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Five Comic Superteams Too Cool for Mainstream Success

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So you’ve got your heavy hitter Justice Leagues and Avengers, your fan favorite X-Men and Fantastic Fours, and your Young Justices and Teen Titans (what’s the difference between those two again?) on the second string.  You’ve got Green Lantern Corps and Marvel is even uncorking a Guardians of the Galaxy film to open up the comic cosmos to mainstream audiences.  Superteams are and have always been a great concept.  You can either take a diverse group of misfits whose individual talents and personalities fit together to form a force to be reckoned with, or you can take a group of established heroes, throw them all together in the mix and let the awesomeness commence.  Either approach is almost inevitably met with success.

But then there are the superteams who never really take off.  Maybe the comics are popular with critics, but readership doesn’t follow, maybe the title gets canceled,  maybe DC reboots the entire universe, or a bad writer takes over and tanks the whole franchise; maybe all of the above.  A television show or Hollywood film may even get made, but they screw up the concept and/or the mainstream just isn’t interested.  These things happen.   But some of these teams in their best incarnations are always going to be in the hearts and minds of comic book fans even if they never get their proper due.  This is for them.

Runaways

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Out of all of the concepts for a superteam ever, this one has got to be the one that screams “MAKE ME INTO AN AWESOME TV SHOW!”  the loudest of them all. You take a group of relatively normal teenagers, have them discover together that their parents are all part of a supervillain society bent on ending the world, and you take it from there.  The result was arguably the best thing Marvel has done….well, maybe ever.

Not only were these all original characters with interesting powers ranging from telepathic control over a Velociraptor (actually a Deinonychus) to spells that can only be used once ever, but they were really damn good characters, all of them and facing the legitimate dilemma of not only living on the run, but having to oppose their own parents while doing it.

On top of that, you have the fact that at the time The Runaways were the only action the West Coast was getting in the New York-centric Marvel Universe.  That’s not to say that they didn’t run into plenty of familiar faces along the way, but it was nice to see another part of the Marvel Universe for a change.  Furthermore, alien refugee Karolina is not only arguably the most visually brilliant character in comics when she “flames on” so to speak, but she also represented a rare openly gay character who didn’t need a big press conference or anything in the media to announce that comics was going to have another gay character.  Her sexual orientation was simply who she was and it was treated as a fact of life, not as some condescending political statement, and that’s how it should be.

“Runaways” was and still is a massive breath of fresh air in what has become a stale mainstream comic scene.  A bunch of smart-mouthed, confused kids living off the grid and trying to save the world while barely being able to keep themselves from falling apart; in the hands of a great writer, this is gold.  Sadly, after Joss Whedon’s brief, ambitious run on the series taking over for creator Brian K. Vaughan, the quality eventually took a steep drop and the comic died a horrible death.  A film has been promised, but production has continuously been halted and it appears that Rocket Raccoon will make it onto the big screen before any of these guys.

Birds of Prey

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Comic fans know that in 1988, Barbara Gordon ceased being Batgirl after The Joker put a bullet in her spine, leaving her a paraplegic, in one of the greatest Batman comics ever written.  For most characters, the answer would have been a brief period of uselessness and mopery followed by a magic cure and a return to action.  But DC played this one smart for a change and Babs became the foremost hacker in the world, changing her identity to the all-knowing Oracle, and becoming the Gotham vigilante community’s go-to girl.  Way cooler.

Eventually, Oracle decided working with Batman and the like wasn’t enough for her and searched for a partner to act as her agent in worldwide espionage and rescue missions.  Black Canary was down on her luck at the time, and the two “broken” heroines teamed up to found the foremost all-female superteam in comics.  Later, after Gail Simone took over writing duties, the dynamic duo would welcome Huntress and Lady Blackhawk into the fold to form the team’s classic line-up.

The combination of caustic personalities, badass skills relying on finesse rather than power, and natural sex appeal of the team in Simone’s brilliant hands made them one of the most fun and exciting reads DC has ever put out. “Birds of Prey” was canceled for a while after readership declined following Simone’s departure, then brought back with the popular writer back at the head , then canceled again and rebooted for the New 52.

Oracle being, in her way, the most powerful woman in the DC Universe while confined to a wheelchair was pretty damn empowering, and I was more than a little upset when the reboot not only gave her her legs back to have her resume Batgirl duties (snooooore), but transformed the Birds into something utterly unrecognizable to me.  So much boycott.

Shockingly, “Birds of Prey” was actually adapted into a television series for the WB in 2002.  But the show took precious few cues from the source material and never really decided whether it wanted to appeal to comic book nerds looking for killer action or “Gilmore Girls” fans pining for “girl power” bonding moments and the result was a massive decline in viewership that led to cancelation after the first season.

If the Birds had made their way to the DC Animated Universe (which almost happened for an episode of “Justice League: Unlimited”) I have no doubt in my mind that the result would have been absolutely amazing.  But that never happened, and it seems unlikely that a franchise that DC can’t even hold together convincingly anymore is going to get another shot at crossover success, so I guess it’s time to break out the trade paperbacks and remember the glory days.

The Boys

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If you were a superhero who stepped out of line in this nasty piece of work by Garth Ennis (of “Preacher” fame), that image would likely be the last thing you ever saw.  The Boys were a group of secret agents with a beef against superpowered individuals’ irresponsible destruction, and whose job it was to put them down if it became necessary.  It’s one of my favorite comics of the last decade, and it is not for the faint of heart.

The initial six issues were published by a subsidiary of DC, but the series was promptly booted because….well, just read it.  It’s essentially the most offensive possible satire of everything we’ve seen mainstream comics become over the years, with many characters being blatant caricatures of existing comic icons, both real and fictional.  DC was not amused.

“The Boys” ran for a full seventy-two issues (not including multiple miniseries’), and ended on its own terms last year, which is actually impressive.  As a creator-owned title with an independent publisher, it had the flexibility to carry on without interference and Ennis was allowed to make his comic the way he wanted to, and the result was jaw-droppingly shocking at times, and laugh-until-you-cry funny at others.  Sometimes both at once.  Highly recommended for fans of no-holds-barred satire.

Like “Runaways”, “The Boys” has been optioned for a feature film, but have been stuck in development limbo for years.  One thing I can tell you is that there is no possible way to do this story justice on the big screen.  In my opinion, this is a franchise that should stay in the medium it was created to tear down.

Secret Six

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Take a group of supervillains who have been degraded and abused to “joke” status over the years, put them together with a few original characters to form a mercenary crew to take on the dirty jobs, and now the lame villains are awesome.  Even cooler than the heroes that have beaten them down over the years.  Who knew?

There was a Silver Age team known as The Secret Six, but the team I’m referring to came about in 2005 and after a revolving-door approach that saw the likes of The Mad Hatter, Cheshire, Knockout, and Harley Quinn take turns on the team, The Six evolved into the core line-up seen above led by Scandal (daughter of immortal villain Vandal Savage, and another matter-of-fact gay character) under the creative eye of Gail Simone, from whom most great things in recent DC comics flow.

Seriously, did anyone ever think Catman would be a legit badass in the modern comic era?   Well, it happened.  Or who would think that a comic would ever come along that made you earnestly root for the villains or take a murderous bunch of weirdoes and make you love the hell out of them?   And to sweeten the deal, the Six even went toe-to-toe with the Birds of Prey in a crossover arc to die for.  And then there was the amazingly random homage issue featuring the cast in a Wild West setting that had, if nothing else, a quick-draw duel between Deadshot and Deathstroke to recommend it.  That all happened too.   Pity it had to stop.

I don’t believe it is a coincidence that the final issue of the Six’s fantastic run featured most of the DC Universe conspiring to take them down.  Between “Birds of Prey” and “Secret Six”, it really must have felt like the DC powers that be were actively shutting down every great thing she had done just because they could.  But neither the Six nor Simone went down without a blaze of glory fight to the finish before the New 52 destroyed everything we loved.  It was utterly fitting.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

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Alan Moore is a legend of the sequential art narrative form, and for very good reason.   His work is exceptionally literate, sophisticated, and littered with philosophical themes and grey morality that mark his work as something that will never be mistaken for children’s fare.  His League of Extraordinary Gentlemen took the superteam concept and, rather than using comic book heroes, he substituted classic literary heroes.  Inspired concept?  Damn right, it is.

Picture this: Mina Murray shedding the damsel in distress role she played in “Dracula” and heading up a special ops team comprised of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Allan Quatermain, The Invisible Man, and Captain Nemo, to name the core members among the many other characters who appear.  Now picture them battling the aliens from “War of the Worlds”.  Now think of a cooler concept than that, if you can (protip: you can’t).  The idea really does sell itself.

Among all of the teams on this list, the League has easily the least number of actual issues to their name, but their adventures are without question the most epic, encompassing not only entire worlds, but an entire universe of English literary fiction.  That is damn ambitious and Moore carries it off spectacularly for the most part.  And the Victorian/steampunk styles utilized in the art; yeah, pretty cool.

The League was, of course, tapped for a Hollywood blockbuster movie that did decently with audiences, but pretty much tanked with critics, leading the potential film franchise to die out and be forgotten.  And to be fair, it was pretty much fated to be so.  “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is a concept that was always going to be difficult to properly capture onscreen even without the rights to so many characters and stories tied up in different studios.  You think Harry Potter, John Carter, and James Bond were ever going to part of the same cinematic universe?  Dream on.  Or better yet, just pick up the comics.  I doubt you’ll regret it, though your fellow humans as always reserve the right to judge you.

 Neeeeeeeeerrrrrrds!

So anyways, not all great things are meant to be appreciated by everyone.  True quality is not necessarily measured in mass appeal.  Every great novel series is not going to get the adaptations and love of a “Lord of the Rings” or a “Game of Thrones” and not every awesome comic franchise will be successfully adapted to a more socially acceptable media form either.  Maybe it’s better that way.  Now that the mainstream has caught on to some of this stuff and ripped it away from geek culture’s collective bosom to be discussed by yuppies and other filthy casuals along with the latest celebrity reality shows at their metaphorical water coolers, there’s less and less for us to call our own.  But comics is one media form that America is so historically biased against that it still seems unthinkable for an adult to be seen reading them in public without getting weird glances.  That means it’s still ours…for now.

In the meantime, those of us who know what the comic medium is capable of get to enjoy the fruits of the labors of some of the best writers and creative minds in entertainment in real time while the rest of the human race gets to sit and wait for whatever Hollywood or their cable providers decide to ram down their throats next.  Sounds good to me.

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About Nick Verboon

I am a guy on the internet who writes stuff sometimes. Try and keep up. I used to write reviews Amazon and other sites under the moniker trashcanman before semi-retiring from my unpaid career for a while. But now I'm back in action writing columns for Unreality and Gamemoir. Enjoy. I

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