Who’s the Boss? Kingpin as Daredevil’s Arch-Nemesis
It’s always a special day when Chasing Amazing’s Mark Ginoccho favors Longbox Graveyard with a guest blog! Take it away, Mark!
Paul has been generous enough to once again allow me to have the run of the Longbox Graveyard so I could conduct a blogging experiment of sorts that connects LBG with my personal site, Chasing Amazing. Today, as part of my month-long acknowledgement/celebration of Daredevil’s 50th anniversary, I’ve written two concurrently published blog entries that put one of the great Marvel villains on a pedestal, Wilson Fisk, aka the “Kingpin” of crime. My Chasing Amazing post will examine Kingpin’s adversarial relationship with Spider-Man, while this one will shine a light on the Fisk/Daredevil dynamic.
Modern readers likely associate Kingpin as a Daredevil villain, and while they would be mostly right, it can not be forgotten that Fisk was first introduced as a villain for Spidey in 1967’s Amazing Spider-Man #50 and was a non-factor in the life of Matt Murdock/Daredevil until Frank Miller/Klaus Janson’s revolutionary run on Daredevil (Kingpin first appeared in ‘Ol Hornhead’s book in issue #170 in 1981).
Spider-Man and Daredevil are two of Marvel’s premiere “street level” heroes, so it makes sense for both to have a major beef with the New York City’s Kingpin of organized crime (not to mention Fisk’s blood feud with Frank Castle, aka the Punisher). But despite Fisk getting a 14-year head start tormenting the friendly neighborhoods of Spider-Man, his time going toe-to-toe with Daredevil is significantly elevated by the fact that Daredevil/Kingpin had far more groundbreaking creators crafting their stories over the past 30-plus years – most notably Miller and Brian Michael Bendis.
When Miller first took over on lead pencils on Daredevil in 1979, he immediately infused Roger McKenzie’s scripts with a film noir style that would become a trademark for the title. As Daredevil continued to struggle with declining sales, Miller was eventually given both scripting and penciling duties (with Klaus Janson providing inks), which is when the aesthetic and tone of the book would change for good.
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Gone was the glossy Silver Age-isms leftover from the 1960s and 70s, and in its place was a griminess and grittiness that probably smacks of “been there done that” to today’s audiences where everything related to comics (books, films, television, et al) is supposed to be DARK. But at the time these tonal changes were quite extraordinary. Miller’s style put the “Hell” in Hell’s Kitchen and while the sociopathic assassin Bullseye was certainly a worthwhile adversary for Daredevil to square off against, what the title really needed to ascend to the next level was a kingpin. Enter, Wilson Fisk.
The inaugural Kingpin/Daredevil arc spins off from a previous Amazing Spider-Man storyline where Fisk gives up the life of crime at the request of his wife, Vanessa. Miller and Janson introduce us to Kingpin in Daredevil #170 as a sumo-sized behemoth, tossing around his lackeys like ragdolls, while simultaneously making it clear to whoever is within earshot that he had officially divorced himself from his former life working as the “K” guy.
But like every mob boss in the history of media, Fisk learns the hard and fast way that one doesn’t just “leave” the criminal underworld. A full-blown gang war breaks out with rival bosses seeking the Kingpin’s “files.” At one point, Fisk is drawn out to make a deal and it turns out to be an ambush. A sonic blast causes a building to fall down, assumedly burying Vanessa underneath and leading Fisk to embark on a warpath of vengeance unlike any the criminal underworld has ever seen.
In the midst of all this, Daredevil has his first encounter with Fisk under the guise of “Shades,” a wannabe mobster trying out for Team Kingpin. Matt, of course, is just trying to gain access to Fisk’s files and learns rather quickly that Kingpin is not a man to be trifled with. After trying to break into his vault, Kingpin and Daredevil engaged in their first of many battles, with Fisk decisively getting the better of the hero and dumping him into a sewer pipe.
And thus marks the beginning of a very long and winding, complex hero/villain relationship. Miller’s characterization of the underworld plays into the wheelhouse of the Daredevil/Kingpin dynamic. There’s muck, dirt and grime everywhere. It’s unsightly. Daredevil, by definition, is a hero who lives in a world of darkness. The accident that caused him to become blind but also enhanced his remaining senses, gives him a unique power-set, but not the standard superhero skillset of super-strength, flying, advanced technology, etc. Kingpin, despite his rotund figure, is incredibly strong, but again, not “super-powered.” Plus, how fitting is it for a superhero who spends his “normal” life outside of his tights working as an attorney, to have an arch-nemesis that bends the law to his will?
Still, there’s more to the Daredevil/Kingpin dynamic that just the poetry of their interaction. At the onset of this inaugural “Gang War” arc, Miller sets out to connect Murdock and Fisk on an extraordinarily personal level. There’s a cat and mouse game going on that extends beyond the punches and kicks that are thrown. At the end of Daredevil #172, Fisk hands over the precious files to Daredevil, telling him to do what he pleases with it – that he will just rebuild into a stronger, meaner organization. And Daredevil realizes there’s nothing he can do to combat the tidal wave that is the Kingpin.
Miller/Janson ratchet up the drama between Daredevil and Kingpin during run of issues dubbed “The Elektra Saga,” which also marks the introduction of one of Marvel’s most famous femme fatales, Elektra Natchios. Elektra, a former love of Matt’s from college, has been hired as the Kingpin’s personal assassin.
During “The Elektra Saga,” readers learn that Fisk has a hand-picked mayoral candidate, the crooked Randolph Cherryh. When Daily Bugle ace reporter Ben Urich starts to reveal the scandalous link between Fisk and Cherryh, Elektra is deployed to send a message with one of her trusty sai. Urich backs off his story, but not before handing some of his research over to Daredevil. Among a pile of photos is one that shows Kingpin’s thought-to-be-dead Vanessa lurking in the sewers as a vagabond. Daredevil is able to use this information to gain total leverage over Fisk, getting him to pull Cherryh from the New York City mayoral race in exchange for Vanessa’s whereabouts.
These are the kinds of storylines that have the Daredevil/Kingpin relationship mimic a game of chess. In the penultimate issue of the inaugural Miller run on Daredevil, he even adds a scene where Kingpin tells Daredevil that the two of them are inextricably linked and are not that different from each other. But the mutual admiration society ends in brutal fashion during what many consider to be one of the greatest storylines in comic book history: 1986’s “Born Again” by Frank Miller with art by David Mazzucchelli.
If you’re a devotee of the “House of Ideas” and have never read “Born Again,” stop everything that you’re doing, run out to the store and pick yourself up a trade paperback copy (or find it on the Marvel Unlimited app) and then get back to me.
Thanks for doing that.
Seriously, “Born Again,” encapsulates everything that is wonderful about this sometimes-satisfying, often-maddening world of superhero comics. For the uninitiated, “Born Again” starts with Matt’s former love, Karen Page, hooked on drugs and in need of a fix. She sells Matt’s biggest secret – his Daredevil identity – in exchange for some drugs, and this information naturally finds its way to Fisk. Fisk uses this information to systematically destroy Murdock piece by piece: his home, his law practice… everything. Matt is so broken, when he goes to confront Fisk, he gets a beating that’s even more brutal than the first time the two squared off. Kingpin assumes victory, and goes on to live a life as a “legitimate” businessman.
Except as Fisk rightly notes, “there is no corpse,” and of course Matt finds a way to rise from the ashes. Daredevil completely rebuilds his life as gradually and systematically as it was destroyed, and even reconciles with Karen along the way. Daredevil dispatches of an evil Captain America-esque super soldier, Nuke, who had been hired by Fisk to go on a killing spree in Hell’s Kitchen. Together, Daredevil and Captain America produce evidence that connects Nuke and Fisk, thereby destroying his public image as a legit titan of the business world.
The storyline demonstrates just how far both Kingpin and Daredevil are willing to go to destroy the other, and while it ends on a note of optimism for Matt, the arc comes across as the end of the road for Fisk, whose grand plans that have been building since Miller first worked him into the Daredevil univrese have finally been ruined. Other writers continued to tackle the Daredevil/Kingpin dynamic, including a fun arc during the Ann Nocenti/John Romita Jr. that introduced another femme fatale in Typhoid Mary, but none were able to match Miller’s portrayal of the relationship.
Then Brian Michael Bendis came along.
Similar to Miller, Bendis is known for saving Daredevil from near-certain cancellation (though to be fair, BMB’s predecessor, filmmaker Kevin Smith, is who truly resuscitated Daredevil from a commercial standpoint). And like Miller, Bendis had a brilliant grasp of what made Daredevil/Kingpin such an effective hero/villain pairing. During the Bendis run, it wasn’t just about hackneyed world domination, but rather a slow moving game that was constantly being played out seven moves in advance.
Bendis (and artist Alex Maleev) had a fantastic grasp on the tone and rhythm of the underworld. A lot of Bendis’s most successful stories don’t even read like comic books as much as television/film scripts starring characters like Tony Soprano and Don Corleone. The first Bendis Kingpin story, “Underboss,” shows a weakening Kingpin who tries to maintain what little leverage he has left on Daredevil by hanging the threat of outing his secret identity over his head. When an arrogant wannabe mob boss demands that Kingpin reveal this information, it leads to Fisk’s (temporary) removal from his position of power when his entire crew betrays him and attempts to murder him.
Fisk returns to the throne eventually, as featured in the Bendis/Maleev arc “Hardcore.” But in a unique twist that demonstrates how the Kingpin/Daredevil dynamic continually finds way to evolve, Matt decides that he’s tired of the same old “cycle” with Fisk. He confronts Fisk and beats him within inches of his life, claiming that Hell’s Kitchen now belongs to Daredevil. It’s a shockingly brutal role reversal, and one of the few times the usually more passive Matt comes out on top when it comes to his physical altercations with Fisk.
Similar to how Miller leaves things at the end of “Born Again,” Bendis would go on to script a Kingpin on the ropes. With nothing left to lose, Fisk turns himself over to authorities. But in exchange for immunity, he promises to produce evidence that Matt is Daredevil and has obstructed justice many times over the years under the guise of this dual life. Fisk successfully sets Daredevil up to out his secret to the authorities, and the Bendis-era ends oddly, yet appropriately enough, with both Murdock and Fisk in jail.
Again, other creative teams would get a turn on Daredevil, and would go on to develop successful and interesting stories about Daredevil and Kingpin, but none would go on to be as riveting and significant as Miller and Bendis. These two indisputably defined the two characters and their relationship with each other in a way where Kingpin is now unblinkingly synonymous with Daredevil.
Perhaps if the Spider-verse ever had creators who had the long-game vision for Kingpin that Miller and Bendis did, the villain would still be better associated with the series in which he made his debut. Fortunately, Spider-Man would go on to have very successful inter-personal relationships with his own unique villains, while Daredevil’s existence in the Marvel Universe was likely saved by the addition of Fisk and the grittiness of his criminal underworld.
Thanks, Mark, for another outstanding contribution to Longbox Graveyard! Make sure you check out Mark’s post on Chasing Amazing that looks at the rise of the Kingpin within the Marvel Universe as a member of the cast of the Amazing Spider-Man series.
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Posted on April 23, 2014, in Conspectus and tagged Alex Maleev, Brian Michael Bendis, Daredevil, Frank Miller, Kingpin, Klaus Janson, Marvel Comics, Netflix, Spider-Man, Wilson Fisk. Bookmark the permalink. 23 Comments.