Rhymes with Purple: Daredevil vs. The Purple Man
Much as I loathe to admit it, writer Brian Michael Bendis did a few things with his title Alias (now adapted on NetFlix, the one not starring Jennifer Garner) that reverberate today: one, he had Luke Cage shed his blaxploitation trappings in order to make the character more palatable for the 21st century (that of course included a bald head, aka the afros of the 2000s); two, he created a character in Jessica Jones that has remarkable staying power at a time where writers either save all their creations for independent, creator-owned comics or the character shuffles off into obscurity when the writer exits (most new X-Men); three, he recontextualized the Purple Man from a rather unremarkable Daredevil villain to a terrifying monster that hammers home the grim reality of superhero comic books’ rather lax attitudes toward consent. There are certain implications to mind control storylines that writers wisely ignored or sidestepped that Bendis spotlighted with stunning efficacy. But this isn’t about Alias; this article is about Killgrave the Purple Man’s first appearance in Daredevil #4. I thought it’d be interesting to compare and contrast between Stan Lee and Joe Orlando’s original conception and David Tennant. Plus, it gives me an opportunity to make fun of Daredevil’s stupid old costume and I can’t pass that up.
I would argue the characterization of the letters section as “great”.
We’re introduced to what Stan Lee calls “possibly the most off-beat, far-out, ding-dong, rootin’-tootin’ crackerjack super-villain you just ever did see!” at a bank, where Purple Man asks the teller for a bag of new 100s and the teller complies. He promptly walks out of the bank. Someone notes a purple man is unusual; “probably some new type of beatnik!” demurs her partner. The main problem with Daredevil #4 is the 1960s coloring process and the paper stock available makes him more of a sort of grey man than a purple man. Sometimes the intended effect is realized but not always. After he leaves, the bank teller realizes what’s happened and security guards immediately apprehend Killgrave. This is where the cast of the comic comes in: since the judge refuses to let a colored man represent himself (this is the 60s), he calls up the law firm Nelson & Murdock. That’s how you get public defenders, apparently. But by the time Matt Murdock and his secretary Karen Page get to the courthouse, Purple Man has already convinced his jailers to let him go. He then kidnaps Karen, convincing her to be his “secretary”, which in the Silver Age was certainly a euphemism for all manner of disgusting, degrading sex acts. Stan Lee’s no naif when it comes to debasing the female form. (The Marvel Bullpen had more STDs than the Playboy Mansion in its heyday.) Having supersenses, Murdock can resist the Purple Man’s commands and changes into the horrid yellow and black costume he had in the early days. There’s no better example of early comic book course correction than that monstrosity.
If this comic ended with a random guy walking up to Purple Man, who’s being escorted by two Dallas police detectives, yelling “HEY KILLGRAVE!” and shooting him with a .38, it’d be not only the greatest comic ever, it’d be mankind’s greatest achievement.
Purple Man sics a crowd on Daredevil, which leads to my favorite moment: apparently Murdock puts his street clothing in a hood on his costume, and the melee rips the hood and jeopardizes his secret identity. I’ve worn hoods in my time. In fact, I’m wearing a hood now. (A hoodie. I only wear the white stuff every second Tuesday, Christ.) I can safely say that it is impossible to place a three piece suit and dress shoes in a hood. A guy gaining super senses from blinding radioactive material, sure, I’ll buy that. A hood that doubles as a professional’s closet? Fuck you. The Flash having a ring that upon pressing it will cause a costume to spring forth and envelop the wearer perfectly, at least that’s based on existing science (spring snakes). Anyway. Killgrave’s plan is simultaneously simplistic and opaque, in that his ambitions are not lofty but his purpose is questionable. First, he goes to a gym and gets some local wrestlers to act as his bodyguards. Then they all walk to the Ritz, where he tells the desk clerk to evict everyone from the top floor. Like, he says that with this he’s shown that he can accomplish all the world can offer, and that Daredevil is his only remaining obstacle. Getting a hotel room, a blonde woman and some shirtless strongmen does not to me represent the apotheosis of the American Dream nor the zenith of human accomplishment. (I’m more of the George Costanza “stripped to the waist eating a block of cheese the size of a car battery” type of man myself.)
Punchy is a Marvel Comics character that I feel has gone underutilized. Marvel, I have a 12 issue maxi-series pitch if you’re interested…
This is as much a legal drama as it is a superhero comic, so we return to Matt’s law offices and he concludes Purple Man hasn’t committed any crimes. If you ask for something, with no outright or implied threat, and someone gives it to you, you’ve broken no law. Stan Lee is a legal mind that makes Stephen Breyer look like garbage. Fortunately for Matt, a citation of Daredevil #1 reminds him his billy club/walking stick/pool cue contains a recording device. Richard Nixon would later claim this comic book influenced his decision to do…all that. So Daredevil must pull a Perry Mason and get Purple Man to confess or else he’ll never end up in the prison system. He also tricks out his cane with a spring-loaded piece of plastic sheeting for reasons that will become clear in a little bit. Our hero storms the Ritz Plaza and makes quick work of strongman goons via his billy club’s heretofore unrevealed ability to become a boomerang because why the fuck not. Maybe it’ll become a helicopter or a perfect recreation of the 1948 Philadelphia Athletics, including Nels Potter. The goons defeated, Killgrave plays his trump card of compelling Karen to the rooftop ledge, threatening to tell her to jump should Daredevil not back off. Here’s where Matt Murdock uses his Raymond Burr powers to get the bad guy to talk about why he’s a grey/purple colored freak in the first place.
“Of course, I’ve only read book 1 of 26 of this law encyclopedia set!”
Just like everyone in Perry Mason’s trap, he agrees. Months ago he was working as a spy for a foreign power (in later comics hilariously specified to be Croatia) and broke into an army ordnance store that for some damn reason actually had a guard in it. The Cold War days were mostly minimum security, mind you. They get into a shootout and the MP hits what Killgrave sought to steal: a big beaker of purple nerve gas. It shatters, covering him and proving to be the most powerful food dye ever created when the army believes his cockamamie innocence story and he gets away. Now Perry Mason—I mean Daredevil—has the evidence necessary for the police to bring treason charges against the Purple Man. There still exists the problem, though, of how to counteract his powers of persuasion. Remember that plastic sheeting I mentioned? Well, turns out his powers are nullified if he’s covered in a plastic sheet (or, presumably, a rug, a garment bag, a sleeping bag, a hammock) and no one can see his purple skin. Wait, so does that mean Daredevil’s immune to his power just because he’s blind, not because he’s superhuman? This raises loads of questions. Deaf people can see the purple skin, but they can’t hear his requests, so are they immune too? The colorblind, what about them? The Pinball Wizard kid could kick this guy’s ass.
Look at Purple Man’s expression. That is fantastic.
Daredevil in its early days certainly doesn’t stand out compared to its more popular contemporaries, due to Stan Lee not having a strong or consistent collaborator until Gene Colan 16 issues later and the character not developing an identifiable hook other than blindness. He comes off as a more serious Spider-Man with a civilian love triangle imported from the likes of Thor and Iron Man. There are no traces of the Frank Miller brooding ninja that has defined the character for the last several decades. But that’s not to say it isn’t fun. Stan Lee’s bombastic and novel-length prose is charmingly cheesy, especially Daredevil’s constant bemoaning of his blindness and everyone around him treating him in a patronizing fashion (“There goes one of the best guys in the world! It sure is a pity he’s blind!” says Foggy, his ostensible best friend. I’d say it’s a pity that Foggy’s a fat fuck, but he’s drawn as a normal so that joke doesn’t work now). Most importantly, it taught the children of the 1960s that nerve gas will give you superpowers.
I’ve yet to see Jessica Jones (nor will I for the foreseeable future thanks to my Werner Herzog Blu-Ray set occupying my time), but please feel free to let me know if David Tennant is ever defeated or temporarily incapacitated by some plastic sheeting.