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Comic book titles - what's in a name?


#1

So I was thinking about what we call comic books. How we refer to franchises and properties, and whether there’s a right move or not. The name is key of course, it’s essentially the brand that everything is built around.

Of the top 100 comics published in February, 91 are named after the character or team they feature (Batman, the X Men etc). The 9 exceptions are Detective Comics, Action Comics, The Walking Dead, Saga, The Dark Knight 3, Paper Girls, I Hate Fairyland, Outcast and Contest of Champions.

Millar has a mix of titles, some character focused (Kick Ass, Superior, Nemesis, Huck, Empress), but a greater number not (Starlight, Chrononauts, Wanted, MPG, Supercrooks, Jupiters Legacy and Circle, American Jesus). Kingsman went from Secret Service to Kingsman, making the transition from one type of title to the other.

This strikes me as a particularly comics occurrence. If you look at the top TV shows, relatively few are named after the title character (non comic examples being Hannibal, Archer, Sherlock, Dexter and so on). Instead we have things like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, House of Cards, Orange is the New Black. What’s interesting is that from a marketing perspective the characters can still be known, and it’s not a limitation on developing the brand. What’s more interesting is the generic title doesn’t tie the property into one character, it can adapt and change and feature a new crew, and I wonder if they somehow more facilitate stories where characters change and develop.

Would Breaking Bad have been a stronger property if it had been called Walter? In turn would House have been stronger if had been called Baker Street Hospital or something?

It’s an interesting subject to me as the branding is the cornerstone of any franchise, and quite often it’s just applied quickly without much thought. Are comics limiting their success by focusing so much on character titles? Should Superman become Metropolis, should Spiderman become Amazing Fantasy? Or do comics benefit from being so character focused in their branding?


#2

I think it depends is the simple, but not that helpful, answer.

You’re making a somewhat arbitrary distinction though - why is ‘Mad Men’ an example of a non-character based title, but ‘X-Men’ or ‘Avengers’ isn’t? Surely X-Men and Avengers, as branding examples, have exactly the same potential to keep the overall flavour of the franchise while changing the details, as something like Game of Thrones does - which of course, is exactly what titles like that have done over the years.

For your Spider-Mans, Supermans and Batmans - there is still scope to be creative and flexible, as all three of those branding franchises have demonstrated over the years.

I’m not as convinced this is as unique to comics either? Sherlock? Doctor Who? The Famous Five?


#3

The team call themselves the Avengers and X Men in the story. Mr Draper and company never refer to themselves as Mad Men. Alicia Florick is never called The Good Wife, Ralyan Givens never says Justified.

I’m not saying it’s unique to comics, but it’s a 90% occurrence in comics and maybe 10% in all other media.


#4

Yes, I think it really depends on the individual property. I’m not sure it’s something that can be focused-grouped to find a single, universally-applicable rule.

I do wonder though whether Jim’s observation can be partially explained by the idea that comics are more traditionally sold on the promise of a single character, moreso than a TV show like Mad Men or Game of Thrones.

If you’re selling a comic on a stand, you want people to be able to take one look at it and get a sense of what it is. So for a superhero book. you have a classic hero shot of the main character, and his name above him (which for the most successful superheroes also serves as a quick descriptor to give you a sense of who they are and what their abilities might be: Spider-Man, Super-Man, Bat-Man etc.).

With Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad or Mad Men there’s more subtlety, a suggestion of greater depth and a story being told that’s larger than a single character - which is perhaps more what TV audiences are likely to be looking for.

Even ‘single name’ TV shows like House or Sherlock or Hannibal or Doctor Who are able to sell themselves on the promise of the wider concept or supporting cast a little more easily, because that information can be included in a TV ad in a way that it can’t easily be crammed into a single comic cover or full-page ad, which is how most comics will advertise themselves.

Comics are direct and often un-subtle things. That can be a strength but can also lead to them seeming a bit on-the-nose at times.


#5

You have various franchises on TV: Law & Order, NCIS, CSI and the recent Chicago series from Dick Wolf.


#6

Personally, I think titles that don’t have the protagonist’s name in the title are more compelling. The reason being that if the book relies on the protagonist it’s a fair assumption to make that said protagonist will make it to the end of every book (save maybe the last) and will emerge victorious more often than not (I’m looking at you, Harry Potter). Unless written supremely well (Sherlock Holmes, Spenser, Rebus) , the naming convention removes some of the dramatic tension from the property. Even my favourite franchises (e.g. House of Cards) suffer from these issues now and again, although the well-written ones usually impact the world around the protagonist in irrevocable ways.

Game Of Thrones and The Walking Dead do well in this regard because no character is really safe. They’re about the world rather than the “protagonists”. I think comic books suffer from the same affliction…and coupled with the incredible resurrection powers of comic book heroes, I think they would be more compelling if you didn’t know that your favourite character was guaranteed to make it to the end of the book. By and large, I think publishers are scared of killing off characters in universes, even if it’s a particular incarnation of that character in a specific universe. That seems limiting to me and an “easy” way of fixing it would be to make universe specific titles.


#7

I think the destinction lies more in super hero comic books which take the title of the hero and other comic books such as : most image comics “Low”, “Chew”, or Verito ones such as Y, Fables, DMZ,… who just take regular names instead of a character.


#8

That’s a great point. I wonder if some of the more recent Indie hits (Walking Dead, Saga, Chew, Wicked and Devine, Bitch Planet) are in part successful because they move away from the standard comic convention.

I suspect the title of an upcoming property has a bigger psychological impact than it first appears. Would Huck be a more compelling title if it was called something like ‘A Good Deed’? Would that help or hurt the branding Millar has planned for the character?


#9

I think using an actual character’s name immediately gives a book a personal quality - we instantly know that it’s his or her story - whereas a non-name title suggests that there’s an overarching story or situation that is more important than any one character.

So in the case of Huck, I think that name immediately gives us a connection we wouldn’t have with “a good deed”.

The other thing about a name is that it’s usually very clear what it’s referring to, which isn’t always the case with a more descriptive title.

Take some of the big event series of the past decade. Stuff like “Civil War” and “Siege” is direct and to the point and conveys what it’s about immediately, but something like “Fear Itself” or “Dark Reign” is more vague. Sometimes that vagueness is in itself used to generate interest - like House of M, which was enigmatic and kept readers guessing - but I do think that for marketing purposes its usually best for a name to be as clear as possible in its intent.

It’s why I think DC have shot themselves in the foot a bit by being so coy about what “Rebirth” actually means, and then building their entire line about books with that as the title. (Plus the whole “rebirth” thing has been run into the ground a bit with all the previous minis - GL Rebirth, Flash Rebirth, Cap Reborn and so on, which gives the whole thing a bit of a passé feel to it.)

Ultimately, readers are more guarded and less willing to buy in to something when they don’t know what they’re getting, I think. A direct, clear title is usually a good way to go, and a character’s name is often a good way to do that.


#10

Wait…the hospital in House was Baker Street Hospital?

Also, more topic related, I think that a name just needs to look good on a logo.

I mean, would Walter have made a good logo?
No.
Baker Street Hospital would have been a stuffy logo.

But in the real of comics you have stuffy names like
Infinity Man and the Forever People…which have to overcompensate by being put in really funkay logos


#11

No, it’s just an example of an alternative name for House.

Sure, but that model seems to work for most things outside of comics. Why would comics be so different to consumers than other media sources? Why is a direct clear title a good way to go in comics but not in movies or TV?


#12

I think, as much as branding, it has to do with focus. To use the examples of House versus Mad Men, the former implies a focus specifically on that character. You can have a few diversions from that, but for the most part he’s the center of the show. With Mad Men, while it’s mostly focused on Don Draper, the show is more broadly about a period of time, and the characters surrounding Don Draper, like Peggy, Joan, Roger, Pete, etc, and you can have entire arcs focusing on them with Don Draper in the background.

Comics, traditionally, have been more property/protagonist focused, with Action Comics, Detective, and Amazing Fantasy becoming either quickly oriented on a single character or dropped in favor of titles that refer directly to them. In terms of sales, it’s hard to argue against that approach, given the numbers gap between something like Gotham Central and Batman or the attempts to bring back anthology books like Strange Tales or Amazing Fantasy being fairly short-lived.


#13

The Walking Dead and Paper Girls are named after the characters they feature as much as The X-Men and Avengers are, regardless of them not being eponymous.

The reason TV shows tend to be less eponymously titled is purely practical. It allows you to keep the show going after cast changes or even tinker the format to ditch characters if don’t work. It’s much harder to keep making a show called, say, Steve, when Steve doesn’t want to be in it any more. That naturally isn’t a problem comics have.


#14

Princeton Plainsboro Hospital if memory serves.


#15

But your argument was that a generic title doesn’t tie the creators into one character?

‘Avengers’ doesn’t do that any more than ‘Mad Men’ does?

I think the more important consideration is the one you make later - what is the impact the writer wants to create with their project’s title, the cornerstone of its branding? - and that is a very individual decision. Strong eponymous titles are all over the place, whether in literary fiction (‘Rebecca’, ‘Jane Eyre’, ‘Oliver Twist’, ‘Matilda’), television (‘Sherlock’, ‘Doctor Who’), film (‘Forrest Gump’) or comics (‘Huck’)


#16

DC Comics behind the times and passe?
Oy vey!


#17

Like I said earlier, I think it’s to do with the way comics sell themselves to the reader - traditionally via the cover: a single image, a title, and maybe a bit of copy (if the reader’s eye lingers long enough to read it). That’s not much space in which to get your idea across, so simple, punchy and direct is best.

In comparison, an advert for a TV series (even a short ad) or a movie trailer can achieve a lot more in terms of conveying what it’s about and why people might want to watch it. They aren’t quite so reliant on the title itself to get people’s attention.


#18

No, but House himself does live in Baker Street. In 221B no less.


#19

I think we have to remember we’re not talking comics here but superhero comics.

In superhero comics, the characters are traditionally seen as more important than their individual stories. But other comics don’t do that. Some great books of the last years: Daytripper, Saga, The Material, Shortcomings, Injection, Private Eye, the Wicked and the Divine, Descender, The Unwritten, Deadly Class, Morning Glories, Mind Management… hell, Sin City.

Once you move past superhero books, it becomes rather unusual to have books with a character’s name being the title.