The Original Godfather: Kingpin

Vito Corleone, Tony Montana, Tony Soprano, Walter White. These are a few of the crime lords that have been immortalized in film and television. But before these characters were created, there was  Marvel Comics’ Wilson Fisk more commonly known as the Kingpin. He was created by writer Stan Lee and artist John Romita Sr. and first appeared in Amazing Spider-Man #50 (1967), which was two years before the publication of Mario Puzo’s novel The Godfather. After a host of colorful villains, like Green Goblin, Octopus, Chameleon, and Vulture, Kingpin seemed gritty and realistic. With his pudginess, he resembled 1870s New York crime boss William Tweed. Kingpin is a compelling villain because he is a self-made man with no special powers, gadgets, or inherited wealth and has presented problems for multiple heroes. Many comics villains are deranged lunatics, but he is just a businessman, who isn’t afraid to get his hands dirty. He also had a softer side as shown by his love for his wife Vanessa Fisk.

From the beginning, Kingpin has made life extremely difficult for New York City and its heroes. He was the first villain Spider-Man fought after he came Kingpinback from retirement in the famous “Spider-Man No More” storyline. Kingpin showed that he could be a physical match for Spider-Man by beating him unconscious and leaving him to die in chamber that is slowly filling with water. His goons also killed Daily Bugle reporter Frederick Foswell. Lee and Romita’s introduction of Kingpin raised the level of tension in Amazing Spider-Man. There were still crazy supervillains, like Rocket Racer and Morbius, The Living Vampire, but some of the stories focused on more realistic stories of organized crime. Kingpin was also a tough foe for Spider-Man to best because he had a good front as a legitimate businessman, who had a family and gave money to charities. He even retired as Kingpin when his wife Vanessa caught him in hand to hand combat. This scene showed that Kingpin was quite a complex villain. He killed for profit, but also cared for his wife’s safety enough to renounce the profits of organized crime.

After his “retirement”, Kingpin got a big retooling from writer/artist Frank Miller in the midst of his legendary run on Daredevil. He became an even craftier villain and sent assassins like Bullseye and Elektra to do his bidding. Miller focused on Kingpin’s organizational abilities, such as his blackmailing of Daredevil when Karen Page sold his secret identity. “Born Again” was Kingpin’s highest moment as a villain as he sent his goons, Hand ninjas, and even a former super soldier to ruin Daredevil and Matt Murdoch’s lives. Because of his importance in his run on Daredevil, the Kingpin was an integral part of Frank Miller’s rise to fame as a comics creator. His Kingpin was ruthless and believed that the ends always justified the means. After Miller’s run, the Kingpin became an important part of the Marvel Universe battling the X-Men, Punisher, Black Cat, and even teaming with Luke Cage and Iron Fist to take down a demon possessed Daredevil in the much maligned “Shadowland” crossover.

However, arguably the best characterization of the Kingpin was created by Brian Michael Bendis in Ultimate Spider-Man. He had a character arc as compelling as Spider-Man or his supporting players. He began as a virtual clone of the Lee/Romita Kingpin and added a crime element to the teenage superhero series. However, as the series progressed, Bendis added layers to Kingpin. He knew Spider-Man was a teenager and used that knowledge to manipulate him. As a “lesser evil”, he even teamed up with Spider-Man and corrupt cop Jeanne DeWolfe to take down the insane crime boss Hammerhead. Ever the pragmatist, he even cut a deal with Daredevil and other street level heroes to leave the country and avoid arrest. Ultimate Kingpin was corrupt and ruthless, but he also suffered from insecurities about his weight and did some of his crimes to get “mystical items” to heal his wife.

Whether fighting Spider-Man, Daredevil, or other heroes, Kingpin brings a certain level of gritty realism to the Marvel universe. He is a reminder of the organized crime that ran New York City decades ago and sometimes is the only sane villain in the city. Even though he has committed many crimes, Kingpin is an embodiment of the American dream as he went from poor bullied New Yorker to the world’s greatest mob boss. Kingpin is a complex mixture of sympathetic villain and pragmatic criminal. His intelligence and effectiveness make him a foe who has bested both Daredevil and Spider-Man on many occasions, and these traits are  part of the reason he has endured for almost 50 years as a character.

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