Shiny Shelf

No longer a team player.

By Mark Clapham on 28 June 2010

I found a copy of Marvel’s ‘Secret Avengers’ #1 slipped into my standing order recently. I can see why my comic shop thought I’d want it – I’ve been a dedicated reader of Ed Brubaker’s ‘Captain America’ since he started on the title, and ‘Secret Avengers’ is a Brubaker-written book which features Steve Rogers, the former Captain America, in a leading role.

So I don’t object to them making that leap of logic, and I read the first issue and it was, all in all, a pretty good comic. I’m not a massive fan of Mike Deodato’s art, with its omnipresent heavy inks (regardless of the setting) and shaky characterisation, but Brubaker always writes an entertaining comic, and these are mainly characters I like.

I still emailed the comic shop to make sure it was knocked off my standing order, though. This made me realise that, when I cut back on the amount of comics I bought in preparation for leaving my day job and relocating, the team books had been the first to go, the most disposable comics I was reading.

‘Uncanny X-Men’ went first (easy, as it had never gripped in its current incarnation and I was mainly reading it out of sheer Fractionalism), then the various ‘Avengers’ titles, and finally the really good ones that, honest, I do intend to catch up in trade at some point, like ‘Agents of Atlas’ and ‘Secret Warriors’.

I now get my comics every two to three months when I’m in London or a kind soul picks them up for me, and tear through a big stack of comics over a few days rather than reading them the week they came out as part of the drip-drip-drip of a weekly publishing schedule.

I think the reason I cut back on all the team books is closely related to the reason they’re such a key plank of both main superhero publishers’ schedules: that team books are tied into that weekly drip-feed; that they provide a lot of the connective tissue that binds the disparate characters of the DCU and Marvel U together; that they are, more than most solo-character comics, tied into the creative direction of whole fictional universes, the endless churn of crossovers and events and theme weeks.

In the last nine months I’ve been out of the loop, no longer plugged into those ongoing stories every week, no longer getting those tiny chunks of sprawling mega-story every seven days. Get ten week’s comics at once, and whatever big death/resurrection happened a month ago has already gone from being online news to being electronic chip-wrapper, well-spoilered by the next couple of rounds of solicitations.

Team books are, more often than not, the comics industry’s soap operas, with big casts where an individual character may only be in a few panels per issue, and their characterisation advances in baby-steps.

Part of the reason there are no DC books on the list I mentioned above is that books like ‘Justice Society of America’ employ a particularly shallow version of this model, with lots and lots of characters who have three panel conversations about their childhoods in the gaps between fight scenes.

It’s a method of storytelling that seems to actively defy any depth of character development, relying instead on stock character relations that can be quickly reversed¬† – the estranged father and son who bond, the team mates who have a two-panel flirt in one issue, a two-panel date in the next and a two-panel break-up in the one after that. Pile up the issues and read them at once, and the flaccid, disposable nature of the storytelling becomes clearer.

Which is not to say that these books don’t have a role to play, I’m just not sure that they make as much sense in a waiting-for-the-trade environment. A book on a shelf, regardless of the volume number on the spine, needs to make a case for itself as a self-contained storyline, whereas team books, with the odd exception, bleed out – into the individual team member’s solo books, into company-wide event story lines.

That’s more than fair enough. With superhero comic publishing being the way it is, with standard attrition (a constant churn of new launch, falling sales, cancellation, new launch, etc) comes the need to justify new launches.

Team books allow publishers to bring together¬† a mix of popular, ‘fan favourite’ (i.e. unpopular) and new characters in one title, hopefully coasting on the popularity of big names like Batman or Wolverine, while building or re-building the popularity of lower tier characters so that they can, hopefully, star in their own titles which will, with luck, make money for at least a year or so before cancellation bites and the cycle begins again.

They also provide a good access point to the universe as a whole – at their best, ‘The Avengers’ and ‘JLA’ provide an overview of their respective fictional universes. You can see what Batman’s up to, what the standing of the heroes in regards to each other, the authorities and the general public is, what the tone of the line as a whole is.

At their worst, team books have hollow stories that will never effect any character big enough to have their own title, and just string the reader along. A bad team book is one that doesn’t make for a case for itself beyond ‘look at these guys all together, isn’t that cool?’

As someone who is now an occasional comic reader, someone who picks and chooses titles that are worth sitting down and paying attention to, I want stories that stand-up weeks or months after the initial fuss of publication, that can be read in isolation and still make sense.

I’m not saying it’s impossible for a team book to do that – if Grant Morrison was writing ‘New X-Men’ of ‘JLA’ now, I’d not just be reading those I’d be reading them first – just that it’s harder for a team book to attain that kind of focused storytelling than it is for a solo-title, even if that solo book has a large supporting cast.

The completely standalone team-book can be done – ‘Watchmen’ is a story about a superhero team, albeit a totally self-contained one – but it might not necessarily be desirable. Team books aren’t going anywhere fast, certainly while most comics are primarily exist as periodicals, and they clearly have their readership, peppering the top of the sales charts.

It may well just be that I’m not that kind of reader anymore.

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By Mark Clapham

Mark Clapham is a Devon-based writer and editor. You can find out more about him at the egotistically named

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