Daredevil and The Kingpin. Two figures of light and darkness whose eternal battle has defined decades of Daredevil comics.
When The Kingpin entered the pages of Daredevil in 1981, he became a figure of monolithic evil. The embodiment of corruption that Daredevil would forever fight but never fully defeat. And it was The Kingpin that systematically destroyed Matt Murdock’s life in the pages of “Born Again.” But after years spent in purgatory, it was time for justice to be served. And it was incoming writer D.G. Chichester who would serve it in the pages of “Last Rites.”
Chichester doesn’t have a ton of comics to his name, but the vast majority of his work as an author comes from Daredevil. After some work on several minor titles, Chichester would write Daredevil from issues 292 through 342 with some small breaks, controlling the title from 1991 through 1995, writing the crossover “Daredevil/Batman: Eye for an Eye,” and then returning for issue 380 to end the volume in 1998 before its relaunch in Marvel Knights.
Pushing Daredevil through the turbulent and dark 90s, Chichester’s run would feature several hallmarks of the era. Disturbing deaths, a busy new armored look, and a darker world around Daredevil, but it’s biggest contribution to the larger legacy of the hero would be an anniversary story that set out to right some long-standing wrongs.
While Ann Nocenti’s lengthy run on Daredevil had largely been defined by her hero being beaten down and never fully restored, Chichester’s time as writer is marked by the creator quickly working to restore the character to his classic status quo and in the process find some justice for past hardships. Almost immediately, Chichester brings back Karen Page, definitively proving that the character had not, in fact, run off to be eaten by demons during the Inferno crossover, puts Daredevil into another confrontation with The Punisher, and brings back The Hand for another battle with The Chaste. But most importantly, justice would be served in the climactic confrontation between Daredevil and the Kingpin spanning from issues 297 through 300 in the arc known as “Last Rites,” ending in 1992. But in doing so, Chichester’s story places itself in conversation with not just Nocenti’s long term breakdown of Daredevil, but every Daredevil story since Frank Miller first introduced The Kingpin into the world of The Man Without Fear in issue 170 and, most of all, the spiritual battle of “Born Again.”
So how does “Last Rites” bring justice into the life of Matt Murdock, what are its long-term effects on the lives of its heroes and villains, and how does this 300th issue spectacular interpret the heroic and spiritual meaning of Daredevil?
Justice Is Served
Written by Chichester with art by Lee Weeks, “Last Rites” is billed as “a reckoning in 4 parts.” The story sees Daredevil fully commit himself to bringing down Wilson Fisk for good, toppling The Kingpin of Crime, who has recently begun a media empire in hopes of expanding his control over New York even further. But it won’t be easy. Or at least, that’s what Chichester wants us to believe.
Um, it’s actually pretty easy?
I don’t know, it’s like, Matt gives Kingpin an old photo, has sex with Typhoid Mary, spreads a couple rumors, and then punches Fisk for a bit. Bing bong, Kingpin’s done. Ok, it’s a little more complicated than that, but it all happens so fast that, while it’s good to see, you can’t help but feel like all it took was Matt and a few others deciding that enough was enough.
Regarding his reasoning for Daredevil finally taking down The Kingpin, Chichester said, “All the times DD has threatened The Kingpin, stood in his office, and called him out. Well, it just seemed obvious to me that this time, he should make good on his threat. The status quo always seemed like a 50/50 good and evil thing where DD is good and The Kingpin is bad. A definite balance. Well, now Daredevil is saying, what do I need this for? He’s really screwed me up before, and as long as he’s around he can do it again.”
To take down The Kingpin, Chichester sets up a story that is half Daredevil’s plan and half bad luck for Fisk. So while Matt plants an old photo of Vanessa Fisk, Kingpin’s wife who had left him in the pages of “Love and War,” and takes down Typhoid Mary by uhhhh having sex with her until she’s sane again? (I didn’t realize this was how mental disorders worked.) It’s Kingpin unknowingly working with Hydra to build his media empire that sets up his true fall, with Matt pulling enough strings behind the scenes to push them into a conflict that ruins Fisk financially and destroys his public and underworld reputations.
At the end, all that’s really left is for a final physical confrontation between the two that plays as the inverse of their disastrous confrontation in “Born Again.” But is this really a satisfying end to this long-standing cold war?
Ever since Frank Miller imported Wilson Fisk from Spider-Man comics, Daredevil and The Kingpin were locked in a sort of eternal battle, sometimes coming to blows, but often with Matt Murdock fighting the larger forces of crime and evil that Kingpin represented. Fisk as the devil in the shape of a man and Matt as the man in devil’s clothing.
By the end of Miller’s original run, Kingpin’s status within the criminal hierarchy of Marvel’s New York has been cemented, and there’s really nothing Daredevil can do about it. The scales must be balanced this way to keep Daredevil in a constant state of action. But after only a few years, the scales would tip.
Miller and Mazzuchelli’s “Born Again
” details Kingpin’s systematic destruction of Matt Murdock’s life after finding out his true identity. Kingpin’s attacks not only break apart his life, but his sanity. The story that follows is a biblical allegory about rebirth and forgiveness, and while Matt and Karen Page are restored as people, they aren’t returned to the lives they lived before “Born Again.” Here, Miller is showing that forgiveness is more important than some ultimate retribution. Soon, Ann Nocenti would come onboard and write Daredevil for 4 years. And while Matt and Karen would temporarily find peace as a couple, Nocenti would break Murdock apart even more through the Kingpin’s schemes and the introduction of Typhoid Mary, who would seduce Matt. Over time, Nocenti’s Daredevil loses his love, the last vestiges of his life in New York, goes to Hell (weird story, I dig it), and even his memories temporarily. While she would return the hero to New York by the end of her time on the title, there’s even less justice for the wrongs suffered by the hero. Typhoid Mary, The Kingpin, and the many different villains that targeted Murdock over the years have essentially won and disappeared from the title. Here, Nocenti is showing that all a hero can do is persist in the hope that something better will come along.
And this is the world that D.G. Chichester is dropped into and works to rectify during “Last Rites.”
In a lot of ways, “Last Rites” is a counter against everything that happened in “Born Again.” It is, of course, the story of Matt Murdock systematically dismantling The Kingpin until he’s not only financially but mentally ruined, but it also inverts various elements at play in that original story.
Matt confronts a government agency, here the helpful SHIELD instead of the destructive Weapon Plus, with Matt hacking into their systems like Captain America had previously done. Matt spreads the rumor of Kingpin being controlled by Hydra through the underworld, whereas Kingpin had learned of Matt’s true identity through Karen selling it for drugs. Matt looks to reconcile with Karen after cheating on her during Nocenti’s time, versus Karen looking for Matt’s forgiveness for selling his identity. Matt convinces The Daily Bugle to run an expose on The Kingpin, which he couldn’t quite make happen in his final battle with Nuke. And at its end, Chichester reworks part of Born Again’s story, showing that Kingpin had saved a faked murder weapon in the event that he wanted to ruin Murdock’s identity even more after his death.
It’s kind of a strange rewrite, a macguffin designed to give us a physical confrontation between hero and villain that’s never fully convincing, but allows for some final catharsis. Well, maybe not all that final, but it is Chichester’s decision to not just rebalance the scales, but push them as far in the opposite direction as possible.
Rebalancing The Scales
So what does it mean for a hero to truly, fully defeat his archenemy?
The Kingpin may be a terrifying figure of darkness, the satan to Matt’s angel, but he’s also mentally fragile.
When Miller brought The Kingpin into the pages of Daredevil, he not only made him a much more malevolent figure than he was in Amazing Spider-Man, but he also gave him a more human side buried deep beneath it all. The Kingpin was no longer the cartoonish mob boss with a laser cane, but a man who gave up his life of crime for love, only to embrace the darkness more than ever when he lost it.
Chichester remembers that inner fragility in “Last Rites” and it’s essentially what Murdock preys on to truly dismantle him. After the comforts of Typhoid Mary, the money, and the power are all gone, all Fisk has left is the memory of the woman he loved who couldn’t stand what he’d become.
At the end of “Last Rites,” The Kingpin has not only been toppled, but Murdock’s law license has been restored, with the hero given a new lease on life after essentially being stuck in purgatory for the past 6 years. And while Daredevil has been around for nearly 60 years at this point, that’s a huge length of time for any character to essentially be missing their central dynamic.
That’s the hook of Daredevil after all. The defense attorney whose alter ego allows him to bring justice in ways the courts can’t. And while Matt’s blindness has meant many different things over the years, its literal interpretation of “justice of blind” is what gave rise to the character in the first place.
So while Daredevil taking down The Kingpin is possibly the ultimate example of justice being served in the history of the comic, it never feels quite as satisfying or definitive as it should. Maybe that’s because there’s just too many plot contrivances necessary to move Kingpin from a place of complete control into one of utter defeat. Maybe it’s because Chichester follows up Kingpin’s defeat with his murder of another criminal and the hint that he’ll be back only 2 pages later.
30 years later, and we know that The Kingpin returns to power eventually, but thankfully it’s been a dynamic that has consistently changed over time. Kingpin has become the central figure of crime once again, been blinded, tortured, controlled The Hand, and become Mayor of New York. Each of these has caused a shift in his relationship with Daredevil. A comic book that has run for nearly 700 issues cannot have the same exact conflict frozen in time, it has to iterate on it.
Altogether, “Last Rites” is not one of the greatest Daredevil stories, but it’s one of the most important within the larger mythos of the character because it forces those iterations to happen.
There are several struggles that define the character of Daredevil. Of course, Matt Murdock’s push and pull between guilt and faith is a major internal motivation. But the search for justice is his great external conflict, which embodies his constant battle with his own faith. If Matt Murdock believes in a just God, then there has to be some measure of justice in the world. And the continued success of The Kingpin calls into question the search for that justice.
It’s the eternal question of people who consider what a Biblical God means in application to the real world. If God is good and just, then why does evil not only persist but often thrive in the world? In the world of comic books, evil exists so that heroes have a reason to keep being published.
And at the end of this climactic fight, Chichester draws on “Born Again”’s greatest theme – forgiveness.
I don’t know if systematically destroying someone you hate, beating them senseless, and then forgiving them is exactly Jesus’ teachings in action, but you get the idea.
While “Last Rites” would remove Kingpin from power, it wouldn’t really even remove the character from Daredevil stories. Chichester would bring Fisk back to the comics soon, not restoring him to power, but keeping him in play for his different arcs. Eventually, Fisk would return to power in Asia in the pages of X-Men, reclaim New York by the end of Daredevil volume 1 and play a major role throughout the character’s Marvel Knights era. Really, Fisk was never all that far from the world of Daredevil, even when seemingly served his ultimate defeat.
Then again, how could a figure like The Kingpin ever truly stop playing a role in Daredevil’s life?
Establishing the ultimate villain for a superhero accentuates everything the main character stands for. It also means they can never fully move past this conflict, especially in any ongoing mainstream series that will never go out of print. That’s the nature of superheroes at the big 2 publishing companies. Once that ultimate antagonist is established, they become a symbol for what the hero fights against. And if that struggle is ever fully resolved, then the hero stops having something that gives them a purpose for being.
Batman can’t solve Gotham’s madness, so he can’t kill The Joker. Superman can’t permanently move humanity past its shortcomings, so he can’t completely beat Lex Luthor. Spider-Man can’t fully overcome his own guilt, so he can’t end The Green Goblin. Well, at least not forever. (Norman Osborn should’ve stayed dead)
And Daredevil can never fully balance the scales of justice. So The Kingpin can never truly, definitively be beaten.
Now, 40 years after “Gang War” and 30 years after “Last Rites,” after countless rises and falls for both, Daredevil and The Kingpin will never truly be free of each other.