• Michael T. Christensen

Comic Book Tropes: The Circus of Crime

I recently re-read the original six issues of “The Incredible Hulk” (because they are just so bananas), and noticed something odd… In one of the issues, the Hulk fights an evil gang of circus folk, and I realized that circuses show up a LOT in comic books, and that most of your favorite heroes have fought an evil gang of circus folk at some time or another.

Pictured – the Greatest Show on Earth

The reason, of course, is that the circus provides a built-in origin for a gang of villains, each with a different skill set to challenge your hero in fun, visually exciting ways. By just saying “Daredevil fights a circus,” you have the option of including a strong man, cartwheeling trapeze artists, a knife-thrower, a fire-spitter, and many more.

Even the term “Ringleader” works perfectly describing a criminal mastermind as well as a circus frontman. When you establish that your villains are circus folk, you don’t have to spend any time establishing where they got their skills – we already know. You just have to establish that they are criminals – and, in all honesty, that’s not a hard sell.

Pictured – a typical Marvel Universe circus performance.

See, the first reaction I had when comparing these evil circuses was to just scratch my head and say, “Wow, I guess circuses really used to be a thing…” And, in a way, that’s true – people were much more likely to go and see the circus in the 1960s, whereas most of my friends may have never been to circus, or only gone once or twice in their entire lives. In today’s world, traveling circuses just aren’t as prolific as they used to be, and especially not as they used to be in fiction.

But there’s something more interesting than that going on in these comics, as well. See, in these comics, the circus is rarely portrayed as a positive place, if ever. The circus may be full of fun, colorful, flamboyant characters, but these folks are also vagabonds and weirdos, and there’s an inherent mistrust that comes along with that. The idea that a carnival barker working the crowd into a frenzy might actually be an evil hypnotist isn’t actually that hard of a sell to the audience of the 1960s.

As much as they enjoy going to the circus, they don’t necessarily trust circus people. Comics latched onto that idea and just carried it through to its logical conclusion, by occasionally making the circus ringleader Frankenstein’s monster.

But the funny thing is that there’s an entirely separate sub-section of “Comic Book Circus Folk” – the characters who have the circus origin.

There are several characters in comics who grew up in the circus, but not all of them are villains. A good deal of them are – even Hawkeye, who grew up in a traveling carnival, was originally a reluctant villain who was seduced into a life of crime by his mentor at the circus. Dick Grayson, the first Robin, is actually the odd man out, because his life growing up in the circus is generally portrayed as happy before his parents are killed. But even his circus origin is more out of necessity than anything else – Bill Finger needed a way to justify why Batman would be able to bring this kid out into the field without first spending years training him to be a rooftop ninja.

Then there was the time in “Avengers” #1 where the Hulk went on the run and joined the circus as a robot who juggled elephants, which I think basically speaks for itself.

But the majority of characters who grew up in the circus tend to have experiences much closer to the Blob, the X-Men villain.

The Blob starts out as a circus sideshow performer, notable for being a big fat guy that nobody can knock down. It turns out that that’s his mutant power – his entire deal is literally being a big fat guy that nobody can knock down. And it’s clearly established throughout his appearances that he grew up in the circus because that’s the only place he’d be able to grow up and have a relatively normal life. But it’s also not hard to see how that experience influenced the man he became.

At his heart, the Blob is a bully. And a big part of that comes from the fact that he only ever received praise at the circus, from people who were astounded and shocked at his abilities.

The only people he ever met were customers at best, and more often they were spectators who viewed Blob as something less than human. That is not a stable environment for a child to grow up, and it’s part of the reason so many of the characters in comics who grew up in the circus turned to a life of crime.

Ironically, that’s also why the circus is the only place Nightcrawler could have grown up and become the character he was.

Even more so than the Blob, Nightcrawler could not have grown up anywhere else but the circus. He’s got blue fur, pointed ears, two fingers per hand, glowing yellow eyes, and a prehensile demon tail, and all of that was true before he found out he could teleport. That guy really had ZERO options growing up, and it’s a good luck he was found by circus folk and not tossed into a dumpster.

But Nightcrawler flourished in his new home. While the Blob grew up as an object of ridicule, Nightcrawler had a solid support structure around him, as it was clear that the other people in the circus thought of him as a member of the family. In issue #2 of the current Nightcrawler series, Chris Claremont revisits Nightcrawler’s circus origins, and of course he fights circus performers because it’s comics and that’s what happens, but it’s also clear that there was genuine love from his fellow circus performers. He grew up to become an awesome swashbuckler, and one of the greatest members of the X-Men.

The circus is one of the few places in our world that so neatly reflects the world of superhero comics. These days, it has been by and large replaced by professional wrestling in that regard, with its larger-than-life characters and epic stories of good vs. evil, but there’s still something about the circus that compels comic book writers to keep coming back. It may be the colorful costumes – the design of a circus strong man helped inspire Superman’s original costume, after all, and all subsequent heroes who wear spandex (so, you know, pretty much all of them) do so because of the influence of the circus.

Also, sometimes we just want to see a character throw an elephant at somebody.

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