Wednesday, October 20, 2010

What's In A Name? The Importance Of Titles In Comics

It seems that most mainstream Big Two comics have pretty pedestrian titles. They rarely go for the cerebral thought provoking title but instead choose to simply name their main character, or group, of the comic and hope to brand them into popularity as the title as well. Sometimes they get snazzed up with an adjective, sometimes they stand alone, but rarely is it something interesting. Independent comics rarely name their comics after the main character, instead usually taking some other inspiration. Sometimes one approach is best, sometimes the other one kicks a goal. Here I want to discuss the power of the title. What’s in a name? Hit the jump to find out.

Golden Age Titles

Way back in the day, well before our collective times, comics had genre based names that weren’t exactly exciting. They may have told you the type of story you were getting but they didn’t really sell you on any specific character. You picked up Action Comics, Detective Comics, Whiz Comics, All-American Comics, Startling Comics, and Crack Comics (and if you’re a rare collector you’ll even find copies of Amazing Midget Radio Comics). It’s a generic catch all title that will hopefully attract the most buyers possible. Anyone who likes action will go for that comic, regardless of character.

The title wasn’t the complete sell, it wasn’t meant to be specific. Comics hadn’t been proven as a medium and there were certainly only few characters that could be guaranteed to sell a title. The publishing companies churned out as much as they could each month and if something managed to sell a little higher they’d make more of it but there was no exact science. Nor was there such a wide range of cultural tastes among the reading audience. The audience was primarily children so you kept things simple and attracted them with the main word in the title, it had to pop off the spinner racks and words like Action, Whiz, and Crack certainly do that. They just don’t do much else.

Silver Age Titles

Most characters were still stuck in their generic titled comics at the start of this period. Showcase: Presenting… was a major turning point here, and anthology titles like Strange Adventures, Journey Into Mystery, Tales of Suspense, Tales To Astonish and Strange Tales were still the best places to sell a character. The reader could get a little bit of something different each month but still overall know the rough genre they were buying into. The comic industry was still finding its feet and offering up whatever would work for the few months they’d ever look into the future. But soon the characters would take centre stage.

Batman and Superman had held onto ongoing eponymous titles strongly in this period but other characters either couldn’t take hold of their share of the market strongly enough or were always seen as derivative characters that would never be as grand as the major two. Then along came Stan Lee and the concept of comic characters changed forever.

The character name became the main brand for Marvel Comics. They didn’t want to obscure the heroes of the piece, each child’s hero had to take centre stage of their title. Spider-Man leapt from the pages of Amazing Fantasy and into his own self-titled comic. Journey Into Mystery soon had its title changed to reflect the thunder god who took command of the page within. Lee made sure that every kid reading his comics loved the characters within and made them the reason to buy it.

Lee also went about giving his characters great names like the Fantastic Four and the Amazing Spider-Man, as well as the Uncanny X-Men and the Incredible Hulk. His creations were larger than life, which fit the way he saw the world, and the use of awe inspiring adjectives was with a great degree of purpose. These weren’t just characters in stories these were modern myths and Lee wanted them residing on the highest pedestal he could find. These characters had to crack into the minds of children and live there even when the comic wasn’t around. Marvel characters, and soon more DC ones as well, would become personal acquaintances. They were the best friends of children and first name basis was the only way to introduce themselves.

Lee was even smart enough to make himself a common name among his readership and through constant editorialising from his Soapbox and friendly caption nicknames in the opening credits he made himself a ubiquitous member of the gang, or better yet, every kid was a part of his gang. They were the Merry Marvel Marching Society and they had their own song and everything. Lee might not have gone for the cerebral title but he certainly went for the one that worked best on the cover and then played with the words on the title page.

The first story titles of the Lee era are known for their hyperbole. The Uncanny Threat of the Terrible Tinkerer, The Terrible Threat of the Living Brain, The Fantastic Four Meet The Skrulls From Outer Space, The Menace of the Miracle Man, No One Can Stop The Vanisher, The Owl, Ominous Overlord of Crime, The Terror of the Toad Men, The Stiltman Cometh, Sightless, In A Savage Land, If This Be Justice…!; and these are just but a mere sample of the glorious and grand handles Lee gave each of his stories. He wanted children to have to consult dictionaries and thesauruses to understand the true scope of his tales. The drama had to be peak right from the credits and readers had to know they’d be getting a story, a gallant legend, a heroic anecdote and nothing could hold them back from their excitement.

For years this method reigned supreme, though so few were as able with the word wrangling as Mr Lee always seemed to be. We were given a few decades of relatively generic story titles that usually loosely tied into the episode they were describing. If Spider-Man was going to battle the Scorpion you could bet the title would have the words sting or tail in them. Titles were tired wordplay or famous quote ripping and the art form of titling your tale became a long gone talent. There aren’t a lot of great titles to remember for a long while, and though a few might spike up as being delicious mostly they were just plain.

Modern Age

It should be noted that at this stage of the game titles took a dip in their apparent importance. Previously, while on the spinner racks at the stores, you could only see the title of the comic poking out so it held some importance. With better shelves in comic stores, the title became less of a selling point and the cover image became the eye grabber. There is more importance placed on the visual not the words.

It seems to be now that many issues don’t even have a name anymore. The overall story arc gets a title but each issue does not, which is a real shame. If you read Bendis and Maleev’s Daredevil you’ll see that the arcs are the only titles, with each issue being a part of it, and even those arc titles are pretty uninspired; Underboss, Out, Trial Of The Century, Lowlife, Hardcore, The King of Hell’s Kitchen, The Widow, Golden Age, Decalogue, and The Murdock Papers. That’s a pretty plain set of titles for a five year run. The trend still continues today on that title, which is a shame.

In the modern age of brilliant storytelling, we are far too often left with the basic character names for titles and story arcs broken up into parts as issue titles. It’s pretty sad and that’s why I now look to independent comics to bring the thunder when it comes to comic titles. Though many of today’s blockbuster writers came from indie stock and now don’t put much punch into their titles so this isn’t an exact science. Sometimes the big companies must simply want a plain title for easy readability and sometimes a writer just doesn’t exactly fire his titles on all cylinders.

Scalped is a great example of a title because it’s emotive and represents plenty of things while not being specific about any story elements or characters. It’s not a comic about the Scalper, an American Indian superhero who’s taking a grip on the mane of villainy. No, it’s a crime comic set on an Indian reservation. So the title fits because it’s a word that is Indian and violent, two great ways to describe this amazing title by Jason Aaron and R.M. Guera. Scalped is also home to fantastically evocative story arc titles like Casino Boogie, Dead Mothers, The Gravel In Your Guts, High Lonesome, and The Gnawing.

Brian K Vaughan is great at titling his comics as he created Y: The Last Man which might seem like a simple enough title, it’s about the last man alive, but the title also has just that little bit more meaning. The Y stands for the initial of our lead hero, Yorick, and it’s also the chromosome that makes a baby male. It’s pretty clever but not distractingly so. BKV also wrote Ex Machina, which roughly means the machine, and it’s about a superhero who called himself the Great Machine and it’s also about politics, which is one hell of a machine. Though it must also be noted that Vaughan titles an arc of Y as Kimono Dragons, something he said he regretted very soon after as it’s a pretty lame pun.

Even a simple title like Casanova gives itself fancy Latin terms for its arc titles (Luxuria and Gula), though I would have liked to see a series like Incognito give itself some awesome issue titles (though I do think Incognito is just a fantastic comic title in itself). Creator owned shelves yield titles like Gødland and DMZ and Chew and Phonogram and I just love looking through those titles and piecing together just what it all means. While meanwhile, the Big Two are still stuck in their Secret crossovers and Crisis events.

But for each of these examples you do still have pretty standard fare like The Walking Dead or Criminal or American Vampire. They’re simple and effective titles but they don’t exactly jump out at the brain and sucker punch you with awesome. Sometimes you get exceptions to break the rule like The Boys and then the big company offers you a character name like Beta Ray Bill, and puts him into a story titled Godhunter.


I’m a man who even likes titles on his chapters when he reads a book so I wish more comics had individual titles, and well thought out ones, too. I like a comic title that means something and doesn’t just use a noun from the series. I want something with emotion that gives me a sense of the vibe of the tale being told. I want to have something to analyse. I think some comics are doing it exceptionally well and some just ignore the fact that you can even do it, which is a shame. What do you think? Do you like comic titles and which ones are some of your favourites?

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Flip The Page said...

Comic titles can charm the crap out of me. Especially when they break the usual "this is the name of the character/team" mold by having extra bits or crazy sub-titles.

The best for stuff like that recently has been Marvel's B&W collections, which ALL pretty much have the best names ever. I mean, Tomb of Terror? The Mystic Hands of Doctor Strange? Classic stuff.

Moon Knight's been pretty good for interesting titles on a coupla occasions too, the most notable being the surprisingly pulpy sounding Vengeance of the Moon Knight. It kinda resonates on how unusual it sounds, and I like to think that it's more catchy than stuff like titles that NEVER change, like Fantastic Four or Uncanny X-Men.

Ivan said...

I think you can't expect superhero comics to not be named after the titular character or superteam in this day and age.

Sure it would be great to see Iron Man in a title named, I don't know, "The Mecatronic Knight", but it's not a very smart branding move.

natureboyHH said...

Hey Ryan, I was under the impression you left TWC. Glad to know you're still contributing here.

I think "Daytripper" is a pretty good title. Bras' is like a tourist on a very short but memorable vacation, and at the end of the issue, he comes home. There is some religious subtext to it, but its neither here nor there.

For an arc, I like "Season of Mists" from Sandman. You won't figure its about souls cast out of Hell returning to haunt the living until you're about halfway through the arc.

Paul Cornell's introduction in the second volume of "The Unwritten" also placed a witty spin on the title - "The title of the series itself might refer not to something that hasn't been done, but to something that's being undone, a tapestry that's being picked." Good stuff.

twobitspecialist said...

Some fairly recent story arcs stick in my mind solely because of the arc title, such New Ways to Die, American Son, and the Grim Hunt in Amazing Spider-man; and Planet Hulk and World War Hulk. X-books have had the best arc titles: Fatal Attractions, the Dark Phoenix Saga, Age of Apocalypse, and several others that abuse the "X-puns" (like X-cutioner's Song).

Occasionally, the character titles give you quirky stuff like "Franken-Castle."

nf said...

Not to be too picky, but Superman should be bolded like Batman in the second paragraph under Silver Age titles and Wonder Woman should be added as Batman, Wonder Woman, and Superman each had their own books that went through the late 1940s and the 1950s in which superhero comics became increasingly rare. Obviously Batman and Superman appeared in Detective Comics and Action Comics during this time and both appeared in World's Finest. Wonder Woman vol.1 was published from 1942-1986.

Daniel Woburn said...

I totally agree with you, Ryan. Titles at the best of times can be just, well, cool. I have to point out that I thought Decalogue was actually a pretty cool title for that arc of Daredevil, especially when balanced with the covers of each issue. Type 'Daredevil Decalogue' into a Google image search and see for yourself! The image of Daredevil silhouetted against a red background, with the words "I AM YOUR GOD" printed in bold, has remained in my mind since I first saw it on the stands. I'm not sure if that turned out to be the title of the story though.
I also gotta say, it's the same for titles of episodes of TV shows. As referenced in the name of a column here on TWC, "All The Best Cowboys Have Daddy Issues" is one of the best titles for an hour of television (on ABC's "Lost") ever. Another good'un is "Not Fade Away", the title of the very last (and very badass) episode of "Angel". Sorry for the tangent!
I also whole-heartedly agree that 'High Lonesome', hell, ALL of the titles of Scalped GNs are frickin' awesome.
You also have to give credit to the titles of The Walkind Dead's GNs. 'Days Gone Bye', 'Miles Behind Us', 'Safety Behind Bars', 'Here We Remain' (my favourite of the bunch) etc etc.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

@natureboyHH - nah, mate, I'm still kicking around. You don't get rid of me that easily. My output has just slowed a bit with the addition of a young lad to my house but I have the column rocking every Monday and I'll be putting the odd thing up here and there for as long as I can, and Kirk will have me :)

@Daniel W - mate, you obviously don't know me, I've got lots of DD round these here parts, and I do love the Decalogue covers, just a shame it wasn't a ten part story, still good though.

Great to see everyone offering up such great titles, just what I wanted to see.

Dan S. said...

I'm sorry, Ryan, but "The Walking Dead" is a classic comic book title, in that it's dual meaning gets at more than just the literal zombies (long cast as the secondary villain of the comic).

This scene came at the end of a brutal, painful, gut-wrenching arc, and I dare you to find a comic that better utilizes its title to rip your heart out and leave it cold.

Ryan K Lindsay said...

@Dan S - I agree that the title worked fantastically in that scene, but as far as a title goes, it is pretty pedestrian. I love it, but its nothing like a comic like Scalped, or Y even.

But I can see how you'd still love it.

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