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This is the Allusionist, in which I, Helen Zaltzman, spot language in a phone booth hurriedly changing into a spandex suit.
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GLEN WELDON: I still do believe in this notion that superheroes are a very flattering mirror. They are ourselves, but better, They make the choice to help others at risk to themselves. They don't give up, and they look out for the needs of others over those of themselves. And it is not complicated and it's not nuanced, and it's not even particularly insightful what it is is a good model to live by. It's the golden rule in spandex.
HZ: But with a lot of the names, it's easy to tell which side those are on. So Superman, Wonder Woman: they sound like goodies. The Flash: that sounds spectacular. Spider-Man... a lot of people really hate spiders. So that's a little more ambiguous.
GLEN WELDON: Yeah, of course. And Batman, you think the guy's going to get in your hair, or give you rabies.
HZ: You don't see that in the films.
HZ: Meet SuperGlen.
GLEN WELDON: My name is Glen Weldon. I've written a couple of books about superheroes, I'm a panellist on NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour.
HZ: SuperGlen’s powers include invisibility, levitation and - the only one that works in audio form - tracking the development in superhero names from the one who put the genre on the map: Superman.
CLIP: "Look up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s…Superman! Yes, it’s Superman, strange visitor from another planet who came to Earth with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men. Superman!"
HZ: The term ‘superman’ predates the character. It’s usually traced back to Friedrich Nietzsche’s 1883 work Thus Spake Zarathustra, in which he writes about the concept of the Übermensch. That word was translated into English variously as ‘overman’ and ‘beyond-man’ (those aren’t superheroes, by the way), until George Bernard Shaw opted to translate it as ‘superman’ in his 1903 play Man and Superman. I don’t know whether Superman’s creators Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster were fans of either Shaw or Nietzsche when, as high school students in 1933, they started writing Superman stories for their self-published zine. Initially, the character wasn’t such a super man: he was a down-and-out guy selected by a baleful scientist to control the world with the powers of his mind.
GLEN WELDON: They wrote the short story ‘Reign of the Superman’, where he wasn't a butch dude in circus tights, he was an evil mind-controlling villain. And this is thing - you think 'Superman' can only mean good. But what it means is just ‘powerful', and that is not necessarily good or evil. But it's become associated so completely with an entire genre that we now know superheroes are good and Superman is good. But it didn't start out that way.
HZ: Siegel and Shuster soon rebooted the evil Superman, though, into a more marketable character, and after several years searching for a publisher, in the June 1938 edition of Action Comics, Superman made his debut in the form we recognise today, with his undies-over-tights, the S logo on his chest, his super strength, and his alter ego as bespectacled journalist Clark Kent. But the character has since been tweaked a bit.
GLEN WELDON: When Superman was created, he was created to be a progressive character, which he quickly was no longer. But when he was created, he was meant to represent this new deal belief system, where he helps the little guy. He is a being of tremendous power who exists to keep the powerless from being exploited, from being abused. His first act is to rescue a woman from a wife-beater. His second act is to rescue a man who was wrongly accused of a crime from being executed. That was his shtick. He went after crooked politicians; he went after war profiteers; he went after people who would fix football games - which, you know, pick your battles. But as soon as the war began, all of the superheroes who were created, they got conscripted just like everybody else to advance the war effort, to raise morale at home, and - because we were shipping millions of comic books overseas to the troops - to wave the flag and to raise morale there too, and to hawk War Bonds and Victory Gardens. And for several decades, they never let that go away. They became these costumed ideals that were inherently patriotic. Like Captain America was created, and on the very first cover of his premiere issue, he is a guy dressed in a flag punching Adolf Hitler. Not subtle! What do superheroes want to do? They want to they want to protect the status quo. They want to keep things the way they are. They want to punish people who transgress. They're not necessarily inherently the progressive force that Superman started out to be.
HZ: Superman was a massive hit straight out of the phonebooth, and comic books took off on his back, with their own versions of a super man.
GLEN WELDON: Well what they were doing of course was just ripping off. So Superman came along; he created the whole what is now a genre that has taken over the international box office. But he was just this very very popular character. And what Batman and everybody who came later was doing was just ripping him off. Here's a bat, here's a man, let's put them together. But it certainly doesn't seem that big a reach to take a word like ‘super’ and slap it in front of ‘man’.
HZ: It seems so obvious in retrospect.
GLEN WELDON: Absolutely, right. And then everybody who came along after just kind of imitated that almost to the letter. So back in 1938, when Superman was created, you take a gender and you slap a nice adjective in front of it. So Superman, right. And he was not alone in that: there was also Amazing-Man and Dynamic Man and Mighty Man and Wonder Man and Atomic-Man.
“A ten ton tank is no match against the mighty Hourman!”
“Hawkman! What are you doing here?”
GLEN WELDON: Air Man, Bronze Man, Bulletman, Robotman, Rockman, Skyman, Starman…
CLIP: “Aquaman, the bold and daring, king of the seven seas.”
GLEN WELDON: The dominant nomenclature, which is to take noun plus gender.
“Phantom Lady - together with Doll Man.”
“My name is Moon-Boy!”
“Negative Man, Elastigirl and Roboman.”
GLEN WELDON: Moon Girl, Sun Girl, and of course - remember the time, this was 1938, 39, 40 - Yankee Girl.
HZ: It's very patriotic.
GLEN WELDON: Oh, extremely so, because there was another whole nomenclature tradition which was military ranking plus something patriotic. So Captain America started that, of course; but then you also had Captain Battle, Captain Flag, Captain Freedom, Captain Triumph, Captain Courageous.
HZ: Alliteration is also a perennially popular pattern.
GLEN WELDON: Especially in Superman, because you have Clark Kent, and then you have Lois Lane, and you have Lex Luthor and his girlfriend Lana Lang. It is a big thing. And of course Blue Beetle and the Blue Bolt. This is another whole separate nomenclature: colour plus noun.
“You’re at the mercy of the real Green Goblin.”
“Then go, my Silver Surfer.”
“Red Robin saves the day again.”
GLEN WELDON: The Silver Streak, the Golden Girl…
HZ: The Golden Girls.
GLEN WELDON: That's right! It never occurred to me. Their secret power is... cheesecake. My favourite of all the 'you take a noun and you slap a colour in front of it' is the Red Bee. Have you heard of the Red Bee, Helen?
HZ: I haven't, Glen, I haven’t.
GLEN WELDON: Red Bee, created in 1940, was a dude in a in striped tights and a kind of sheer pink blouse who had trained bees, fought crime with trained bees. He kept his favourite bee in his belt buckle, and that bee was named Michael. Michael the bee.
HZ: I love that they snuck in a normal human name in the least expected place.
HZ: One ‘colour plus noun’ name with more going on with it is Black Panther. The character first appeared in a Fantastic Four story in July 1966, only three months before the political organisation of the same name was founded. No connection with the comic book character, though: the Black Power movement had already been symbolised by a black panther for quite a while, and Black Panther Party founders Huey Newton and Bobby Seale ended up choosing it as the name for their organisation after Stokely Carmichael delivered a speech in Berkeley on 29 October 1966, about his activism in Lowndes County, Alabama.
CLIP: Stokely Carmichael:
“In Lowndes County, we developed something called the Lowndes County Freedom Organization. It is a political party. The Alabama law says that if you have a party, you must have an emblem. We chose for the emblem a black panther, a beautiful black animal which symbolizes the strength and dignity of black people; an animal that never strikes back until he's back so far into the wall, he's got nothing to do but spring out. And when he springs, he does not stop.”
HZ: However, Stan Lee maintains that it was sheer coincidence that the superhero he co-created had the same name as the Black Panther Party; he said he just liked naming superheroes after animals. The working title for this one had been ‘Coal Tiger’. Lee has since said that if he had to do it again, he’d probably give the character a different name, to avoid the confusion. And indeed, that was the reasoning the Black Panther himself gave when in 1971 he nonchalantly changed his name to the Black Leopard, though who can say whether it was he or Marvel who preferred to swerve political connotations. But within a year, he was back to Black Panther, after occasional forays into being known by his name-name, T’Challa, or just by Panther. Which is actually in line with another common superhero naming trope: the lone noun. (That’s not a superhero.)
GLEN WELDON: There's the Atom. There’s the Flash. There’s the Flag. There’s the Jester. There's the Knight. There's the Owl. There's the Phantom. And that's the one that has dominated ever since.
So all of a sudden in the 70s - this is what we call the Bronze Age, cause there is a Golden Age, there's a Silver Age, there’s a Bronze Age - there has been this trend recently to call superheroes by very simple… the notion that these aren't just superhero names, they’re code names, right. Because this was the era when readers of comics wanted desperately, they ached to be taken seriously, to have these things they loved, where people dress up in costumes and punch crime in the face, they wanted desperately to be taken seriously. So that's when this notion that you know, Wolverine isn't just a superhero name, it's his code name. But then it became in the 90s, everything went to hell; because in the 90s that's when all of a sudden people started taking superhero comics seriously and the nerds just ate it up with a big spoon and demanded more. So it all became very steroidal and very macho and extremely comically butch. So this is an era of heroes named Bloodstrike and Ripclaw and Warblade, Knight Sabre. So it's like you take angry word, like magnetic refrigerator poetry, you just slap them together. Claymore! Ballistic! Shrapnel! Gunfire! Sparx! with an X. Shadow Stryke - S T R Y K E, why, who knows. Razorsharp. And of course, it was the 90s, Cyber: lots of Cybers, multiple Cybers.
HZ: It's not subtle.
GLEN WELDON: No! That's the whole point, Helen: none of this should be, can be, subtle. Subtlety is anathema to superheroes, because they are ourselves, but bigger, broader and, at least until the 90s, better.
HZ: But then you also have this strain of superheroes who have normal real life human names, like Jessica Jones. Is that to give the impression that they do walk among us?
GLEN WELDON: That's exactly right. That's a reaction too; because again, we start to realize, as soon as we start to deconstruct the notion of superheroes - and this begins with books like Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen and with Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns - we start to look at these characters who were created for children, and meant to divide the world into good capital G and evil capital E, and we say, well there's got to be more to this, right? We’ve got to dig under the surface here. So we start to deconstruct them, we start to understand that if somebody were actually do this for a living, this would be a person who is, perhaps, nuts. And that becomes the dominant superhero genre for - it still kind of is, what is called grim and gritty; it’s the dark underside of these powers, the unwanted powers. So to shield yourself from the Superman notion, basically, of just a golden paragon of virtue, which is widely thought of as unrelatable, you create ground level heroes who refuse even something as badass as a code name like Shadow Strike, and they just want to be called themselves because they want to pass among us, that's exactly right. They just go by their names like Jessica Jones and Luke Cage - because Luke Cage's other name is Power Man which sounds silly. I love these things for their goofiness, their inherent goofiness. So I love the days of Power Man and Iron Fist; but I can understand the appeal of taking it down a notch and trying to figure out what you have left, if you just take the powers as read but you're trying to figure out who these people actually are, what drives them, what motivates them. Then slapping somebody with a name like Power Man, it's tough to kind of relate to,. Hence Luke Cage and Jessica Jones.
HZ: I suppose as well that if you've got a name like Jessica Jones, rather than Invisible Thing, it gives you options: you're not just confined to using your invisibility power. You could also fly, or be super.
GLEN WELDON: Or just start pulling stuff out of your butt.
HZ: I’m going to assume that’s a reference to an alternate version of Spider-Man in which his spider silk emerges from a more arachnidly accurate part of his body than his wrists.
HZ: What are the customs that are around now?
GLEN WELDON: The customs that are on now or just simple words. Angel. Dogstar. Wildfire. And things like Bloodstrike. They're still around.
HZ: So kind of like chat room names or Robot Wars names.
GLEN WELDON: They're exactly that, they're exactly that. There is this trend to get away from such obviously gendered names. We're now in an age when putting a ‘man’ after something - or a ‘woman’ or a ‘girl’ or a ‘gal’ or a ‘lass' or a ‘lad’ - is just deliberately and just conspicuously old school. My favourite hero - because there is something that is sort of gender essentialist about “I am X man”, “I am Y woman”, “I am something gal” - my favourite is a character created in the 1990s by Grant Morrison from a character who used to be called Negative Man, because he had a negative energy being living inside him. Because you know, just long story. And then when the guy who was hosting the negative energy being died, it became Negative Woman; and then finally there was this character where this negative energy spirit fused a man and a woman and itself together and became Rebis, which is the name for an alchemical final product that unites male and female together. This was the start of a kind of more gender fluid understanding of superheroes, or at least an idea that you can have an identity that is neither male or female.
HZ: I don't know whether any studies have been done as to the names versus the longevity of that character and whether there's any kind of characteristic that means your superhero has a better chance of surviving for decades like Superman and Spider-Man have, or whether you're going to have another -
GLEN WELDON: Bloodstrike?
HZ: Yeah, Bloodstrike.
GLEN WELDON: Bloodstrike and Knight Sabre: they didn't last because those names are so "I love the 90s.
HZ: Very Gladiators, aren't they.
GLEN WELDON: Very Gladiators. Exactly. And that's the whole point. And this notion of codenames, we need them to be codenames, it is still in the mix ,but it's not dominant, because you have something like Luke Cage and Jessica Jones and this notion of people who are accepting the fact that they have powers but rejecting that kind of superhero sort of blanket statement, a blanket idea; because again, what's happening now is we're dissecting the superhero ideal, we are deconstructing it and trying to find any way of telling these stories, because these stories have been so mired in very regressive tropes for so long. You are looking for some new facet, and if a name can get you there, then more power to you.
HZ: You can hear more from Glen Weldon on the NPR podcast and radio show Pop Culture Happy Hour, and read his two books about superheroes: Superman: The Unauthorized Biography, and The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture.
Listen up, my fine friends: last year, I did a talk at TED. The big one in Vancouver, with all the billionaires and the global experts and people trying to change the world, and… me, talking about the dots on ‘i’s and medieval scribes and hairy paper and the funniest typo I have ever seen in my life - I’m not exaggerating, it’s a really good one. My talk’s not going to change the world, but I’d love it if you did watch it. It’s just been published on TED’s Youtube channel TED Archive, and I’ll link to it at theallusionist.org.
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This episode of the Allusionist was produced by me, Helen Zaltzman, and Martin Austwick, who also provides the music for the show. If you have a company or product that you think would go down well with Allusionist listeners, you can find out how to advertise on this show by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also find me on Facebook and Twitter - the handle is allusionistshow - and visit me in my underground lair full of tricked-out vehicles and bodysuits that are somehow both armoured and stretchy at theallusionist.org.