META: Three Metaphors for Superhero Teams

Tom Russell joltcity at
Wed May 2 08:31:45 PDT 2012

When I first started writing superhero fiction, I didn't know what I
was doing (which anyone who was unfortunate enough to read that
fiction can easily attest).  Part of the problem is that while I
(thought I) knew a lot about the genre, I didn't know a whole lot
about human beings, and the genre is (like all the best genres)
concerned with the human experience, and Things That Matter: death,
life, responsibility, altruism, goodness, badness, means and ends, the
value of the individual, the greater good, sacrafice, overcoming
weakness, and so much more.

If a superhero story doesn't, in some way, concern itself with people,
and doesn't believe in the inherent value of the human endeavor, for
me it's not really a superhero story.  My early efforts fell woefully
short of this litmus, and nowhere was this more evident than my first
couple stabs at writing a superhero team series, because here I had
anywhere from six to a dozen characters, none of whom resembled human
beings, or illuminated anything of value about what it means to be a
human being.

It would have helped, I think, if I had picked a metaphor for my
teams, or, for that matter, realized the obvious: good superhero teams
function as metaphors for social groups.  These fall into three broad
categories by my reckoning.

1. The team as family.  Sometimes, such as the Fantastic Four or Power
Pack, these are literal families.  Does that really make it a
metaphor?  I think so; superhero families can explore the Big Issues,
and the family dynamic, with a greater felicity than, say, a
continuing series about an everyday family.  That is, in a "normal"
family serial, it stretches credibility to have too many kidnappings,
attempted murders, or perilous situations.  But for a superhero
family, it's expected.  This is one of the great freedoms of the
genre, or any genre really.  One of the downsides with literal family
teams is that their line-up is rather static.  A makeshift family--
I'd classify the X-Men, when written well, as such a team-- offers
more flexibility (an extended family: cousins) but the familial bonds
usually aren't as tight or dramatic (cousins).

2. The team as social clique, or "friends".  This usually manifests
itself as a "teen" team, like the Teen Titans or New Mutants.
(Generation X-- the New New Mutants-- early in its run captured the
way cliques break into wary, circling sub-cliques rather well.)
There's awkward romance and angst to spare in this model.

3. The team as professionals.  Call this the Howard Hawks model-- like
some of the great director's films, the characters are good at what
they do, (ideally) stable and sober-minded, "manly" (even when
ladies), and respect one another's abilities and track record.  They
are, in a word, colleagues.  The Justice League of America and the
Avengers come to mind.

Now, these of course aren't definite categories-- some of the
Avengers, for example, cohabitat, and that imparts a clique or family
feel.  Superhero stories should be alive, not souless schematics.  But
these dynamics are useful, because they partially inform the part of
the human experience that the work, at least partially, concerns
itself with: family life, social life and adolescence, and working
life.  Which, to a large degree, covers pretty much every healthy way
that people interact with two or more other people.

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