If one superhero is good, then more must be better, right? Can’t argue with that logic. That’s exactly what they were thinking over at National Comics – later known as DC – when they created the Justice Society of America in 1940. (Wonder Woman was the secretary. Seriously.) They were popular until the industry changed after the war and superheroes languished, replaced in pop culture by cops and robbers and westerns. It wasn’t until the late 50s that superheroes started to make a comeback. George Reeves as Superman on television was a bona-fide hit and new versions of the Flash and Green Lantern had been introduced. (Interestingly, one of the few characters published continuously throughout the 50s was Aquaman. So the next time somebody tells you that Aquaman sucks, tell them that. But know, without doubt, that Aquaman does indeed suck.) So in 1959, they did the same thing they did in 1940 and rounded up all their heroes into one place (including Aquaman) and called them the Justice League of America. Wonder Woman wasn’t the secretary this time.
There’s an apocryphal tale about Jack Liebowitz, publisher at National and Martin Goodman, publisher at Timely a.k.a. Atlas a.k.a. Marvel Comics playing golf together and Liebowitz bragging about sales on the Justice League’s debut. Goodman went back to his office and ordered his nephew, Stan Lee, to give him a Justice League. So Stan created the Fantastic Four. Jack Kirby apparently helped out a bit.
Regardless of the veracity of Stan Lee’s dubious recollection, the Fantastic Four changed things. They weren’t perfect. They squabbled and quarreled amongst themselves, more like a family than a team. They weren’t safe, staid, polite and comfortable like the Justice League. One guy was a monster, another guy was on fire, their leader was all stretchy and contorted and Sue was the girl. A half-step up from secretary but only just barely.
Every team had a girl. There’s a basic formula for a team book that goes something like this – the Rule of 5.
THE LEADER – he’s smart, bold, fearless. Sometimes he’s a super-genius, sometimes he’s just smart. In modern times, he’s usually a bad-ass. Everybody loves him, with the possible exception of …
THE FOIL – he’s an iconoclastic smart-mouth. He’s a rebel, Dottie. He’s a bad boy. He doesn’t like taking orders. Broods a lot, Nonetheless, he always gets the job done. Sometimes, but not always, he’s the Leader’s competition for …
THE GIRL – you have to have a girl. The stunningly blatant sexism of comic books means the girl is usually passive and overly sexualized (their costumes usually show a lot of skin) but times have slowly changed. You’re allowed to have more than one girl now and she doesn’t always have to be a ditzy weakling or a damsel-in-distress.
THE COMIC RELIEF – In contrast to the Leader or the Foil, the Comic Relief is there because he loves adventure and is slightly crazy; or he hates adventure and is always complaining. He’s the unrepressed Id of the group. He says what everybody is thinking. Sometimes, he’s the mascot. Usually, they pair him up with …
THE BIG GUY. – The powerhouse. The heavy hitter. Just like you need a girl, you need a powerhouse. Sometimes, he’s disfigured or monstrous, sometimes, he’s just huge. If he’s from the 90s, he has cartoonishly BULGING balloon-like muscles and veiny arms and SO MANY POUCHES.
That’s pretty much the formula. It works for everything from the A-Team to G-Force to the X-Men and beyond. Even Fox Force Five, so named because there was 1-2-3-4-Five of them.
You may have heard that there’s a new Avengers film (honestly, it would be more impressive if you were UNAWARE of this). There’s also a new film called the Fantastic Four (that has nothing to do whatsoever with the original source material) scheduled to be released this summer. Superheroes are big business nowadays. The original Avengers movie grossed more than a billion dollars; last summer, Guardians of the Galaxy made all the money. (And yes, there were 5 of them.)
DC says we’ll have a Justice League movie sometime next year. And yes, Aquaman will be in it, even though he sucks but at least Wonder Woman probably won’t have to be the secretary this time.