How to make your lame villain scary

Oct-30-08

Both Marvel and DC have something in common; their superhero universes contain a lot of lame villains. Oodles. Marvel tried to correct the problem in the 80s when they introduced Scourge, a character who seemed to exist only to clear out some of the deadwood in the Marvel criminal community. However, not only did Scourge miss a ton of losers, but many of the ones he killed have seen their gimmicks and names passed to new thugs, so their legacies (such as they are) live on. Perhaps seeing that this attempt at eliminating pathetic evil-doers didn’t stick, both Marvel and DC seem to have settled on revamping many of their villains and making them, as the kids say, bad asses. Sometimes they succeed and sometimes they don’t. Herewith are our recommendations for turning the Ringer into next year’s villain du jour.

1. Less blood, more threat: The most popular way to make a villain seem scary is to have them go out and rack up a body count that borders on genocide. Popular thinking seems to believe that, if your victims don’t number in the triple digits, you’re small time and might as well go back to fighting Captain Ultra. Alternately, you don’t have to kill a lot of people, if you kill just a few, but really gruesomely. Now, gruesome can have its place, but often times today’s comic writers seem to simply be trying to outdo the last gruesome death that saw print, and consequently, the deaths themselves mean little.

Let’s be clear: a huge body count is absurd, and it’s one of the things that’s pushed the Joker from menacing to maddening (for the readers). You don’t need to murder a stadium of sports fans to make a point, and how many villains are interested in doing that anyway? It makes your villains seem like crazy comic book villains if they’re going after huge masses of people. Most readers can’t relate to that sort of crime; none of us really expect to get blown up with lots of other people in a mass venue. That’s where people feel safe. Instead, keep your villains relatable; if they’re killing people, have them break into the house in the middle of the night, or catch someone walking home from the movies (perhaps after seeing a Zorro flick). Then you’re hitting your reader somewhere they’re more familiar and you’re more likely to dredge up some scares in them. Of course, this will work even better if you follow tip #2:

2. Let your reader get to know your victim: The better the reader knows the victim, the more impact it will have when your villain offs them. Of course, you don’t want to have Terra Man kill Lois Lane just to make him scarier, but you can introduce other characters for Terra Man to kill or threaten. The reader doesn’t have to spend a lot of time with the character; it can be a simple page or two, as long as you use that space to effectively convey enough of a piece of the victim’s personality so that the victim can be seen as a person, and not just as a piece of meat to be ground up by your villain.

3. Strip your villain back to basics: Often times what makes a villain even lamer is when writers try to give them more gimmicks and more toys in an attempt to make the villain more threatening. Unfortunately, this often backfires, and the villain comes off looking worse than ever. Let’s use the Ringer for example. For those who don’t know, the Ringer is a Marvel villain who’s gimmick was…well, rings. He had all kinds of different rings which did different things, and every time he appeared, it seemed he had a new set of rings that could do even more useless tricks. I would get rid of all of them and stick with one of his original gimmicks: constricting rings. Instead of having the Ringer tossing exploding rings across Times Square, have him sneaking through the dark alleys. He finds a victim, slips out of the shadows, and quickly slides a constricting ring around the victims throat. Then he watches as the poor person suffocates at his feet. Or perhaps he wants the victim for some future purpose. One ring around the body, which constricts enough to prevent the person from taking a deep breath (driving most of the fight from them) and then another around the wrists to bind the victim and make it easy for Ringer to capture them. That’s much more threatening than anything the character has ever done in the past.

4. No more primary colors: We’ve discussed a lot about art the last few days, but I need to mention it again. If you want a scary comic, you need art that provokes an atmosphere. It’s not just about the pencilling and inking, but you also need a strong colorist, who can keep the colors muted and provide a spooky setting, without making the book a bloody, dark and impossible to read mess.

5. Allow them occasional victories: Many villains are considered lame because they never win. Of course, when we’re reading this sort of story, we know the villains will lose in the end (unless you’re reading current DC) and that’s part of the tacit agreement we, the readers, make with the creators. However, it’s important to note that, unless you want your villain to be a laughing stock, you need to give them a win every now and again. It doesn’t have to be a big one, but if they never manage to bring any plans to fruition, they’re certainly not going to be scary. Perhaps some of their early plans succeed because the hero doesn’t know about them, or perhaps they even beat the hero a few times, when the hero isn’t expecting them or their abilities. In the end, it’s just important that they sometimes succeed, so the reader doesn’t know if they’re actually going to pull off the plan that will spell the end for a threatened supporting character. If the villain sometimes wins, they become credible, and then they can start to become scary.

There’re some ideas. Agree? Disagree? Have some of your own?

Yeah, I have a suggestion. Don’t ever again write a post that mentions both Terra Man and Ringer. That was the most frightening thing I ever read!

The one point you make that I feel the strongest about is #5. If the villain isn’t a credible threat, they’re never going to be taken seriously. Look at someone like Green Goblin. On paper, he’s ridiculous. But what was the first big thing he did as a villain? He offed Spider-Man’s girlfriend. Instant archenemy.

And I think #4 is an important rule. I mean, really, who’s scared of Shocker in his yellow quilted shirt? Or a giant orange Armadillo? Or Wizard in his fancy purple and red ensemble with the giant helmet (or, for that matter, the Leader and his giant cranium tucked into an orange and yellow turtleneck)?

If we’re talking about turning villains more towards the scary side of things in terms of tone and method, then I think there are three other points that need to be made:

6. Intimidation works. A strong baddie is an imposing baddie. And I don’t mean that he has to be huge or have some sort of magnificent power that cancels out the sun. Perfect example: Galactus is NOT scary (especially his movie version…ooooh, a cloud!). No, I’m talking about their mere presence sending a chill up someone’s spine. The foe could be old and frail, like Cassandra Nova or have a really bizarre look, like Emplate, and they would be more effective than Turner D. Century in his spiffy suit. This criteria is one of the reasons why Doctor Doom, Ultron and Red Skull have remained on the scene for so long. Plus, it helps to keep the main threat hidden for as long as possible in order to build up the suspense. Show a creepy hand or part of a horrific visage every now and then, but keep the big reveal until absolutely necessary. Evolution is a viable course to follow too. Take Annihilus for example. When he was first introduced, he just looked like a dude in a giant metal bug costume. However, his latest incarnation shows him in a more insect-like form and, I have to admit, he’s a bit skin-crawly now.

7. Go off the deep end on occasion. There’s something to be said about being organized and rational. Perfection involves a certain type of horror. However, that perfection can be elegantly offset with the occasional psychopathic outburst. Tear apart a puppy with your bare hands. Push a stranger off a bridge. Randomly erupt and beat the beejesus out of one of your henchmen with a nearby computer keyboard, cackling wildly as letters and numbers careen off his scalp. Divine madness goes a long way towards building a scary reputation. That’s one of the few things I’ve respected in good portrayals of the Joker.

8. Have a grand scheme. Anymore these days, villains are just out on personal vendettas which, while they have their place in history, do not build up a broad depth to your villainy. None of the bad guys seem to have any plans beyond eliminating so-and-so. What then? Now, I’m not saying we should go back to the days of simple bank robbing or awkward planning to poison water supplies with special fish, but there has to be a rational beginning and end to the rampage, aside from ending up in jail. To be effective, you have to follow through. An exception to this rule is taunting. A great villain needs to be able to taunt without remorse…kidnapping loved ones, stalking alter egos, harassing coworkers and implying even worse plans. That stuff always works. Not to say it couldn’t be augmented with some unrelated evil plotting.

Scary is in the eye of the beholder. And I feel that there are very few villains in today’s comics that fit the bill. Most of them are just glorified punching bags. The most recent example of a good revamp that I can think of is Dr. Light. DC definitely made him a creepy dude. Of course, a swift kick to the nuts remedied that. Taking a previous example, I’m not sure we could ever morph Turner D. Century into a formidable foe, but I think the rules we’ve set out are a clear checklist for avoiding the pitfalls that created Mr. Century in the first place.


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Circus of Crime: The Greatest Foes on Earth?

May-29-08

Let’s do something new this time around. Bring on the bad guys! Sure, we could’ve picked a big name like Magneto or the Red Skull as our first villain revamp…but where’s the fun in that. No, we decided to go with a little-known group that has gone up against such formidable opponents as The Incredible Hulk, The Amazing Spider-Man, The Sensational She-Hulk and…uh…The Hilarious Howard the Duck.

Circus of Crime

Look, I’m kidding. I actually REALLY like the Circus of Crime. I think it’s a cool idea for a villain group. Let’s face it, circuses are sort of creepy. And the traveling ones already have that fly-by-night rip-off vibe to them (in addition to the creepiness). The Circus of Crime has an even weirder vibe: it was begun by Nazi sympathizers! Yes, Maynard Tiboldt led a ragtag group of German spies posing as circus performers. Their modus operandi involved gathering an audience, hypnotizing them and then stealing their stuff. That was about it. Although the magic of it all was that the victims didn’t remember being robbed, which meant the bad guys could move on to the next town without worrying about getting caught.

The lineup for the Circus of Crime most often included the following: Ringmaster (with his hypnotizing hat), The Clown (with a unicycle and juggling balls), Bruto the Strongman (who wasn’t all that strong), Human Cannonball (who, uh, was shot out of a cannon), The Great Gambonnos (two leather-loving acrobat brothers), Princess Python (who had a snake) and Live Wire (a cowboy with an electric rope). It was a grouping sure to induce fear at its very sight…or waves of uncontrollable laughter.

As things stand in current Marvel continuity, Ringmaster and the Gambonnos were captured during Civil War. The Clown, who I feel had the most potential, has joined the Gamma Corps as part of World War Hulk and is now the oddly feathered and clawed Griffin. And Princess Python is now on her own and was last seen at the funeral for her “husband” Stilt-Man. That leaves a dude in pretty good shape, some guy with a huge cannon and an electric cowboy…not the best makings for a powerful group dedicated to evil and mayhem.

Granted, some of the characters shown being captured during Civil War have already been seen back on the streets (see Trapster, Wizard, Hydro-Man, Titania and Klaw as the new Frightful Five), so it should be pretty easy to bring out Ringmaster and start fresh…but I recommend leaving the S&M twins in the pokey.

So where do we go from here? How do we make the Circus of Crime into impressive enemies? Circuses are kind of strange in today’s culture. A lot of the stereotypical characters are outdated. And the hypnotism angle is pretty one-dimensional. But it’s a challenge we’re willing to accept. Ladies and gentlemen, children of all ages, get ready for the most stupendous, most spectacular, most fantabulous revamp in the history of comics…

You know, for many lame, D-List villains, you have to work on giving them a personality. However, the Ringmaster has been used to great effect by some previous writers (like Peter David during his run on The Incredible Hulk) and he has a personality. I also agree that the circus angle is actually pretty cool; love them or hate them, circuses tend to evoke strong emotions in people, and evoking emotions is something you hope to do anytime you’re writing something. Plus, you have a lot of room to work with some rather odd, perhaps disturbing characters in a circus setting, since, to a large extent, anything goes!

Saying that, the entire concept never worked. The idea of hypnotizing everyone in the circus tent and then robbing them and leaving is truly absurd, even for the Silver Age. First of all, how could you possibly hypnotize everyone in a circus tent? In every drawing I’ve seen of the Circus of Crime, they sat people all around them, so at least 25% of the audience was staring at the Ringmaster’s back, while fully half of them could have only been getting his profile. That means you’d almost have to hypnotize the audience in stages, and how could the people who had not been hypnotized yet possibly have not noticed that huge chunks of the audience were now sitting still and doing nothing? Plus, what happened if someone left the main tent to go to the bathroom or something? If they walked back in when the looting was going on, wouldn’t that put a crimp in the plans of the Circus (although this could be prevented by locking down the tent right before hypnotizing began). One more problem: the Circus robs the entire crowd and then moves on (in their first appearance in The Incredible Hulk, if memory serves, they left town as soon as they were done looting and didn’t even finish the show. Plus, they looted the entire town, houses and all, not content just to loot the crowd at the big top. Apparently the entire town went to the circus. This town obviously loved themselves some clowns and trapeze artists). Surely, when hundreds of people find themselves much poorer, it wouldn’t take an Elongated Man to notice that they had all been to the circus and there would be quite a few arrest warrants out for the Circus. I mean, it’s not like they could hide….they’re a freakin’ circus!

Plus, the individual characters had their problems as well. The Ringmaster has one gimmick, and darned if he doesn’t drive it into the ground. If you’re blind (like Daredevil), close your eyes (as Spidey has) or grab his hat (which is pretty easy to snag), he’s powerless. Good grief, the hat doesn’t even look like it fits on his head snugly….I think he’d be defeated by a strong breeze! The most amusing character had to be the Human Cannonball, who often had to go into action sans cannon. In those instances, he basically put his head down and ran into people. I suppose I shouldn’t joke, as he put J. Jonah Jameson in the hospital that way once, but he looked ridiculously silly. Ugh.

But there’s hope for these malcontents yet! I like the Ringmaster, and would love to see him headline a new circus. However, I believe the hat has to go. Looking at modern circuses (which, I will admit, I don’t attend, so my research is being done through the magic of the internet), I’m not seeing anyone wearing a goofy hat like that. I think his outfit needs modernized. The hat looks silly, and to be honest, it’s too easily taken away. I’d recommend one of two options. The first would be to fit him with some sort of hypnotizing contacts. Too silly, you say? We’re talking about a man who leads a Circus of Crime, I say! My problem with it, actually, isn’t that it’s silly so much as it seems cliched. “The man with the hypnotizing eyes!” sounds like the title of a 1950s 3-D extravaganza, not the man we need headlining the Circus of Crime. Plus, it has nothing to do with him being a ringmaster, which, you know, is kind of his schtick. I’d instead recommend that the hypnotizing effect be built into his coat. Ringmasters still wear the more outrageous, colorful coats that old Tiboldt sports, so why not put the effect there? It’s more stable and not likely to fall off, as the hat was, and it looks better. Plus, he could make the coat durable (perhaps bulletproof it?) so not only does it hypnotize folks, but it also helps to protect his skinny ass from the Hulk the next time the Circus tours the southwest.

Even if the original Clown is now running around as the Griffin (and I have no idea how I missed that development, and more importantly, why it seemed to fit the Clown’s character) we need a new clown. In fact, we might want more than one. If memory serves, the original Clown rode a unicycle and juggled. While I have no doubt that these abilities gave Peter Parker nightmares, we might want to find another angle for our new Clown. Now, the juggling and unicycle riding did point out two traits of a good clown; balance and coordination. I see us being able to take a Clown in two different ways; we could go more of an acrobatic route, making him a tumbling, spinning loose limbed harbinger of destruction. However, that doesn’t yell out clown as much as it yells out contortionist or acrobat. So, I would say we could go more in the other direction and make him like the Jester. In fact, let’s make him the Jester! I mean, a jester is really nothing more than a medieval clown. Plus, many storylines over the years have revolved around the Ringmaster and the Clown vying for control of the Circus (geez, these guys have really got to aim higher). What if Tiboldt approaches the Jester, and the two form a partnership. The Circus is basically co-run by these two, although, of course, neither one trusts the other. It provides some interesting give and take within the Circus, as the two work together relatively well, while still trying to outshine the other and seize solo power, while giving us a Clown who’s more than just a guy on a unicycle.

I think having a strongman is a good idea, whether it be Bruno or someone else. Does he need to have his “powers”, such as they aren’t, updated? I don’t know. There’s always room for a guy who’s just human level strong. I think Bruno just needs a personality. Perhaps he’s driven to be as strong as he can be, since he knows he doesn’t have another gimmick. Perhaps, in his quest to be as strong as he can be, he’s started using steroids, and is hooked on them. He’s even bigger and stronger than we remember, but also perhaps a little more prone to rages and harder to keep under control. He also now has a more personal reason to steal money; to pay for more steroid treatments. I also think he’d like to try and show off his strength against the heroes they encounter. While he may not be a match for Spider-Man, he might be stronger than Daredevil, the Black Widow or many other non-super strength heroes.

I also think adding in some new characters is imperative. We had a lady that trained snakes, and that’s somewhat impressive I suppose, but there are a lot more animals than snakes at a circus (actually, now that I think about it, what circus has snakes?). What about trainers that have lions, tigers and elephants at their beck and call? Side point: using these trained animals also provides a nice way to dispose of snoopy townspeople who may think the Circus is up to no good. What about some trained horseback riders? They can do some amazing tricks, so surely that could be put to good use in a fight. I think that acrobats are important, even if the Gambonnos were not the best example of the breed. Plus, if we throw in a freak show, as you sometimes see at a circus (or carnival, and the Circus of Crime always seemed to be a mixture of both) you can really get crazy!

That’s a lot for you to chew on though. Go ahead, chew, and then let me know what you think. There’s lots we can do with this, though.

Agreed on all of the above. You actually made me laugh out loud and I had to explain this whole thing to my wife. She just stared blankly at me when I was finished. Different strokes, right?

Ringmaster is an interesting character that has been given a personality (albeit one that involves him getting beat up and running away a lot). A clown is necessary and, as you mentioned, perhaps more than one. Your Jester idea has promise. I’ve always liked Jester. However, what if we take the clown to its next logical conclusion: multiple clowns coming from a single source (similar to Madrox’s power)…that would solve the “how many clowns can climb out of a tiny car” conundrum. Perhaps you can even mix in a bit of Speedball’s original power. Could you see an entire team of clowns bouncing all over the place in total chaos? And he needs a ridiculous name like “Chuckles” or “Giddy” or “Jerky.”

I also agree with your feeling that we need more members. There’s two ways we can go about this: tack on some existing villains that would fit in with the Circus’s theme or create some new villains specifically made for the team. I’m just going to vomit up the ideas I scribbled down last night and see if anything clicks with you:

EXISTING CHARACTERS: Madcap (this old Captain America foe is impervious to pain and quite insane and his costume is ridiculously garish), Machete (the knife-thrower from Batroc’s Brigade), Puppet Master or Tinkerer (someone who can create marching toy soldiers or other weird circus-themed machines), Stilt-Man (currently deceased, but the suit is always up for grabs), Red Ghost and his apes, whatever is left of the Death-Throws(Knicknack, Tenpin, Ringleader), maybe even Taskmaster?

NEW CHARACTERS: You mention the sideshow freaks, which I think is a perfect idea. Let’s create a new shape-shifting character named Sideshow. Let’s get a new strongman but give him a Bane vibe where he can increase his strength through some sort of pump or something. We can name him Blockbuster or Big Top. Maybe Ringmaster doesn’t have his hypnotic powers anymore and is just a schemer like Lex Luthor. The new hypnosis guy could be a mystic Swami or Fakir, like a snake charmer. An animal expert is key too. Someone not unlike Kraven the Hunter, but with the Aquaman-esque ability to control the beasts. And then there are the generic stereotypes that could be worked into any of these characters to good effect…a midget, a carnie, a contortionist, etc.

I also agree that we need to take a different look at the circus theme. When I think of a circus these days, I think of two things. The first is the traditional Ringling Bros. show. The second is something along the lines of Cirque du Soleil. The Cirque angle provides a new level of weirdness and creepiness…the colors, the music, the very strange scenes. Ooh, that gives me an idea too. What if Ringmaster plays a hypnotic calliope (sort of like Hypno-Hustler…hehe)?

What characters do you think work best? How many do we want in the cast? And how do we put this all together organically?

Wow. Lots of great ideas here. Let’s take a look.

I love your new clown! Combining the powers of Speedball and Madrox makes for a surprisingly formidable opponent (perhaps too formidable, to the point where I’d recommend limiting the amount of duplicates he can create at perhaps five or six, so you don’t have an army of Speedball types overwhelming any good guys, and more importantly, overwhelming the other members of the Circus) and I also like using one of the names you suggest. Giggles would be my pick for the new Clown. I’m not sure that we couldn’t use both Giggles and the Jester, but certainly the Jester would not be necessary.

I don’t see Machete in the Circus. He seems too serious to me, although I admit his ability with knives is perfect for a circus setting. However, it could be interesting to have a former South American freedom fighter (if I remember his origin correctly) working with the Circus. My question would be why would he work for the Circus? I guess he could do it for the money, since that’s why he joined Batroc’s Brigade. Still, he wouldn’t be my first choice, although I think a knife thrower is a good idea. Perhaps someone younger, a little more punk…let me think on that.

The Red Ghost also doesn’t seem to fit, personality-wise. The only way I can see him working is if he ran the Circus, and I prefer the Ringmaster in charge. We could have the two of them in a partnership, as I suggested with the Jester, and there is some potential there. Certainly his super-apes would fit in perfectly with the Circus; perhaps we could have the apes, but not the Red Ghost? I’ve never liked the Red Ghost anyway, and he doesn’t really fit anymore, now that the Communist threat he personified no longer exists. Perhaps something happens to the Red Ghost, and the apes escape, and the Circus finds them? That could be quite interesting, as they form a bond with their new trainer (who would probably treat them better than the Ghost ever did), and eventually, when the Red Ghost came searching for them, lots of interesting plots could ensue.

The Taskmaster doesn’t work as well for me, as again, he’s pretty successful on his own, so why would he work with the Circus? The Puppet Master is a possibility, but I don’t think he’s a perfect fit. The Tinkerer might be, since he could work behind the scenes and make some money; I’d say that he should be available to supply the Circus with their needs, even if he’s not an actual member.

I’m not trying to discard all of your suggestions, since I think they’re good. I love Madcap with the Circus; I don’t know if he’d stay, since he’s insane, but that’s also just as good a reason for him to stay. The whole concept of the Circus seems like it would work well for him, and he’s certainly dressed for it. The Death-Throws are perhaps the most perfect fit in the entire Marvel Universe, and I’d sign them up immediately. Someone new using the Stiltman armor also makes sense. You could also grab whoever the heck the current Ringer is and use him, and I think you’d be in good shape. The Circus could be a great way to grab some of the poorly used (or rarely used) Marvel villains and really make them matter again.

I do like your Sideshow idea, and I also like a snake charmer. However, while I can appreciate the appeal of a Lex Luthor, I’d really want to give the Ringmaster some sort of abilities. In the end, he’s a decent schemer, but he’s not the best, and I’m not sure that’s where his strength lies. I certainly don’t think that we want to make him too good at it, since he’s certainly never been the criminal mastermind in the past. Hypnotism always made sense for him, since it was the job of the Ringmaster to grab the attention of the audience and keep it. If we’re going to remove that power (which works, since we already wanted to get rid of the stupid hat), I’d like to replace it with something else that fits the Circus or Ringmaster theme. How about some sort of light powers? It may not seem to make much sense, but I think it could. Using mechanisms sewn into his jacket, he can raise and lower light levels. As a ringmaster, he would use this to raise and lower the lights in the different rings of the circus (again, drawing an audience’s attention to where he wanted it by lowering the lights in one area and raising them in another), and as a supervillain, he could create darkness or blinding flashes. It’s still not tremendously powerful, which fits him, but gives him a gimmick, which I think he needs.

With that being said, how is the Circus going to commit crimes (or what sort of crimes are they going to commit)? If the Ringmaster isn’t hypnotizing the entire town, what are they going to be doing for money, as they tour the country?

Imagine the chaos the Circus could create if they had half a dozen clowns bouncing around, coupled with every small-time projectile-hurling villain throwing out their weapons of choice. It’s like the perfect storm! Add in an armored dude on stilts, a maniacal contortionist with a bubble gun, an Indian fakir commanding a crowd of wild beasts, a shape-shifting freak, a ‘roid-powered brute, and an army of remote-controlled toy soldiers…all led by the hypno-hype of Ringmaster…and I think you’ve actually made the Circus of Crime into formidable foes. I can hear the happy-go-evil pipe organ music already.

Despite my ideas and your counter-ideas, I’ve come to the realization that Ringmaster should be left as is. Sure, his power is a bit sketchy and pretty handily diffused, but his personality and his background are well established and he makes sense as at least the figurehead of the team. The snake charmer can couple as a controller of tigers, elephants, baboons and other native Indian animals. That makes sense. You didn’t comment on my suggestion of a Bane-like strongman but I think it’s a logical progression (and could add some tension in the group if his usage gets out of control). Hell, Madcap could just wander in and out of the team as he pleases. We’d need to come up with some sort of twisted origin for the Sideshow character…I’m thinking something to do with coming from an inbred family of former circus freaks (eww). Finally, even though it was my idea, I’m not completely sold on the idea of the Tinkerer in the group either. Though I could see a path involving he and Ringmaster coming to some sort of agreement to aid each other.

As far as actual crimes go, it has to be wide open. Look, everyone is going to see them coming from a mile away. I would assume that at some point in Marvel’s history, its inhabitants have been made aware of the weirdo in the top hat running the evil carnival. With that in mind, and with the powers of the group we’ve established, I say they go after big targets with big crowds. I’m thinking Times Square on New Year’s Eve…big ticket political fundraisers…high-profile charity events…public unveilings of prominent structures or exhibits…anything that would attract a lot of people with a lot of money. Hell, they could slip in unnoticed at an amusement park and pretty much hold the place hostage too. There’s no way Spider-Man or Daredevil could take them on by himself. This positions the Circus as major foes for a heroic team.

The big step is the origin story. Obviously a group of Nazi sympathizers is a little anachronistic these days. Of course, with Ringmaster and the concept of the Circus of Crime already established, they don’t need a full-blown origin…just more of a “hey, where’d all these new folks come from?” update. But what’s their motivation? Pure crime? And who do they end up tangling with? Put it all together for me, please…

I don’t think the Nazi sympathizer angle has been mentioned since the early 60s, and honestly, I’m not even sure it was mentioned then. It may have just popped up in a Marvel Universe Handbook, linking the Circus to a like named creation from the Golden Age. That being said, I also agree that we can easily ignore this little bit of continuity.

So, what’s their new origin? Well, the Ringmaster has been having a rough time of it lately. Actually, he’s always had a rough time of it. He’s been abused and made into a punchline (which, admittedly, isn’t too difficult when you run with a clown, a couple of twin acrobats and someone who thinks head butting is a super-power) and he’s rather tired of it. He tried to cooperate a few times with SHIELD and the federal government, and got nothing for it. He’s broke, he’s frustrated and he doesn’t know where to turn. That being said, he really only knows one thing; committing crimes with his crazy circus crew. Sadly, that crew hasn’t worked too well in the past. He decides to talk to the Clown and see if the Clown has any ideas, since the Clown always had a devious brain. When he tries to contact the Clown and finds out that the Clown has become the new Griffin, Ringmaster is despondent….even the Clown is poised to hit the big time, and he’s a freakin’ clown! But then the Ringmaster stops….if the Clown can reinvent himself so wildly, why not the Ringmaster?

The Ringmaster decides to rebuild the Circus, bigger and better than ever. Using his hypnotic hat, the Ringmaster can commit enough small and petty crimes to get himself some traveling money (how hard would it be to knock over the local gas station or liquor store if you could just hypnotize the clerk into giving you the money?) and he starts scouring the globe for his new recruits. In whatever series the new and improved Circus would make their first appearance, I’d start showing little tidbits of the Ringmaster’s search…a page or two for a few issues of him meeting some of our new characters and convincing them that he can make them a lot of money. It may be a hard sell for the Ringmaster at first, since it’s not like the Circus of Crime is a big name that criminals will flock to, but I think he can do it. In the long run, a ringmaster is a salesman and they’re good at getting your attention, so I think he could be successful. I mean, he’s always been a little geek in a blinding suit and he got the original Circus to follow him for decades.

Once his Circus is assembled, he knows they’re going to need some tech supplies. He contacts the Tinkerer, who’s in retirement, and offers him an interest in the Circus if the Tinkerer will supply them with their gadgetry. The Tinkerer is a little dubious, but the Ringmaster promises that the Tinkerer doesn’t have to be involved in any of the overt legal activity and the Tinkerer finally relents (perhaps he sees this as a steady source of income so he can retire somewhere nicer, like the Caribbean, or perhaps he needs money for a child or grandchild that’s in trouble). In any case, he’s around in a part-time capacity. I don’t see him traveling with the Circus, but I do see him showing up on-site occasionally, to make adjustments to his equipment and to see exactly what the Circus requires of him.

So, we now have the Circus assembled, and we’ve been teasing it in a page or two for the past few issues of our title. We can then reveal them in their full glory and set them against our hero team. Yes, I said team; while they could go up against a single hero, I always like setting teams against teams. Let’s put them up against our new Defenders, from a few posts back. To me, however, the important thing that makes this Circus so much better than the old is that they don’t lose, at least, not at first. I’d prefer to use them like the old Serpent Society in Mark Gruenwald’s Captain America run. Let’s allow them to commit some successful crimes, and perhaps, let’s see a little of them in smaller groups, where perhaps two or three of them are committing crimes on the side (sanctioned by the Ringmaster, I think, although it could be interesting if they’re doing it without his knowledge, especially if they jeopardize the larger operation).

Thoughts?

See, it’s the little things like that last idea that could make this villain team interesting again. Some of them end up being like rogue factions of their own team. The strongman has a drug problem. Maybe the new Clown or the Fakir beastmaster or Madcap just rubs some of them the wrong way. There are a lot of little subplots we could throw in there that would make it even harder on Ringmaster to hold the group together. And maybe, ultimately, he can’t hold it together.

Perhaps Ringmaster doesn’t have the charisma to collect the team and he’s actually begging all these new recruits to join up, making promises that he can’t really keep. He needs the Tinkerer (or Jester) to step in and help him control the chaos. The Serpent Society is the perfect comparison for this. I remember the build up with that group…they had their own compound, there was a constant struggle for leadership, and they actually made some progress in their agenda. Plus, the Serpent Society had that same kind of kitschy, classic comic book villain vibe. They have a goofy theme that fits so well in the comic book world. I think that’s why I always had a thing for the Royal Flush Gang over in DC’s universe too.

I’ve also always liked those two or three-page backup stories that appeared in certain series. The oddly paced buildup, the curiosity as to what was going to happen, those kind of things are great for comics too. The sad thing is that Marvel doesn’t have a lot of team books. I’m not sure this group would make sense against the supernatural concept we devised for the Defenders. At the same time, they don’t seem powerful enough to face either of the Avengers teams that are currently in play. Obviously, none of the X teams are a good fit either. Is there a new New Warriors title out again? That could work. In the long run, I don’t think the Circus of Crime is actively looking for anyone to fight. They’re going to try to make as much mischief as they can while also avoiding any potential beatdowns.

Sure, we could have them randomly appear in any number of titles just to be token villains that get their butts handed to them in every appearance. But if we really want to up their image and make them formidable again (or for the first time, really) I believe there are two perfect titles to showcase the new Circus of Crime. The first is Marvel Comics Presents…a book that would allow us to tell our own story, standing alone from the more rigid continuity in certain key titles (and also allowing the Circus to be the main focus of the story instead of whatever hero they were fighting). The second book might make even more sense, and lead to an extra long story arc: Avengers Initiative. Imagine, if you will, the Circus of Crime touring the country on a crime spree and having confrontations with the Initiative team in each state. It would be a great way to show how these state teams work and allow us to showcase various members of the Circus and how useful they are. At the end of the run, the Circus of Crime would either be impressive enemies or soundly defeated and never heard from again.

Bingo! You nailed it, I believe, with your last suggestion of using them in Avengers Initiative or MCP. The fact of the matter is that they don’t want to fight heroes (or, at the very least, the Ringmaster doesn’t want to….perhaps some of his new recruits would like to take down some heroes, which, again, could create some interesting problems within the ranks), and I don’t see them being the main villain for any team out there right now. However, showcasing them in a title where they could run up against multiple heroes is a brilliant move.

I also really like the idea of the Ringmaster starting out confident that he’s created a new and much more impressive Circus of Crime, and slowly coming to realize that he’s actually succeeded far beyond what he had intended. This Circus is simply too much for him to control (perhaps the reason the Circus was always so lame is because they were being held back by the Ringmaster). He eventually reaches a point where, to maintain control, he realizes that he’s going to need help, and partners with someone (or, perhaps, tries to have the Tinkerer upgrade his powers and abilities, hoping that new ones will help him retain control). There’s actually a few different ways this could go, as the Ringmaster struggles to maintain order in his Circus. Does he succeed? Is he forced to forge a partnership with someone else (and if he does so, is it really a partnership? If he chooses someone who can control the Circus where the Ringmaster can’t, why would this second person need the Ringmaster? His best bet would be to choose someone who can’t control the Circus without the Ringmaster’s help, to maintain a balance of power in the partnership, but would the Ringmaster realize this? Or will he be too desperate at this point in time to think that far ahead?)? Or is the Ringmaster driven out of the Circus he helped rebuild, and who would take his place?

Yes, there’s some great stuff here. Perfect for a run in Marvel Comics Presents, I’d say.