Comic books have the potential to be masterful story telling devices, able to uniquely marry up powerful words with deep imagery. On the other hand they can also weave ridiculous, over the top plots with poor drawings which makes you question how a human being could come up with such a thing.
The same can be said for comic book villains. Each one capable of being a pop culture icon for the ages or being entirely forgettable. The role of a villain is a difficult balance to get right for comic book writers as they have to be threatening but also defeat-able. Get it right and the villain can sharpen the hero of the story, taking them on a journey and pushing them to the limit. Get it wrong and they are doomed to ridicule and being lost in the ether of time.
In this first part of a, hopefully, ongoing series I will be looking at villains who fit into the latter category. This time we will be looking at the jugging themed villain group Death-Throws.
First appearing as villains for Captain America in May 1986 Death-Throws were a group of villains who committed crime by using their juggling skills. Yes, that’s right, the main thing they had going for them was they could juggle pretty good. They didn’t have super strength or could make themselves invisible or bend reality to their will, nope they could just throw multiple things in the air at the same time. The team consisted of five members named Bombshell, Knickknack, Oddball, Ringleader and Tenpin. Over time they have also battled Hawkeye, Mockingbird, Union Jack and Sabra. Despite their obvious limitations as a team they did try and pull off some quite high levels crimes such as attacking civilians on Tower Bridge and arranging a jail break. However they have failed to make a lasting impact on the Marvel universe.
Bombshell was a female juggler who used anti-personnel weapons like bombs and grenades. Bombshell looks exactly as you expect from her name, an attractive blonde. She doesn’t seem to have fully embraced the evil lifestyle as she has been shown on several occasions to be quick to surrender or simple run away when a fight isn’t going her way.
Knickknack’s specialism on the juggling front was bladed weapons such as knives, cleavers and, most extravagantly of all, chainsaws. Quite why the name Knickknack was chosen for this character remains unclear as it doesn’t relate to his ‘ability’, a better name would have been Juggly McKnifeface.
Now this name makes much more sense as Oddball’s specialism was in various kinds of dangerous balls which he would juggles. Things like acid balls, smoke balls and the like. This character has probably the most expansive back story and the persona has been used by two different people. Surprisingly two different people decided it was a good idea to juggle balls in the air to commit crime. The first Oddball, Elton Healey, is unfortunately no longer with us as he was killed in a blood sport tournament. Who would have thought such skills wouldn’t be useful in a ‘battle to the death’ environment. Orville Block was the next to take up the mantle of Oddball but has only seen a couple of comic book appearances.
Of all of the Death-Throws Tenpin has the most ridiculous specialism of all. He uses flaming, specially weighted bowling pins which he also uses as projectiles. It’s almost as if he came up with a cool super-villain name and then worked backwards from there. It raised so many questions mainly who produces these pins in the first place and surely these would be just as dangerous to Tenpin as anyone else. Tenpin is the brother of Oddball and if his inclusion in the Death-Throws isn’t a prime example of nepotism then I really don’t know what is.
Ringleader is a solid name for this villain because he’s the leader of the Death-Throws, the circus connection to juggling and also that he uses razor sharp rings to create havoc. Of all of them this is the best name on a thematic level. I don’t know exactly what being the leader of such a group would entail but there must be some kind of paperwork to administer and possibly sort out HR and personal issues between the members.
How would they be in a Netflix/Christopher Nolan style gritty, real world setting?
The juggling aspect by itself isn’t entirely threatening but it would be easier to imagine a down on their luck circus trope turning to crime to make ends meet. If you could incorporate other circus elements like gymnasts, high wire acts, contortionists and freaky clowns it would be a work-able story in a more grounded movie/series. Hard to see such a group being the headliner in that situation but could be used for background world building reasons. Interestingly a character called John Healy has already appeared in the Netflix series Daredevil, who was portrayed as a bog standard assassin but in a key scene using a bowling ball to kill someone. This seems more of a reference to Oddball rather than a direct analog for the character.
Could they actually be a threat?
It’s hard to see how a group that using juggling objects to commit violence would be any more dangerous than people with guns or knives, in fact it would be easier to argue it would be less threatening because of the ridiculousness of the act and how easy it would for Death-Throws to cause just as much damage to themselves as other people. In my opinion the better way of committing a crime using that skill set would be for half of the group to distract people with a display of their amazing talents while the other half rob a bank or steal a car or learn how to do more useful life skills that don’t involve juggling.
My favorite part of the back story Death-Throws is that at some point in time fellow low-level villains Johnny Guitar and Doctor Sax asked to join the Death Throws. Their request was denied on the simple basis that they couldn’t juggle. When the Death-Throws don’t want you then it’s probably time to hang up the guitar and saxophone and consider what you have done with your life.