Welcome, gentle readers, to the second part of my examination (and in some cases evisceration) of the historic misfires of the superhero team genre.
It was a natural concept that took time to come into being and one that, even today, is a tricky one to get right. Many stars have to align to make for a successful super team. Chief amongst them, obviously, are the characters chosen to make up the ranks. Whether established, long-standing icons or brand newbies created just for the title, or a mix of the two, character dynamics are important. A little camaraderie, a dash of ideological frisson, makes all the difference.
A good reason for being (i.e. their team origin) is also vital. “Hey, you fight crime in this city and I fight crime in this city - why don’t we fight crime together?” is not a good raison d’etre (French!). A shared enemy and/or cause - or even a family bond - these are tried and true foundations for successful teams.
Another factor, and one difficult to predict or manipulate, is timing. Every creator in every possible creative field is consciously or subconsciously trying to earn the favor of the zeitgeist, to plop their little paper boat in just the right part of the stream where the current flows fastest. Knowing full well that other folks are dropping their own boats (some of which look a lot like theirs) into the stream at the same time. Sometimes it’s the case that a great and original idea (or super team) disappears without a ripple while a knock-off, trend-chasing idea (or super team) hits big and, before you know it, there’s tie-in Burger King kids' meal toys and a cartoon on Nickelodeon.
The last make-or-break when it comes to super teams (or even just an individual comics character) is an even more nebulous element that’s ever-changing and impossible to second-guess: the coolness factor. I guarantee that every example I brought up in my previous column and those we’ll look at today were considered “cool” by their creators or at least “likely to be judged cool by the fans”, but the verdict of history - and sales - and me - would beg to disagree.
And sometimes it takes a little time for all of these factors to click into place. The crowning achievement of the 1970s had been the debut of a new team of X-Men over at Marvel. In 1975, when writer Len Wein and artist Dave Cockrum were charged with saving the flagging X-Men title (at that point, just a quarterly title featuring reprints of earlier stories), they went all out and overhauled the team. Of the old group they kept Cyclops but populated this team with brand new mutants (Storm, Colossus, Nightcrawler, and Thunderbird) and repurposed small-timers (Banshee, Sunfire, and a guy called Wolverine of all things - sheesh). It was a new concept, a racially diverse team of international misfits, a mutant United Colors of Benetton ad. It worked. The strong cast was immediately made all the stronger by a great writer, Chris Claremont, who soon stepped in and gave each character a consistent, individual voice while also shamelessly playing up the soap operatics. The new super team template had been cast and the 1980s soon became a mad scramble to repeat (or rip-off) that mutant magic.
By far the most successful example of that was DC’s surprise hit of the 1980s, the New Teen Titans. Whether or not it was a conscious attempt to respond to the X-Men, a lot of the same hallmarks were there. Again we had an overlooked classic team given a major overhaul by an amazing creative team (this time it was writer Marv Wolfman and artist George Perez). Again the team was anchored by established characters (Robin, Wonder Girl, and Kid Flash) joined by a reinvigorated obscurity (Beast Boy) and a trio of diverse and intriguing newbies (Cyborg, Raven and Starfire). And, again, their adventures made plenty of room for romance, soul-searching and laughs. It was a recipe that clearly worked. As the X-Men hit their early peak, these “new” “kids” on the block immediately took off and matched Marvel’s mutants sale-for-sale.* The 1980s marked the first time team books dominated the charts. Surely, this tried and true formula would be easy to replicate, right?
Buckle up as we dive into a decade that got very many things right, but quite a few things stinky bad wrong.
Nowadays it goes without saying that any big, company-wide crossover “event” will result in A) character death, B) new costumes, C) a new team launch, or D) all of the above. And that, of course, all began with the dawn of the mini/maxi series in the 1980s. I’ve already mentioned (a couple columns back - keep up, people!) that DC’s Legends miniseries (1986) begat the revamped Suicide Squad (a very good team book), and so it was only natural to use 1989’s Invasion miniseries to launch…
Who’s in it: “Snapper” Carr, Churljenkins, Jolt, Looking Glass, Dust Devil, Frag, Crackpot
Why they are a bag of fail: “Snapper” Carr, a non-powered supporting character from DC’s Silver Age, gets powers - and so do a whole group of normal humans (a model, a kids book author, a con artist, a kid with an overprotective mother - it sounds like the setup to a lame joke) - as a result of the aforementioned Invasion. They form a group to break out of alien jail and go off on galavanting space adventures along with sexy green alien cat lady Churljenkins. Despite a light-hearted tone and good writing, readers of the day probably weren’t that interested in the Starjammers-lite escapades of the JLA’s former teen sidekick (ooh, boy, that’s a future column right there) and a whole passel of brand new characters that could be as annoying as they were amusing and who never gelled.
Though featured in the Invasion miniseries, their own solo special, and guest shots in other DC space books, the Blasters never graduated to their own title.
Mitigating factor: This was written by the great Peter David so, even if it didn’t work, it was a decent read.
Who’s in it: Silver Sable (duh) and many Marvel mercs at various times including Sandman, Battlestar, Prowler, Paladin, Will O’ The Wisp, even Hawkeye and Spider-Man!
Why they are a bag of fail: A (sort of) Marvel version of the Suicide Squad? Shouldn’t that work? Yeah, it should. But unlike the edge and cynical wit of DC’s group, the Wild Pack was a fairly dour and boring bunch; probably due to the lack of any cohesion other than wealthy and driven (and humorless) mercenary Silver Sable (of Balkan nation Symkaria, but you already knew that) hiring known badasses to help her track down war criminals. The lack of any core group - beyond the uninteresting support team created for the comic - also helps sink this uninspired bunch. Where’s an Amanda Waller and a few exploding collars when you need ‘em?
Mitigating factor: Fans enjoyed their appearances in various Marvel books well enough they earned their own title in 1992 which lasted for 35 issues before getting cancelled, presumably for not being X-TREME enough.
Who’s in it: Tom Kalmaku, Jason Woodrue the Floronic Man, Harbinger, Dreamtime, Extrano, RAM, Gloss, Jet
Why they are a bag of fail: Oooh boy. Okay, remember when I said that it became de rigueur (French again!) to launch new teams out of events? I hope so, because that was just a few paragraphs back and I would worry about your cognitive retention otherwise. Well that was the case with the New Guardians. DC closed out the 1980s with the forward-looking maxi-series Millennium. Its storyline of Earth’s superheroes trying to locate and protect 10 “chosen” human beings who are destined to birth a new race of immortals from the overzealous intergalactic android army of Manhunters (ancient precursors to the Green Lantern Corps) crossed over all the company’s titles and led to a new crop of characters and a new team title.
Those “chosen” ten came from all corners of the Earth and, accordingly, were very diverse in ethnicity and even sexuality. The character Extrano (Spanish for “strange”) was a gay Peruvian man with HIV who gains mystic powers. A queer Dr. Strange would have been an awesome advancement if DC would have had the guts to openly state this about the character’s sexuality and if the writer and artist didn’t lean into some stereotyping. And that’s a big problem with the team. While it was a noble shot at expanding representation in superhero books, it doesn’t help if you have a Japanese character, RAM, being turned into a silicon-based tech being, or a Chinese woman, Gloss, being tied to mystical “dragon lines” of energy lacing the planet. Put an Australian Aboriginie on the team, then you know darn well she’ll become one with the Dreamtime.
The concept - that rando normies from all over the planet would suddenly become superpowered godlings to advance our species - was fine and the intentions of writer/artist team Steve Engelhart and Joe Staton were good. But, deary my, over the 12 issues they managed to last, this one book paved a multi-lane highway to Hell with those good intentions.
Mitigating factors: The New Guardians set out - in 1988 - to address the same issues of inclusiveness and diversity that companies and creators are still tackling today. They tried - heck, they tried to fix the whole problem with one team! - but they failed.
Okay, before we leave the 1980s, I also need to toss out this “honorable mention” to a trope of the day that still rears its ugly head from time to time. Of all the worst reasons for concocting a super team book, the “we were offered a large novelty check from a toy manufacturer and/or professional sports organization” is very near the top of the list.
Look, comics is a business, I get it. And it was the “greed is good” ‘80s, so I can hardly fault either of the Big Two for taking the money and running. And it’s not even as if we didn’t get some good comics out of the deal. Marvel did surprisingly well with Micronauts, Rom Spaceknight, G.I. Joe, and Transformers, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out:
Five stunt show motorcycle riders (based on the reconfigured Evel Knievel line from Ideal Toys) have the mutant ability to transform anyone into one badass masked rider all in black, The Marauder, for a time. I regret to inform the reader that I had the entire 12 issue run. Look, I was a kid, okay? They were later renamed the Thunderiders. Nobody cared.
And if you thought that last entry was a broad brush to paint over an entire comics run, then I got one Galactus-sized paint roller at the ready to cover the worst decade in American superhero comics: the dreaded 1990s.
Who’s in it: Bloodpool (Awesome), Bloodstrike (Awesome), Brute Force (Marvel), Codename: Strykeforce (Top Cow), Cyber Force (Top Cow), Extreme Justice (DC), Fallen Angels (Marvel), Force Works (Marvel), Freak Force (Image), Freex (Malibu), H.A.R.D. Corps (Valiant), L.A.W. (DC), Operation: Knightstrike (Awesome), Ultraforce (Malibu/Marvel), Wildcore (Wildstorm), Wetworks (Wildstorm), WildC.A.T.S. (Wildstorm), Wildsiderz (Wildstorm), X-Patriots (Marvel), X-Saviours (Marvel UK), X-Terminators (Marvel), Youngblood (Awesome), etc.
Why are they all such a big bag of fail set on fire and left on our doorstep: The 1990s was a perfect storm of what I like to call “crap factors” any one of which would have mucked up the comics industry’s output, but when they all hit at once … oof. Sad then that so many of the crap factors that stank up the 1990s were reactions to some really great things.
The critical and commercial success of two different but giantly talented creators - Frank Miller and Alan Moore - who both injected their superhero comics work with psychological depth, novelistic complexity, brutal reality and unflinching, uncomfortable violence - pushed the envelope of what comics could be and what they could earn. It’s only natural that the companies wanted more of that and creators were encouraged to emulate that success.
But not everybody is Alan Moore and Frank Miller, so we ended up with a lot of imitators who took the wrong lessons from these two and their milestone works. We endured a lot of brutally violent, cynical superhero books without the artistic viewpoint or craft of Miller and Moore. This is crap factor 1.
Also, creators were responding to the fan love for a couple of breakout characters of the 1980s, both of them cold-blooded killers (with well fleshed-out reasons for being so): Wolverine and the Punisher. Wolvie was the surprise star of the X-Men ensemble while the Punisher had been a one-note Dirty Harry knockoff antihero, a C-list guest-star that occasionally popped up in Spider-Man titles. But both were given a big boost by Frank Miller who fleshed out Logan in the first Wolverine miniseries and featured The Punisher in his amazing run on Daredevil. Suddenly, every comics creator was crafting their own squinty-eyed badass with a gun the size of a literal cannon or a pair of katanas strapped to their back who quipped through permanently gritted teeth as they eviscerated oncoming armies of bad guys. The proliferation of blatant Wolverine/Punisher clones is crap factor 2.
Another positive that contributed to the negatives of the ‘90s, the birth of the independent publishers. There had always been little guy comic book companies but when a big chunk of A-list creators (primarily artists-who-also-wrote) broke off from Marvel to found Image Comics, the landscape changed. Of course that was actually a very healthy thing for the industry. But then these influential artists created their own books and characters without the editorial oversight of the more conservative Big Two and what did we get? An endless stream of copycat X-Men books populated with not one or two, but entire rosters of smirking badasses in the Wolverine vein. Crap factor 3.
And, lastly, the collectors boom. The publicity swell of mainstream media suddenly noticing there were “grown-up comics” acclaimed by literature professors, added to the attendant publicity of media-bait “events” like the death of Superman storyline or even just variant covers and sales gimmicks, helped boost comics sales into the stratosphere. Sure, that was a wave and it lifted all boats for a bit, but soon the market oversaturated. It was a glut of homogenous product. Crap factor 4 (yet another awesome band name).
Together, these crap factors created an era of comics so bleak, so banal, so bloody that it has come to be labeled the “Dark Age” of comics. An age where heroism took a backseat to attitude and body count. What that means for this column, is a heap of new, nearly indistinguishable ‘roided-up characters and teams with more pony-tails, mullets, blades, bandoliers, chains, spikes, straps, and pouches than you can shake a bo staff at.
Mitigating factors: Hey, some great teams came out of the ‘90s. The Authority, Planetary, the revamped JSA, Hellboy’s BPRD, Young Justice, to name a few personal faves. And it’s not even that there wasn’t some good to be found amongst the titles I listed up top; I mean even Alan Moore wrote a spate of WildC.A.T.S. for his personal snake god’s sake!
And, in the end, this is all one (very well-educated and discriminating) man’s opinion. Maybe you’re a kid of the ‘90s and I’ve just slammed your favorite team. That’s okay, man, every character is somebody’s favorite and our Platonic ideal of what constitutes an awesome comic is formed very early in our first (usually) childhood exposure to the medium. But, again, this is my column and I’m right. The 1990s was a perfect shitstorm and we were all George Clooney in that little fishing boat.
If you’re reading this, then you survived. Good on ya.
And if you’re still reading this, that means you’ve made it to the end of my monstrous overview of failed superhero teams (“But, but, Brendan, what about the last twenty years?” Look, man, I’m old. Let me catch my breath before I attempt a “Part 3”) as well as my views on what makes for a successful team book. Mainly, originality. That’s something that all comics can benefit from.
That, and more totally ripped, vein-popping guys in pointy masks with sick blades or bone-spikes coming out of their forearms and, like, shuriken-studded suspenders an’ shit. Hells yeah, I would buy that book!
SAME 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.
*In 1982 they even crossed over in a very fun (and rare, given their intercompany rivalry) stand-alone graphic novel The Uncanny X-Men and the New Teen Titans, written by Chris Claremont and drawn by the awesome Walt Simonsen. A highly recommended read despite the criminally lame title.
Part 1 of this series by Brendan Jones can be found here!