Thursday, March 02, 2017

Toward a Superhero Style Guide

I've been kicking this blogpost around for years in my head. It's something I've always found interesting, but, well, I may be the only one. I'd start to write it up, and never quite finish it, because I'd think, well, there really isn't enough here... But no longer! Let's just do it!

Some years ago I did some work as an editor. When you're copyediting a book or something, one of the things you have is a style guide. This is a collection of rules that tell you how to handle all of the aspects of your language which are basically optional. Do you use the Oxford comma or not? Toward or towards? That kind of thing. It's also where you list all the difficult words in your particular book, or whatever, so you have someplace to look up just how all that stuff is spelled and capitalized.

The field of superheroes is one which contains many nuances that are best addressed through a style guide. We can't do a complete guide; that'd be a tremendous project. But we can start. Here are some points:

First, the word "superhero". There's a pattern with English compound words: they enter the language as two separate words that are strongly associated. Then they become a hyphenated word. Then finally they become a single word. We had this pattern with "super hero" -> "super-hero" -> "superhero". (Another example: "base ball" -> "base-ball" -> "baseball"... but "comic book" hasn't turned into "comic-book" yet. Not the noun, anyway.) The word should certainly be rendered as "superhero" now, but notice that one superhero group, formed during a previous stage of the word's development, is canonically "the Legion of Super-Heroes". So there's the first item for our style guide.

1. superhero. Exception: Legion of Super-Heroes. As in, Wildfire is a superhero, and he is also a member of the Legion of Super-Heroes

Next, superhero names. Your standard generic superhero name will have some kind of descriptive word added to a word indicating the superhero's sex and age. There are four basic ways of doing this, and we have famous examples for all four:

Wonder Woman

None of the four ways are superior to each other; it's just that, for a given character, one is correct and the other ones aren't, and you have to know which. There's no trick to it. You just have to know.

2a. Superman, Batman, Aquaman, Supergirl
2b. Wonder Woman, Iron Man, Power Girl
2c. Spider-Man. Note the capital "M" in "Man". "Spider-man" is incorrect, and in fact I don't know of any superheroes using that format of name
2d. WordGirl. This is a fairly rare one; the only other superhero I know with a name anything like this is CoreFire from the novel Soon I Will Be Invincible, by Austin Grossman

Note how the Legionnaires fit into this. Superboy and Supergirl are type A, but most of the rest of them are type B. Anytime someone (especially the letterer of a DC comic!) renders a Legionnaire's name as, say, "Sunboy" or "Dreamgirl" rather than the correct "Sun Boy" or "Dream Girl", it makes me wince. The exceptions? "Visi-Lad" and "Earth-Man", both type C. (And, also, the animated LSH featured "Superman-X" in their second season.) (And while we're on the subject, note the capital "E" in "Matter-Eater Lad".)

Some other instructive examples of how this works:
- Sussa Paka is "Spider Girl", but May Parker is "Spider-Girl".
- Rita Farr Dayton is "Elasti-Girl", but Helen Parr is "Elastigirl".
- Bette Kane is "Bat-Girl", but Barbara Gordon is "Batgirl".
- Charles McNider and Pieter Cross are "Dr. Mid-Nite", but Beth Chapel is "Doctor Midnight".

(I used to think that Hollis Mason was "Nite Owl" while Dan Dreiberg was "Nightowl", but it turned out I was incorrect about that and I can't even figure out where I got it from. They're both "Nite Owl".)

Let's look at some more capitalization. This is a can of worms, because the comic-book industry has been conspiring to cover up all the problems for decades. Because they use all caps! All caps suits the needs of the actual comic books well enough, but I, sitting here typing, am forced into tough decisions. 

Obviously planets should be capitalized, like "Krypton". But what about its radioactive rubble? Should it be "Kryptonite" or "kryptonite"? In general, in this article, I'm taking my cue from Wikipedia. This is not because I consider them to be particularly authoritative, but because, if I have no real opinion about how it should be, I figure their way is as good as any. Anyway, they like 

3. "kryptonite"

and I don't disagree.

But look. The Martian Manhunter's real name is rendered by Wikipedia as "J'onn J'onzz". This is fine: the two parts of his name are treated as one word each, and there's no need to capitalize the first letter after the apostrophes. Miss Martian's real name, "M'gann M'orzz", is similar. That's good; that's a rule. But "Mon-El" (see that? Similarly "Kal-El", "Kara Zor-El": both parts capitalized) had a Martian variant of his name in the reboot, and Wikipedia renders it "M'Onel". Surely it should be 

4. "M'onel"

Luornu Durgo's home planet was spelled, in the Five Years Later era, "Carggg". This was kind of cool, because the three "G"s reflect the triplicating ability of the planet's inhabitants. But it didn't catch on, so the spelling is properly

5. "Cargg"

Duplicate Boy's real name has been rendered in a few different ways over the years. The DC creators have tried to handwave this away by saying that Lallorian grammar permits the rearrangement of the various syllables. Yeah, nice try. We've seen "Qued Orlu" and "Quelu Ord" but let's keep things simple and stick with

6. "Ord Quelu"

Oh, and one more thing:

7. Stupidly, either "Bgtzl" or "Bgztl" are correct for Phantom Girl's homeworld. DC has just given up on getting it right, partly because nobody really knows what "right" is

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