Longtime Marvel Comics fans groan at the Circus of Crime, who, for the uninitiated, are simply a team of c
riminal circus performers. They have no powers aside from the Ringmaster’s hypnotic hat, and they routinely suffer embarrassing defeats.
Everyone agrees that the Circus of Crime has been a laughingstock for fifty years. Everyone is an idiot. I will prove this, and then show you a whole new world.
attention must be paid
Check out the debut of the Circus of Crime in the Silver Age of comics. The Ringmaster has this crazy hat that hypnotizes large crowds. So they decide, in effect. “Yo, let’s hypnotize the crowd and steal their stuff! Then when we leave town, each person will assume that he or she was the victim of a pickpocket.” In other words: to hide the fact that you picked someone’s pocket, you will make him think you’re a pickpocket! Say what you will about the Circus of Crime, they pioneered the Moebius alibi.
The big flaw in the plan is that they always end up robbing super-people, and in their debut they run into the Hulk (Incredible Hulk #3, 1962). You would think that the non-powered roustabouts in the Circus of Crime are unworthy foes of the Hulk, who has at this point in his history already defeated two alien invasions and the Red Army. But you would be wrong! In this first issue, Jack Kirby’s art turns the Circus of Crime into a weird mixture of seedy Americana and Biblical menace, a locust plague ravaging the desolate, lonely towns of the Southwest. Later artists would drop the ball, but in Kirby’s hands the Circus looks genuinely nightmarish.
Anyway: the Circus of Crime loses to the Hulk. (Who wouldn’t?) They then lose to Spider-Man and Daredevil (Spider-Man 16, 1964) and then lose the rematch (Spider-Man #22, 1965). The Circus of Crime proceeds to defeat Earth’s mightiest heroes, the Avengers (Avengers #22, 1965), and then brainwashes Thor (Thor #145-147), escaping unpunished each time. Finally, in Avengers #60, they crash the wedding of Yellowjacket and the Wasp, which is attended by practically every super hero ever, and are humiliatingly defeated.
Now, sure: one win, three losses, and one tie isn’t a terrific record. But damn, a clown is fighting the Hulk. Not a magic clown, a robot clown, or a radioactive clown. A clown-clown. And he not only survives, but decides he has learned enough to beat Thor. And does! (For a while.) That is the most bad-ass clown in the world. Give him a board with a nail in it, and he’s taking out the Silver Surfer.
the revolving tent-door of super humanity
But when you step back, there are tons of goofed out circus folk becoming super people in Marvel Comics. Hawkeye started in the circus. So did the Blob, and his circus folk trounced the X-Men in his debut. There’s Ghost Rider, the Swordsman and Mesmero. Unus the Untouchable is a pro-wrestler, which is practically the same as a circus performers. I wouldn’t be surprised if the Enforcers were originally circus-folk.
Similarly, several established super heroes want to become circus performers. In, like, Fantastic Four 15, Johnny Storm’s fondest wish is to join his freak-cousins in the circus. To me, this sounds crazy: Johnny Storm is a astronaut super hero who does nothing but drive race cars and heavy-pet barely legal teens every day. But he would drop all that for the circus in a heartbeat. Clearly he knows something special about the circus.
Plus Quicksilver, in his early Avengers period, is like, “I know I’m an Avenger, and one time I conquered a country, but it’s all just stepping stones to joining the circus.”
Maybe circuses are, like, some parallel athletic conference for super folks, sort of like the AFC/NFC divide. We assume the Circus of Crime doesn’t have any powers, but maybe that’s just because we don’t follow that conference.
I am now wondering about a whole passel of unpublished, circus-themed Silver Age comics. If there’s the Circus of Crime, why not the Circus of Justice? The copy writes itself. Run away and join the Circus of Justice on their never-ending roadtrip of righteousness! Gaze at Betty Bluebeard, the Hirsute Beaut! Gasp at Spitfire the flame-eater! Thrill to Umberto, the one-legged unicyclist! Marvel at the allergic-to-evil Dharma, the elephant who never forgives! Will they ever settle the score with the traitorous Hawkeye and the Swordsman? Hey rube, there’s adventure afoot!
Likewise, the Cirque d’Outre, which I figure is pretty much exactly like the Cirque du Soleil except 60’s and way creepier. I’m figuring Prince Randian and Jojo the Dogface Boy are inspirations here. Even money says they get involved with Doctor Strange occasionally.