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Fri February 1, 2013
They Call Me ... Bruce? When Characters Outlive Their Names
Originally published on Sun February 3, 2013 6:26 am
Look, don't get me wrong. There's nothing wrong with the name "Bruce."
There are plenty of Bruces about, and good and strong and admirable Bruces they are, contributing to society in myriad ways.
You got your Springsteen, of course. Your Campbell. Your Vilanch. Your Dern. Your ... um, Boxleitner. Your Jenner and your ... Baumgartner, was it? Baumgartner.
Bruce: A perfectly fine name. Just not as common in the U.S. as it once was, is my point.
Like any name, it cycles in and out of fashion over the decades. Consider: Of the notable Bruces I picked at random, above? The two youngest – Baumgartner and Campbell, were born in 1960 and 1958 respectively. The oldest – Dern – was born in 1936.
But the rest? Were born within three years of one another – call it the Great Mid-Century Bruce Boom: Vilanch in 1948, Springsteen and Jenner in 1949, Boxleitner in 1950.
Hmm? What's that you say? Picking celebrities at random doesn't qualify as a scientific sample? You require a data set from a source OTHER than US Weekly?
On the U.S. Social Security Administration website, you can spend a few pleasantly wonky minutes tracking the vicissitudes of nomenclature for yourself. Enter a name, and a span of years, and presto: A table of how that name has ranked in popularity, over the decades.
Whither Bruce? And Whence?
Over the last hundred years, Bruce has seen good times and bum times. For the first few decades of the last century he climbed slowly but steadily out of the nominal basement, finally breaking into the top 100 in 1932. Over the course of the next twenty years, he soared to his greatest height, becoming the 25th most popular male name ... in 1952. (Great Mid-Century Bruce Boom: CONFIRMED.)
But it's been all downhill from there for our Brucie. By 1971, he'd dropped out of the top 100 again, and by 2010, he'd plummeted to an all-time low of 532nd place, down among the Cholmondelys and Percys and Aloysii, one imagines.
All of which explains why, when you see a middle-aged celebrity named Bruce, you shrug. You meet a 54-year-old commercial realtor named Bruce at a party: Sure, yeah. But were you to see a 4-year-old Bruce toddling around the Build-A-Bear alongside li'l Noah and Aiden and Emma and Sophie, you'd do a double-take.
The Name Game, Fiction Edition: Banana-Fana-Fo-Fishmael
Trends in naming extend to fictional characters as well. Which is not surprising, given how many novelists and screenwriters keep well-thumbed baby name books squirreled away in their desks.
The names of fictional characters help to anchor them squarely in a specific time and place. Which, in the case of an Ishmael or a Hester Prynne, works just fine. You know where you stand with a name like Hester. And when.
But the same isn't true for one select subset of fictional characters who enter the cultural consciousness and hang around indefinitely. This group I'm thinking of is denied permission to age gracefully, and thus remain artificially youthful as the years speed past them.
You know the ones I'm talking about: Characters who've been around for decades, and who, in that time, have had every outward aspect of their lives – fashions, hairstyles, technology, slang, references to pop culture – continually updated to reflect the zeitgeist.
Because licensing agreements and cross-platform synergy command it, these poor schmucks are cursed to appear forever young, even as the names bestowed upon them almost a century ago — names growing thick with the dust of years — betray their true ages.
Names like "Bruce."
And ... OK, yes. Let's just be honest here.
"Bruce" was the name that Batman's co-creators, Bill Finger and Bob Kane, allotted their young millionaire playboy back in 1939. And it was a name of perfectly unexceptional utility that served the character well, for the first 50 years of his life or so.
But at some point – say, right around 1993, when "Bruce" dropped below #300 in the rankings for the first time – the name "Bruce" went from unremarkable to unusual.
Today it has become a name that calls attention to itself, which in turn causes our cognition to go all dissonant.
And yet it's that very name by which, every day, new audiences who're growing up in a world of Masons and Madisons will come to know him.
To these new audiences, rich young billionaires have names like Skylar and Jayden and Caleb. Not Bruce.
Bryce, maybe. But Bruce? Unh-unh.
This same vague but growing disconnect interposes itself between us and Doctor Bruce Banner, aka The Hulk. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created Banner in 1962, by which time the name Bruce, though still popular, had slid to 41st place and was picking up speed on its descent.
And Bruce is only one example. Consider the case of poor Clark Kent.
"Clark" has never broken the top 100. The closest he's gotten is a paltry 240th place – in 1938. Which, of course, was the year Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster created Clark Kent. He sank to an all-time low (821st place) in 2001, and is nowadays enjoying a relative resurgence in the sub-basement of 616th place.
Again, these are general trends. Many perfectly good and right and true Clarks exist out there today. Clark Gregg. Clark Duke. Clark Griswold.
But if you ever meet a Clark in real life, do you associate his name with that of Gregg, or Griswold, or even Gable? Are you reminded of the candy bar?
No, you aren't. Because a name is a brand, and over the years, one fictional character has come to own the "Clark" brand, in the marketplace of the American psyche.
What about Lois? She peaked at #17 all the way back in 1929-30, but by 1954 had dropped out of the top 100. The last time she got anywhere above 1000th place was in 1983, when she squeaked in at #982.
"Richard Grayson" is technically the full name of the original Robin, the Boy Wonder (created by Bill Finger and Bob Kane in 1940), but everyone calls him Dick.
And lots of people liked "Dick" in 1934, when it was the 138th most common male name in the US. But the national ardor for Dick flags after that, and he disappears out of the top 1000 after 1968.
(Richard, on the other hand, spent a pampered half-century (1920-1970) in the top 10, but has since fallen fast. By 2011, he'd dropped to 127th place, the lowest he's been in 100 years, and seems poised to continue his downward trajectory.)
What's In A Name?
Not all comic book types around today have to deal with this nominal disconnect, of course. Many of the ones who've stuck around the longest were given generic names that never fall too far out of vogue.
Peter Parker. Steve Rogers. Diana Prince. Tony Stark. Archie Andrews. Common, garden-variety names that ground these characters, even the ones with incredible powers, in the credible and familiar.
Or at least, they do now. Today.
But Peter's dropping off the charts pretty fast. Diana's dipped below #200 for the first time since 1935. Steve, Tony, Archie – all sinking lower now than they have in a century.
For now, it's not a big deal. Barely noticable. After all, a less-common name is just that.
But cast your mind forward 20, 40, 60, 80 years hence, when the nation's nursing homes will teem with Brittanys and Taylors and Justins and Seths. Perhaps, by then, names like Steve and Diana and Clark and Bruce will have cycled back into currency.
This is a thing that happens, if the hordes of Abigails and Sams and Avas and Emilys now clogging our kindergartens are any indication.
But maybe not. Maybe these names will increasingly and indelibly mark these characters – whose continued existence is predicated on remaining (or seeming to remain) relevant and culturally current – as relics of a bygone age.
Put it this way: Bruce Wayne, the character, is Dorian Gray, forever young and vital.
But "Bruce Wayne," the name, is his rapidly decaying portrait.
And instead of hiding that telltale portrait away in his dark, musty attic, he is doomed to wear it around his neck, like the world's largest and creepiest "HELLO MY NAME IS" badge.