Let’s say that you are part of an established team of superheroes, and you feel the team needs some new blood. How do you find it? For that matter, how do you narrow the field if there are more candidates than you really want at this moment?
Today I’m not much interested in how the “founding members” first came together to create a team from scrach, although inevitably I’ll find myself referring to such things occasionally. My focus is elsewhere: “Given that a super-team already exists, how does it acquire the occasional new recruit?”
Answers to that question have varied enormously over the years. All the way from Very Formalized Procedures in the best (or worst) bureaucratic tradition, to Very Loose and Improvised methods at the other end of the spectrum.
As an example of the latter: In the early issues of the “Young Justice” title, veteran hero The Red Tornado was allegedly serving as a mentor-figure to the teenage members . . . in a vague sort of way. (Heavy emphasis on “vague” rather than “mentor,” the way I remember it.) By the end of the fourth issue, the membership included three boys and three girls: Robin (Tim Drake), Impulse (Bart Allen), Superboy (Kon-El), Wonder Girl (Cassandra Sandsmark), Arrowette (Cissie King-Jones), and Secret (real name unknown at the time, even to her, but it was eventually revealed as Greta Hayes).
Later on, Reddy was separated from the group for quite awhile. During his absence, Arrowette left the group, and Anita Fite, aka “Empress,” became the newest member. Here’s some dialogue from one panel of “Young Justice #35,” in which Reddy is finally touching base with the team again.
RED TORNADO: And I see we have an addition to the team. Was she subjected to a rigorous background check, an exacting series of standardized tests designed to measure her powers, and a sequence of personality interviews to determine her mental fitness?
IMPULSE: Nah. We just let her in.
RED TORNADO: Oh, good. I was worried things had changed.
Young Justice did a lot of good things for the world while it lasted, although whether that was “because of” or “in spite of” its informal recruiting methods is debatable. But as we shall see, other super-teams have experimented with a wide range of strategies for finding and recruiting the people they need!
9 Recruiting Strategies for Super-Teams
3. Open Admission
4. My Sandbox, My Rules
6. Keep It in the Family
7. General Auditions
8. Secret Testing
“We only accept a certain type of person. Anyone from outside that narrowly defined group need not apply. Doesn’t matter how powerful and experienced and ethical he is — if he can’t pass the Sacred Litmus Test, he has no business bothering us!”
Some superhero teams have been known to accept members with a wide range of origins and capabilities. For instance, the starting line-up of the Golden Age JSA ran all the way from the personified wrath of God (The Spectre) down to a short athlete with no powers or gadgets (The Atom). Now that’s what you call eclectic!
But other teams have been known to set the bar high enough that young Al Pratt never would have had a prayer of taking a seat at their table.
Early in the Legion of Super-Heroes’ Silver Age continuity, it became clear that any new applicant must have at least one superpower which existing members would then evaluate. Any “normal” person in a fancy costume was likely to get rejected in ten seconds flat (one rich kid literally tried to buy his way in). Some of the rejected applicants had used hidden technology to fake inherent powers, and there were several wannabes whose powers were rated inferior. On the other hand, some were turned away because they insufficient control of powers which might otherwise have been rated “very useful!”
As two examples of those who had genuine powers, but nonetheless got rejected:
One applicant had the exciting ability to temporarily turn things green! For some reason, the Legionnaires felt they could struggle along without him.
On the other hand, Lydda Jath (Night Girl) had incredible super-strength . . . whenever she was not exposed to sunlight. The Legionnaires felt this weakness would make her too unreliable for field work. (Night Girl went on to become a founding member of the Legion of Substitute Heroes, however.)
On the brighter side: If you possessed an adequate power, the Legionnaires didn’t nitpick over how you’d obtained it. A radioactive accident, or a genetic quirk which was shared by virtually every native of your homeworld, or something else entirely? Didn’t matter a bit, as long as your power would be useful! This tolerance of diversity put the Legion way ahead of some of the more exclusive outfits in the superhero business.
Speaking of which . . .
Debuting later in the Silver Age, the X-Men may have been the first published superhero team to cheerfully admit that they drew the line on a strict genetic basis, and they — along with various spinoff teams which have come and gone over the years — have generally adhered to that policy ever since. Either you were a mutant . . . or you weren’t. If you weren’t, then Professor X had no interest in finding room for you in his private school, no matter how angst-ridden you might be about your scary new superpowers.
In fact, after M-Day it became clear that the Professor himself was no longer a telepathic mutant, and in “Deadly Genesis #6” one of his former students (Cyclops, now running the Institute)) told him to hit the road, because, as a mere non-mutant, Charles Xavier now had no business hanging around the Institute of which he just happened to be the founder! Which at least shows that over the previous umpteen years the Prof had done a darn good job of indoctrinating Scott Summers to always remember the vitally important discriminatory policy of “We are a mutant organization, first and foremost!” Xavier had simply never expected to be hoist with his own petard!
“If a majority of our members vote you in . . . you’re in!”
I believe both the Avengers and the Justice League have been known to do it this way. A member in good standing nominates a candidate who seems worthy, and then all the active members — or at least those who are readily available — cast their votes, Yea or Nay.
For that matter, Peter David’s Young Justice seems to have worked that
way too — in practice, whether or not they had ever written down any formal rules for the process. As I mentioned earlier, Impulse said casually, “We just let her in” (regarding Empress), which suggested that a majority (if not all) of the active-duty members at the time had embraced the idea.
This approach has the virtue of being simple and straightforward and responsive to what the existing membership actually thinks it needs. If most of the veterans on the team feel it would be good to have a certain guy lending a hand in emergencies, then why not let him join, regardless of whether or not he is loaded to the brim with fancy powers which no other member can duplicate?
Contrariwise, if most of the current members find themselves unwilling to trust a certain person to have their backs whenever it’s time to save the world again, then it is not likely to help morale and team spirit if some authority figure arbitrarily orders them to accept that particular guy as a “teammate” regardless of their doubts! (Granted, that exact scenario has happened to superhero teams before, and I am sure it will happen again, but it usually strikes me as a terrible idea. I will talk about this more under #4, below.)
By the way, earlier I mentioned the way the Silver Age Legion of Super-Heroes did it. Their approach was actually a mix of “Discriminatory” and “Elective” — at least some of the time. (In researching this piece, I’ve been rereading Showcase reprints of some of their Silver Age stories, and the details of Legion Recruiting Strategy seem to have fluctuated a bit during those early years, partially because the ground rules were being invented from scratch in that era, and partially because different writers working on the Legion back around the 1960s were bound to have different ideas for certain stories about new members joining.)
First you had to show up at their doorstep and demonstrate some sort of superpower with a practical application for crimefighting purposes — and sometimes pass tests specially designed to test your superpower (and cunning) to the limits to see if you really had what it took. But even if that part went well, sometimes you still had to overcome a second hurdle: Being voted in by a majority of the available members.
For instance, when Nura Nal (Dream Girl) made her first bid for Legion membership in “Adventure Comics #317,” she demonstrated her ability to have prescient dreams which provided useful intel about scary events scheduled to occur in the near future. Yet after she proved the power was real, there was still some serious dissent among the Legionnaires regarding whether or not a power that only worked when its user was sleeping really measured up to their usual standards. (A problem they had never faced before, so they had no rule to cover it.)
The voting membership at that time was comprised of 11 teenage boys . . . and 4 teenage girls. Not coincidentally, the vote on whether Dream Girl was proper Legion material went 11 to 4 in her favor.
Saturn Girl, Lightning Lass, Shrinking Violet, and Triplicate Girl accepted the will of the majority for the time being. However, it was made clear to us that they all suspected the 11 boys had been unduly swayed by the superficial fact that Dream Girl was undeniably gorgeous — as opposed to the boys having objectively considered the serious drawbacks of a power that would be useless whenever an unexpected emergency arose while Dream Girl was wide awake and participating in a field mission. (And let’s face it, the life of a superhero is full of unexpected emergencies! Even when the hero has some degree of precognitive ability! Otherwise, where would the suspense be in their stories?)
3. Open Admission
“Heck, we’ll take practically anybody who’s dumb enough — I mean ‘brave enough’ — to walk in off the street.”
This could overlap with “Elective” — existing members might be offered the chance to register objections to someone who was otherwise about to be welcomed with open arms. It’s just that this rarely happens in practice; teams practicing “Open Admission” seem to share a general attitude of “we need all the help we can get, as long as he isn’t actually foaming at the mouth!”
This seems to be the high standard which was applied to the abrupt entries of the previously unknown teenage characters Vibe (Paco Ramone), Steel (Hank Heywood III), and Gypsy (Cindy Reynolds) into a reorganized Justice League of America right after it moved into a new headquarters in Detroit in the mid-1980s. I’ve just recently reread the last few years of the original “Justice League of America” title, and I’ve been reminded of various things. (Including why it had been about ten years since the only previous time I had bothered reading all of those issues straight through!)
Consider Gypsy’s qualifications, for instance. Here’s what the veteran heroes of the mid-1980s JLA knew about her, learning some of it on the day they first met her (“Justice League of America Annual #2”), and the rest shortly thereafter.
A) She could turn invisible at will. Or at least that’s what she seemed to be doing when she debuted. As we and they learned a bit later, Gypsy actually had a psychic power which allowed her to project a “chameleon” effect which amounted to much the same thing in practice, but also allowed her to occasionally implant much more elaborate (and usually terrifying) illusions into a particular target’s mind without anyone else in the area being able to see what all the fuss was about. (She was still learning to use that latter trick as she went along, though.)
B) She seemed to be a runaway; no one knew who and where her parents or legal guardians were.
C) She refused to talk honestly about her own background (including her real name), although she could spin some fanciful lies when she was in the right mood.
D) She already had a substantial police record, since she had spent the last year or more living on her own, routinely using her psychic power to let her “turn invisible” while stealing food and anything else she thought she needed.
E) There was no sign that she had ever before tried to subdue a dangerous criminal in her life; much less that she had any sort of systematic training in how to cope with violent troublemakers. (Prior to meeting the JLA, her usual reaction to a threat was to go “invisible” and run away from it.)
F) She was about fourteen years old.
Naturally such experienced and conscientious heroes as Zatanna, Aquaman, The Elongated Man, and J’onn J’onnz knew there was only one thing to do with that girl after she sneaked into their HQ one night to look around. Their answer was: Make her a member of the Justice League of America, drag her along with them into a series of perilous situations, adamantly ignore any legal and/or moral obligation to hand her over to the regular authorities, and hope it would all work out for the best!
Now there’s a brilliant piece of recruiting strategy for you!
(Some of you think I’m making this up, don’t you? Or at least heavily exaggerating in an effort to be funny? I only wish I were.)
A little over a decade later, the Justice League went through a similar stage of “Open Admission,” but that time around the writer at least let some of the other superheroes on the scene express pointed objections instead of pretending it made perfect sense to everybody!
Yes, back around the mid-90s, there was a time when Wonder Woman (Diana of Themyscira) was at the helm of JLA. Even after she lost the right to be “Wonder Woman” for awhile, she kept right on leading the League. She had some unusual ideas about how to do so. Diana favored a real open-door policy . . . just about any “superhero” could join up. Other veteran heroes, with varying amounts of tact, warned her this could lead to all sorts of trouble. Aquaman (who happened to have been the leader of the JLA when they were based in Detroit, over a decade earlier) phrased his doubts politely. On the other hand, Captain Atom, a former field leader of the (already-defunct) Justice League Europe branch, took a different tack.
“Justice League America #100” had a two-page splash, set in the commissary of the JLA’s satellite HQ, with several superheroes filling the area. As we peek in, Captain Atom is yelling at Diana: “Are you out of your minds? Don’t you know what could happen if you give communicators to every would-be, wanna-be, and never-can-be hero in the world?”
Blue Devil mutters: “Lemme take one guess. Obnoxious jerks’ll come barging into our commissary?”
Actually, the real future of the group was much scarier than Blue Devil’s first guess — a little over a year later, the title got cancelled! Although on the bright side, it was replaced by the new “JLA” title which was mainly written by Grant Morrison for the first few years — but the whole idea of “let’s give League communicators to every hero we can think of” seems to have fallen by the wayside. Even Diana never mentioned it again after the relaunch!
Incidentally: The last few years of Gerry Conway’s run, with the Detroit JLA inviting in such painfully unqualified people as Gypsy, had led to that title getting cancelled. Is there some sort of natural law here? Any time the League starts recruiting anybody who walks in off the street — it means the current series is doomed?
04. My Sandbox, My Rules
“I’m footing the bill for this operation, so I figure I have the final say on who else gets to play with us.”
The entity footing the bill may be a well-heeled individual or a larger organization (such as a corporation or government agency), but for our purposes it amounts to much the same thing. An authority figure has the final say over who joins — and if you don’t like his decisions, you can walk out or you can learn to live with it, but you can’t overrule him.
Two examples of the “well-heeled individual” approach would be when Batman put together his first Outsiders team in the early 80s, and when Marvel’s Night Thrasher selected the people he wanted for the original New Warriors lineup, several years later.
The Avengers and the Justice League have both been in the “government-funded” category at various times. How much influence government bureaucrats actually exercise over team rosters, however, can vary enormously. In practice, they have often allowed the existing membership to pretty much do its own recruiting as it sees fit. But that can change without warning!
Consider, for instance, what happened in “Avengers #181.” Henry Peter Gyrich, a federal official assigned to deal with the Avengers, has called a general meeting at Avengers Mansion to announce some policy changes. He lays down the law: If the Avengers are to keep their special “priority” in the eyes of the federal government, they will need to toe the line. The National Security Council has decided the team needs to be trimmed down to a core membership of seven full-time members, and they’ve already picked the seven. (Any opinions the current Avengers have about this are, of course, irrelevant!)
The first six names he lists are people who are present in the room since they have all been accepted as true-blue Avengers at one time or another. Iron Man, Vision, Captain America, Scarlet Witch, Beast, Wasp.
Reasonable choices, by and large — but then comes the kicker as Gyrich names someone who’s not present. “Falcon!”
Hawkeye (who’d obviously expected to remain as one of the core seven) is furious.
HAWKEYE: B-But why him — and not me? That bozo’s only powers are flying and rapping with birds! He’s not even an Avenger!
IRON MAN: Hawkeye’s right, Gyrich! We can’t risk the whole team on an untried member who might not be able to handle it!
GYRICH: I’m afraid you’ll have to, Iron Man — since The Black Panther isn’t available. If the Avengers are to be sanctioned by the government, they’ll have to adhere to government policies — and that includes equal opportunities for minorities!
It’s worth mentioning that, as we finally learned two issues later, Sam Wilson (The Falcon) didn’t know a thing about this at the time Gyrich announced the decision! Members of the National Security Council, when pencilling in his name as that of the only New York City-based black superhero they could think of, hadn’t even cared to inquire first as to whether The Falcon felt any interest in joining the Avengers. They were bound and determined to give an African-American that “equal opportunity” whether he liked it or not! “Big Brother Knows Best,” as George Orwell would have put it . . .
In “Avengers #183,” Steve Rogers explained the awkward situation to his buddy Sam. (Remember that they knew each other very well — the covers of Cap’s monthly title had consistently said “Captain America and The Falcon” all the way from February 1971 to June 1978.)
We missed the original sales pitch. As we came in on their conversation, Sam was already reacting with: “Look, did anyone ever stop to think maybe I don’t want to be an Avenger?” A few panels later, he made it clear that he didn’t like the idea of being “the token” just to fill somebody’s quota!
In the end, he only agreed to give it a try because his old friend Steve literally begged him to, as a personal favor, so the Avengers could maintain their special “priority privileges” in the eyes of the federal government.
About a year later (our time), in “Avengers #194,” the political situation had changed enough that Sam Wilson knew the Avengers no longer desperately needed his help to maintain their “priority,” and he was also keenly aware that there had been some understandable resentment when he was shoehorned into the group by government edict, so he handed in his resignation and flew off.
To be fair to the other Avengers, I should mention that there was no sign that any of them had been plotting to find a way to kick The Falcon off the team in the near future if he didn’t leave gracefully. Just because his presence was no longer a vital necessity didn’t mean a majority of members would have supported the idea of arbitrarily giving him the boot when he hadn’t done anything wrong.
In contrast to Sam Wilson’s first experience as an Avenger, let’s consider another case that began in a similar fashion, with a government edict forcing another Avengers team to accept a guy who was probably a stranger to most (if not all) of them . . . although affirmative action had nothing to do with it.
About a decade after Sam Wilson had become an Avenger, the West Coast Avengers were ordered by the U.S. government to accept John Walker (recently renamed “The U.S. Agent” after a stint as “Captain America”) into their group. None of the veteran members were wildly enthusiastic about this turn of events. (If you care: He popped up at the end of “West Coast Avengers #44” and then the idea that the team was now stuck with him, like it or not, was examined in detail in the opening pages of #45.)
Like Wilson, Walker was brave, patriotic, and a very capable and experienced combatant, so it wasn’t completely ridiculous to call him Avengers material, even if he was (I believe) a stranger to most of them.
But unlike Wilson, Walker also worked hard at being arrogant and abrasive, and it is not surprising that he lost his slot during a big reorganization a couple of years later (our time) in “Avengers West Coast #69.”
The Avengers had recently switched to being sponsored by the United Nations as a whole, and the subsequent reorganization included a variation of the “Elective” approach, with each sitting member of the West Coast branch filling out a ballot to vote for five people he wanted to see stick around as part of a core membership of seven regulars. When the final tallies were announced, Walker only had one vote: Obviously his own! Which left him tied for last place, and thus removed from full-time participation in the team. Although he would be allowed to stay on the books as one of seven “alternates” who might be called in from time to time when a special need arose. (By the end of that issue, he’d even lost “alternate status,” but that’s another story.)
At any rate, it was clear that over the last two years or so (our time), the U.S. Agent had utterly failed to impress other Avengers with his ability to be a valuable team player. (I swear I won’t even make a “You are the weakest link” joke. Aren’t you proud of my self-restraint?)
(P.S. Oddly enough, months later the same team of Avengers reinstated U.S. Agent, for reasons which were poorly explained and never struck me as convincing. His being voted off the core team, on the other hand, had been perfectly plausible.)
What happened to The Falcon and The U.S. Agent serves to illustrate some potential flaws in the “My Sandbox, My Rules” approach to making unilateral recruiting decisions for an existing superhero team.
Super-groups literally have to trust one another in life-and-death situations on a regular basis. You may not love the guy on your right as if he were your favorite brother, but you do need to believe that when the chips are down and you’re a hair’s-breadth away from death, he will save your neck in a brave and professional fashion — knowing that you will return the favor someday. And in that line of work, it’s not just your own life that’s at risk. “Let’s go save the world!” is not always humorous hyperbole — threats to the entire planet can arise at the most inconvenient times. And even when the stakes aren’t that high, there’s still the chance that a rampaging supervillain will kill many civilians if he isn’t stopped quickly and efficiently.
So adding one stranger to a tight-knit superhero team has a lot more pitfalls than just adding one more wage slave to a “team” of office workers or restaurant waitstaff. The new guy who has been forced upon the rest of the team may find he encounters a great deal of resentment, if not outright hostility — some of it prompted by natural fears that betting your life (and those of countless civilians) on his abilities and attitude may turn out to be a losing proposition! Depending on such factors as his own personality, his job performance, and other variables, the attitudes of his teammates might change for the better over time . . . but if the new guy is a reasonably sensitive sort (and/or was never wildly enthusiastic about taking the job in the first place), he may end up quitting voluntarily when he decides this just isn’t working out well enough to be worth the constant aggravation.
On the other hand, if the new guy just assumes that his having been given this job by One Authority Figure’s Whim means there is no need for him to make any serious attempt to “fit in” with the local culture; no need to win their hearts and minds, etc.; then one of these days he may find himself getting booted out of the team anyway — as soon as those who intensely dislike him have found a legitimate way to arrange that!
“You’re going to join this team effort — whether you like it or not!”
Here there is no nonsense about waiting for people to voluntarily apply for membership. A big organization — probably a national government, but I can imagine other possibilities — has decided that certain individuals are so exceptionally dangerous that the only proper thing to do is to turn them into good little soldiers who will always obey orders from on high. If they try to wriggle out of their “civic duty,” they may face draconian penalties.
On stories published during the Cold War, the Soviet Super-Soldiers were supposed to have started out this way. Of the original membership of four, three (Darkstar, Vanguard, Ursa Major) had been identified as super-powered mutants when they were still children, and had been trained and indoctrinated in preparation for serving as a super-powered arm of the USSR’s government once they were adults. (The fourth founding member, one of several users of the name “Crimson Dynamo,” had no inherent powers. He only wore a government-issued suit of armor which was meant to imitate Iron Man’s capabilities.)
Other groups of super-powered beings (in the MU, the DCU, and probably at other companies) have been seen operating under the umbrella of such Communist regimes as the old USSR or the People’s Republic of China, and while I’m not sure of the details in every case, I consider it likely that at least some members of those other teams had also been drafted into service, being told it was their solemn duty to use their unusual abilities in the service of the state. Perhaps any disagreement with that plan would be regarded as treasonous?
More recently, Marvel’s “Civil War” event examined a similar idea of “drafting” superhero types into service on the government payroll. “It’s time to register with the government and start taking orders, or else we’d better not catch you running around wearing a mask and flaunting superpowers!”
However, I can’t discuss that in knowledgeable detail, because I only read “Civil War #1” when it came out, and then I muttered, “Well, this looks like it’s going to be lame. Somebody wake me up when it’s over!” I’ve never bothered to catch up by reading any of the later TPB collections of Civil War story arcs published in one title or another. I have seen online complaints to the effect that different writers at Marvel seemed to have contradictory ideas regarding the nitpicking details of just what the U.S. government’s policies were supposed to be when it started “cracking down” on unregistered superpowered beings, which further confused the issue of who was “right” or “wrong” on any given point of contention.
06. Keep It in the Family
“We are a family operation. Period. Who else can we really trust?”
I’m not sure if any superhero team has ever consistently held to this approach through a long and successful run, but I do remember a few teams that started this way.
Image’s “Dynamo 5” title springs to mind — although the characters forming a new team in the first issue had never previously met; much less thought of themselves as all bound by family ties. The non-powered human who brought the others together turned out to be the grieving widow of the recently-slain superhero Captain Dynamo, and the five young people she had gathered were, one and all, illegitimate offspring of the Captain; the results of some of his many affairs — with a different female in each case.
Most of the five had never suspected this about their own pedigrees until that first meeting. Captain Dynamo hadn’t been paying child support; nor had most of his lovers ever known who he really was or how to contact him again after he left (and flew home to his wife). If they later discovered they were pregnant, that was their problem. (Yes, the Captain’s morals were execrable.)
Marvel’s Power Pack also started as a family group — but not by design on the part of its founding members. Four siblings, two boys and two girls, just happened to be gifted with superpowers by a dying alien.
But there was no rule that said nobody else would ever be allowed to join up in the future. After the four young Powers became friendly with young Franklin Richards, he effectively became the fifth member of the team (without his parents or the Power parents initially realizing just what was going on when the kids went out to play together).
7. General Auditions
“Our recruiting methods are a matter of public record. When we’re in the mood to add members, we allow lots of people to try out at preannounced times and places!”
As I mentioned earlier, this became a standard feature of Legion of Super-Heroes stories in the Silver and Bronze Ages. The location of their HQ was no secret, so at regular intervals they would announce the schedule for the next round of tryouts. Eager young people would show up to show their stuff, and some of them made it in. The implication was that most members of the Legion had joined this way (although in the early days we’d sometimes see that new members such as Chameleon Boy had popped up “between stories” without our receiving any immediate info on just how that hero had gained a seat at the table).
I remember seeing a group in the world of “Invincible” hold massive Open Auditions when they were trying to rebuild a team called “The Guardians of the Globe” after the old core membership had been slaughtered all at once. Dozens and dozens of hopeful heroes turned out for this well-publicized event.
A character called Robot, who had been selected to lead the group after enough other members were selected, made a little speech at the end in which he said that in several cases the people making these choices had to choose between multiple candidates with very similar powers and/or skills, and usually ended up going for greater experience. He also said something to the effect of “So some of you easily could have made it if things had gone just a little differently. Others shouldn’t have bothered trying – I won’t belabor the point; you know who you are.” (I’m just paraphrasing that from memory because I’m not sure where my copy of that particular “Invincible” TPB is at the moment.)
Offhand, I only recall the JLA trying a variation of this approach once. “JLA #5,” early in Grant Morrison’s run — although I think they made some attempt to do pre-screening. They were doing it all in their HQ on the moon, which meant most candidates would need assistance from a member to let them get up there in the first place — presumably by using the League’s own teleportation equipment with electronic encryption protocols to keep out the riffraff.
On the other hand, I never understood how Hitman (Tommy Monaghan) got onto the guest list in the first place — but I was not terribly surprised by his claim that the main reason he had showed up was so he could use his X-Ray vision on Wonder Woman’s costume for a minute.
Incidentally, the big winner of that day’s Auditions was Tomorrow Woman, who turned out to be an android created by a temporary team-up of T.O. Morrow and Professor Ivo. She had been carefully programmed to betray the JLA later on (although it didn’t work out that way). This shows some of the possible pitfalls in allowing strangers of unknown antecedents to walk in on off the street and try to wow you!
8. Secret Testing
“We screen possible recruits by submitting them to field tests which they don’t realize are part of a testing process for joining our special club!”
This can easily overlap with other possibilities, such as #2 (Elective) where the membership votes on the merits of the candidate, either before or after the Secret Testing occurs.
Consider “Justice League of America #173.” It starts out with several JLAers up on a roof in Metropolis, watching a fairly new superhero, Black Lightning, handle some ordinary armed robbers. He does it well. Green Arrow has worked with Black Lightning before, and assures the others that the guy would be a great addition to the League. Some of the JLAers are skeptical. (Please note that Black Lightning has no idea that they are observing him.)
Most of the remainder of this issue concentrates on showing us how Black Lightning is attacked by a series of weirdoes whom neither he nor the readers have ever heard of before. The mysterious attackers include an armored female gorilla called “Primak” working alongside a guy surrounded by pale green energy whom Black Lightning thinks of as “some kind of Human Starburst” (the guy offers no name for himself at the time); then another guy who appears and disappears without warning and calls himself “The Trans-Visible Man”); and finally a guy dressed like one of the Three Musketeers, complete with sword and old-fashioned pistol, who calls himself “Swashbuckler.”
Black Lightning handily defeats Primak and The Human Starburst, but fares badly against the next guy in line. The Trans-Visible Man keeps disappearing into thin air, blindsiding Lightning with punches from unexpected angles, talking trash, and generally humiliating and enraging him, before finally vanishing from the scene . . . to let Swashbuckler take over a few seconds later.
After Black Lightning knocks Swashbuckler flat, disarms him, gets both hands on the guy’s throat, and then manages to rein in his own temper just in time to avoid killing this sneering villain who claimed to be Trans-Visible’s good buddy, the truth is revealed. All of Black Lightning’s recent foes were disguised JLAers — Zatanna as Primak, Green Lantern (Hal) as The Human Starburst, Flash (Barry) as The Trans-Visible Man, and Green Arrow (Ollie) as Swashbuckler. All this was a testing sequence to see if Black Lightning really had the right stuff to handle a series of unfamiliar challenges.
He has passed with flying colors! He doesn’t get graded down for “failing” against The Trans-Visible Man (Flash had used sheer speed to make it seem that he was turning invisible) — because Black Lightning was never expected to beat The Fastest Man Alive in hand-to-hand combat. The main point of that stage was psychological — get Black Lightning feeling bruised and helpless, and seeing red, and then find out if he’d still have enough scruples and willpower to resist the temptation to slaughter the next mysterious enemy to pop out of the shadows and talk tough.
All of the JLAers on the scene (including Superman, who’d been the unseen judge of these tests) seem to take it for granted that Black Lightning will now be delighted by the invitation to join their ranks.
It doesn’t work out that way.
Black Lightning is not visibly amused by the revelation of what’s really been happening — and more to the point, he sure doesn’t remember wanting to be considered for membership in their high-faluting club in the first place! He figures he’s already got his hands full just worrying about his home neighborhood — Suicide Slum, here in Metropolis. (Where he also has a day job as a schoolteacher, but he doesn’t mention that part; it’s none of their business.)
Note: Being absolute gluttons for punishment, members of the JLA tried to recruit Black Lightning all over again just a few hours later, in a conversation at the end of the next issue, after they had all fought a real supervillain together. (Guess what? His answer hadn’t changed!)
This illustrates a huge potential flaw in pursuing an elaborate “Secret Testing” approach to recruiting: What if you end up frequently staging such tests for people who seem like worthy prospects — but they simply don’t want to join your special club? Something you didn’t bother to learn before you had squandered a lot of time and energy and utterly failed to get any return on your investment?
On the other hand: If you only tried “Secret Testing” on people who had filed their applications with your recruiting office, and thus were likely to accept an offer when it was finally made, then you might be shooting yourself in the foot where “secrecy” was concerned, because the smarter ones would get suspicious about the timing when bizarre things started happening to them a few days or a few weeks later. And do you really want to recruit the ones who are too dumb to put two and two together?
The line of reasoning I just offered is entirely my own — but even as I type this, it occurs to me that similar thoughts may have later crossed the minds of the Justice Leaguers who were involved in the events I summarized. I say that because I can’t immediately recall any later instance of any incarnation of the Justice League pulling a similar “Secret Testing” routine on some other prospective recruit. Perhaps they actually learned something from the fiasco with Black Lightning?
“We’re so disorganized we don’t even know who our own members are!”
The Defenders, as they existed back around the 1970s and into the 80s, were frequently stated to not be so much a “group” as they were a “non-group!”
A three-part story arc highlighting some of the problems in their unstructured approach began in “Defenders #62.” A young filmmaker called Dollar Bill, who’d been friendly with the Avengers for quite some time, proudly told them that his documentary (about them yes!) was being aired on television that day. So they all sat down and watched it.
I’ll just quote one quick passage from Dollar Bill’s filmed narration:
“Remember, folks, the Defenders as a super-group is not like the Avengers at all! The Defenders is a non-team! That means there’s no charter, no rules, no nothing! Anyone with superpowers who wants to declare himself a Defender is automatically a member! It’s a snap! So if any of you super sorts are out there, just zip to this address and — zowie — you’re in like Flint!”
(As he said that last part, the address of the current secret headquarters of the Defenders was displayed on the screen.)
Nighthawk, the team leader at the time, was ready to throw a fit. For one thing, the very existence of their team was supposed to be a secret! (Yes, I know this was the sixty-second issue of the team’s own title, but apparently they’d done a darn good job of staying under the public radar until that moment.) On a related note, Nighthawk didn’t exactly appreciate having their current home address (a riding academy on Long Island, as it happened) broadcast to millions of people! Who knows what this could lead to? He also didn’t remember anybody authorizing Dollar Bill to set himself up as the team’s spokesman.
Some of Nighthawk’s fellow Defenders thought he was overreacting.
Time would tell . . .
A few pages later: It’s the following morning, and Nighthawk answers a knock on the door, grimly suspecting some pushy “neo-superhero” is here to pester him about joining their informal group (or non-group, or whatever). The truth is even worse than he feared: Waiting outside are a horde of costumed characters. We don’t see all of them at once in the first wide panel after Nighthawk opens the door, but the list turns out to include: Ms. Marvel, Jack-of-Hearts, Son of Satan, Polaris, Stingray, Black Goliath, Iron Fist, Captain Marvel (Mar-Vell of the Kree), Hercules, The Falcon, Nova (Richard Ryder), Marvel Man (Wendell Vaughn, later known as Quasar), The Prowler, The Torpedo, Paladin, Captain Ultra, The White Tiger, Tagak, and Havok.
By the end of this issue, a bunch of these guys, roaming the grounds of the riding academy, have decided it would be a great heroic deed to attack and capture The Incredible Hulk, him being a wanted man and all. They either don’t realize or don’t care that the other veteran Defenders regard Hulk as one of their own and will vigorously object to these bozoes picking on him. They also appear to have no conception of just how hard it is to overpower and capture Hulk in the first place — I never thought they had a prayer of succeeding!
Anyway, things are rapidly going downhill in the opening pages of the next issue — then Iron Man of the Avengers flies over to this riding academy to explain that a whole bunch of villains also saw the documentary yesterday, and are now running wild in Manhattan while claiming to be self-appointed Defenders! Most of the “old Defenders” and “wannabe Defenders” (as I call them) now agree to set aside their differences long enough to form small squads to track down and defeat those rampaging villains. (A few of the “wannabes” are already losing interest and drifting away, though.)
The list of Evil So-Called Defenders for the day includes Sagittarius (of Zodiac), The Porcupine, The Blob, Whirlwind, Batroc the Leaper, Electro, The Looter, Plant-Man, The Shocker, Boomerang, Libra (also of Zodiac), The Melter, Toad, The Leap Frog, Joe the Gorilla, and a guy in cowboy regalia called Pecos! (Don’t feel bad if you drew a blank on those last two — when I first read this story, I didn’t recall ever before hearing of Joe the Gorilla and Pecos, either! Near as I can tell from online research, they had only previously appeared as part of a villainous team in “Avengers #77” — and after making a brief comeback in this Defenders arc, they have never been heard from again!)
By the end of that same day, most of the bad guys have been thoroughly chastised, and all of the good “wannabes” have lost interest in any idea of trying to join the temperamental weirdoes who currently comprise the Defenders. (At least for the time being. Much later on, Daimon Hellstrom (Son of Satan) would end up working with the Defenders regularly, even courting and marrying veteran member Hellcat, whom I believe he first met on this occasion.)
(By the way! I didn’t mention it before, but a few years later when Steve Rogers was asking Sam Wilson (The Falcon) to join the Avengers to make the U.S. government happy, Sam specifically mentioned his own short-lived attempt to join the Defenders that day as one reason he didn’t feel he was cut out for a big team effort in his superhero activities.)
And to add one other example where “who became a member, and when?” can be very hard to determine:
Several years ago I bought a copy of “Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe: X-Men 2005.” Toward the back, it lists seven different groupings described as “Ad Hoc X-Men Rosters.” I could agree with most of them, but I was honor-bound to disagree with the validity of what it calls “The Muir Isle X-Men.”
I looked through the relevant issues (“Uncanny X-Men #254-255”) to double-check my memory. And it still seems to me that when Amanda Sefton, Alysande Stuart, and various other characters on Muir Isle were hastily putting on gold-and-black X-Men suits to wear while fighting Donald Pierce and his Reavers, they never expressed any belief that they were thereby becoming any sort of “X-Men” themselves; not even on a “temporary” or “honorary” basis.
The principal reason for dressing up that way appeared to be that several copies of the newest version of the suits were already right there on the island, and were conveniently bulletproof. If I were about to face an invasion of killer cyborgs, I’d hastily don any bulletproof body armor that happened to be readily available, too! I wouldn’t care if it looked like an X-Men “uniform” or not; I’d only care about my chances of personal survival!
So the characters didn’t think they were becoming any sort of “X-Men team” at the time, and to the best of my knowledge, none of the participants ever claimed afterwards that those events marked the time they first became X-Men . . . but a few editors at Marvel disagreed with them and solemnly assured us that those characters did briefly serve as X-Men – even if the characters on the scene never realized that fact, and nobody else in the MU ever saw it that way either! Now that’s about as chaotic as a membership situation can get!
Those were all the Strategies I came up with on my own. If you think I completely overlooked another approach to the problem of finding worthy recruits to keep a super-team going strong, please speak up! Of course it always helps if you can provide specific examples for me to study.
And if I haven’t put you to sleep yet, here are some links to many previous pieces I’ve perpetrated over the last few years, comprising what I have come to think of as my Numbered List series. Every once in a while it amuses me to think about some odd aspect of the superhero genre, and to try to list and explain all the different approaches I can remember for that sort of thing, or all the different reasons that ridiculous things keep happening.
12 Motives for Killing a Comic Book Character
17 Excuses for Bringing Back a Dead Character
16 Types of Retcons
19 Ways to End a Superhero’s Romance
22 Ways to Show a Superhero Killing Someone
9 Categories of Continuity
5 Types of Superhero Team Members
Secret Identities: 10 Ways to Unspill the Beans
Superhero Finances: 10 Situations
13 Reasons to Use a Deathtrap
14 Functions for a Superhero Costume
10 Types of Superhero Successors
14 Ways to Rehabilitate a Disgraced Hero
14 Motives for Becoming a Superhero
12 Tricks for Keeping Superheroes Young
13 Reasons to Quit the Superhero Racket
12 Rationales for a Hero-Versus-Hero Slugfest on the Cover
What To Do With a Supervillain After You Catch Him: 12 Options
14 Motives for Becoming a Supervillain
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