Under The Big Top

Q: which troupe of super-villains has bedevilled the Hulk, Spider-Man, Thor, the Avengers, Luke Cage and She-Hulk?

A: if you’ve read the title to today’s post, you’ll probably have realised it’s the Ringmaster and his Circus of Crime!

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I had planned to review the Batman Silver Age newspaper strip today but after a trip to Zippos Circus in Elgin yesterday, I changed my mind. This is the third successive summer where I’ve bought a circus ticket.

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As a child, I was taken to the Kelvin Hall Carnival but I hadn’t attended a circus as an adult until I came up here. It feels quite appropriate, in the vicinity of the “Lantern of the North”, to witness death-defying feats of strength and skill in a theatrical atmosphere which connects to traditions of the Middle Ages.

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In any case, key members of the Batman Family have circus roots: the first two Robins and  Batwoman. In the war years, Flash, Green Lantern and Wonder Woman ( the original Trinity) appeared on a circus cover.

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The solitary Legionnaire, Lone Wolf, made his debut calming a herd of stampeding camelephants at the Galactic Circus. Also, Flash’s harlequin foe, The Trickster, came from a family of circus aerialists. While at Marvel, conflicted Avengers Hawkeye and the  Swordsman were “carny” performers. (I don’t care for the 80s retcon that saw Clint Barton trained by Trickshot. It might be more logical but…pfft. Comics.) .

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One of my favourite and more obscure companions of Conan in the Hyborian Age was the gamine  acrobat, Tara of Hanumar.

So here are some more comic book adventures where the backdrop was the Greatest Show On Earth:

Spider-Man clashed with the Circus of Crime a couple of times- although the Ringmaster ( a reworking of a GA Cap villain) first appeared in an early Hulk story. The acts of the circus were fully identified when the Clown re-organised them as the Masters of Menace.

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In their first encounter with the web-slinger, DD made the scene in his original fighting togs. I love the idea that the Man Without Fear is “yella”.

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Here’s a 1990s re-imagining of an X-classic:

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The Blob is one of my favourite Lee/Kirby mutants. Originally a pitiful lummox, a more contemporary take on the Blob actually saw him eat Ultimate Wasp!

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Deadman is one of the most droll, yet spooky and noir-ish creations of the Silver Age (albeit quite a Marvel-esque character) and as testament to the versatility of Batman, a minor player in the Bat-mythos.  

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The bizarre wedding of amnesiac Yellowjacket and the Wasp was catered by the Circus of Crime (as a sneak attack on Thor – you’ve got to hand it to them for sheer guts. And insanity.)

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Under Lee and Kirby, Thor had been enlisted by the Ringmaster to help heist a Golden Bull. In their second encounter, Ulik the troll was thrown into the fray by wily Loki. I always liked vampy Princess python’s crush on thr Thunder God ( no pun intended).

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Speaking of slinky villainesses, in this adventure, Catwoman impersonates a lion tamer to steal white tigers. I prefer her classic look to this tail/Iron Fist-style collar/pirate boots combo.

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Black Goliath, one of my Bronze Age favourites, made his debut as an attraction in the Ringmaster’s Circus in this Luke Cage two-parter. Obscure FF villain Live Wire, a henchman of Psycho-Man, joined up here.

I’m pleased to hear that the Legion of Super-Heroes is returning later this year in the first Justice League United Annual.  Here’s a circus themed murder mystery from the Conway/Staton Bronze age era.

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NB: cumbersome Legion” X-Men” logo

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Claremont and Byrne put the All-new X-Men through a humiliating ordeal as circus freaks under the hypnotic spell of Arnold Drake’s Mesmero. On this cover, Logan looks more like Timber (Lone) Wolf than ever before.

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Some thirty-five years later, in an homage to that story, students of Jean Grey School encountered Frankenstein’s Murder Circus.

Finally, a lovely Ramona Fradon portrait of tv’s Super Friends ( one of my guilty pleasures in the late 70s!)

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Coming soon: Little Napoleon and “Big” Trubble

All images are presumed copyright of their respective owners

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One comment on “Under The Big Top

  1. Kid Robson says:

    Ramona Fradon is right up there with Marie Severin as one of the great female comicbook artists of all time, Dougie. In fact, you could remove the word ‘female’ from the previous sentence and it would still be true.

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