The concept of a “super team” is a no-brainer, like the Ben & Jerry’s Everything But The… flavor. Essentially it’s, “hey, here’s something you love and now we’re gonna stir in another dozen or so things you love, sound good?” Of course it does, we’re not living in the boil-your-shoe leather-for-dinner Irish Potato Famine years. This is peak consumerist, Roman Empire at the tipping point America so, hell yeah, toss in a few more peanut butter cups and, doy, I’ll have the whip cream topping. Funny then that the concept of teaming popular heroes together in shared adventures took a few years to occur to anybody.
The first official superhero crossover was in 1940 over at Timely (eventually Marvel) Comics, when it was decided that it would be neat to have their top two characters - the Human Torch and the Submariner - battle each other. It was neat, and yet the gimmick of a shared super universe didn’t immediately become a given. The next big step, and the one most germane to this column, came months later and from the other big player on the block, National (eventually DC), who, in All Star Comics #3 introduced the first ever superhero team, the Justice Society of America.
Originally comprised of (the Golden Age iterations of) Green Lantern, Flash, Hawkman, The Spectre, Dr. Fate, Sandman, Hourman, The Atom, and Johnny Thunder, the JSA established the template, but was still incredibly reticent to commit to a true “team” concept. The earliest adventures of the JSA weren’t shared adventures at all, but just a clubhouse get together where each flamboyantly-garbed member seated at their round table simply related a recent solo mission (each drawn by the artist of their respective title) for the others’ benefit? Amusement? While, in later issues, Wonder Woman took the minutes. Because she was the team’s “secretary.” Because she was the only female. Yeah. You’ve come a long way, baby.
It wasn’t just gross old-timey sexism that dictated Diana’s diminished role in the early JSA but also because she didn’t need the boost. The JSA came into being not really because DC suddenly realized the awesomeness of combining their heroes into a fierce fighting team, but because they wanted to increase the profile of their “lesser” properties. Wonder Woman was outselling any comic that had Dr. Fate or The Atom in it so her appearance in All-Star was just to lend them a little star quality. Superman and Batman who, obvs, outsold everybody else made very few appearances in the JSA and were listed as “honorary members.” And thus we see the less conceptually altruistic reason for the origin of the super team: sales.
It worked and, like any other winning concept in the comics biz, it was immediately copied. Surprisingly, though, Timely would be less than timely with the creation of the All-Winners Squadron who didn’t show up until 1947. Their members included the no longer feuding Human Torch and Submariner along with Captain America and Bucky - truly a unit the Axis powers would have feared had the comic actually come out during WW2. Late to the team-up game, the All-Winners only lasted two issues.* Timing, as we can see, is just one of the many factors that can sink a super team.
There are many, many ways a super team can go right and just as many ways they can go so very wrong. Hey, here’s an idea! How about I take you on a tour of some of the comic book super teams that were defeated by forces far more mundane than Vandal Savage or Kang the Conqueror?
Let’s start in the Forties and work our way up for no other reason than I want to delay getting to the Nineties for as long as possible. In fact, let’s make this a two-parter since I have a feeling this’ll run long. Okay by you? Great. Now, off to World War II.
DC had already staffed the JSA with the company’s B-string, but what to do with the leftovers? Don’t you worry your sweet nerdy heads about that because here comes…
Who’s in it: The (Golden Age) Green Arrow and his sidekick Speedy, the Crimson Avenger and his sidekick Wing, the Star-Spangled Kid and his sidekick Stripesy, the Vigilante and his sidekick Stuff, and the Shining Knight.
Why they are a bag of fail: These are definitely the C-string heroes of their day (this is long before Oliver Queen would be a CW heartthrob and Joel McHale and Luke Wilson would bring the Star-Spangled Kid and Stripesy to life on Stargirl). While the arbitrary tossing together of wildly disparate characters can sometimes work, this team just makes no demographic sense. I mean, I can see millionaires Green Arrow and Crimson Avenger getting chummy, but what the hell are an Arthurian knight and a cowboy radio star gonna find to talk about?
Also, math. By my count, there are nine Soldiers of Victory. Damnit, people, sidekicks count!
Mitigating factors: Cool name. That, and my unreasoning love of The Vigilante. A cowboy on a motorcycle! Come on!
In the 1950s, as I mentioned in my previous column about the history of the Suicide Squad (another lame group, originally, with a great name), the superheroes (even the stalwart JSA) stepped out for a breather so we were spared anymore ill-advised crime fighting clubs.
But with the 1960s and the dawning of the Silver Age of American comics, the heroes returned (often rebooted) and they were hellbent on hooking up (in a completely platonic “joining forces to smash evil” way, of course). Having learned important lessons from their stretch with the JSA, DC turned that amp up to 11 with the 1960 introduction of the super team gold standard the Justice League of America. No more messing with the also-rans, the JLA was comprised of the biggies: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, and, okay, that green guy that had popped-up not long before, the Martian Manhunter. Now that, my friends, is a super team. And, of course, this decade would also see the paradigm shift with Marvel’s debut of the Fantastic Four, the Avengers and the X-Men - each group twisting the team concept in interesting ways that would challenge rival creators and readers alike as well as change superhero comics forever.
Of course, the Sixties also gave us…
Who’s in it: Sgt. Gardner Grayle, Wayne and Hollis Hobard, Douglas and Marene Herald, and Bryndon Smith. (Don’t worry if you’ve never heard of them.)
Why they are a bag of fail: Let’s say there actually was a devastating “Hydrogen War” in 1986, would you look to be saved by six non-super people in radioactive medieval armor riding giant, mutated Dalmatians? Am I the only one seeing this? What was in those brownies?
Mitigating factors: Knights riding giant Dalmatians.
Who’s in it: Krypto the Super Dog, Streaky the Super Cat, Beppo the Super Monkey, Comet the Super Horse.
Why they are a bag of fail: Superman and Supergirl’s superpowered pets are recruited by the Legion of Superheroes to help them combat alien menaces in their native 30th Century. Look, I know that superhero comics - especially those of the Gold and Silver Ages - are meant for kids, but come on! Super pets - in capes - fighting as a team - in the future.
Also, Comet the Super Horse. He’s a problem. He’s a whole column (or doctoral thesis) unto himself. See, Comet only looked like a horse. He was actually an immortal centaur who could take a fully human or fully horse shape. As “Comet,” Supergirl rode him (flying, of course) into battle. As human “Bill Starr,” he and Supergirl dated. I’m not about kink-shaming here, but the zoophilic subtext here is uncomfy.
Mitigating factors: They were eventually turned into a kid-friendly cartoon (adding the non-superpowered Ace the Bat-Hound!) which at least acknowledged and embraced the ludicrousness of the concept.
Now, it may seem that I’m picking on DC a lot so far. That’s certainly not by design, but their main competitors were just getting going in the Sixties and, as stated above, Marvel had a pretty amazing run of winning concepts right out of the gate. While some of their cranked-out villains and evil teams were giant garbage fires, we’re only looking at the marquee names, the hero teams that anchored their own titles or appeared with enough frequency to register. And, don’t worry, Marvel had a few misfires waiting in the wings.
Ladies and gentlemen, may I present the 1970s. And…
Who’s in it: Black Widow, Hercules, Iceman, Angel, and Ghost Rider.
Why they are a bag of fail: This group is less “Everything But The…” ice cream and more a casserole made by a struggling single mom out of whatever she can find in the pantry - Beefaroni, pork ‘n’ beans, bullion cubes, and leftover Tuna Helper. It’s the Seven Soldiers all over again. Marvel had already filled the Avengers with a rotating lineup of A listers and the remaining big guns ended up in the odd but endearing Defenders which left…um, these folks. All these characters were “between books” so Marvel threw them into a group on the slim pretense that the lot of them were currently residents of Los Angeles. With no defining purpose to bond them and, certainly, no thematic or interpersonal dynamic to justify them, they were a team united solely by zip code.
Mitigating factors: Love those characters - just not together.
How I wish we could leave this decade behind without once more shaming DC but I would be remiss if I neglected to call attention to…
Who’s in it: Commodore Murphy, J.P. Houston, Cecil Sunbeam, and Abdul Smith. You know, them.
Why they are a bag of fail: A.k.a. Entitlement The Comic. The concept? Kid millionaires who offer their money to anyone who can provide them with unique adventures. Kid millionaires who wear matching jumpsuits with pouches for their bundles of cash. Kid - millionaires.
Mitigating factors: Um… Makes one nostalgic for the simpler pleasures of Richie Rich?
And with that, let us table our survey until next week which will explore the whirlwind of misbegotten teams born of the excess of the ‘80s and the X-TREMES of the ‘90s. Rest up, hydrate, prepare yourselves mind and body, and I’ll see you then.
DISCLAIMER: I am in no way suggesting that there is nothing of worth to be found in these titles. There are good concepts, single issues and storylines in all of the above and each book has featured the work of talented writers and artists. Which is all the more reason they should all feel so terribly ashamed.
*But, fret not, True Believers, as that same team - with a few tweaks - was resurrected in 1969 as The Invaders and they did, in fact, kick much Nazi ass, albeit retroactively.
**The original Seven Soldiers, not the wildly ambitious, expectedly trippy interlocking series by Grant Morrison from 2005.