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. or distinctive Weapon of Choice. One obvious example: vampires always leave their characteristic two-holed neck bite.
See also Criminal Mind Games, Idiosyncrazy, Poetic Serial Killer.
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.
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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 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. Also a reference to Arsène Lupin, his grandfather.
Lupin uses two calling cards in Lupin III: Dead or Alive. One is in the form of a video where he is a Parody Name of 21st Century Fox, announcing that he would steal the treasure of Drifting Island. In the other, he uses an advertising balloon to announce his theft of Headhunter's Daughter.
Cats Eye has two different calling cards. The titular girls leave a business card with a stylized cat and the words "Cat's Eye" on it, while the thief Masato Kamiya (nicknamed "The Rat" by the police) leaves a coin mounted on a pendant. Like many Gentleman Thief characters, the girls sometimes send calling cards before the heists: the police squad assigned to capture them has two members with the bad habit of confiding to them their strategies to capture Cat's Eye (and, in one memorable occasion, discussed the strategyin their coffee house), and live near their police station enough to use binoculars and lip-read the rare plans the officers won't discuss with the girls.
While Kamiya does it for fun, the girls have a good reason for it: their assumed name as Cat's Eye and them stealing only Michael Heintz's paintings are part of a complicated and desperate attempt to contact their father, Heintz himself, or at least find out if he's still alive, without tipping off the men who tried to kill him and stole his paintings in the first place.
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 unconscious 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.
Spider-Man himself would occasionally leave a note to the police tacked onto a felon he had left webbed and hanging from a streetlamp, signed, "Courtesy of your Friendly Neighborhood Spider-Man".
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.
Parenthetically, the Phantom's skull ring was the subject of a Mythbusters episode, as the Build Team attempted to determine if a strong enough punch could leave a permanent indentation in someone's skull. For the record, it was busted; any punch hard enough to leave such a mark would also crack said skull like an egg. Perhaps the skull ring also had permanent dye like the four-P ring, and the Phantom just punched his enemy because he deserved to be punched. (Mythbusters also didn't consider making the edges of the ring sharper and seeing what happened.)
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.
Pinhead's mark in The Dark Angel:an intricate diamond design that he burns onto sinners to mark them for later, and which goes through and burns onto structures as well.
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. Marv: All the great ones leave their mark. We're the "Wet Bandits." *awkward pause*
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.
Fantômas sometimes left behind his cards (at least in the French movie adaptations).
The killer in 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.
In The Dark Knight Saga, The Joker would sometimes leave playing cards (Jokers). In Batman Begins, this was used as a Sequel Hooknote In an evidence bag indicating that it was found by Officer J. Kerr, implying that he not only left the card, but impersonated an officer to collect it and make sure it got into evidence. In The Dark Knight, he also made a habit of marking his victims with a Glasgow Smile. Charming fellow.
In Apocalypse Now, Colonel Kilgore throws "Death cards" with the emblem of his Air Cavalry Regiment around corpses to let Charlie know who killed them.
Frank Castle in The Punisher (1989) kills some criminals with knives with skulls on them to let others know that he's responsible.
In Beverly Hills Cop II, the so-called Alphabet Bandit leaves behind cryptic clues that leave the cops scrambling to decode them. In fact, the code was there to confuse the cops while the culprits were busy doing something else.
"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 Hercule Poirot novel The ABC 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.
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.
Technically, the fact Thieves and Assassins always leave a receipt could be considered a calling card. This is how you know you were visited by a licenced professional, and not a common criminal.
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.
In Paul Doherty's novel The Mysterium, the Mysterium is an assassin in 14th century England whose victims are found with an M on their forehead, standing for "Mysterium Rei"; "the mystery of the thing".
CHERUB agent Bruce Norris once joked that he wanted to make business cards to leave in the mouths of the people he knocked out.
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 balloon 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"
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 retaliation 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.
In the episode "The End", a guard in the prison where the Conspiracy's failed hired assassin is held (pending questioning) hands the prisoner a threatening note ("You're a dead man") written on the cut-out side of a Morley cigarette carton—indicating that it was a message from the Cigarette-Smoking Man. A second time, the prisoner receives another cut-out carton side, which has nothing written on it, right before the guard shoots him.
The assassin hired to kill G'Kar in the episode "Parliament of Dreams" leaves on G'Kar's pillow a black flower, known as a "death blossom", which is the elite Thenta Makur assasins' guild's Calling Card which they leave as a warning before they strike.
In "Passing Through Gethsemane", it is revealed that a monk in Brother Theo's order, Brother Edward, was once a serial killer before being sentenced to mindwipe. He was known as "the Black Rose Killer" because he left a black rose at the scenes of his murders.
The "death blossom" is less a Calling Card and more a warning to get one's affairs in order.
An episode of The Sentinel has Jim tangle with a Russian sniper named Yuri who always leaves behind some Russian coins as his Calling Card. Yuri uses technology to achieve the same levels of awareness as Jim's natural hypersenses, and the climax involves a cat-and-mouse game between the two.
GURPS calls this disadvantage "Trademark,". The more they increase the character's risk of getting caught (by narrowing the list of suspects or requiring the character to spend extra time at the crime scene), the more points they're worth.
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.
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 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.
Genocider Syo of Danganronpa has two: writing "BLOODSTAIN FEVER" on the wall in the victim's blood, and leaving them crucified. A detail about the second— that said crucifixion is carried out with specially-made ornamental scissors— is kept secret from the press, which proves instrumental in determining if a certain murder was Syo's work or that of a copycat.
In "Ayla and the Grinch" of the Whateley Universe, a serial killer is loose in Los Angeles, leaving the heads of the victims behind as an identifier. Heads that are apparently burned off the still-living bodies.
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.
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.
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 left on dead Vietnamese soldiers by American troops in the Vietnam War, under the belief that the Vietnamese held the symbol to mean death and ill-fortune. This was inaccurate, but the gesture helped American morale.
The US Playing Card Company went so far as to manufacture all-ace-of-spades card decks for the troops. See here.
In one murder case the perpetrator did actually leave his calling card at the scene of the crime, by dropping a case of them not far away. Unsurprisingly, he was the primary suspect from the beginning to the end of the case, and the prosecutor had an I Always Wanted to Say That moment when he came to trial.