What’s In A Codename

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Marvel Comics has long been my oldest and preferred superhero reading material, but over the years it’s developed some patterns I can’t help but notice and wince at just a little.

Codenames.

I’m not griping that they exist; in the universe the characters run in, having a costumed identity separate from the regular “day to day” person makes sense, adds depth to the character and her story, and is just plain wise when one’s enemies are super-powered.

Some of them have in-story reasons for giving up their codenames, or for choosing to go without. But more often than not, a character lacking or losing a codename does not occur in a manner organic to the storytelling, but a simple function of publishing and rights to the character, right down to the character’s given name being a registered trademark on the cover of a comic.

Here I’m going to explore a few of the most prominent examples of codename switching and disuse. You’ll be able to spot it easily: which were the choice of Marvel Editorial, and which were written organically into the story. There’s even some crossover.

codename-jeangrey

Jean Grey, the X-Men’s favorite redhead, started out as Marvel Girl, then became Phoenix, then went back to Marvel Girl, back to Phoenix, before finally superheroing under her own name for a while, until being killed off again. This doesn’t seem wise or advisable for a member of an oft-outlawed band of mutant heroes with enough enemies to fill a cruise ship. Then again, at the top of her game, Phoenix ate stars and could turn 300-year-old oak trees to solid gold. She became pretty much feared across the known Marvel universe for that star-eating trick. Perhaps being feared across the universe trumps walking around without a codename. Then again, the codename also makes an obvious indicator for Jean’s current power level — so maybe not. Funnily, this even extended to the first X-Men animated series. Out of the entire team, she was the only one without a codename — even though they did an adaptation of “The Phoenix Saga.”

codename_kitty

Kitty Pryde was originally given the codename Sprite, which she disliked. Then Ariel, which she also disliked. Joining Excalibur, she picked the codename Shadowcat. The codename was discarded when Excalibur was cancelled, breaking up her and Pete Wisdom, and seeing Kitty back with Peter Rasputin (which has thankfully failed for good, at this point). She still has her genius intellect, ninja training and phasing ability. In All New X-Men, the kids are calling her “Professor K”. But this seems odd, considering she’s still in an X-Men starter costume and she’s making sure that the Original Four X-Men (one has left for Team Uncanny) wear their masks on missions to guard their identities.

Speaking of Excalibur, I can’t mention that team without thinking of Meggan. It’s actively painful to recall this character’s background. As an unrealized shapeshifter, subconsciously manifesting other people’s ideas of her, she was kept in isolation with only television for company. Since people told her she was a monster, she looked like one. No one taught her anything more, so she was illiterate until she met Captain Britain. Once she got a handle on actually controlling her shapeshifting, Meggan didn’t choose a codename. Instead, she chose a form specifically to appeal to Brian “Captain Britain” Braddock. This gentleman apparently prefers blondes, so that’s the form she took as default. She briefly took on dark blue looks, when, during a rift with Brian she was attracted to Nightcrawler. Talk about a character who lacks agency, huh?

New Mutant Danielle Moonstar started as Psyche, changed to Mirage, then went back to Danielle Moonstar or just “Moonstar”, when she lost her powers in the early 90s, and has not had a codename since, though she still is walking around in a Native American-ized X-Men starter costume–that’s another pattern that may warrant exploring sometime. She has her bow and arrows. She’s a Valkyrie these days, for Hel, which allows her to see death coming and if necessary, battle for the mortal’s life. She also is pretty much a warrior woman on-par with Brunhilde, who goes by Valkyrie most of the time. She has most recently become a regular in Fearless Defenders. Her lack of powers does not make her a pushover. She still took out a thug squad sent to capture her. The lack of codename would be somewhat understandable if  she, like many other heroes, had no family to be concerned with.  But Dani’s parents are still alive. She also has the mutant Elixir as her ward, so it’s not like she lacks people who need protecting by concealing her identity with a codename. There has been no in-panel discussion that I’ve ever seen, that indicates whether or not Dani chose to just go by her own name. Perhaps I’m just being too harsh, and they feel they can’t come up with a codename that accurately encapsulates her pro-mutant, valkyrie lifestyle.

Rachel Summers, daughter of Jean Grey, has gone from codename to no codename as well. But unusual for the “not going by a codename” pattern, hers was by choice. She chose Phoenix as her birthright, and then Marvel Girl to honor her mother. She dropped the name after Jean’s latest death, and what she perceived as a betrayal by her father–also dropping the “Summers” name to go by Rachel Grey. She’s a second generation X-Man, related by blood to two of the originals. She gets agency where a lot of others do not. It must be her proximity and relation to Jean and Scott that allows her to wear a leather diva rock star outfit, rather than the X-Men “bumblebee suits” Dani and Kitty wear.

Emma Frost is an unusual example. Her moniker, The White Queen, was not so much a codename at first, as it was a title indicating her position in the villainous Hellfire Club. When she switched sides after the slaughter of the Hellions, she kept the moniker, then dumped it altogether. She goes only as Emma Frost these days. But we also know that even though she is not the strongest telepath in the Marvel Universe, she has no compunctions about using her power in what most heroes would consider a less than ethical manner. So while she has no mask, and no family she cares about enough to protect, she also has the power to wipe people’s minds or force them to remember her completely wrong. We’ve seen that she, and the teenage clones of her once called the Cuckoos but now known as the Stepford Sisters (who also share her scruples, or lack thereof), are perfectly fine with using their powers as a tool, an advantage, or a weapon. The three teen telepaths share their teacher’s idea of how to protect themselves.

Then we’ve got Jubilee, whose name is Jubilation Lee. This is a case of Chris Claremont having showed little effort (she wasn’t even the first Jubilee — Claremont had a character named the same in a Wildways story) and nobody changing it because the character’s costume – originally a parody of DC’s classic Robin costume – is iconic, even though the character is now a vampire.

codename-monica

At first glance, it would seem this is a completely X-Men-centric phenomenon, but it has leaked out to the rest of Earth 616. Monica Rambeau, on getting her powers, was named Captain Marvel. She used that codename as an Avenger until she was badly injured and had to retire for a while. She then came out of retirement, and apparently chose to go by Photon when she led Nextwave. The team picked on her, because apparently giving up the Captain Marvel codename was a sore spot for Monica–one the team considered her dwelling on to be whining. When the codename came back into costumed use, it was given to former Avengers teammate — and former Ms. Marvel — Carol Danvers. Monica didn’t even get the courtesy of a call from her alleged friend who was putting the codename back to use; Monica received notification it was active again  from a Google Alert, and sought Carol out to ask her why she hadn’t called. This is particularly egregious example because Monica was, to use the tvtropes.org term, a twofer token minority: the first female Captain Marvel, and the first black Captain Marvel. So it’s really quite a blow to readers of color to see it given to Danvers and to see her lauded as the greatest. Now Monica is back on the page as the de facto team leader of Mighty Avengers, only to have chosen the codename Spectrum. No concerns here about protecting her identity– not only has she not worn a mask since Nextwave — Monica can turn into laser beams and radiation, which makes her a lady with whom one does not mess.

Alison Blaire has had only one codename: Dazzler. And hers has always been a case of choice. She chose the name to accessorize her powerset, and because it was not meant originally as a codename, but as a stage name. All Alison Blaire ever wanted to do was sing. But in a world where being a mutant is a far cry from being a blonde, superhero stuff just kept falling in her lap. So eventually the stage name became a codename. She recently discarded it to become “Agent Blaire,” of SHIELD.

Mercedes “Misty” Knight runs with superheroes, but is more of a detective with superhero gear. She is one of a few Marvel women who goes without a codename of her own choice. She has also built a reputation on her real name being public. With a Stark-tech bionic arm (now gold, and upgraded with repulsor technology!) she falls into a weird place in the Marvel universe: street thugs know she’s a crack shot with a gun, has a bionic arm, and that she’s on-again, off-again with Iron Fist. Any threat bad enough to take her down and out is more of a Fantastic Four or Avengers level threat, but she’s beneath their notice.

codename_jessica

A “fridge” case of agency comes from Jessica Jones. Sharing a proximity to Daredevil’s origin, she got her powers from a car accident dousing her in chemicals. She chose the super moniker Jewel, and dyed her hair violet-pink. She was not any great shakes as a heroine, and her spirit was broken after being captured, used and abused by the Purple Man, and forced to witness him raping a number of innocent women he placed under his control. She had a series of even more unfortunate adventures after the Avengers realized what she’d been through.  Jessica received rehabilitation and psi-therapy to help her recover from her ordeal, but the realization she had been missing for almost a year and no one in the super community had noticed or cared enough to look for her convinced Jessica to give up on the costumed lifestyle; she briefly took the codename Knightress, again by choice, before deciding to give up on the super powered costumes and capes set altogether.

Jessica’s main problem was believing in herself.  Her own opinion was that she wasn’t a very good hero. The Alias series shows the reader differently.  Choosing her own codenames, and choosing what she’ll do with her life, actually cements her as a female character with a lot more agency than her origin and early history suggest.

Xian “Shan” Coy Manh has problems on both the real name and codename scores. “Coy” lends itself to the fetishization of Asian women as delicate “lotus blossoms” who bat their eyes seductively, mysterious and exotic like Cho-Cho San from Madame Butterfly.  Her codename, Karma, is from Buddhism–the character is Catholic.  The concept of Karma is also more along the lines of fate, which seems to indicate Marvel Editorial didn’t put a lot of thought in here.  They gave us a Vietnamese character with a Buddhist codename that has almost nothing to do with her powerset.

Of course, when we encounter the phenomenon of “no codename by choice,” it’s most often a man who gets that privilege.

In Runaways, Alex Wilder, the brains of the outfit and leader of the team,  refused to select a codename though the rest of his team did. At the end of the first major arc, he was revealed to be the mole, wrecking the goodwill of many minority readers who were thrilled to see another character of color in a leadership position.

Luke Cage has dropped his old moniker of Power Man, only to have it picked up by a new kid who (and I quote from Mighty Avengers) “wields the chi of New York”, and who talks like the writers are attempting cool, hip, urban slang but sounds more like a new millennium version of jive turkey, and perpetuates the old Angry Black Man trope on top of that.

David Bond is an odd case. Although he is male, he did not choose his mutant codename. It was Cyclops who spontaneously tagged him as “Hijack”. As a reader, I find that forced and problematic. Cyclops is suffering from broken powers and a broken team, given that the X-Men are halved down ideological lines right now, and is considered by most of the Marvel heroes to be a serious terroristic threat due to his having killed Charles Xavier while he was Phoenix Cyclops. Cyclops  has said on panel he appreciates the love of pro-mutant humans, yet he still gave David a name that already comes with criminal and terroristic connotations?

Having the image-conscious and calculating Emma Frost on his team, even if not as his romantic partner anymore, should have resulted in the two of them arguing in private over how ill-advised the codename “Hijack” is for a mutant who is on a team led by a man considered a terrorist. It should have resulted in Cyclops realizing that Bond, as a Latino, was already a member of an oppressed minority before his mutation popped up, and that giving him a handle with criminal connotations would be more trouble; especially since Cyclops’ team found David about to be mistreated by frightened human police. Did the well-meaning creative team behind Uncanny X-Men stop to think about these issues? Were they patting themselves on the back for the diversity they’ve showed by adding a Latino mutant, a Black mutant, and a Filipino mutant to the Uncanny team? “More representation” is the clarion call of the nonwhite reader.

That Filipino mutant, Fabio Medina, by the way, chose to use as his codename the nickname he was given when his teammates first got a look at what he could do. That name? Goldballs. Because that’s his power. He produces them. They go “poink”. He begged his teammates to stop calling him that due to fear of the embarrassing nickname sticking.  He quit shortly after having to fight in Illyana’s demonic limbo, and was captured by SHIELD after the team brought him home.  The X-Men came to his rescue. When he finally decided he was cut out to be an X-Man after all, he claimed the name for his own. Unfortunately, the real world connotations of the name “Goldballs” are just as negative as they are for “Hijack”. Goldballs is a slang term for showing wealth by bringing something expensive to party with–usually drugs or alcohol. So again, the creative team on one hand is doing a good thing by diversifying the mutant population, but then shooting it in the knees by saddling the character with a derogatory codename.

At the other extreme, we have the royalty: Prince Namor and King T’Challa. Namor doesn’t really require much explanation for choosing to forego a codename; he is arrogant, has always been arrogant, and that alone is enough to explain why his name will never be subsumed under a codename. Imperious Rex! T’Challa, on the other hand, doesn’t have a codename, so much as a title that is bestowed upon him as high priest of the Wakandan panther clan. It just happens to make an excellent and intimidating codename. Too bad he was created during the Seventies, where all the black characters had to have “black” in their names–so readers could tell they were, you know, black.

Nate Grey is an apparent exception to the rule, being a refugee from a now-destroyed alternate Earth where people didn’t costume up and go by codenames. For him, it’s normal to go by his given name.

This leaves us with at least a solid dozen women without a codename–and no explanation given for not using one.

Then there’s the one who preferred her codename, never revealing her real name through decades of comic continuity, until the X-Men films forced the issue. That’d be Rogue.  We got her real name — Anna Marie Raven — some time after the first film came out. She had some choice in the matter, at least. And that’s just scratching the surface. Even with the ten issues old Fearless Defenders, which is notably all women, and the new adjectiveless X-Men book, also boasting an all-lady roster. There are dozens of other powered women in the Marvel Universe who just go by their own names with no explanation: Elsa Bloodstone, Topaz, Clea. And like some of the men, we have a few with unfortunate names: Mantis, for example, and Black Widow–which implies that powerful women are literal maneaters.

We have seven male characters, two of whom chose no codename, two who had their codenames handed to them and ran with it, one who “inherited” his codename, and two who are royalty and can do what they like. And then there’s Logan, the flip side of Rogue, whose civilian name was just “Logan” out of a plethora of nicknames and callsigns, until the X-Men films got going, and Marvel Comics had to create the origin story before the movies pulled one out of the clear blue sky.

We have discussed fifteen female characters. Jean and Kitty had codenames at one time but have since stopped using them. Meggan has never had a codename, nor ever seemed to give thought to needing one, instead choosing forms to please the men in her life. Danielle had a series of codenames, but seems to just prefer using her last name these days. Rachel chose and discarded codenames before settling with her own name. Emma Frost and the former Cuckoos have the psionics to protect themselves until they decide whether they want codenames. Jubilee’s codename is a direct outgrowth of her given name. Monica Rambeau had a codename she was forced to give up; in her absence from heroing, it was taken by a friend. Alison Blaire seems embarrassed by both the stage/codename and by her former music career as Dazzler. Misty Knight’s regular name is her professional name. Jessica Jones chose to abandon all codenames. Karma’s codename is a remnant from her origin in the 1970s that no one seems to have thought to update.

So the pattern is not as bad as it could be, but it is still one that needs attention. Does the Marvel Editorial team need codename suggestions for these heroines?

Next time, we’ll get into DC’s problematic naming and codenaming issues.

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About Author

Jamie Kingston is a Native New Yorker, enduring a transplant to Atlanta. She’s a lifelong comic fan, having started at age 13 and never looked back, developing a decades-spanning collection and the need to call out the creators when she expects better of them. Her devotion extends to television, films, and books as well as the rare cosplay. She sates her need to create in a number of ways including being an active editor on the TV Tropes website, creating art and fan art, and working on her randomly updating autobiographical web comic, Orchid Coloured Glasses. As a woman of color, she considers it important to focus on diversity issues in the media. She received the Harpy Agenda micro-grant in November of 2015 for exceptional comics journalism by a writer of color.

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