Last week, Snell's Slay Monstrobot of the Deep ran a piece on superhero team-up books, which made me think hard about the format. Why do I like it so much, and why is it so hard to put out a good one?
Superheroes have been teaming up since the Justice Society of America created the concept of the shared universe, but the first real team-up book was DC's The Brave and the Bold. From an anthology series, it grew into a place where DC's heroes could team-up (almost exclusively with Batman), offering some 150 issues of team-up between 1963 and 1983. Marvel followed suit with the format with Marvel Team-Up (1972-1985) featuring Spider-Man, and Marvel Two-in-One (1974-1983) featuring the Thing, of all people (Ben Grimm's everyman personality actually made him ideal for team-ups, though not an obvious choice). DC Comics Presents (1978-1986) would be Superman's team-up book, replaced for a short while by Action Comics immediately after the Crisis on Infinite Earths. The 70s and early 80s were the golden age in terms of team-up books. Since then, the record has been spotty. The most successful of modern team-up platforms has been the Batman: Brave and the Bold cartoon show and tie-in comic, both gone too soon. DC has also tried resurrecting B&B in the mainstream DCU, but without Batman's constant participation. On the other side of the street, Marvel has spoofed the format with Deadpool Team-Up (2009-2011) and currently publishes two such books , Avenging Spider-Man and Captain America and _____________. I don't find the same magic in them I used to find in the older series. DC, who arguably invented the format, don't currently publish a single book devoted to it.
What Made Classic Team-Up Books Fun
First of all, and this is something that modern comics have difficulty with, classic team-up books usually had a new guest-star every issue. This mostly meant a one-off, complete story every month, which is apparently anathema to modern comics' buy-the-next-ish momentum marketing, but those books sometimes told long story arcs, or even kept its own subplots going. Today's team-up books might as well be X & Y 3 or 4-issue mini-series. The guest star sticks around for a few months, and when it goes, so does the creative team. This goes against the #1 reason why team-up books are fun:
YOU NEVER KNOW WHO'S GONNA TURN UP NEXT!
I completely understand that team-up books need to regularly feature a big star to draw their fans in. However, the most exciting team-ups are the unusual ones you would never have expected. Batman and Sgt. Rock, Superman and Santa Claus, Spider-Man and Killraven, The Thing and Doc Savage. Covers that make you go WHAT THE HECK!!! regardless of the story inside. And you can afford to do that when you're doing 12 team-ups a year instead of 3-5. Can Avenging Spider-Man do a crazy Two-Gun Kid team-up if it means sacrificing 4 months of Iron Man fans picking the book up? Probably not. And those weird little team-ups are important because of the #2 reason:
TEAM-UP BOOKS ARE RIDICULOUS, WRITERS SHOULD GIVE IN TO IT!
Think about it. It's already hard enough to justify how major stars can have momentous adventures in their own (often plural) book(s), participate in at least one team, AND still have this other series of adventures where, though they usually operate solo or with a specific partner, they collaborate with a different hero each month (to them, every few days). And because these various guest stars may come from anywhere in the shared universe, it makes for meetings that would usually be unthinkable, like Batman and the Legion, or Superman and Swamp Thing. People who would not appear in the star's regular books because they are tonally wrong for it, or the only way they CAN meet is through time travel or dreams or who knows what. It's completely bonkers, and that's a large part of the joy of these books, seeing what kind of hoops writers jump through just to marry two completely different concepts. It's no wonder Bob Haney and Bill Mantlo were masters of the form, and that I decided to contrast them in a series of posts a few years back.
Variety leads to craziness, and crazy is something comics do very well. I don't know why anyone would want a gritty, realistic team-up book anyway. There is a third reason to have these, but it's one that DC may have lost:
TEAM-UP BOOKS ALLOW READERS TO EXPLORE THE SHARED UNIVERSE!
This is a major part of Snell's article, so I won't go into too much detail, but yeah, definitely! The whole point of a shared universe is that the characters can meet, and the team-up book is the perfect place to check in with disused characters, put their logo on the cover and renew their copyright, all that good stuff. At its best, it's a celebration of the comic book company's history, showcasing the Inferior 5 one minute, and the Golden Gladiator the next, with Madame Xanadu, Wildcat and Kamandi in the pipeline. At its most disappointing, it's only about whatever Avenger would best promote an upcoming movie. So you can see DC's problem. Their universe currently has no history. Snell suggests that it might be a way to discover the New 52 versions of various characters, meeting them again for the first time, as it were, and that's one way to do it. It does carry a heavy responsibility though - re-designing characters that the company might want to use later, in effect, making a fun romp of a team-up book their first appearance. I can only imagine it falling prey to editorial mismanagement. It's too bad, because had we a slightly older universe to play with, the way I would personally write it is to shuffle a ton of Who's Who pages and draw a hero and a villain at random for each month. Let the chips fall where they may. The first comic book I ever bought with my own money was DC Comics Presents #59, which teamed-up Superman with the Legion of Substitute-Heroes against Ambush Bug. Not too random thematically, but far from obvious too. Those are the kinds of team-ups I like!
A Hard Sell, I Know
This discussion wouldn't be complete without my acknowledgement of the marketing problems associated with team-up books. Publishers are no doubt worried - and they're not wrong to be - that when an obscure guest-star appears, that issue is not going to sell as well as the others. At 3-4$ a pop, that's a very real concern, and I can remember buying or not buying issues of team-up books based on how intriguing the guest star was because I had limited funds even at 75¢ (Canadian) a pop. Maybe the perfect team-up book these days is digital-only and a bit cheaper, I don't know. DC COULD theoretically change their DC Universe Presents anthology (its name already based on a classic team-up book) into a place where a consistent star teams up with a variety of characters. They're already taking a financial chance by introducing B-list characters in short arcs. But there's also the matter of who the star should be. Currently, DC's big guns have trouble playing nice with each other, which limits their usefulness in team-up situations. Maybe DC should look at Marvel Two-in-One for inspiration, since Ben Grimm always got the most unfriendliest of farewells at the end of each issue. Like the other heroes couldn't believe they'd just had to team up with THAT guy. It was hilarious. Batman's got too many books as it is, but one which would always end with some other hero thinking "Jerk" as Bats disappeared into the shadows would be a damn sight better than, say, Batman: The Dark Knight.
The B&B cartoon showed there's hope for the format as it was meant to work, but the decision makers have put it in the dreaded "Kids' Comics" column and haven't even invested in THAT. While I wait for the perfect team-up book to appear, I'll just keep shuffling Who's Who pages in my head and making up my own ludicrous stories...