A couple of (cool) people have pointed out that TVTropes has the “Five Man Band” page, and how it predated Chris Sims’s breakdown of the core five elements to a Superhero team. Different folks pointed it out for different reasons, but a recurring theme was, essentially, “hey, Chris Sims didn’t come up with this.”
Well… obviously he didn’t come up with the concept of the 5-team. However… I honestly think Sims’s interpretation is superior to the TVTropes page.
Let’s look at the five:
- TVTropes: The Leader vs Chris Sims: The Leader. Um… obviously no change here, so we move on.
- TVTropes: The Lancer vs Chris Sims: The Wild Card. This is a significant change. The Lancer, in many ways, is a codified second in command. He or she might be hotheaded vs. a cool headed leader, or it might be the opposite. There might be sarcasm or snark, or taciturn quiet. Lance (duh) from Voltron. Skye, from Power Rangers: SPD.
The Wild Card, on the other hand, is just that. The Wild Card may not be a team player at all. He or she may need active reining in, and will likely foment conflict between one or more of the participants. And there’s little chance the Wild Card will be second in command. In fact, the Wild Card is likely to be on probation at best. Guy Gardner. Gambit. Early Wolverine. Hawkgirl. Harley Freaking Quinn.
- TVTropes: The Smart Guy vs. Chris Sims: The Brain. Let’s set aside the fact that it is “the Smart Guy,” IE — can’t be a girl. It’s significant and wrong, but let’s set it aside. The Smart Guy is intelligent, often nerdy — “played for comic relief.” Generally physically unimposing. Pidge, from Voltron. Billy, from MMPR. The geek, the dork. Not the hero except in very special episodes.
The Brain, on the other hand? Is BATMAN. Intelligent, wise, tactical. Uses intellect to not just level the playing field but stack the deck against the villains. Brainiac 5. Batman. Oracle. Amanda Waller. Far from being the comic relief or the nerd, the Brain is what makes the superteam something other than a pack of jocks beating up muggers.
- TVTropes: The Big Guy vs Chris Sims: The Muscle. The Big Guy (again — guy) is just that. Big. Strong. A little goofy, generally. Maybe dumb. Hunk, from Voltron. Ryū/Tiny/Hooty from Gatchaman. There’s little more to say about him.
The Muscle is the sheer power a superhero team can bring to bear, be that physical or some other kind. This power may be overwhelming or even uncontrolled, or may be tightly reined in. Superman or Wonder Woman, depending on if one is the leader. The Hulk or She-Hulk. Thor. Carol Danvers. John Stewart. Starfire.
- TVTropes: The Chick vs Chris Sims: The Heart: Well, on the one side we have—
You know what? No. This one’s just flat out a ‘no.’ The Chick is just that. In the Five-Man Band trope there’s one girl — maybe two. And that girl is perhaps a touch sassy but is also the kind, mediating influence who everyone’s a little in love with and no one ever bangs. And yeah, I love Voltron too, but Princess Allura — at least in the original run — is there to be slightly incompetent, beloved and in distress. Princess/Jun from Gatchaman isn’t nearly so professionally helpless, but still. This is not something for a modern western superhero comic to emulate.
The Heart is a necessary component for a team comic. Someone who binds the team together, who exemplifies the reasons they fight, who smooths over the conflicts, especially between the Wild Card and everyone else. Someone to inspire everyone when things are at their darkest. You know who the Heart of the Avengers was during the Roger Stern era? (For my money, the best of the 80’s and one of the best of all time?) Captain America. While Janet Van Dyne and Monica Rambeau were leading the team, Captain America was the glue that held it together. Cosmic Boy or Element Lad of the Legion, depending on the era. Kitty Pryde or Cyclops, once upon a time before… well, before. J’onn J’onzz.
Look, I’m not knocking the TVTropes entry. It’s an accurate entry, describing a recurring trope in several media. But it’s not a blueprint for what a successful superhero team comic needs. Superteams need a balance that gives each character a reason to be in the comic, without making them too cardboard or, worse, indistinguishable. There needs to be something that makes the team work while also building intra-team conflict. The Five-Man Band doesn’t try to do any of that.
In other words, it’s the difference between a formula, and a well thought out cast.
Five Man Bands still exist and still work. Heck, I just saw a well composed one launch on Power Rangers: Megaforce. (The Yu-Gi-Oh rangers! Collect all the power cards!) But part of the reason they work is because they’re traveling well worn paths. There are no surprises to be had, there. And all too often, the stories they tell are simplistic.
Not always, by any means. But all too often.
Chris Sims may have been inspired by the Five Man Band, but what he laid out in his article was more subtle, less stereotype. That makes the conversation very different, and for my money a lot more interesting.