Ask Chris #223: Prepare For Trouble, And Make It Double
Q: Why aren’t there more heroic duos or “tag teams?” -- @awa64
A: Friend, I don't usually like to start off these columns by specifically denying the premise of the question, but there are a lot of heroic duos in the world of superhero comics. I mean, even if we're just limiting ourselves to the most famous superheroes out there, the top of that list is going to include both the World's Finest and the Dynamic Duo, and you don't have to look much harder to find other pairings further down the list.
Unless, of course, you're specifically asking why there aren't more actual pro wrestling tag teams that have taken up crime-fighting when they're not busy in the ring, in which case I have no idea, but rest assured that is something I want to see.
That said, I think there might be a few good reasons why it might seem like there aren't a whole lot of two-person teams. For starters, most of the most famous characters in comics are either dedicated loners (like Batman and Wolverine) or members of teams with much larger rosters than a simple partnership (like Batman and Wolverine). On top of that, when you think about the most prominent pairings in comics -- crime-fighting pairings, that is -- the ones that tend to come to mind aren't usually partnerships between equals, they're a hero and a sidekick.
Batman and Robin are the prime example to the point where they've become a pop cultural shorthand for the sidekick as a concept, but they're just the tip of the iceberg, especially when it comes to the Golden Age. Captain America and Bucky, the Human Torch and Toro, the Crimson Avenger and Wing, the Sandman and Sandy the Golden Boy, the Vigilante and Stuff the Chinatown Kid, they were all part of that same tradition -- a tradition that resulted in increasingly improbable names as the '40s wore on. They're all duos, but they don't really feel like partnerships. There's always one character who's in charge by virtue of being older, creating a dynamic that feels more like a father and son in every way that matters. That's even pretty explicit in some cases, like how Billy Batson and Freddy Freeman were the same age, but turned into heroes named Captain Marvel and Captain Marvel Jr. You don't get a whole lot more definitive about who's in charge in that relationship, even if Mary Marvel technically made them a trio.
Of course, you also had the Star Spangled Kid and Stripesy, who flipped that formula around so that the sidekick was the adult, but they didn't really last very long, mainly being notable for the time that one of them was murdered and the other became a robot.
It's worth noting that out of all of those characters, Robin was the one who really stuck around long enough to evolve into something that more closely resembled a partner, which has a lot to do with Dick Grayson being allowed to grow up, albeit at an admittedly glacial pace. Don't get me wrong, Batman is always going to be the front half of that particular partnership, but the idea of "Robin" as a legacy role helps to shape things a little differently. You see it primarily with Dick (hee) breaking out of the partnership to become his own man, and while he's almost immediately replaced with a wide-eyed young successor, it creates a shift in those roles. It starts to be a little less father and son and a little more mentor and student, and while you're always going to be a son, the relationship with a teacher is a little more flexible. Assuming you stick around long enough, you'll eventually be on equal terms.
That's an idea that comes through really well with Tim Drake in the '90s. He's definitely a subordinate, but, when he first appears at least, he doesn't really need a father figure in the way that Batman's other collection of miscellaneous orphans did. As a result, he's the one who feels more like a partner than a son. It's something that bled into Batman: The Animated Series in more ways than just the costume. The Dick Grayson of B:TAS comes out of the oven a little older than his comic book counterpart, a college student who's on more of an equal footing with the younger Bruce Wayne he's partnered with. And then, comics being what they are, Damian Wayne came along and we were right back to a literal father and son relationship -- and then almost as quickly flipped around so that it was Dick in the role of a mentor.
Bucky makes a pretty interesting case study, too.
Not because he wasn't just a kid sidekick -- Simon and Kirby's original version was definitely that -- but because we had forty years without him to reassess his role. In that time, he was recast as a motivating tragedy whose death gave Cap a personal beef with Baron Zemo, a legacy character that allowed Rick Jones to fill another square on the Bingo Card of sidekicking for the entire Marvel Universe, and, eventually, a full-fledged partner who was secretly gunning down Ratzis while Cap was in the spotlight. I'm particularly fond of the movie's version of the relationship between the two characters, where they came up together and Bucky was the one who had to save Steve Rogers from the bullies before he got the super-powered body to match his heart.
Anyway, long story short, kid sidekicks largely fell out of favor, especially once the '60s rolled around and Spider-Man showed everybody that you didn't need the adventure hero and the kid readers could identify with if you just went ahead and made them the same person. And it wasn't too long after that that you start to get the kind of partnerships that I think you're asking about.
Comics have always skewed towards ensemble casts and larger teams over duos, but in the '70s and '80s, you start to see the idea of the Buddy Comedy creeping into comics. It makes sense, too -- a character changes a lot simply by changing who they're talking to, and while that can occasionally get unwieldy in an ensemble book -- or break down into pairings, like how Fantastic Four almost always breaks down to Reed and Sue/Johnny and Ben -- putting a mismatched pair together gives you a lot of possibilities for fun character interaction, especially when they have complimentary superpowers. Which brings us the single greatest crime-fighting duo of all time: Power Man & Iron Fist.
I love these dudes so much. I love that they're both trend-hopping '70s characters who overstayed their welcome and then became way more successful when they were lumped together. I love that they are referred to on covers as "Luke and the Fist." I love that their powers are that one guy can punch through anything and the other guy can't be punched through by anything. I love that they met when one of them punched the other through a building and then they became best friends forever. Because the real "Iron Fist"... is friendship.
Anyway, they're the leading edge of a whole bunch of superheroic tag teams that come along in the modern era: Blue Beetle and Booster Gold, Quantum and Woody, Hawkeye and Hawkeye. You even get a couple on the villainous side of things, like Harley Quinn and Poison Ivy -- although really, that one's easier to categorize as a romance than a partnership.
Incidentally, if you were looking for an actual crime-fighting pro-wrestling tag team, I did manage to scrounge up something pretty close. When I mentioned the idea of superheroic tag teams to Benito Cereno, he told me about Nightmare and Sleepy, your new favorite superheroes:
Oh man, these two are amazing. They originally appeared in 1942's Clue Comics, alongside characters like Micro Face, who had a normal sized face so I don't even know what's goin gon there, and the Boy King and his Giant, who were responsible for the greatest cover blurb of all time -- WE WARN YOU! THE BOOY KING WILL KILL CRIME! They have since fallen into the public domain, and if you're curious, you can check them out over at the Digital Comic Museum. For our purposes, though, this is what matters: Bob White is a pro wrestler who wrestles in a tuxedo, wandering from town to town with his manager, who is a child named Terry. Whenever they see crime breaking out, though, Bob dresses up as a god damned glowing skeleton so that he can beat the living hell out of crooks before going to on to the next territory and demolishing their local champion.
So if you're wondering why there aren't more comics about duos, maybe it's because they did the best possible superhero tag team all the way back in 1942.