Conan: From saint to savage, comic book to comic
With the possible exception of Jay, no first name has been in more headlines in the past few weeks than Conan. Which got me to thinking about all the image reversals this name has gone through over the years. In our first book, Beyond Jennifer & Jason, for example, it was listed between Clarabell the Clown and Ebenezer Scrooge as a definite no-no, because of its barbaric associations.
But that in itself was a turnaround from its one-time saintly aura. The original St. Conan— then pronounced kun-awn– was a zealous 7th century Irish missionary—also known as Mochonna—one of the earliest bishops of the Isle of Man,. He was followed by a few other minor Irish saints by that name, including St. Conan of Assaroe and St. Conan of Ballinamore. And in Irish legend, Conán mac Mórna was a member of Finn MacCool’s warrior band.
For centuries the name remained within the confines of Ireland, except for gaining some middle-name recognition via Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, who, though born in Scotland, was of Irish heritage and who, as a struggling young doctor, had so few patients that he took to writing stories to make ends meet
Then, in the 1930s, a pulp magazine writer named Robert E. Howard created a wandering barbarian hero who eventually became a Marvel comic book character in 1970. At first a sword and sorcery hero in a magical world, within a few years he had morphed into the more familiar muscle man materialized by Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1982 movie Conan the Barbarian.
That remained Conan’s seemingly immutable image until the lanky red-haired O’Brien came on the scene as a writer for Saturday Night Live in 1988, occasionally appearing in sketches. When he got his own late night show in 1993, suddenly the witty Conan O’Brien became CONAN—a single name celeb—overshadowing his hulkier fictional predecessor.
Despite or because of all this, Conan, unlike such Irish mates as Connor and Colin, has never appeared on the US top thousand. Is it because of the lingering barbarian association? I’m curious to know if it’s a name you would ever consider using, and if not why. Do you see it as just another Gaelic possibility or forever tied to one of those two personas?
And what about the other names on that old J&J taboo list? Some of them have managed to escape their stereotypes: Felix is no longer only a cat or fussbudget, little Lulu a comic strip character, Olive Popeye’s girlfriend, or Oscar still just a grouch. And there are signs of hope for Kermit, Casper, Linus and Grover.