Last time, we explored the problems of codenames for Marvel superheroines, and how much agency they get in-story and out. It’s DC’s turn now, starting with the problems that can come from a company that builds on family and legacy.
Daughters of Legacy:
Supergirl, Batgirl, Batwoman, Hawkwoman/girl, Jesse Quick: Building on family and legacy tends to be useful from an in-story standpoint.
If you’re wearing the S-shield or the Bat on your chest, the bad guys immediately know with whom they are messing, and who will likely come after them with extreme prejudice if they harm the distaff family member. And not just the big guy — the entire clan, so to speak.
It can be frustrating to a reader that the girls and women of the Super and Bat families don’t really get to prove themselves on their own merits. They’re automatically given the “advantage” of being badass by association with the male family members. Supergirl is actually a blood relation to Superman. Batgirl cleverly decided to trade on the recognizability of the Bat when costuming up. She declared herself one of their family decades before Tim Drake sussed out who Bruce Wayne was. But we almost never get to see the girls show how awesome they are without the recognizability factor that comes from their costume choice.
Sure, Supergirl’s a girl, but she’s a Kryptonian girl. If that isn’t enough to give a bad guy pause, we know exactly who her big cousin is. Sure Batgirl is a girl, but we know who the big daddy of the Bat family is. Shiera is a Thanagarian badass, but we know whose wife she is. Jesse’s a woman and a speedster, but everyone knows who the first and most well-known male speedster is. Essentially there’s an element to the family connections of “you mess with one, you are potentially messing with the entire group”.
Does it make Kate, Babs, Kara and Jesse smart to trade on that recognizability, or weak for having to lean on that logo everyone knows? Their codenames and costumes define them based on which male superhero had the codename and logo first.
One exception for the family heroines trading on codenames that come with automatic male backup, is Barbara Gordon, the once-and-again Batgirl. Before the New 52, she was Oracle — a name known and respected throughout the superhero community that had no special connection to the Bat Family to anyone outside. She was the all-knowing, all-seeing voice in the earpiece who kept superheroes connected to information that made it easier to do their jobs. She was there for the Birds of Prey, the Justice League, and the Bats.
Taking Oracle from the chair and returning Batgirl to the night skies is a point of contention among readers. On the one hand, Babs exists in a universe where Cyborg also exists. She lives in the same Gotham City in which Bruce Wayne recovered from a broken back. The DC universe is one in which blind superheroes can fight crime, and in which Green Lantern rings make a thought possible. Being incurably crippled by something as mundane as a gunshot wound is almost laughable in a universe like that. On the other, taking Oracle out of the universe deprives readers of a disabled superheroine — and to the readers, that’s a representation issue. That’s hard to take when no such instant cures are available here in the real world. On still another hand, the older fans who grew up with Barbara as Batgirl and were sorry to see her taken out of action in The Killing Joke are happy to see their feisty, competent, brainy heroine back in the swing.
Another familial codename exception is Miss Martian. She is actually not a blood relation to J’onn J’onzz, but a white Martian, who took her codename in relation to his as gratitude for his assistance, and respect for his kindness to her.
Black Canary is another of the more positive examples of legacy naming. The legacy in this case is matriarchal. Dinah took over as Black Canary from her own mother.
The same is true for Diana of Themyscira, whose mother Hippolyta, was, pre-New 52, the Wonder Woman of WWII. And that built out a family legacy that included Wonder Girl Donna Troy who grew to change codename along with her position when she joined the Darkstars. She eventually settled on Troia. The most recent legacy girl in the Wonder family is Wonder Girl Cassie Sandsmark. The New 52 Wonder Girl is still Cassie Sandsmark, but with a much-altered origin and power source. Troia as such is not in the New 52, but Donna’s presence is at least mentioned. In addition, the Wonder family has an extended sisterhood — foremost among which are the black Amazons Phillipus, the military leader, and the unfortunately named Nubia (which basically means “North African” but is often used as shorthand for Black woman).
Then there’s the Green Arrow legacy. Speedy, aka Mia Dearden, inherited her codename from the fact that the previous Arrow sidekick was a boy who’d been called Speedy. Arrowette has no direct connection to the Green Arrow legacy although her name implies it. She just has an enterprising stage mother who wanted to see her daughter become famous. Arrowette’s mother forced her into a niche and a codename that would play on the family dynamic. We have seen little of her, Secret, or Empress (who had original codenames) since the end of the Young Justice
While Starfire’s codename is nothing to be concerned about — it implies explosions and supernovas, which is fine for a 6’ alien woman with super strength who can fire plasma bolts from her hands — her given name is problematic. Her family name is And’r, which makes her name Koriand’r. Koriand’r is the “alienification” of the common household spice, coriander, which is the same color as Starfire’s golden skin. Oooh, exotic. But neither her codename, her real name, nor her “Earth” name Kory Anders are as big a problem as DC Editorial having turned the alien princess from a passionate warrior to pretty much a Sex Kitten from Outer Space who doesn’t even remember the names of all her partners, much less some of the more important relationships she’s had (with Dick Grayson, for instance). This was also quite jarring to fans of the Teen Titans animated series who came to the comics expecting the Starfire portrayed on TV.
Raven, former Titans teammate to Starfire, is an example of one who uses her real name, Raven, as her superheroic name. But she, like Nate Grey in the Marvel example, was raised in a world without superheroes, so she sees little use for a codename.
Another Titan, Lilith, however, is a tough example. She’s named after the fictitious “evil” first wife of Adam, and that’s her given name. As if to add insult to injury, she’s a redhead and a telepath, which means she’s got the hot temper, and she knows what people are thinking. Despite all the negative connotations piled up on her, she has served as a heroic member of the Titans in the Silver Age. We haven’t seen much of her since then, except in passing mention during Red Hood and the Outlaws. She’s showed up recently in New 52 as a reality alterer.
Stephanie Brown deserves a special mention. She chose to start her heroic career by rejecting the legacy of her father, the would-be supervillain Cluemaster. She made her own costume, chose the moniker Spoiler, and set off to do good. She had neither mentor, nor heroic family to lean on until her romantic connection with then-Robin Tim Drake. She eventually earned the notice of the Batman, but not his approval. Determined to do that, she continued her activities as Spoiler until Batman finally bestowed her with the moniker of Robin, until then, only held in-canon by boys. However, Batman did so only to set her up to fail, insisting she follow his orders to the letter — when doing so would compromise Stephanie’s personal morality. He then fired her as Robin and commanded her to quit the hero game altogether. Stephanie refused to do so, though, and ended up getting into much worse trouble for trying to prove herself. Her death as Robin resulted in feminist fandom raising their voices at how problematically Stephanie was handled. First, the sexual pose as Stephanie lay dying was called out. Second, she was a landmark as the first female Robin, and DC Editorial killed her. Lastly, Stephanie’s Robin costume never got a case in the Batcave. She eventually came back from the dead after a fashion, and took a stint as Batgirl as well, before the New 52 was launched. A New 52 version of Spoiler is expected to appear in 2014.
Zatanna Zatara goes by her given name, partly because it is her stage name, like Dazzler in Marvel. But unlike the mutant singer, Zatanna uses her backward magic in both stage and superheroics. She is also a legacy character, in that she is a member of the magical Zatara family, which includes both her father and her cousin.
Now we come to a really problematic codename: Gypsy. Cindy Reynolds is a product of the time in which DC Editorial dreamed her up — the less enlightened 20th century. In this day and age, the word Gypsy is considered a racial slur on the Romani people, and is not generally used in polite modern parlance. She’s currently appearing in New 52, as the daughter of a villain — and they’ve made her an interdimensional refugee — still using the same codename. And still not a Romani character. Perhaps where current Gypsy is from it’s not a slur? Or have DC Editorial just not caught up with the times in this instance? Because the name is trademarked, they’re hanging on? Who can say?
Breaking it down, it seems that DC Editorial has their share of unfortunate codenames, but in the main, they seem to have mostly done all right with naming their heroines and giving them in-story agency and choice about it, by giving them families they are proud to name themselves as part of.
Unlike Marvel, the boys of DC don’t tend to suffer much from unfortunate name schemes; and the ones who do seemto have all started out as sidekicks, who eventually changed their codenames as part of their coming of age.
Robin brings to mind Robin Hood, at least, even if it is otherwise a “girly” sounding name. The first one grew up to be the much-adored Nightwing, without ever skipping a beat or losing his cache as a Bat. The second, Red Hood, the third, Red Robin.
Speedy the first came by his codename for how quick he was to nock and fire an arrow. The name only later became unfortunate when they decided Roy Harper needed a drug problem during the Silver Age. After being discovered and going through rehabilitation for his addiction (which involved him inexplicably getting help from Native Americans), he returned to heroing. He eventually took the name Arsenal.
Garfield Logan, the green shapeshifter, has gone from Beast Boy to Changeling and back to Beast Boy, even though he’s pretty much a grown man now. What’s that about?
Garth, known as Aqualad, sidekick to Aquaman, chose the name Tempest when he grew up. Kaldur’ahn began using the codename Aqualad, and is badass in the role on the page and screen, helping dispel the “Aquaman is useless” mindset that causes many readers to dismiss the Atlantean heroes. There was an Aquagirl during the silver age, but she died in Crisis on Infinite Earths or one of the DCU reboot crossovers. Tula, the current Aquagirl, has showed up a few times in New 52.
Green Lanterns of Earth treat it like a police force brotherhood, complete with brotherly rivalry. Hal Jordan, John Stewart, Kyle Rayner, and Guy Gardener have all operated simultaneously under the name Green Lantern without anyone having a hard time with it.
And okay, you’ve got the “they didn’t put much thought in, did they” names like Robotman.
But still, when you come down to it, the boys start the clubs and legacies most of the girls take their names from, with only two really large exceptions. Even the Star Sapphires are really just an expansion from the mostly male Green Lanterns.
So again — some examples to be proud of, a few to wince at, and a few that just make us shake our heads lets readers know we still have a way to go to open the eyes of the mostly old school masculine editorial bullpens.