run off to join the circus

Longtime Marvel Comics fans groan at the Circus of Crime, who, for the uninitiated, are simply a team of criminal 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.

thus obviously

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.

4 Responses to “run off to join the circus”

  1. October 15, 2011 at 4:13 pm

    I was having a devil of a time with the captions for those pictures, so I ultimately took them out. But credit where it’s due:

    1. Steve Ditko, Amazing Spider-Man #22 (March 1965)
    2. Jack Kirby, Incredible Hulk #3 (Sept 1962)
    3. Jack Kirby, Incredible Hulk #3 (Sept 1962)
    4. Jack kirby, X-Men #3 (Jan 1964)
    5. John Buscema, Avengers #60 (Jan 1969)

  2. 2 Charlatan
    October 16, 2011 at 6:31 pm

    Do the townies ever snap out of it? Or do they just wither and die on their feet, endlessly replaying that last, innocent, anticipatory moment at the circus in their minds as they starve? That’s some Sandman shit!

  3. 3 Charlatan
    October 16, 2011 at 7:28 pm

    More seriously: Maybe it’s less noteworthy that circus performance pops up as a common background for supers than it is that a significant number of them emerge as supers from non-liminal backgrounds. There’s plenty of aliens, circus performers, orientalist mystics, lost tribes, etc. (as expected); Captain America is basically a cult hero that survives an elaborate ritual sacrifice blessed by divine power. This is all standard myth-making. What’s unusual is the Spiderman/mutant notion of the supers emerging from pedestrian circumstances. You may read the mutant/radioactivity situation as a commentary on humanity effectively placing itself wholesale into a liminal space vis-a-vis its relationship to the Natural, but the traditional Spiderman backstory is really kind of unusual (though perhaps less so if you continue applying the laboratory-as-ritual-space analogy I suggested).

  4. October 17, 2011 at 3:44 am

    Well, the early Silver Age comics definitely are pushing the idea that the Atomic Age and the Space Age herald an unsettling new relationship between Man and the Universe. Certainly the Fantastic Four are introduced in pretty much explicitly mythological terms: four people try to storm heaven in a rocketship, but nemesis arrives in the form of cosmic rays (TAK TAK TAK TAK TAK) to punish them for their hubris by turning them into monsters.

    Peter Parker, in his earliest appearance, is a pariah who attends the radioactivity exhibit in part because he’s too nerdy to be invited to any other social activities. From this perspective, Parker was already a liminal figure, I guess sort of in utero or in larval form, and then his origin story “births” him into a new state. Oddly, Spider-Man is more popular with the teenagers than Parker is.

    One of the weirder super heroes in Marvel Comics is Ant-Man, who is a geeky scientist who has a nervous breakdown after Communists murder his wife, and decides that he will become as weak and powerless as an ant. He’s like some kind of flagellant. In the ant-sized world he’s routinely trapped under flower pots, nearly drowns in the bathtub, etc. The everyday world becomes a kind of mythical place of titanic power, simply by changing one’s viewpoint.

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Past Adventures of the Mule

October 2011

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