What’s In A Super-Name?: an article in super-hero class by: GF Willmetts.

September 3, 2017 | By | Reply More

‘I shall be a bat!’

Will it be a baseball bat or a little furry creature?

I should point out whatever examples I use in this article, you can bet there are many more examples that I either didn’t notice or missed. Saying that, there are a lot of common denominators and any examples used should be treated as that, examples. If I had to account for all of the super-hero/villains names, I’d be here until Doomsday…wait a second, isn’t he a villain as well?

Super-hero names, let alone super-villain names, give a sense of power to the user. Much of the time they are there as a reminder to the opposition what they are dealing with. If you have a particular power or technology you want to flaunt it. A warning of what you are facing to the super-villain. Of course, they are also doing the same to you. Having the right name becomes very important.

Some names can sound contradictory. I mean, iron is a soft malleable metal, so why name yourself after it? Maybe being called Steel Man might not be such a clever idea. Open to all kinds of interpretation, not to mention being sued by another company who has a variation of it for one of their own characters.

It also gives a name other than the one born with to go with the disguise. You don’t really want to go beyond a couple syllables, well not unless you’re the Elongated Man, but that’s stretching things.

In the DC Comics Universe, their creators had a habit for a long time of calling everyone –Man or –Woman, junior versions are available. It did become an absurdity with the Doom Patrol’s Robot Man, when he was actually a cyborg but the term didn’t exist at the time. There were exceptions to the rule. The likes of Robin, Flash and Green Lantern quickly come to mind. The Earth-1 Green Lantern is more of an oddity, as those in the Green Lantern Corps are all called Green Lantern…well, except John Stewart and Guy Gardner, both of whom had no regard to secret identities. You would think the Guardians of OA might have had a bit more imagination how to name their officers. Then again, maybe the name makes them all instantly recognisable to go along with their uniform and power ring…except other than the logo on their chests, why would anyone know they had a lantern in the first place? Why use a logo of a device that is generally hidden? Maybe they should call themselves ‘Power Ring’, except that was actually done on Earth-3.

Some, like Lex Luthor or even Hugo Strange, never needed a codename. Indeed, many of the Batman’s rogue gallery didn’t require a suffix but they would look silly if they had. Mind you, Selina Kyle, the Catwoman, did start off that way as the Cat.

The original line-up of the Legion Of Super-Heroes had that as a continual problem but did vary it with adding –Lad, -Lass and –Kid into the mix until the 1970s. Then again, in the 30th century, they were taking their leads from 20th century super-heroes and no doubt wanted to remind people they were still teens, even if they were taking a drug to stay that way to not out-age the time-travelling Superboy. Such names is something their opponents rarely did. A lot of the time, the Legion codenames were selected to immediately identify the character to the power which should save a lot of explanations although doesn’t explain why the later LSH tales always had identifiable blocks at the start of each tale. It isn’t as if we all can’t read Interlac or worry about which planets they came from.

There are some powers you would think you wouldn’t want to readily identify yourself with and yet are commonly done. These being invisibility, phantom, shrinking and shape-shifting or quick-disguise. If you’re doing a roll-call of a team, then you would want to make sure you captured them as they are infiltrators and could catch you by surprise or release their colleagues. Granted their powers would readily be soon known but to throw away such an edge against a newcomer super-villain is reckless. About the only character not to give his power away in that light is Marvel’s Kilgrave, The Purple Man, but seeing how his look is more apparent than his power, well until you get caught up in it, that’s hardly surprising.

It’s surprising how many super-beings decide to name themselves after animals although few are bitten by radioactive namesakes endowing them with said abilities. Some are built to resemble them though so the animalistic form can be seen as being fearful and draw instance comparison. Beware those who select animals who can poison because their names will be a clear warning sign what to expect. In many respects, predator animals instil the fear from primitive times but equally hunters will just want to take them down. People do have a fear of spiders, insects and snakes.

The next most common thing is to add a colour to the codename so it matches the costume and make you more individual. Oddly, there are very few with the same end name, let alone add a colour to differentiate it from others. Only for a short time was a colour associated with the country of origin and that was mostly with Russians. You have the likes of the Red Ghost and the Red Guardian. Fortunately, the Crimson Dynamo chose a different shade but calling himself the Red Dynamo would have looked pretty silly and you want to avoid that.

Some have some form of military rank. It makes sense with Marvel Comics’ Captain America, even if Steve Rogers only was a buck private, because he was a symbol in World War II. Interestingly, when he changed identities, the name ‘The Captain’ or Cap still carried on with him. The Kree Captain Mar-Vell kept his military rank but his human successors as Captain Marvel were non-military and quite why Captain Britain was so named was more to be a UK equivalent of the American version than belonging to any military unit. Then again, the successors to Mar-Vell kept the name to ensure a certain big red cheese in the other universe didn’t pick it up again as a book title.

At DC, the villains Captain Cold, Captain Boomerang and General Immortus spring most to mind. Only one hero uses such a title and that’s Captain Atom but he was actually a captain in the military in real life. Captain Marvel, we’ve accounted for above. The likes of Captain Cold less so, then again the likes of Cold Man wouldn’t have worked so well. Some names just fit and giving a rank means you’re above others.

Using the rank of Captain does give a sense of authority and probably explains why few seem keen to be called by any of the lesser ranks. Oddly, higher ranks aren’t used that much. Things always get a little more complicated when two companies want to use a similar name, like Boomerang, so having an additional moniker always looks like a good thing. Being called ‘The Boomerang’ makes you sound like one of a kind.

Some people change their codenames from time to time. Henry Pym has been notorious for this over the years although his size-changing abilities remain the same moving from Ant-Man to Giant Man to Goliath, Yellowjacket and the Wasp.

Speaking of Goliath, Bill Foster became Black Goliath, following in the tradition of T’challa as the Black Panther, although this sounds a bit contradictory when panthers are already black. These days, you would think the race card would be played against such names. Mind you, Clint Barton dropping his bow and arrows for a time as Hawkeye and becoming another Goliath probably made a colour added made more sense, although you could easily tell them apart. I should point out that few colours are ignored even yellow, which tends to be seen as cowardly, although don’t tell the Yellow Claw that.

Luke Cage, having also chosen to call himself Power Man, didn’t realise there was a villain already titled that and of equal power. Their battle favoured Cage and Erik Josten takes the name the Smuggler afterwards and, when he gained size-changing powers, became another Goliath. A good thing Henry Pym dropped that name or he’d have been in another fight to keep it. If anything, this points out that not all super-people have good imaginations as to what they should call themselves.

Marvel chose to change Jack Frost to Blizzard later in his career although he was later superseded by another character. There is always the point that there is a limit to having a really good codename to call yourself by. Peter Petruski thought that being called ‘Paste-Pot Pete’ lacked class, not to mention being laughed at for such a poor name choice and renamed himself the Trapster. The same could also be said for Dave Cannon as the Human Top to the more speedier Whirlwind.

Downerillustration.com blog entry for September 28, 2009

No doubt there are others who’ve changed their codename frequently and probably Carol Danvers has changed the most with an upgrade or downgrade in her powers from Ms. Marvel to Binary to Warbird and then to Captain Marvel before Ms. Marvel again.

Of course, some name changes are beyond their control. When one version of the Legion Of Super-Heroes became a pocket universe away from the reality where the time-travelling Superboy came from, this also meant that the Daxamite Lar Gand no longer had the name he was given by the Boy Of Steel when he was amnesic as Mon-el and reality shifted and he became Valor instead.

Considering the number of degree qualified super-hero and villains at Marvel, very few of them add their profession to their monikers. Those with medical or degree qualifications carrying over to super-hero names are less frequent. At Marvel, we have Doctor Strange, Doctor Druid, Dr. Doom, Dr. Octopus and Professor X. Oddly, Reed Richards preferred being Mr. Fantastic than Dr. Fantastic. It’s hardly like no one knew his real name.

Quite why Dr. Midnight kept the moniker at DC is still a puzzle but as he was a blind surgeon, who knows what was going through his mind. Doctor Arthur Light was at least a scientist. It can help if your real name mirrors your power base.

Considering the number of non-English super-humans, it’s unusual that few if any in the main universes have elected to have codenames in their native languages. Mind you, would you know how to say Черная вдова or Малиновый динамо? The letterers are no doubt grateful.

No wonder in our reality, comicbook companies seek to copyright character codenames. There’s a lot of money to be made by being company specific although break-out characters are harder to spot before they hit the big time.

It’s problematic as to what new codenames can exist these days. The really good ones are already gone and the two major comicbook companies are reusing their names into new characters now. Why bother to reinvent the wheel when you have the wheel copyrighted already?

If you really want to be scary, have a reputation. A good codename means nothing without it, especially on a world where super-beings are the norm.

© GF Willmetts 2017


Category: Superheroes

About the Author ()

Geoff Willmetts has been editor at SFCrowsnest for some 21 plus years now, showing a versatility and knowledge in not only Science Fiction, but also the sciences and arts, all of which has been displayed here through editorials, reviews, articles and stories. With the latter, he has been running a short story series under the title of ‘Psi-Kicks’ If you want to contribute to SFCrowsnest, read the guidelines and show him what you can do. If it isn’t usable, he spends as much time telling you what the problems is as he would with material he accepts. This is largely how he got called an Uncle, as in Dutch Uncle. He’s not actually Dutch but hails from the west country in the UK.

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