Today I looked at the Diamond comics sales figures for January and found myself pondering the reasons why comics like Justice League so consistently leave me cold. It’s a bestselling series: clearly this is a story that works for a lot of direct market comics readers. But it doesn’t work for me now, and it hasn’t worked for me in the past. I flipped through Justice League #4 when it arrived at my library, and was amazed at how uninterested I was! You would think, given that I currently read both Batman and The Flash, that I would find it at least somewhat appealing. Instead, I was just mildly bored.
Now, there are certainly plenty of criticisms one could make of the current Justice League and of the DC reboot that surrounds it. The comics media has covered those bases pretty thoroughly, so I’m not going to delve into those details. Instead, I want to think aloud a bit about why I have the particular reaction I do, and for me, it mostly comes down to this: Justice League and its ilk are team-up stories instead of team stories.
I have a soft spot the size of Texas for team stories. When Luffy in One Piece makes grand declarations about his loyalty to his nakama, I am totally swept along with the emotion of the manga. When various members of the Saiyuki ikkou snark at each other because they hate to outright acknowledge their real bonds of friendship, I am both charmed and amused. These teams make me care as a reader because the major events in their lives happen with and because of each other. Sure, the individual members come in with backstory and baggage, but their most important character development takes place within the context of the team. So Nami has an elaborate and tragic history in One Piece that helps make her the character we know and love, but that’s only a part of who she is. For me, the turning point of Nami’s place in One Piece comes in chapter 81 of that series, when she finally asks for Luffy’s help with Arlong, even though she’s deceived him and the others. And of course, Luffy, being Luffy, responds by putting his precious straw hat on her head, gathering the other Straw Hats, and rushing off to fight for her. It’s a huge moment for Nami as an individual character, but it’s also a big characterization moment for the Straw Hat Pirates as a team.
In contrast, in a team-up story, the individual characters always trump the idea of the team. While there’s a certain amount of entertainment value in watching the various members of the Justice League react to each other’s styles, that’s also often all there is to the story. The character-changing moments for the members happen, for the most part, within their own monthly titles, not in Justice League; even when they do happen outside the character’s main title (usually as part of some big crossover event), they are more about the character as an individual than about the team as a unit. For example, Batman’s apparent death and subsequent adventures while being lost in time are ultimately about Batman and Bruce Wayne; it doesn’t add much to the characterization of the Justice League as a team.
This isn’t a manga vs. superhero comics issue. While the structure of the Marvel and DC universes tends to lead to team-up stories, you can see team-up-like storytelling in manga, too. Take, for example, the later half of Bleach. When I first began reading Bleach, it felt like a team story: Ichigo was certainly the lead, but there was a core character group of Ichigo, Ishida, Chad, Orihime, and Rukia. Team Karakura, if you would. In the Soul Society arc, life-changing things happened to them because of their ties to each other. But as that Bleach has dragged on, Kubo Tite’s moved away from that type of storytelling. Now the big fight sequences of each arc feel much more team-up stories. Instead of Team Karakura, we have Ichigo and various overpowered Shinigami characters facing down the villains of each arc, and the fights advance the stories but do little to change the characters as a group.
What are your favorite team stories? Though I kept this post mostly focused on sequential art, I have to include a special shoutout for the gang in Avatar: The Last Airbender, who I adore. And what might I be missing about the appeal of team-ups?