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Definite Identity

It’s been a long time since I’ve talked about comics and I’m not sure I’m ready to talk about any real comics yet (though do expect the long-promised Animal Man posts to recommence in the next week) but I have been thinking about comic book titles, specifically superhero titles. Specifically I’ve been wondering about the use of the definite article.

Why does Bruce Banner become THE Incredible Hulk when Bruce Wayne is just Batman? Actually, that’s an easy one, because names with adjectives need something more. The same goes for team names, whether The Avengers or The Justice League of America. Now, I haven’t gone anywhere near a statistical survey, but it’s interesting that so many of Batman’s foes are The Joker, The Riddler, The Penguin… Tellingly, the definite article seems to attach itself to villains more often than to heroes, denoting a sort of depersonalization. Even more interesting, though, is that it shows up with characters who are heroes but only sort of, problematic types like The Hulk and The Thing and The Martian Manhunter and The Swamp Thing. They’re still heroes, but not exactly human (and neither is Superman, who somehow gets a free ride). To get grisly, Batman became The Dark Knight, and The Punisher could hardly be better-named.

I’m not arguing this system works unambiguously. At best, it’s more a trend than a system at all. I don’t know what’s difficult about The Flash except that just Flash would be a really lousy name. And I guess Wolverine is such a badass that to call him THE Wolverine would be admitting that someone might think there could be another, the utmost heresy. And a lot of animal names take the definite article for no meaningful reasons (beside the already present dehumanizing effect of the animal name), although maybe Janet Van Dyne had to be The Wasp so people wouldn’t think she was just a WASP.

And because Steven’s just going to comment if I don’t say this, I’m not calling The Legion of Super-Pets anti-heroes or problematic protagonists. They’re just uniquely identified, because you there’s no need to have lots of Super-Monkeys running around when you’ve got Beppo. Ditto Ace the Bat-Hound. So there.


  1. Steven says:

    Many characters with a definite article seem to have some kind of identity-based conflict, a problematic relationship between a “human” identity and a “superhuman” identity—The Batman and especially The Dark Knight, The Hulk, The Martian Manhunter. I don’t know that that’s anything like a comprehensive theory, though, and anyway there’s no way I know enough superheroes to do a comprehensive survey, so I’d best leave such theorizing to the professionals.

    Multiple Super-Monkeys would be just too much goodness.

    — 26 April 2004 at 2:01 am (Permalink)

  2. Josh Lukin says:

    Batman’s often been referred to as “the Batman”, which never happens to Superman, Aquaman, Green Arrow, Spider-man (“The Amazing” hardly counts, as most of the Marvel heroes get a “The” and an adjective in front of their names on the cover), Iron Man, or most X-Men (The Beast being the major exception –and he could be said to have issues about his humanity not unlike The Thing’s). The Vision (who, like The Flash, sometimes is addressed by his name sans article, which just doesn’t happen to the Thing, Swamp or unmodified), The Spectre, The Phantom Stranger, The Creeper, The Sub-Mariner, The Silver Surfer . . . it definitely does lend heroes that imposing, ambiguously human edge. Except for The Human Torch and The She-Hulk.

    — 28 April 2004 at 4:34 am (Permalink)

  3. Rose says:

    “The Batman” comment was Steven’s immediate response, too, so I probably should have addressed and anticipated it. He’s sort of a liminal human figure on the other side of the spectrum, more than human without being superpowered, but still somehow suspect.

    Part of my problem is that I will affectionately refer to “Hulk” or “Man-Thing” without their articles and so those names seem to come naturally to me, whereas I’d never do that with The Punisher, whom I don’t much like. And of course Hulk speaks of Hulk without puny definite article. The Human Torch has his difficult identity built into his name; he’s just a normal teenager who catches fire from time to time. I don’t know if he fits into Steven’s model either. As for The She-Hulk, she just has an awful name in pretty much every way possible and is more to be pitied than analyzed for it, I think.

    — 28 April 2004 at 1:41 pm (Permalink)