What’s in a Name?

Creating the names of newspaper comics supporting characters often involved a degree of cleverness (some might say “cuteness”) that is all part of the shorthand of communicating in a medium where stories advance in only two or three word-peppered images per day.

Sometimes the cartoonist chose a name to reinforce the character’s — errr-r-r — character. There’s no way readers from 1933 to 2021 could ever spot a guy named C.C. Chizzler in Little Orphan Annie and believe he was on the side of the angels — and they’d be right.

In selecting a name like “Earthquake McGoon,” Al Capp could implant the idea of a rough-and-tumble (and perhaps not entirely wholesome) guest-starring player, even when McGoon himself was mentioned only by name in any given installment of Li’l Abner. The challenge, for Capp or any of his peers, was to develop a visual appearance that matched the moniker — and the duke of Dogpatch was always up to the task.

Chester Gould, in creating his grand, grotesque rogues gallery, loved to use names that emphasized the quirks in the villains’ appearances. Here are two of the most famous, from that vintage Dick Tracy year of 1944 (click to enlarge):

Many creators would pick names offering a play on words that instantly pointed to the character’s role in the unfolding storyline. Al Capp was also a master at this — case in point, is it any surprise that a character named Big Barnsmell would create this type of reaction from those he encounetred?

And Milton Caniff would occasionally play this card in both his major strips — note Hu Shee (“Who she?”) in Terry and the Pirates, as well as that magical master of disguise, Foo Ling, from Steve Canyon (again, click, enlarge):

Speaking of foo, Smokey Stover provided an example of how at times a character’s name could serve multiple functions simultaneously. Smokey left no reader surprised when he proved to be a fireman, and, in this strip from Christmas Eve, 1936, his name blended seamlessly with a seasonal tradition to spur a delightful and timely gag:

By the way, since we at LOAC are Smokey Stover fans, we can’t help sharing this article from the June 21, 1980 Berkshire (Massachusetts) Eagle that shows Bill Holman’s madcap leading man was still fondly remembered through the closing months of the Jimmy Carter administration, eight full years after the strip was retired.

And of course, for more Stover hijinx — and a whole lot more! — be sure to check out Paul Tumey’s delightful Screwball! The Cartoonist Who Made the Funnies Funny.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.