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Lance: Hey Captain, what's that?
A Calling Card is a piece of evidence or item deliberately left at the scene of a crime to serve as perpetrator's "signature". Sometimes it's a literal playing card or gamepiece left near the scene of the crime, or perhaps the victims are arranged in strange poses.
Actual calling cards are rare in Real Life, because it would make it very easy for the cops to track you down; but in fiction, it seems like every villain has to have one for stamping their achievements with.
Occasionally, a Genre Savvy character may even use another villain's calling card to frame them. If the villain is well known, and their calling card shows up before they're introduced in the current continuity, (or if said Villain has been missing or dead for some time), then it's a nice Sequel Hook, or simply a hint of what's to come.
Sometimes, the calling card may be a result of the villain's M.O. One obvious example: vampires always leave their characteristic two-holed neck bite.
Compare Catch Phrase, which is also a signature of the character who uses it.
This has become a Dead Horse Trope in Comic Books, where it was once a staple. A hero may also have a Calling Card, especially one who typically disappears after stopping the criminals rather than hanging around to discuss things with the police.
For actual calling cards (which a criminal may also leave, although it's a bit obvious), see My Card.
Anime and Manga
- In Dragon Ball when Tambourine is sent by his father Piccolo Daimao to murder martial artists to prevent them from sealing him away, at the site of each murder he would leave a piece of paper with the Japanese symbol for demon near the body.
- Phantom Thief X from Majin Tantei Nougami Neuro, who leaves a "red box" at the crime scenes (actually a clear glass box filled with the liquefied remains of his victims).
- The Kisugi sisters in Cat's Eye always leave their card when they steal something.
- The titular character from Mouse leaves his card, before the theft like several other Phantom Thieves.
- The Death Note allows its user to not only kill remotely but also control victims' behavior shortly before they die. Light Yagami uses this ability to send a taunting message to L.
- Speaking of Holden Caulfield, in Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex, The Laughing Man had a smiley-face surrounded and a quote from Catcher in the Rye. As it turns out, all the crimes that were marked just by the smiley-face were performed by copycats, but following the J.D. Salinger quote eventually led Section 9 to the real Laughing Man.
- In one early episode of Sonic X, Rouge the Bat steals a very large diamond... and replaces it with a card with a stylized picture of her on it, along with the words "thank you".
- The titular thief of Lupin III often inverts this by sending calling cards before he pulls off his heists. It seems rather foolish, but often his targets' attempts to increase or alter their security end up playing right into one of his Batman Gambits and allow him to accomplish the theft.
- From The Golden Age of Comic Books through The Bronze Age of Comic Books, most of Batman's Rogues Gallery left Calling Cards, either explicitly (The Joker's playing cards and the Riddler's conundrums), or in the form of Signature Crimes: Two-Face's crime sprees always revolved around the number two, for instance. This was often Lampshaded; even in The Golden Age of Comic Books, the Riddler's compulsion was flat-out stated to be his downfall. In the current comics, however, it's a Dead Horse Trope.
- The serial killer from The Long Halloween would kill on a holiday and leave behind some knickknack related to the date--the press dubs them The Holiday Killer. And in the sequel Dark Victory, the next serial killer leaves behind incomplete Hangman games.
- The Joker is famous also for victims with a hideous grin on their faces due to Joker Venom (or in one case, carved Glasgow smiles).
- Hero example: Batman himself sometimes leaves a card with a bat-symbol next to unconcious thugs.
- In Watchmen, Rorschach's calling card is a piece of paper with a mirrored lowercase letter R written on it.
- In Spider-Man early in Carnage's killing sprees he would write "Carnage Rules!" in his victims blood near the body.
- Lobster Johnson, of Hellboy fame, would burn his symbol, a stylised lobster claw, into his victims' foreheads using the palm of his hand. He also had actual calling cards that he would leave for the police.
- In V for Vendetta, V is fond of graffiting walls with a stylised V, which is meant to look similar to the symbol for anarchy.
- 'Captain America: The Red Skull used to have two calling cards; his Red Dust, a poison that made the victim's face turn red and skull-like, and a leitmotif of Chopin's "Death March" which he would arrange to have played when he struck, sometimes in very clever ways. He hasn't used either of these in years, having gone to more subtle evil schemes.
- The Phantom has two calling cards, both in the form of rings. He wears a ring with a skull emblem on his right hand, which leaves a permanent skull-imprint on the faces of his enemies when he punches them hard enough, forever branding them as the Phantom's enemies. On his left hand, he wears a ring with a symbol of four 'P's in a circle. By pressing the dye-emitting ring into the hand of an ally, he leaves the four-P emblem as a permanent mark on their skin, a sign to the world that they are protected by the Phantom.
- One of the many serial killers in Judge Dredd was nicknamed Lefty due to his habit of always leaving his victims' left hands near the scene of the crime. Turns out there was a grisly justification for this: he was attempting to set a record for the number of people killed in a single night, and leaving behind the left hands ensured that all the kills would be credited to him.
- The Clock, from Centaur Publications and later Quality, leaves as his calling card an image of a clock-face over a domino mask along with a message.
- Mister Midnite, from Silver Streak Comics, leaves a watch dial with the hands set at midnight as his calling card.
- Black Diamond, from Black Diamond Western, has a playing card with the suit of diamond as his calling card.
- Mickey Mouse: The Phantom Blot's calling card is an ink blot. He'll usually leave a message with it, but sometimes not -- one time Mickey finds himself framed by the Blot, and then notices there is an actual ink blot on his jacket.
- The Golden Age Sandman and Vigilante, both from DC Comics, left poems.
There is no land beyond the law
Some play games for sky-high stakes,
- The Jigsaw Killer from Saw cut a Jigsaw piece out of his victim's flesh.
- In the original Pink Panther film, "The Phantom" would leave behind a monogrammed glove at every robbery.
- In Home Alone, the "Wet Bandits" would leave the water running (after clogging the sink) in the homes they robbed.
Harry: You left the water on again? That's sick.
- It was Marv who did this; Harry thought it was stupid and berated him for it. Near the end of the movie when they both get caught, the arresting officer mentions that they know which houses they robbed due to the running sinks.
- In the first Austin Powers, the Irish killer has his little charm bracelet from which he leaves little trinkets at the scene of each crime. Cue joke: Scotland Yard is "always tryin' to get me Lucky Charms!"
- The vigilante protagonists of The Boondock Saints left pennies on the eyes of their victims, as well as executing their chosen targets, the ones they save for last, with simultaneous gunshots to the back of the head while reciting the family prayer.
- In Ocean's Twelve, Vincent Cassel's Gentleman Thief character, Francois Toulour, leaves a small onyx statue representing a fox as his calling card to let his "victims" know they were robbed by the "Night Fox".
- In Nate and Hayes the film's villain has framed the latter half of the duo for years by leaving Hayes' sign on the scenes of his crimes.
- Fantomas sometimes left behind his cards (at least in French movie adaptations).
- The Prowler leaves roses behind on his victims.
- Mr. Brooks leaves a thumbprint from each of his victims, marked with their own blood, on an object near their body after murdering them. He's come to be known as the "Thumbprint Killer".
- Less of a 'I was here' card and more of a 'I'm about to be here' sign, the ninjas in Ninja Assassin leave an envelope filled with black sand for their victims to find, right before they, literally, come from the shadows and kill them.
- Title villain of The Strangler of Blackmoor Castle carves the letter "M" on his victims' foreheads.
- "Kissin" Kate Barlow from Holes was famous for giving her victims The Kiss of Death, leaving a lipstick mark.
- Angels and Demons: Invoked by The Hassassin who engages in theme killing. He also brands each of his victims with the name of the element he killed them with. He does the killings this way frame an Ancient Conspiracy, that is already extinct.
- In The Stainless Steel Rat series, there's The Bishop, who leaves behind drawings of the chess piece in question. The titular character robs a bank, and leaves The Bishop's Calling Card in order to meet him.
- In the Poirot novel The A.B.C. Murders, the killer always leaves an ABC Alphabetical Railway Guide near the victim, as he's framing some other guy as a serial killer.
- The Executioner. Elite sniper turned Vigilante Mack Bolan leaves a miltary marksman's medal at the scene of his killings. Sometimes he has one delivered to a future target as psychological warfare. His enemies have been known to leave such medals at murder scenes, either to frame Bolan or cover up for their own internal disputes (one Mafia capo who cut the throat of a rival might have gotten away with it, if Bolan hadn't chosen that moment to attack in a completely different area). The latter tactic was used so often that one underling reporting a Bolan hit got beaten up "for pulling that stunt", until Bolan (who'd let him live so he could follow the man to his superiors) walked through the door and started shooting.
- Nancy Drew'The pirates in story would pierce the right earlobes of all the men on any ship they stole.
- Zorro and his carved 'Z'.
- The Spider marks his victims with a spider brand on the forehead; not all of them are dead first.
- Leslie Charteris's The Saint stories. Simon Templar used a hand-drawn picture of a stick-figure with a halo as his signature/Calling Card.
- Lord Voldemort and his Death Eaters would leave a Dark Mark whenever someone had been killed in Harry Potter.
- Weirdly used in Thud!, in which the Summoning Dark is its own calling card: wherever the Dark-inhabited Vimes goes, objects tend to fall in such a way as to form the eye-with-a-tail symbol.
- The suspense novel The Caper of the Golden Bulls is about a retired thief coerced into a new caper; he laments that he can't get the aid of another master thief known as the "Ace of Diamonds." The Ace had a bizarrely elaborate signature: the ace of diamonds playing card, with a gryphon's head drawn on it, and then a stiletto driven through the card. It's eventually revealed that the gryphon's head referred to the thief being a lovely young woman named Grace -- "gr" from "gryphon" plus "ace" -- so she was telling the authorities her name every time she pulled a theft. And she turned out to be the hero's girlfriend, so the Ace of Diamonds was available to help.
Live Action TV
- The Mentalist has the serial killer "Red John", who always leaves a smiley face drawn in the victim's own blood.
- In a recent episode, a child was abducted (a child belonging to a woman that Patrick Jane previously scammed as a fake psychic), with a baloon animal left behind, which was the mark of a serial child abductor/killer known as the "balloon killer" who had previously abducted and killed two boys, and within eight hours murdered them. However, upon raiding the balloon killer's house and shooting him in a fierce firefight, the balloon killer implies that he was not responsible for the boy's disappearance this time around, which was shortly thereafter confirmed by Patrick Jane via both a phone call and a note in one of his partner's pocket that he somehow planted in there.
- One of the early killers Dexter goes after makes the victime's bodies themselves his signature--a frozen, chopped-up, bloodless body. The killer also left increasingly personalized clues for Dexter himself.
- Season 3's B-plot serial killer had a rather disturbing calling card: partially skinning his victims; one victim died from the skinning.
- The Mighty Boosh does it with Old Gregg - a sea monster who kidnaps Howard and leaves a card saying "I'm Old Gregg"
- In Funky Squad, the Gentleman Thief called "The Cat" left a calling card with a paw print on it at the scene of his crimes.
- Parodied in That Mitchell and Webb Look with the "Identity Killer", whose calling card is that he leaves documents pertaining to his identity -- such as his driver's license, his passport and, on one occasion, himself -- at the scene of the crime. The police still are baffled as to who he could be.
Sgt: He's always one step ahead of us!
- The Meeting Place Cannot Be Changed: the Black Cat gang (specialty: burglary with a side dish of murder) leave a cat drawing or an actual cat at the scene of the crime.
- Somewhat subverted in the Turkish crime-drama "Yılan Hikayesi". Investigating an elusive crime boss called "The King", the protagonists occasionally find a single rose flower was left in the places that the King was believed to have been. The subversion comes from the fact that they were not meant for the cops. They were meant as a message for his ex-wife whom he could not meet face-to-face for fear of retailiation by his enemies but still loved dearly. The locations where the roses were found were the places his ex-wife had gone as part of her own investigation on her husband's disappearance.
- In Queen of Swords, the Queen sometimes leaves behind a Queen of Swords tarot card to taunt the authorities.
- Episode 2.01 of White Collar featured a bank robber who left actual calling cards at his crime scenes.
- Inverted in the Monk episode "Mr. Monk's 100th Case." The serial killer has photographs of various models that he takes, and then adds lipstick to each of those killed, but he keeps them at the studio as a checklist, not leaving them at the crime scene.
- In the short-lived NBC series, Sword Of Justice, protagonist Jack Cole would use playing cards, the three of clubs, diamonds, hearts, and spades as his calling cards. The three of clubs was left with the target of each episode, as a warning that he was going down. The three of diamonds would be used to pass information to the police. The three of hearts would be used to pass information to the person (usually female) that he was helping, and the three of spades for the final "I got you" message to the target.
- Law and Order SVU loves this trope.
- Blood Boy in Survival of the Fittest does this at one point: carving a smiley face into one of his victims. (Blood Boy wore a smiley face mask).
- GURPS calls this disadvantage "Trademark," and it's worth more points the more dangerous for the character leaving it is.
- Examples of the most elaborate Trademarks include dousing captured thugs in a certain colonge, painting an entire crime scene pink, and writing a long poem to the police.
- Fourth Edition Dark Champions had this as a disadvantage as well. It's not specifically noted in 5th edition, but several NPCs have one anyway.
- Hunter: The Vigil allows the characters to modify their Karma Meters to allow different breaking points in pursuit of the Vigil; to make up for it, though, they need to take certain "Triggers" that risk being activated in times of stress. One of them is "Calling Card"; you have to leave a sign at the scene of a kill. Needless to say, this Trigger carries over well if the hunter becomes a Slasher.
- Shelly deKiller in Phoenix Wright: Ace Attorney: Justice For All.
- He actually states that he leaves the card to save the police the trouble of investigating, and to deflect suspicion from the one who hired him. Naturally it backfires.
- Mask* DeMasque from Trials And Tribulations takes this Up to Eleven; he plants the card long before robbing the place.
- The Yatagarasu from Ace Attorney Investigations doesn't leave a card at the scene, but rather gives it to the media along with the item stolen, with the intent of exposing corrupt dealings.
- Sly Cooper: Sly always leaves a raccoon-head-shaped card in place of the valuables he steals.
- The beginning of Condemned has you investigate a murder by "The Matchmaker", whose Calling Card involves seating the corpses of his victims at a table along with a disfigured mannequin.
- Heavy Rain: The Origami Killer, so called because he/she leaves an origami figure next to their victims.
- In Mass Effect 2, the Classy Cat Burglar, Kasumi Goto, will tell Shepard that she left a rose in place of what she stole earlier in her career. She later says that her partner made her realize that continuing to do so wasn't a very smart thing to do.
- Mr. Valentine in Guilty Party always leaves rhyming Valentine's cards for his victims.
- From Metal Gear Solid 2 Sons of Liberty, Fatman's calling card is placing cologne on his C4 explosives.
- In The Last Days of Foxhound, Fatman runs off immediately getting rescued from an enemy base.
Fatman: Just wanted to leave my calling card.
- The Joker's Calling Card was parodied on Ed, Edd 'n' Eddy, with "The Prankmaster", whose calling card was a Joker with the word "PRANK-MASTER" written over it.
- The Simpsons
- Parodied in "The Simpsons Spin-Off Showcase", during the Chief Wiggum sketch. After Ralph is kidnapped they find a skull lying on his bed:
Skinner: Big Daddy's calling card... it's right behind that skull.
- In "Homer the Vigilante" the mystery thief leaves a card behind at each crime scene: "You have just been robbed by the Springfield Cat Burglar."
- In South Park one episode dealt with a serial killer named Michael Deats who would remove the left hand of his victim after he killed them and he would also visit the sites in a blood soaked raincoat. With nothing but a yellow bikini underneath! At a certain point, the police almost arrest him, but realize that, since the hands have been flipped over, they're all right hands, so he's not the killer.
- Pinky and The Brain: Brain tries to Take Over the World by becoming a superhero, modeling himself after Batman parody The Caped Opossum, and calling himself the Cranial Crusader. When Brain leaves his calling card at the scene of the crime, an explosion causes ink to hit the card, making police think Caped Opossum did it.
- The New Adventures of Winnie the Pooh had the Pack Rats, who steal things and leave behind walnuts in their place.
- Lotus Blossom in the 1987 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles always leaves a lotus flower whatever crime she strikes.
- On Jimmy Two-Shoes, the mysterious Hooded Chicken is said to leave a feather on its victims door before it strikes.
- The Washington DC Beltway Snipers left Tarot Cards with messages on them for cops to find.
- The Zodiac Killer wrote cryptograms for police, signing them with a sun cross.
- The ace of spades was used by American soldiers in Vietnam War. US troops mistakenly believed that the Vietnamese held the symbol to mean death and ill-fortune and in a bid to scare away NLF soldiers they would leave an ace of spades on dead Vietnamese. While not meaning much to the NLF, this practice helped the morale of American soldiers.
- In one murder case the perpetrator did actually leave his calling card at the scene of the crime. (He accidentally dropped a case of them not to far away from the scene). This led to the prosecutor having an I Always Wanted to Say That moment when he came to trial. Not surprisingly he was the primary suspect from beginning to end of the case.