about the team as a whole hut still managed to

Posted by kennybaese

But still managed to weave individual character development into it. It depended a little bit on knowing something of the backstories of characters like Deadshot or Bane, but only ever the basics, and the characters were never ones that were big enough that that stuff wasn't super easy to find with a quick look at the character's page on Comic Vine.

Posted by Deadcool

A real team have members that suports each other abilities and skills, for example the Teen Titans (At least the ones from the tv show), Fantastic Four.. 
 
Or certian characteristics that helps in missions, for example the New Avengers, there is no leader in that team everyone function as one for all, Spider-man has the experience as Street Level, certian experiences work with the team, Bucky knows about war, his training helps in fights against another teams, and Luke is the one says AVENGERS ASSEMBLE... 
 
Nice article =)
Posted by DoctorTrips

I personally like teams that are very small but every character is different; very different personalities and powers so that they have to figure out how to use their skills to defeat an enemy all the while trying to figure out how to not kill each other. I personally get really bored with the same formula; like the JLA or pre-Infinite Crisis Teen Titans. Sure it works but it gets dull; I like seeing the apple cart get shaken up.

Edited by cattlebattle
@Chaos Burn said:

they need: A goody goody leader (Cyclops, Cpt America etc) A techy (Iron Man, Batman, Beast) A guy with attitude (Wolverine, Batman) A powerful, maybe magic type (Thor, Wanda) A tank (Hulk, Rulk, Colossus) A girl (Black Widow, Wonder Woman)

Don't forget
 
Martial Arts Person (Panthro, Zealot, Psylocke)
Online
Posted by Emperormeister734

as solo they are strong but united they r invincible

Posted by Shadowdoggy

-at least 2 characters whose relationship predate the formation of the team (they don't have to know it, they could have been brainwashed) 
-a romance that will of course make the characters involved struggle with difficult decisions in regards to their team loyalties 
-a prominent member of the team who either doesn't like to work with othesr, hasn't worked with others, or feels like they can't work with others

Posted by CEO_OF_FRESH

Also need balance

Posted by Mr. Kamikaze

Of all the team books I currently read the ones that work best for me are X-Factor and Uncanny X-Force.

X-Factor really handles all of their characters very very well, and they aren't exactly stereotypes. But there is certainly a certain degree of dysfunction and they certainly compliment each other well.

Uncanny X-Force takes characters, three of which I would argue aren't all that different from each other (Wolverine, Deadpool, Fantomex, maybe even Psylocke) and still manages to keep them distinct from one another

I never cared much for the current team n JLA. None of them...which is weird, cause in Batman/Batman and Robin/Detective Comics. Dick Grayson has become one of my favorites, yet in JLA, i can care less.

I like Secret Avengers as well, but they're kinda...not all present at the same time anymore. For the last however many issues it was always Captain America, Prince of Orphans, and Sharon Carter...everyone was was MIA for a long time.

I like New Avengers as well, always have been one of my favorites.

Posted by Sir Duke

Why did you open the article with a picture of The Authority when you don't mention the Authority once in the article?  Stuff like that just pisses me off.

Posted by Darkmount1

*Sigh* maybe some team books (Justice League of America vol. 2, Teen Titans, etc.) would have sold better if they did the approach used with the Justice League Unlimited tv show. A rotating cast of characters, with the requirements mentioned in this article, every issue(s) would have done this and more!  Maybe that's what they should have done with the Justice League title--turn it from "of America" to Unlimited. Any member you could think of gets their time to shine every issue. It would've been great. Same thing with the Avengers or X-Men.
Posted by Frobin

Very interesting article! I really love team books and mostly agree.
 
Chemistry: Here i fully agree ... it's totally essential for a team book to have a team that really works as a team - for various reasons: as kind of family like the Fantastic Four, X-Men or the Teen Titans (before the core team split), as a bunch of friends or companions dedicated to a common goal or whatever ... a team book always goes down, when the members carousel starts. We've seen this with the Justice League, with the Avengers and now with the Teen Titans.
 
Stereotypes: Again I widely agree ... most of all a team needs some core characters, in case of the big two universes Marvel & DC these core characters are usually more popular and have their own books ... but not necessarily. For example the Martian Manhunter is (for me) a core member of the Justice League, often they have some kind of fixed stereotype role. Vision & Scarlet Witch for example are core members of the classic Avengers for me.
Around this team of core members there has to be some other characters, less popular, less known - the also have their roles and often they are new to the team or young ... so there are those stereotypes driving the stories or giving the main story some side effects that makes it more realistic, more human and just more fun to read.
I for myself always love the big guy, the heavy hitter of the team (I really loved MAUL of the WildCATs and Collossus of the X-Men and of course Thor of the Avengers). Many teams has a badass fighter like Wolverine (e.g. Warblade and Grifter of the WildCATs). Then there are the smart fighters or strategic genius like Batman, Midnighter, Nightwing or Captain America; the strong woman (Wonder Woman, She-Hulk, Big Barda, Zealot) or the mystic character, sometimes identical with the magician (Raven, Zatanna). Not to forget the blasters who have far distance powers and the ability to strike with some kind of energy blasts (Green Lantern, Firestorm, ...) ... however, you could categorize this characters on and on ... 
 
Combined with chemistry and not to forget a great challenge (story) that's what make a good team book.
 
Roster Size: Here I disagree - though I see your point. A team of just 7 charactes can make a great team book - but in most of the cases you will need more: would say the best size is about 9 or 10 members. But even if you have more than 10 members this will be no problem as long as the stories fit and you do not totally forget one character. If you have a team of around 12 - 15 characters, not every character has to show up in every single issue. There are examples for good team books that work with much more than 12 characters (e.g. Legion of Superheroes).  

I also disagree with your example of Grant Morrison's JLA. You wrote:
"Books like Grant Morrison's JLA have taken a more "back to basics" approach to teams which have gotten too large to function. Having a simple seven member roster served to distill the team down to the core "founders" while still managing to bring in new faces as the story demanded. While all characters may not be active in a story, there's still enough of them that when the entire team is in action, there isn't a dilution in dialog."
 
Morrison's "back to basics" has been a back to - in your words - chemistry: the lack of core members not the problem of too large teams. The teams had no core, no purpose, no common ground ... so Morrison "distilled the team down to the founders". But remember ... soon after the 7 core members restarted the JLA, new members joined and the team soon had around 12 members or more again (Plastic Man, Steel, Huntress, Zauriel, Big Barda, Orion, temporarily Green Arrwow and Aztek).
 
I think 12 members are a really good size ... but as you said ... these members has to be stable and the fluctuation of members should be low. And as mentioned before: The Legion of Superheroes have much more members and they had really good times as a team book.
 
But I agree with JSA somehow ... can't say exactly why, because I'm not reading the book ... otherwise I would blaim the stories ... maybe the core is too small and the members are too weak characterized (which means the have no unique role in the team). Don't know ... 
 
However, pretty interesting stuff! Thanks.

Posted by mikeclark1982

makes sense. i never understood why no one was able to write a team book with a lot of characters... eventually the characters would have to wonder why the leader behaved in that manner, and i agree about the teen titans reboot... i had the first few volumes in trade format and LOVED it, but when i read some one year later issues, it threw me out of whack. havent read it since. 

Posted by Ellocobruja
@Chaos Burn

Good List although I would Replace Girl Everyperson 
 
The Everyperson is the readers eyes and ears into the world Ie Kitty Pride, Kyle Rayner and Robin. 
Edited by dorsk188

Nice article, and I largely agree with most of it.  My favorite X-Men team was from Casey's too-short run in the early 2000's, and it fit your criteria quite well. 
 
Nightcrawler as the conflicted, insecure leader. 
Archangel as the somewhat arrogant borderline-usurper. 
Chamber as the "leave me alone" emo douche. 
Iceman as a more mature, but still lighthearted Iceman.
Stacy X just making everyone else uncomfortable. 
 
I would have made a few tweaks.  Monet St.Croix would have been an interesting addition, having to interact with all these freakishly deformed mutants.  Maggott would have fit in with the monster mash theme the team seemed to have. 
 
It was a core team moving in an interesting direction, but quickly blown apart by creative team shake-ups.  Since then, Chamber and Stacy were depowered and revamped, Nightcrawler's died and no one remembers the good old days... *sigh*

Posted by MrCipher
@Matt Demers:
Absolutely loved this article. Great kick off to what I hope will be an excellent series of articles. Great job Matt!
Posted by NexusOfLight

Great article. The only problem I see is the misuse of the word stereotype. A stereotype is the popular belief about a specific group. Y'know, like how comic readers are supposed to be nerdy and socially awkward, and stuff along those lines. Basic generalizations that may or may not be true for everyone in that particular group. What you were actually describing was an archetype, a universally understood pattern or behavior. Like the "wise old hermit" guy or the dark, mysterious past guy. It's true that the terms are similar, but they're not really close enough to be interchangeable. But other than that small quirk, it was a good read. Superhero team writers should definitely take note. Shoot, story writers in general should take note, because those are the type of things that make for good, character driven stories to begin with.

Posted by CellphoneGirl
@War Killer said:
Great article, really good points! ^_^
Posted by AMP - Seeker of Lost Knowledge

 Interesting formula for comic book super teams. Have you ever wonder writing a 'how to writer for comics' book?

Posted by sithfrog

Great points and great article.  Thanks, looking forward to more!
Posted by Icon

Nice well thought out article. I agree on each point.

Posted by blueninjapanther

Nice article
Posted by b3n8m3

WAIT!!!!! . . . . . What was wrong with Xtreme X-Men?! I thought it had good chemistry and had most ( if not all) of those steriotypes.

Posted by Crimson Thunder

Some writers should read this article
Posted by leokearon

Nice article and it all makes sense
Posted by Kenjav

Not a big anime fan, but Osamu Tezuka got it right since the beginning with his 'Star System'

Posted by Sissel

Great Article and very interesting indeed. 
One team book definitely pops in my head, Runaways. I don't know, maybe because I like it.

Posted by NightFang

Great article, but what about villain teams? 

Online
Posted by Ryujay

Nice article ! Thanks

Posted by FireFlare153

Great Article! This really helps!
Posted by xybernauts

I really liked this article. Interesting points. 

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