Ask Chris #138: Ladies Night For the JLA
Over a lifetime of reading comics, Senior Writer Chris Sims has developed an inexhaustible arsenal of facts and opinions. That’s why, each and every week, we turn to you to put his comics culture knowledge to the test as he responds to your reader questions!
Q: In response to the all X-Women X-Men team: Who would you put on an all female Avengers/JLA/Defenders/whatever? — @WBXylo
A: I’m sure I’ve talked about this more than a few times in this column, but back when I worked at the comic book store, one of our most frequent time-wasters was standing behind the counter coming up with different versions of the Justice League. Still, in all the years I spent on the Justice League of Burt Reynolds Characters and the Justice League of the McDonald’s Menu, I don’t think I ever came up with one that was all women. Of course, this is an Ask Chris column, so if you’re going to figure out a super-team, you must first invent the universe.
Nah, just kidding. Even I’m not that longwinded. But you do need to figure out what exactly a super-team is.Assuming that we’re not just going to go with a bunch of characters that I like — which would really just be Batwoman, Batgirl, Huntress, Oracle and… oh, you know, what’s her name, that blonde kid who was Robin for a hot minute — I think there’s a pretty easy formula you can use to slap together a team of super-heroes. You really just need to fill five roles: the Leader, the Brain, the Muscle, the Heart and the Wild Card.
They’re pretty much exactly what they sound like. The Leader’s there to give orders, the Brain provides the strategy, solves puzzles and figures out clues, and the Muscle hits things until they are in pieces too small to continue hitting. The two that are a little more complex (but only a little) are the Heart, who provides some kind of moral center or axis around which the team can revolve and be held together, and the Wild Card, who just needs to be adaptable to different situations, whether through superpowers or just personality. Once you’ve got those, you can add other people to keep things interesting, but that’s the group that’s going to make up the core. It goes without saying that these aren’t strict rules or anything, but I think if you look at a lot of teams, you’re going to find that dynamic shaping how they work.
The ’90s Grant Morrison/Howard Porter/Mark Waid era of JLA, for instance, was built almost entirely around this model. Superman was the figurehead that could inspire and rally the others, Batman was the master tactician who could direct his teammates like human-shaped batarangs, Wonder Woman was the Amazon warrior queen, the Martian Manhunter was solidly at the core of the team (largely because his solo career never really took off), and Flash and Green Lantern were able to pretty much be anywhere (with super-speed) and do anything (with his magic space ring) to keep things interesting. Also, Aquaman was there, for what I can only assume were copyright purposes.
It works for other teams, too, although most of the time, there’s a little more of a grey area in the roles. In the Avengers movie, it’s Captain America, Iron Man, Hulk, Thor and Black Widow (also I guess Hawkguy was there?), but you can certainly make the argument that Cap’s a pretty central part of the team dynamic, and that Iron Man and Thor aren’t exactly slouches in the blowing-things-up department, even though they’re not the ones who pick up the bad guy and smash him into the floor until he can’t stand up. You can even see the dynamic working in teams that don’t seem like they’d fit, like the Fantastic Four — Reed’s the Leader and the Brain, Ben’s the Muscle, Sue’s adaptable powers make her the Wild Card, Johnny’s on fire which looks pretty awesome, and the whole dang team is the heart. There are different permutations all over comics, to the point where Wolverine has been known to play every single role at the same time in various books.
For our purposes, though, I’m just going to stick with that bunch of five and see what I can come up with. So let’s make ourselves a Justice League.
First up, our Leader:
I thought about this one for a while, because I really wanted to stay away from using actual regular members of the Justice League, but when you get right down to it, Wonder Woman fits the bill better than anyone else. I’ve never really been a big fan of Wonder Woman as a character, but there’s no denying that she’s an incredible symbol, and as someone who was raised as a warrior, she knows how to get things done. When she’s written well, Wonder Woman has that indomitable spirit, and that’s the most important part of taking that role as a leader — the ability to get back up and take your stand when things are at their worst. It’s what makes Captain America great in the Avengers, and makes Superman such a great figurehead when he’s in the Justice League. She’s a solid fit for the role.
Next, the Brains:
And for that, I’m going with Batgirl. When I was coming up with my team, another thing I tried to avoid was just using direct analogues of the regular Justice League roster, and considering that Barbara Gordon was a full-fledged member of the JLA as Oracle, I’m snapping two of my self-imposed rules in half and leaving them by the wayside.
But really, that’s exactly why I picked her. I’ve written pretty extensively about the different aspects of her character that I like and the incredible determination and aspiration at the core of it, but one of the things I really like about her is that she’s crazy smart and extremely analytical. Her whole gimmick of being a super-hacker capable of finding, processing and coordinating any information you could ask for (you know, like a modern-day oracle) is one of the few that actually became more relevant after it was introduced, and I love the idea of her doing that kind of thinking and strategizing while also jump-kicking villains in the face. What can I say? I’m a man of simple tastes.
For the Muscle…
I’m going with Power Girl, and while I meant what I said about not wanting to go with analogues, I picked her because she’s not Superman. Same powers, same origin (most of the time), yes, but there’s a completely different motivation at play. At her best — the sadly short-lived Jimmy Palmiotti/Justin Gray/Amanda Conner solo run that’s easily some of the best work any of them have done — Power Girl was able to shake off decades of bizarre and confusing characterization and muddled back stories and just focus on fun.
Power Girl is, if you’ll pardon the expression, bigger than everybody else. Bigger emotions, which played to Conner’s incredible facial expressions, bigger adventures, and bigger powers, the last of which led to her being depicted as almost hilariously strong. She’s great.
For the Heart:
I knew from the start that I was going to use Big Barda in this team. The only question was what role I was going to drop her in, because really, she could fit just about anywhere. She’s an established Leader as the commander of Darkseid’s Female Furies and she’s obviously physically powerful. Still, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that none of those are really the reason I think she’s such a great character.
All of that comes from her role in the Fourth World saga. Barda is born and raised on Apokolips, the world without mercy, “WHERE HOLOCAUST IS A HOUSEHOLD WORD!!”, but she rises above all that because she’s the first person on that world to learn to love something. She rejects her training, her past and her position in the hierarchy because she knows that there’s a better way, and there’s nothing that’s going to keep her from it. She’ll go through whatever she has to, and if that unshakable attitude was turned towards whatever it was that this team was dealing with — which I’m going to go ahead and say would be an all-villainess team led by Talia and Nasthalthia Luthor — it could provide a solid moral base.
Finally, the Wild Card:
Kate Spencer, better known as Manhunter.
I love this character for a variety of reasons, but chief among them is the original hook to her series, which is that she raided the Supervillain Evidence Locker for her costume and equipment and ended up with a Darkstar suit, Azrael’s gauntlets and the previous Manhunter’s staff. That’s such a great idea, and while her ongoing series didn’t do too much more with it than that — instead opting to give her a well-traveled ex-henchman to supply her gear — there are so many places it could go. I’d love to see a version of Kate Spencer that had a little more variety to her equipment, surprising enemies with Freeze Rays or Weather Wands and turning the tables on them.
Plus, she brings the Wild Card aspect to the table in terms of personality, too, what with the fact that she straight up killed supervillains in her first appearance. Kate Spencer don’t shiv, y’all.
So there it is, and as you might expect, I don’t think the team’s too shabby. It’s a little heavy on the brute strength, sure, but in the immortal words of Dr. Clayton Forrester, if violence isn’t the answer, you’re asking the wrong question.
That’s all we have for this week, but if you’ve got a question you’d like to see Chris tackle in a future column, just send it to @theisb on Twitter with the hashtag #AskChris, or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org with [Ask Chris] in the subject line!