I’ve discussed this in bits and pieces elsewhere, but in thinking about naming conventions in novels, I got to thinking about naming conventions in comic books. Specially, super-names. Also, apologies in advance if this comes across as a little more random and disjointed than usual.
I should preface that I think a lot about these things. When I played City of Heroes/Villains, I put almost as much thought into names as I did costumes. Part of this was because the name plus the look couldn’t violate copyright or trademark, and part of this was because duplicate names were not allowed. The good names, obviously, were taken first, so I had to get creative with synonyms. This process, I think, was not too dissimilar to what comic book writers go through. A lot of the good names have already been taken, and there are only so many synonyms for “super.” Also, names are trademarked (or copyrighted; I’m a little unclear on the distinction). Despite threats of lawsuits, there are numerous duplicate names. For example, if I told you my favorite character was Captain Marvel, could you guess who I was thinking of? You might not even be in the right major comic book universe.
Super-name versus secret identity:
I have theorized that the super-name in many cases comes before the secret identity name. I suppose that makes sense; characters in comic book universes are heroes first and people later. Character names are very seldom meaningful names, although sometimes I think writers just get lazy (a character named Julio Rictor who has powers that cause earthquakes…). At least writers do try to keep real names in the same family (Kal-El, Jor-El, Zor-el, etc.). Sometimes the writers should have done a bit more research. For example, Proudstar and Moonstar are not exactly traditional Native American names. Also, I’m pretty much certain no one of Greek descent would name their daughter “Elektra” (even with a kewl misspelling).
Stan Lee famously gave his characters alliterated names as a trademark (which again makes me wonder about the true origin of Chris Claremont…). I don’t know of other writers who had that kind of trick to identify their characters. Rarely a character’s real name is some kind of easter egg, shout-out, or take-that to someone else. For example, DC heavily borrowed from Marvel’s Taskmaster to create Deathstroke the Terminator (which I have to say is a pretty awesome villain name if just slightly over the top). Deathstroke’s real name was Wilson Slade. When Marvel decided to go the petty vengeance route for this narrow aversion of copyright law, they created Deadpool, whose real name was Wade Wilson (yet not a Stan Lee creation).
The super-name is the first introduction to a new hero or villain so there are a lot of expectations riding on it. Such names come in a few varieties:
a) Virtue and awesomeness (see also “Captain Superhero“) – Superman, Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel (all of them), Captain America, are good examples. Not coincidentally, many heroes with such names were created in the 1940s. Also good examples, if later examples, are Wonder Man, Power Man, Marvel Girl, and Power Girl. Oddly, many virtuous and awesome hero names come with military titles, even if the hero was never actually in the military.
Alternatively, for villains, evil and darkness – Dr. Doom, Mister Sinister, Darkseid, Malice, Decay, and Captain Nazi. Oddly, many evil and dark villain names come with the title of “doctor” although I’d be surprised if all of them went to medical school or got PhDs.
b) Animal-man – not characters actually named after animals. These names are also somewhat alignment neutral. Basically unless we know the character, there is nothing about the following examples that indicates if they are heroes or villains.
Heroes – Batman (of course), Hawkman, Hawkgirl, and Spider-man. Generally their origin stories include some reason they have these animalistic names.
There are a lot of animal-man villains too – Catwoman, Catman, Ape-man, Frog-man, Elephant Man, and Piranha-Man (totally an Aquaman villain, if you had any doubt).
c) Animal names – oh so many. Again, these are also generally alignment neutral (some are gender-neutral too).
Heroes – Wolverine, Black Cat, Black Canary, Vixen, and Robin are good examples (and there are LOTS more). Again, there is usually some reason in the origin story to explain this choice.
Villains – Cheetah, King Cobra, insert a Spider-man villain here, Copperhead, Black Manta, and Toad.
d) Descriptive names (broad trope to “What it says on the tin” or “Something person“) – I could actually probably split this category up further into “My name is my power” and “My name literally describes me.” This category (or two categories) is also mostly alignment neutral.
Heroes – Iron Man, Martian Manhunter, Aquaman, Iceman, Magma, Plastic Man, and Huntress are some examples.
Descriptive villains – the Red Skull, Two-Face, the Brain, Magneto, the Weather Wizard, and the Blob.
e) Associative names – these are names that are not so literal as descriptive names but the reader is supposed to associate with something or someone else. These are usually in conjunction with their powers. While these names can be alignment neutral, there are some villain names that are pretty obviously names of villains.
Heroes – Green Arrow, Impulse, Artemis, Storm, Cyclops, Angel, and Polaris (which sounds like “polarity” which is associated with magnetism but not so literal as “Magneto”).
I think writers have more fun when naming villains using this convention – Apocalypse, Thanos (associated with the god of Death), Thanatos (actual name of the Greek god of death because DC thought “Thanos” was too subtle apparently), Dr. Polaris, Bane, Sinistro (which is actually the villain’s real name), Scarecrow, and Deadpool.
a) The Dark Age of Super-names. During this time, as has been remarked before, everyone, hero and villain alike, was given names that were darkly associative/descriptive such as Skullfire, Bloodhawk, and Youngblood (yes, those were all heroes). Some heroes are still given dark names, which leads to the next section:
b) Alignment flipped names. These are names that sound like they should belong to a hero, and instead belong to a villain, or vice versa. For example, Dr. Light sounds like a hero name but is in fact an infamous DC villain. The Creeper sounds like a villain, and while he is insane, he’s actually a hero in DC. Kevin Plunder sounds the name of a villain, but is actually the real name of Ka-zar, hero of the Savage Land. Granny Goodness sounds like an AARP hero, but oh no, no, no, she is evil to the core (seriously, do not mess with her). Beast sounds like the name of an animistic rage-fueled villain, when in fact he is a highly educated and erudite hero.
c) Punny names. This is almost a staple of Batman villains, quite honestly. There’s Victor Fries/Mr. Freeze, Harleen Quinzel/Harlequin, Temple Fugit/Clock King, and Edward Nigma/Riddler just to name a few. If you dig deeper, it gets worse. There’s the ridiculous Angle Man, whose real name is Angelo Bent (why not?). The Power children were given the name just so the book could be “the Power Pack.” There’s the 1970s Foxxy Brown knock-off Misty Knight, whose real name is – Misty Knight. Piranha-Man’s real name is “Charybdis,” which happens to be the name of a mythical sea monster. Mr. Miracle, DC’s best escape artist, has the given name of Scott Free. You can almost hear the musical sting.
So what’s in a name?
Oddly, the name can have interesting effects on a character’s story years and years after the original writer created them. Once upon a time in the 1970s, writers created a villain named Zala Dane. The X-men already had a hero named Lorna Dane (Polaris). Although it was obvious to me reading the tradebacks that these two characters just happened to have the same last name (as happens in real life), at some point years later (the late 90s/early 00s I think), the writers decided because they had the same last name they must be related.
Warren Worthington (Angel) was just named that because he had white feathered wings. Later he was called Death (not an ironic misnomer) and when he got better he was called Archangel (yes, he was better at the time). I think he’s back to Angel, but now his blood has regenerative properties and I think the writers are trying to softly retcon his backstory to make him a member of an ancient breed of bird people who were the inspiration for angels? Or something. As I may have mentioned before, current comics largely just make my head hurt.
Names also cause or prevent lawsuits. Legend says DC was really annoyed when Marvel created Wonder Man and said that was a copyright and/or trademark infringement on Wonder Woman. She-Hulk was first created when Benny Hill did a parody skit of the 1970s “The Incredible Hulk” and Marvel realized they didn’t own the name for a female version, so they made one up before anyone could capitalize on the name.
And for me?
Well, I am a fan of meaningful names. For comic book characters, I like associative names more than descriptive or animal names. For example, I had a character named “Agent of AEON,” with “AEON” standing for “Authorizing Events of Notice,” which was basically a Timelord (I had to get creative because most of the direct synonyms for “time” and “lord” and combinations thereof were already taken). My storm defender was called Tempest Wind. I did affix “Dark” in front of a couple of my villainous characters names because the actual name wasn’t specially evil. I even went in for a punny name with the Villainous Vegetables. My character was Cruel Carrot (all the names in the super-villain group were alliterated) and my power was control over minions. As I put in the biography, “The Alpha Carrot Squad sadly perished, but the Beta Carrot Team is ready to go.” And my minions were named Niacin, Thiamine, and Riboflavin (thank you, thank you, I’ll be here all night…).
Hey, my disjointed brain remembered rest of the conclusion. Sometimes I think super-names make picking character names easier (easier than in novels anyway). Writers can pick throwaway, common real names like “Peter Parker” and “Bruce Wayne” because ultimately the stories are about Spider-man and Batman. Now, granted, those names do have to be pretty cool (Stilt-man, really?) but sometimes the secret identity name is so beside the point heroes and villains can even go without them for years and years and years, and that’s just fine. What can I say? Super-names are fun and I’m all for the comic book writers having fun with them, even if the readers are subjected to some heavy-handed associative names (she’s an ice queen, get it?) and some terrible puns (Julian Day is Calendar Man; ba da dum!). It’s a medium in which over the top actually works most of the time.