Loyalty and Tribalism in 'The Names'

by Matthew Derman

29 May 2015

The nastiest, scariest, most threatening villains in The Names are a group of betrayers within the Names known as the League of Psychopaths, and this is only the beginning.
 
cover art

The Names #1-9

Peter Milligan, Leandro Fernandez

(DC/Vertigo)
US: May 2015

The Names is a series about loyalty, and how any individual’s various obligations can and often do come into conflict with one another. Every character in the comic is a member of numerous tribes (by which I mean any grouping of more than one person), some that they choose and others that choose them. Some of the tribes are families, others are romantic relationships, and several are secret societies, including at least one shadowy organization that exists within another.

Many of these different factions find themselves at odds, even outright warring with each other, so everyone in the cast is forced to pick sides over and over again as the story progresses, changing their priorities and self-identities with each new decision they make. The driving question behind the series, for characters and readers alike, isn’t so much “Whose side are you on?” as it is “How and why did you pick your side?” It’s a comic focused more on motivation than outcome, examining why anyone chooses to belong to any group, and how quickly those choices can change and those groups fall apart when pressure is applied.

The biggest tribe in The Names is the titular organization, a sprawling collection of business- and finance-minded folks who run the world economy from back rooms and secure phone lines. The Names use a combination of secrets, brainwashing, violence, and wealth to steer the world in whatever direction they choose, including causing major economic crashes when they feel the time is right. They are the unseen puppet masters of international finance, the Occupy movement’s biggest nightmare brought to life.But when this series begins, they are beginning to lose control.

A new group has emerged called the Dark Loops, sentient creatures made of information who were created by agents of the Names but quickly outgrew them. What the Dark Loops want is unknown, but what they’re doing is devastating economies around the globe, leading to flash crashes and rioting and all manner of unstoppable chaos. While the Names struggle to get a handle on the madness, the Dark Loops’ influence continues to spread, and things get dire pretty quickly.

From The Names #8

From The Names #8

This ongoing conflict between the Names and the Dark Loops is more of a background event for much of The Names’ nine issues, with the main storyline centered on Katya Walker, wife of the late Kevin Walker, who was a relatively high-ranking member of the Names before he died. Kevin’s death is the very start of the series, and we see right away that it is a staged suicide, that he is forced by another of the Names to throw himself out of a window after writing a suicide note with words that aren’t his own.

Katya is immediately suspicious of Kevin’s supposed suicide, unwilling to believe the man she loved so much and knew so well could be that depressed without her having any idea. And while that’s true, Katya does have to admit to herself over the course of the story that Kevin kept an awful lot from her, such as everything and anything related to the Names and his role within them. Even as she discovers this, though, Katya remains devoted to her husband, unwaveringly prioritizing the tribe of her family above all others. She cannot be dissuaded from loving Kevin or seeking out his killer no matter how often it almost costs her own life; she is wholly committed from the very beginning and is the only example of a character in this book who never once has a shift in fidelity. Sure, she starts out fighting the Names and later works with them, but it’s always in the name of discovering the truth about Kevin’s death. She allies herself with various tribes throughout the narrative, but does so without ever abandoning the tribe that she and Kevin formed together.

While Katya is the clear protagonist of The Names, as well as the best-developed, most likable, and most interesting character, I wouldn’t say that the comic necessarily supports her stubbornness. The character who most gets what he wants is also the one most willing to switch sides, Katya’s stepson (and Kevin’s son from a previous marriage) Philip. Initially, Philip and Katya work together toward the same goal of finding Kevin’s killer, but that doesn’t last through to the finish line.

Philip is a mathematical prodigy, his mind interpreting the world through numbers and statistics that he can calculate at an alarming rate. For someone with a brain wired liked his, the appeal of a challenge like the Dark Loops, information with a mind of its own, communicating in a seemingly indecipherable language of numbers and patterns, is too much to pass up. So Philip quite readily and enthusiastically joins the Names in their efforts to understand and stop the Dark Loops, and pretty much completely gives up on figuring out who murdered his father. There are some rough patches for Philip after he makes this change, but in the end he gets to set his own terms, to attack the Dark Loops problem in the way he wants, because he is too valuable to the Names for them to deny any of his demands. Philip finds the purpose in life he’s always been missing, and he does so by changing tribes rather suddenly.

Katya, meanwhile, never does get real closure on Kevin’s murder, despite how forcefully and determinedly she chases after it. The Names are so large and secretive that, even after Katya is more or less on their side, they can’t tell her what she wants to know. She gets close, she finds the person who actually carried out the deed, but when it comes to who gave the order to eliminate Kevin and why, it’s too big a question for her to get the firm, final answer she wants. Philip, with his fluid dedication, accidentally ends up precisely where he wants to be, while the unbreakably committed Katya pretty much ends up right where she started.

From The Names #2

From The Names #2

This is not to say that the message of The Names is pro-betrayal. The nastiest, scariest, most threatening villains in the story are a group of betrayers within the Names known as the League of Psychopaths. Led by the Surgeon, who’s also the man who forces Kevin to commit suicide, the League is, as their semi-official name suggests, a gang of self-identified psychopaths whose goals are about as obscure as the Dark Loops’. The League seems mostly interested in unraveling the Names through indulgent violence, though they also seek to control Philip, since he is believed by all sides to be the key to unlocking the Dark Loops’ secret agenda.

Whatever the League’s endgame is, we never find it out, because their aggressive, reckless style leads to most of their number being fairly brutally murdered by the Names. The League of Psychopaths consists of the most despicable characters in the book, and their fates are all tragic and bloody and terrible, so certainly The Names warns against betraying your tribe as much or more than it encourages it. It may have worked for Philip, but he is something of an exception. Not to mention that the main reasons Philip’s lack of loyalty pans out for him is because Katya is loyal enough for them both.

For all the ultimate futility of her primary mission to figure out why someone in the Names decided her husband had to die, Katya does accomplish something pretty remarkable through her unbending devotion to her and Kevin’s familial tribe. Philip, as Kevin’s son, is automatically a member of that tribe, and so Katya is reliably in his corner, even when he’s not in hers. She tries to help him connect to the world, she worries about his emotional fragility when everyone else cares only about exploiting his genius, and she literally saves his life on several occasions. She makes some mistakes as she goes, certainly, because she’s never really had much of a connection with Philip before and doesn’t always know the best way to work with him, but she never falters in her defense of or care for him. He is a part of her family, and her family is the tribe she’s picked, come hell or high water. That is what gives Philip the safety net he needs to switch sides successfully, a weird contradiction wherein Katya’s consistency allows Philip’s inconsistency to benefit him.

There are plenty of other, smaller examples of people forced to choose between opposing tribes. Stoker, one of the leaders of the Names, eventually has to pick between his organization and the woman he’s come to love, Police Detective Mercedes Guzman. At the same time, Guzman has to choose whether to stay true to the police force, to stick with Stoker, or to roll with the new, unexpected tribe she finds herself in along with Katya, Philip, and others—a tribe of normal people whose lives get upturned by their connection to someone in the Names.

As a cop, Guzman should be reporting all the kidnapping, murder, and mayhem she witnesses and is sometimes a party to, but she decides instead to keep these things secret for the sake of learning more about the Names and, to some degree, protecting Stoker. In turn, Stoker breaks up with Guzman and tells her to forget him. He does this not to defend the Names against her investigation, but to protect her from the Names’ inevitable retaliation against anyone who gets too close. In the cases of both these characters, they choose their final tribes not out of a sense of duty to them, but because they want to keep one another safe. They build a tribe together, but it cannot last because of the tribes they’re each already in, so they must dissolve it to stay alive.

From The Names #9

From The Names #9

The Names isn’t telling its audience to pick a tribe and stay with it no matter what (like Katya), nor is it saying we should flip-flop (like Philip), form splinter tribes (like the League of Psychopaths or Dark Loops), or give up on one tribe to maintain another (like Stoker and Guzman). The Names doesn’t really take a stance in this discussion, except to point out that everybody everywhere belongs to multiple tribes, and that not all tribes can coexist peacefully. As such, sometimes lines must be drawn in the sand, and The Names doesn’t care which side of those lines you stand on, it just wants to know why you’re there.

It’s about the options we all have, and the factors that push us to select one of them in any given scenario. When push comes to shove, what do we each care about most, who are we most committed to, and what tribe is the one we couldn’t live without? The answers are different for everybody, and that’s what The Names wants to look at: not where we land but why we choose the path that gets us there. It’s a sharp examination of many different kinds of tribes and the differing levels of faithfulness they engender in their members. The Names reminds us all that, wherever our allegiances lie, it’s always best if we understand our own reasoning behind them, as well as those of the other people in our chosen tribes.


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