META: Three Metaphors for Superhero Teams

Andrew Perron pwerdna at
Wed May 2 20:25:33 PDT 2012

On Wed, 2 May 2012 15:31:45 +0000 (UTC), Tom Russell wrote:

> 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).  

...well, you had ideas!

> 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.

Mmmmmm.  Truths.

> 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.

It's true, it's true!

> 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.

Not to mention that the Fantastic Four aren't completely literal, in this

> 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.  

It's true, it's true.

> 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).

Hmmmmm.  Makes sense; I was thinking about where the X-Men fit.

> 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.

Most versions of the Legion of Super-Heroes have been in a sub-category of
this, "team as club".

> 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.

One of the things that I really liked about Morrison's Justice League was
how professional they acted towards each other - an excellent break from
the level of angst-for-angst's sake that's so common in the medium.
Naturally, the very next writer (Mark Waid, who I usually very much enjoy)
put them right back to sniping and arguing. 

> 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.

There's a few other common models I've seen:

Team as military unit.  This is a bit different than "team as
professionals", as while that version tends to be a sort of Camelot-esque
alliance of equals, this one very much involves a distinct chain of
command, orders, and sometimes being drafted into it.  Aspects of this can
be blended with other models - the X-Men have dabbled in it.  "Pure"
examples include Suicide Squad, Alpha Flight, at least one version of Power
Rangers, and, of course, ASH.

Team as reality show contestants.  This honestly seems like a gimmick; I
can't think of any really successful instance of it, nor anywhere for the
idea to go.

Team as strange bedfellows.  These are people who wouldn't normally work
together, but circumstances have tied them together, and they have to live
with it if they're ever going to resolve said circumstances.  Sometimes,
this is one person who doesn't fit thrown into one of the above categories,
and over the long term, teams in this category tend to become one of the

Team as rebellion.  Hunted by the police, going up against the evil empire,
or whatnot.  Pretty simple.

As for the LNH, I'd say that it's actually more sort of... team as social
group, or as trade union.  An umbrella organization for people engaging in
a certain type of activity, you know?  With the various subgroups being
various of the categories above.

Andrew "NO .SIG MAN" "Juan" Perron, hmmmmmm.

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