A Brief Guide to Superhero Team Books

In the history of superhero books, whenever a bunch of big name characters team up, it’s rarely as good as you think it will be.  So frequently, superhero team-books are a big let-down.  You’d think “Batman, Superman and Green Lantern on the same team?  That’s gotta be epic!”  Then, the comics feature the characters barely working together, or fighting against villains that Batman by himself could take down.  The same goes for the Avengers.  I’ve came across plenty of old Avengers comics that were just boring.  The basic rule of thumb of team-books is that, no matter how cool the roster is, it still comes down to what writers are working with what artists.

Gardner Fox is essentially the man who created the Superhero team books in the 1940s.  Calling his series “All-Star Comics” he put together the original JSA, featuring mostly lesser known characters like Doctor Mid-Nite, Sandman (the guy with the gas mask that Matt Wagner eventually brought back, not Gaiman’s dreamer), and Hawkman.  Gardner Fox is a legend in the industry as the man who pioneered the zany style of story that was a prototype for the psychedelic/cosmic style of comics that emerged in the late sixties and seventies.  He also created Zatanna.  His All-Star books were pretty fun reads, although the way the teams functioned was very different from today.  Usually, the formula was that some villain did something dastardly in the opening pages, then each of the characters would go off on their own adventures, sometimes in pairs, gathering up clues or magic objects that would eventually result in the villain being defeated in the end.  His stories, from what I read, never resulted in giant brawls.  Still, I’m sure fans from that period felt cheated, not seeing their favorite characters fighting alongside each other all at once.

The atomized superhero team was later revised by Stan Lee into a group of heroes representing a whole in Fantastic Four.  It’s well known by now that the FF were created by Stan after seeing the commercial success of DC’s team books.  Stan himself has admitted this–I always love his interviews by the way, he speaks with a great amount of candor.  The FF though succeeded in bringing characters into the same storyline, instead of sending off each member on a different subplot.  Sue Storm, Reed Richards, Johnny Storm and the Thing were inseparable.  Also, when Jack Kirby was drawing these books, he developed his phenomenal sort of “cubist-meets-pop-art” approach that he’d later master in his Fourth World series.

Superhero team books had varying success throughout the Silver Age.  A lot of these stories devolved into camp, like the Batman books from his Bat-Family period.  That’s when, as a reaction to accusations of Seduction of the Innocents (a book that claimed comics were perverse and damaging to young readers), the writers decided to create female versions of the main characters mostly to prove that Batman and Robin weren’t homosexuals.  The problem was, when they introduced Batwoman and Batgirl, the team didn’t really do anything.  Instead of fighting four times as much crime, they sat around the Batcave in stories that weren’t so dissimilar from Father Knows Best or Leave it to Beaver.

In the 1980s, superhero team books were given new life by writers Keith Giffen and J.M. DeMatteis, and the artist Kevin Maguire.  First off, this book was like a response to the logical question, “Why do superheroes only patrol the US?”  The Justice League International were there to save the countries that the rest of the DC heroes were too busy to look into.  There were a few things that were great about this series.  1) Giffen and DeMatteis were funny.  This series was released in the post-Watchmen/The Dark Knight Returns period, when comics across the board were becoming darker and grittier.  While this was fine in the cases of Alan Moore and Frank Miller, it also produced a lot of lousy comics.  I don’t even bother reading Batman comics from this era, even if they’re on sale.  The Justice League International were the opposite.  They definitely had an old-school vibe to them.  2)  The team consisted mostly of characters who had gone underused over the years, like Blue Beetle, Booster Gold, Power Girl, and Guy Gardner as the Green Lantern.  Batman was in some of the comics, but his role was generally played down.  Unfortunately, not long after Giffen and DeMatteis stopped writing the series, just about all of the characters were killed off.  Last year, many of the characters were brought back, and it seems DC is studying the old JLI, which is great since comics are getting too serious again.

Around 1996, I had all but given up on reading comics because it seemed like nothing I read was exciting or new.  Then, Grant Morrison brought back the JLA.  This was my first exposure to Grant Morrison’s work, and I’ve been reading as much as I can find by him ever since.  Grant Morrison’s strength was in creating villains that actually warranted the use of a team consisting of extremely powerful characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern and the Martian Manhunter.  They weren’t simply fighting Captain Boomerang or Mr. Freeze or any of the other novelty characters.  Instead, Morrison somehow succeeded in convincing the reader that the world, or even all of reality, was about to end.  His initial storyline “New World Order” with Howard Porter drawing it was amazing.  It’s collected in graphic novel form and I’d highly recommend it.  After Morrison’s run ended, the JLA went back to being a fair to middling book that no longer made a lot of sense as to why the superheroes were all needed to confront silly threats like a woman who was part bee who was trying to turn people into her hive-minded minions, and had a lair oozing with a sticky honey like substance.  Why?  The comic was recently written by James Robinson (writer of Starman) for more than a year, and these issues were generally pretty good.

In the present, the best superhero team books are Avengers and The New Avengers, both written monthly by Brian Michael Bendis.  I’ve said this before but I’ll say it again, Bendis is the best writer Marvel has currently writing for it.  I recently read that Bendis has set the record for the writer who has written the Avengers for the longest time consecutively.  I just hope he doesn’t stop.  So many comics now have a turgid, maudlin, or grand-guignol quality where characters only say short terse things and the books are way too dark, and the art too shadowy, and the tone too serious, and the excitement is neutralized.  Not so with Bendis.  With him, you can tell he’s devoted himself to comics, and that he’s read a ton of them.  His books are most importantly fun to read.  I was slow on discovering his work with the Avengers.  When I finally picked up an issue (originally just because I saw John Romita Jr. was drawing it, and remembered how Romita made some of the best interior art ever for Spiderman), it was a revelation, similar to how Grant Morrison first saved comics for me.  Bendis’ books actually allow the characters to say funny things while fighting!  I don’t understand why the literal punch lines were taken out of comics.  In the nineties, it seemed like Spiderman and Deadpool were about the only characters with a sense of humor, and even Spiderman seemed to stop joking around after awhile.  Bendis will make you nostalgic for the time in childhood when you might have spent hours in the sand box bashing action figures together, but Bendis, in tapping into this youthful energy, is smart in doing so.

—-Check out my book The Madness of Art: Short Stories.

click here to see my book on Amazon.

If you like superpower team books, check out my review of the entire 2004-2010 New Avengers series.

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