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.
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.
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.
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.
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.