I’ve been thinking a lot about team dynamics recently.
I’ve always preferred team books like X-Men to single character books like Spiderman, even though a good supporting cast can blur the lines. I’m not really surprised that I’ve decided to do a team comic myself with Universe Gun, rather than approaching it as “Ms. Amazing” and telling her story through time. At the risk of sounding like a campaigner for fictional character’s rights, there’s something more democratic about a team comic. A number of archetypes – the loner, the responsible one, the smart one, the funny one, and so on, each get an equal billing, rather than one character being designated “the protagonist” and thus more important than the others.
The arc of any single character is tempered by character interaction. If a single character is the focus, then the interactions are typically between that one character and their supporting cast. Peter Parker and JJJ, Spiderman and Black Cat, Peter and MJ, Peter and Aunt May, and so on. Other relationships do matter, such as MJ and Harry Osborne in the Spiderman movies, but they matter primarily because of their effect on the central character. One main character and N supporting characters give rise to N relationships.
In a team book, N characters give rise to N*(N-1)/2 relationships. Two characters have one interrelationship, three characters have three interrelationships, four characters have six interrelationships, and so on. The writer and the characters then shake out which are most important. Take the Fantastic Four. There are six interrelationships here, and I’ll try to rank them in order of importance.
|Reed and Sue
Married couple, his time is always divided between his family and work.Ben and Johnny
Fight and rag on each other like brothers.
Reed and Ben
Johnny and Sue
Ben and Sue
Johnny and Reed
The last two hardly register at all. The brother-sister relationship doesn’t manifest in much interesting conversation or actions either. The top three tend to drive typical FF scenes and stories, and each resonate with some pretty typical relationships and situations that occur in real life. Do you know any couples where one is always busy, and torn between family and other responsibilities? Do you know two buddies who like to clown around and prank each other? Do you know two old friends who could have moved on as life took them in different directions, but are bound by a bond from the past? Each situation is familiar, and has a certain tension to it, and can serve as a springboard for stories or scenes.
With Universe Gun, I’ve got a core team of eight characters according to the logo. That means 28 different relationships to work out. Some will dominate more than others, and there are some that I really don’t have a clear idea about yet, and hope that the characters will guide me on this as I write. Some relationships are very clearly mapped out in my head like axes within the group: order-chaos, clever-stupid, rich-poor, selfish-responsible. These axes will tug at the rest of the team and draw them in to map out a few of the missing entries in the matrix. Rather than having to write 28 separate conversation scenes, I can do some of this in bulk. For example, Coriolis Boy and Star Girl 3000 (who you’ll properly meet in two weeks time), brother and sister, sit at extremes of an order-chaos axis. He’s the by-the-book leader, she’s the wild rebel. He’s Marge, she’s Bart. Other characters get drawn into this dynamic – Kid Identity on the side of chaos, Princess Amtora on the side of order, without having to write an explicit one-on-one scene for each pair of characters.
This can happen even on very small teams. For example, in the original Doom Patrol, Cliff and Larry fight with each other (like the Thing and Torch), and Rita interacts with both of them by being the level-headed one and pulling them apart, often quite literally. Rita-Cliff and Rita-Larry are not defined so much as Rita-(Larry, Cliff) is.
I decided to map out the sizes of some famous comic superteams and see how they worked. The team is decided by the title of the book, so while Milligan’s Shade the Changing Man was about three characters (Kathy, Lenny and Shade), I’ll classify it as a main hero with supporting cast and leave it off the list. (ditto with Harry, Ron and Hermione)
Duos: Batman and Robin, Cloak and Dagger, Power Man and Iron Fist, Quantum and Woody, Fearless Defenders (Valkyrie and Misty Knight)
Trios: Doom Patrol (Robotman, Negative Man, Elastigirl), Doom Patrol (Mr Steele, Rebis, Crazy Jane), Planetary, The Defenders (Dr Strange, Namor, Hulk), Ghostbusters
Quartets: Fantastic Four, Power Pack, Elementals, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Avengers (“Cap’s kooky quartet”: Cap, Hawkeye, Quicksilver, Scarlet Witch), Original Guardians of the Galaxy (Vance, Charlie, Martinex, Yondu)
Teams of 5: The Invaders (Cap, Bucky, Torch, Toro, Namor), Original X-Men, Champions (Iceman, Angel, Herc, Black Widow, Ghost Rider), Excalibur(Captain Britain, Meggan, Kitty, Kurt, Rachel), Nextwave, Modern Guardians of the Galaxy, original League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
Teams of 7: Classic JLA (Superman, WW, Batman, J’onn, Aquaman, GL, Flash), The Authority
Teams of 5-10: Avengers, X-Men, JLA, JSA, New Gods, Inhumans, X-Statix, Classic Guardians of the Galaxy (with Nikki and Starhawk), Classic Defenders (Nighthawk, Valkyrie, Hellcat etc thrown in to the mix)
Teams of 10+: JLA (seven plus Plastic Man, Huntress, Steel, Zauriel, Orion and Barda), Avengers (must have hit over ten members at some point)
Teams of 20+: Legion of Superheroes
The trios appear to be “specialists of the strange” who go and investigate weird goings on. The quartets are very family-ish. Weird!
This list is of course incomplete and quite arbitrary. Both Doom Patrol and X-Men have discounted their respective wheelchair-bound mentors as supporting characters rather than part of the core team, which is not a cut and dried decision at all.
So how do the team sizes affect writing? With up to four characters, there’s pretty much the expectation that they’ll all go adventuring together all the time. Each storyline might focus on one character in particular, but there isn’t a strong need to rotate cast members.
Bigger teams can drop a character or two here and there. For example, Batman wasn’t involved in the JLA story where bull-host angels invaded the earth chasing Zauriel, so that the rest of the team could get their moments to shine more easily. Wolverine and Rogue got a two part story together in X-Men under Chris Claremont and Paul Smith. The rest of the team are poisoned off-camera to allow the writer to focus on the dynamic between the gruff loner and the newly reformed villain, and it worked brilliantly.
At the far end of the spectrum, the Legion of Superheroes would typically pick a sub-team of 3 to 6 members for each story arc, which made it an interesting read as a kid in the days before Wikipedia. I think I followed it for two years before I saw Mon El or Element Lad outside of an advert page. And the massive cast meant that many relationships were probably never explored. Has Bouncing Boy ever talked to Princess Projectra? I have no idea.
On top of this, you have the idea of the solo story within a team book, where a story arc really focusses on one team member. Storm got a few of these under Claremont. This is much more likely to happen when a character doesn’t have their own solo title, as in this case. It wasn’t uncommon for older comics to feature a backup solo strip for one of their team members, like an 8-page mini-story to flesh them out or spotlight them.
Next week I’ll be taking a closer look at how my favourite writer did this in one of my favourite series ever. And I’ll very probably dissect how I did this myself for a one-page strip I committed to today.
See you in seven, scions of secret societies of six or seven! Dr Mike 2000, 6 June 2014