Circus Man

Submitted into Contest #48 in response to: Write about a person who collects superhero comics.... view prompt


Thriller Mystery Drama

           Countless hours spent constructing my portfolio, constantly being downplayed by my friends and family, and nearly five years of being stuck in a dead-end job. All of these obstacles were finally about to pay off by the end of today. Since I’d arrived, I hadn’t stopped shaking in my black converse. My hands had turned cold and clammy, trembling as I tightly gripped a rolled-up latest edition of Circus Man. I had collected the comics since I was around the age of seven. Since then, the series has been molded into a part of who I was. The art was so uniquely etched with black, grey, and red inks only, giving off a peculiar vibe. Images felt as if they were leaping off the page. Each edition would send me plowing through the pages, eager to read how it would end.

           The plots were mesmerizing and the furthest from being considered a cliché in the world of comics. They made you analyze on a deeper level, forcing you into a debate as to whether or not the Circus Man was actually a good hero or not. Like most comic book series, the plots followed a similar format to preceding editions. Circus Man would always be traveling from one city to the next. In each town he’d be confronted by some sort of antagonist. He then would partake in intense turmoil against the nemesis, eventually succeeding, and capturing him. At the villain’s final demise, Circus Man would transform him into a monstrosity. There the enemy would remain, in every proceeding comic book issue, as an addition to Circus Man’s freak show exhibition. One incredible aspect about the series was that the freak show circus was constantly expanding, and each member was always mentioned with every issue. Almost as if the writers were giving live updates as to how the demised were doing in their cages. By now, the circus had 240 grotesque freaks…and I knew each one of them by name, their backstory, and how they had lost their final battles.

           The creepiest part about the comics was how accurate they were. Research must have been done extensively for each issue because landmarks, historical references, and even town jargon were all distinguished and very specific according to location. Perhaps the best part of the Circus Man franchise was that each issue would leave the reader with a cliff hanger as to what sort of freak the villain would be mutated into.

           My parents had never supported me turning down a science degree to pursue a Bachelor’s in art. With every family get together they made their opinions known, consistently mocking me. The saying “starving artist” really does speak truths. I spent the entire year after graduation living off of my savings, attempting to search for work in drawing or animation, only to find no such luck. By the time my savings account had dwindled down to its last grand, I finally through up my hands and applied anywhere. I eventually landed a customer service job at a call center, monotonously taking orders all day long. “This is only temporary,” I kept telling myself. Since I wasn’t allowed a cell phones or any electronics in my cubicle, I made the best of my situation and took advantage of the few items I was allowed: a pen and paper.

           As boring and as excruciating as it was performing a task I loathed and getting paid peanuts in return, I zoned in on practicing my drawing technique, customizing it so it would look exactly like the style that was depicted in the Circus Man comics. It was the one thing that kept me sane after long hours of being yelled at by customers and supervisors. Now, after so many years of sucking it up, I had finally selected the best of my drawings and put together a portfolio. Constantly researching as to when the Circus Man comic convention would come to my hometown. When I finally saw our city listed on the tour webpage, I took the biggest risk I had ever done and sent off the best from my hard-worked portfolio. I hadn’t heard anything for about a month until the week before arriving in my area.

Congratulations, Cody Muller! You have been selected for the next round of the application process. Please report to the Circus Man comic convention main tent area at 9:00 am for an interview. Parking passes will be provided…

Fast forward to the present, and here I am, standing right outside the large white tent labeled: Circus Man Main Tent Pavilion. The tarp flaps fluttered delicately in the warm morning breeze, reluctant to reveal what was lurking behind them. I twisted the glossy pamphlet tighter with trembling hands, heart erupting wildly within my chest. Another proceeding candidate entered the tent and I moved up with shaky legs in the line as a response. Just two more people ahead of me and then it would be my turn. My entire fate was just behind this blanket of white. I swallowed a hard, dry glop that had formed in my throat and brushed off beads of sweat that had formed along my forehead.

Suddenly, a high-pitched voice ripped me away from my anxiety. I jumped in surprise, as if someone were attacking me. “Hey, Cody!” It called again. Craning my neck in the direction of the call, I caught sight of—out of all the people—my ex. She gave a wave and trotted towards me, her long, electric-red hair sweeping across her shoulders in the wind. “I can’t believe it,” she sputtered as she reached me. “You got called in for an interview too?”

Dumbfounded, the only response I had was, “Hey, Claire. Yeah.”

“That’s awesome! Could be a big break for both of us then,” she nudged my shoulder playfully, then going back to adjust her cropped Circus Man tee. Not exactly what I expected for interview attire. I could tell that she was dressed more for the comic convention then for any form of interview. The rest of her outfit composed of jean shorts, knee-high socks, and a pair of pink converses. She boldly wore heavy blue eye shadow with accents of bright red, matching her cheaply dyed hair.

Claire was also an art major. In fact, our shared courses throughout college was how we initially met. We started dating in junior year and, to be honest, at that point I thought she was the one. We instantly bonded over our obsession for the Circus Man, traveling to various comic conventions together, and watching limitless superhero movies. It wasn’t until after graduation when things between us turned rough. She had found an amazing gig working for a comic book studio, illustrating for freelance positions, and writing reviews about various comic book collections. Not going to lie, she had a sort of prodigal talent. It never seemed like she had to put in much effort or practice at her illustration technique. Art was a natural gift for her, and she was very much aware of this. She constantly would be showing off her artwork to peers in the classroom, to colleagues, and eventually, all over the internet. It wasn’t long before her talent was recognized by the comic book community and she began to build a reputation for herself. As her fame and success kept rising, mine was stagnant. I was never born an artist. Instead, I had to work hard at it, consistently studying the Circus Man comics and practicing.

It was hard for me to hide any jealousy or resentment for her successes. I tried to be as supportive as I could throughout all of her promotions. It wasn’t her showiness or success that ended our relationship at all, but rather, her manipulation and control over me. After moving in with her for one year I couldn’t take it anymore. We ended on not the greatest of terms. Since our breakup, I attempted to avoid interactions with her at all costs. Claire, on the other hand, wouldn’t let me control this neglectful behavior, either. So, in retaliation, she would constantly act like our breakup had never happened and would try to seek me out, always attempting to rekindle our friendship.

“Well, good luck in there! My interview went pretty smooth. They were super friendly, loved my work, and basically knew who I was already. I think I got the job…it sounded promising when they said they’d call me tomorrow about details and paperwork for the position. I guess they make decisions quickly,” her rosy round face beamed with electrifying energy.

“Really? They make their decision on the spot like that?” I contemplated, nerves itching more furiously now.

“Seems like it. I mean, when you think about it, they got to. They’re only in town for a day and then move onto the next. So, it’s either they pick you or they don’t.” Her eyes began to wander away from me as her ADHD was beginning to take over. She eventually fixated on a tent in the background. “Look, Cody, let’s grab a bite to eat after your interview, okay? Maybe we can catch up. You’re definitely staying for the rest of comic con, right?”

Unaware that I was agreeing to her demands, I nodded robotically, “Sure.”

“Cool! Meet me by the burger tent when you’re done. Shouldn’t be too long,” she pointed over in the direction of a colorful yellow and red tent, which reminded me of McDonald’s.

“Sure,” I repeated on autopilot, entirely fixated on my angst. I was the next one up at this point.

“Good luck!” she clapped my back, then jogged over toward the food tent.

Before I could curl the glossy comic book in my hand even more tightly, I heard the command, “Next,” from behind the canvas doors. Shakily, I staggered forward and entered into the cool darkness.

As I burst out into the sun again, I suddenly felt the warmth of the sun’s rays soak through my flesh and melt away all the ice that had encrusted my skeleton over so many tortuous years of working in a job from Hell. My prayers had been answered, my hard work had paid off, and my patience had finally been put to an end. I had been selected to be on the artistic board committee for the next issue of Circus Man as the main illustrator. Sheer relief and excitement coursed through my veins and I could feel my eyes begin to glisten in the sunlight. My heart fluttered with adrenaline as I nearly skipped over to the burger tent. I couldn’t wait to tell Claire that I’d be the main illustrator. Finally, it was my turn to get the praise. I would finally be recognized as a comic book artist. Not just any comic book series, either. The very one I had grown up with, have loved so dearly, and have been my passion for most my life. It felt as if I were in a dream. It was so hard to grasp the concept that I would now be a part of the team who created these page-turning illustrative stories, sharing them with the rest of the world.

Easily spotting the bright red flash of long, straight hair in the sunlight, I bounced over to the table she was stationed at. She was in the middle of reading some sort of comic book she had picked up. Slapping my hand rudely over the page of the pamphlet she was eying, she glanced up in shock. “Guess who’s going to be a part of the Circus Man story board illustrative team?” I boasted, pointing my thumbs back at myself.

“No way! That’s amazing,” she enthused, flashing me a sly grin. Although her joy seemed genuine, it was as if she were happy for another reason. Sure enough, she announced the real reason for her ecstasy, “And guess who was selected as the storyboard director and main artist from our town, traveling along with them on tour?” I didn’t even know it was possible to be selected to go on tour with them. My remote offer suddenly sounded like a job at the burger joint.

“Wait…what?” I let out a nervous chuckle, trying not to sound envious.

“Dude, I was chosen to come along with them on tour! I’m going to be the main artist! You know…I’ll be editing all the story boards, fixing up any illustrations that need to be fine-tuned, and best of all…I’ll be creating all the new villains! Isn’t that awesome? I mean, it’s awesome for the both of us!” she leapt up from the crusty wooden bench and gave me a delighted hug.

“That’s fantastic, Claire,” I grimaced, crunching what was left of the balled-up comic book in my fist as hard as I could.

The day after Circus Man comic con had left town, my email was instantly bombarded with the story board plot for the next issue. Though the sender email address was a generic, I assumed these emails were Claire’s work. Once again, bossing me around…controlling me. Unbelievable. Even when something fantastic happened to me, she managed to belittle my success and turn it around into another victory for herself. I was expected to produce drawings every day in response to the portion of the plot that was revealed in each email thread. It was definitely a full-time gig, tirelessly forcing me to draw from the moment after breakfast until about ten O’clock at night. According to the Circus Man contract I had signed; I would be responsible for doing the illustrations for the upcoming edition only. From there, they would decide if they wanted to renew my contract for any proceeding issues. Nevertheless, I was thankful for the short-lived opportunity.

Day in and day out the plot was fed to me in a stream of demanding emails. As the plot was revealed further, I started to get the vibe that Claire was basing this issue off of our personal problems. In the story, Circus Man had arrived in our city only to see that the antihero, Clore, had taken over our town with her amazing ability of bringing to life animated minions from her power to draw. Clore’s superpower essentially lead her to create an entire army of these animated minions, controlling the townspeople as if they were under the force of Nazis.

Like the name she had chosen for this so-called villainess, Claire demanded in her emails that I be precise when drawing out Clore. She wanted Clore to have long, fiery red hair with thick horn-rimmed glasses, a description that was very much identical to herself. By the end of the month, I had felt that my dream had turned into a nightmare. Claire grew vicious with her emails, attacking my art painstakingly. Time after time I’d be forced to re-illustrate entire pages if I didn’t capture her vision absolutely on point. When I finally sent off the last page of the issue, she responded universally:

Accepted. Thank you for your efforts. Circus Man comics will contact you if you are needed for any further assistance.

Very blunt and generic. I suddenly felt that my life-long aspiration had been diminished to a slave-like cheap expenditure of my passions. Assuming I was off the contract, I figured it would be okay to send Claire a personal text since we were no longer professional acquaintances.

Hey! How’s tour?

I started off with a brief, non-hostile text. Genuinely, I really was curious how she was doing in her new position, despite my envy. Maybe other positions in the Circus Man franchise weren’t as rigorous or demanding as mine was. Perhaps she had found happiness and was finally moving on, living her best life.

After about a week, I still had no response. I sent the same text again, figuring that maybe she hadn’t received it in the first place. Another day passed, still no response. This time, I sent a string of more serious texts. She could email me but couldn’t text me? Now I was starting to get irritated.


Why are you ignoring me?

My work wasn’t that bad, was it?

No responses for another week. At this point, I was beginning to worry. I checked in with a few mutual friends. All gave me the same answer: no word from Claire. No pictures, no social media updates, no texts, no calls, no emails, nothing. Eventually, I decided to give in and dismiss the issue. Fine, I thought, if she didn’t want to talk to us anymore then that was her choice. Maybe she thought she was too good for us now. For a while, I hadn’t received any further updates from Circus Man until today. Immediately seeing the sender address once again, I opened it eagerly.

Congratulations, Cody Muller! You have been selected as the primary illustrator for the upcoming edition of Circus Man. Please resume the plot as depicted in the attachment.

In disbelief, I opened the attachment. I wondered what type of monstrosity Clore had turned into. For some reason or another, I always grew edgy as I anticipated how the villain would look after being warped into a grotesque creature. When the document finally opened, my heart sank, and I instantly felt nauseous from fear.

Please illustrate the following live image as a new edition to Circus Man’s freak show:  

Below was an image of Claire. Her eyes had been punched out, replaced with two bright green lasers. Countless wires had been injected into her face, arms, legs, and torso. Her mouth hung open and tongue had been removed. The gaping hole in her face had been replaced by an intercom speaker. The finishing touch is what looked to be a video game controller, hanging off one of the wires, which lead into her arm. Then, at the bottom of the page, I read:

You’re in control, Circus Man.

July 03, 2020 22:35

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Kathleen `Woods
22:22 Jun 17, 2021

This had a pretty extensive world-building interlude for the Circus Man, which matches really well with the somewhat average personal history and dynamics of the main. The end actually read a bit like a horror comic which fits right in. Thanks for writing!


R. E. Dressler
19:29 Jun 18, 2021

Thanks so much for reading and your input, I'm glad you enjoyed:) It's so difficult trying to expand backstories with the smaller word count we have to work with. It can be done though, so it's definitely something I'll pay more attention to when I write my next submission.


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