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Oct 1

Daredevil Villains #4: The Purple Man

Posted on Sunday, October 1, 2023 by Paul in Daredevil

DAREDEVIL #4 (October 1964)
“Killgrave, the Unbelievable Purple Man!”
Writer, editor: Stan Lee
Penciller: Joe Orlando
Inker: Vince Colletta
Letterer: Sam Rosen
Colourist: not credited

“You’re about to meet possibly the most off-beat, far-out, ding-dong, rootin’-tootin’ crackerjack super-villain you just ever did see!”

Such was Stan Lee’s vision of the Purple Man, as set out on the splash page of his debut. Things have changed. Today, as the nemesis of Jessica Jones, the Purple Man is the most high profile character from Daredevil‘s early issues. But he’s also now a character who needs a trigger warning. Look, there it was. This is the debut of a character who goes on to be a horrific abuser – in the TV version, an unambiguous rapist. What the hell happened?

On his own account, Zebediah Killgrave was a “spy for a foreign power” who got caught sneaking into an army ordnance depot. He got drenched in an experimental nerve gas which turned him purple and gave him the power to make people obey him. Being a villain already, he decides to use this power for world domination. It’s never entirely clear how he thinks that’s going to work, given that his power only works at close range. But that’s the goal.

As the story starts, the Purple Man is a genial chap who wanders into banks, asks nicely for money, gets it, and leaves. For some reason he allows himself to get arrested. Perhaps he’s simply amusing himself by playing along for a bit, given that he can leave at any time. Matt is his court-appointed lawyer, and Karen comes along to take notes – which is an excuse to hang out with Matt. As soon as they show up, the Purple Man asks the guard nicely to unlock him, and then leaves with the pretty girl. Daredevil is resistant to his power, though not entirely immune. Indomitable will and all that.

Daredevil: Yellow has a slightly more elegant explanation for this, which is that the Purple Man’s effect depends partly on being able to see his aura. So his colour is actually relevant, and Daredevil’s immunity is mainly because he’s blind, rather than just because he’s awesome.

Next, the Purple Man stops by a “large gymnasium” to round up some muscular chaps as his bodyguards. This scene also establishes that his power doesn’t work against dimwits, an odd sideline that doesn’t play into anything. It’s probably just an excuse for Killgrave to face a bit of minor opposition that he can casually overcome with his new gymnast guards. Finally, he and his “intensely loyal gymnasts”, none of whom have bothered to get changed, commandeer the top floor of the Ritz Plaza Hotel to use as his headquarters.

Naturally, when Daredevil gets there, he beats up all the gymnasts with ease. So the Purple Man threatens to make Karen jump off the roof, and Daredevil surrenders. Before killing him, the Purple Man obligingly explains his origin story, only to learn that Daredevil has taped the confession. Daredevil gets Karen to safety, and uses a specially treated plastic sheet to wrap up the Purple Man safely. We won’t see him again until issue #88, which is understandable – a little of the Purple Man goes a long way.

This issue reminds me a lot of X-Men #2, the Vanisher’s debut appearance. The hook is simply that the Purple Man runs rings around everyone with a blithe arrogance that seems to be entirely justified by his 100% success rate. He doesn’t control people’s minds directly, which would be a bit dull; he makes them extremely suggestible, to the point where they’ll accept anything he says to them. Despite the world domination stuff, he’s played as an impish prankster.

If you take him literally, of course, he’s also extremely creepy. He’s a mind control character without ethics, an inherently disturbing gimmick. Brian Bendis’ approach is simply to take at face value something that was always implicit, at least to some degree. This is tricky territory, because it gives Jessica a traumatic back story with a serious theme, based on a Silver Age novelty villain. It works because the gimmicky aspects of the character feel like something that rubs salt into the wound, rather than a misjudged tone clash. The idea of the Purple Man as an emotional sadist certainly has a basis in his first appearance, where he takes an evident low-key delight in what he can get away with.

You could also argue that Bendis is taking an unduly literal approach to a children’s character. Following genre conventions, nobody seems to find the Purple Man’s effect especially traumatising or invasive. Karen calls him “horrible” in the epilogue, but then promptly moves on with her life. Nor is it especially unusual, at this point, to have villains carting female characters off for purposes left vague. But even that trope has the subtext. There’s no getting away from the fact that the Purple Man’s debut appearance is built largely around him marching off with Karen Page for his own entertainment. There’s certainly a PG reading of this story where he sees her as just another ornament and trapping of power, like the hotel suite and the bodyguards. But we’re also told very clearly that he finds Karen attractive. Everything he’s come to be associated with is at least being hinted at from the start, even if those hints aren’t being taken very seriously because it’s just the sort of thing that villains do in the Silver Age.

All of that makes this an odd story to read with hindsight. The Purple Man has become a very different kind of creep from the one Stan Lee had in mind, and one much less suited to light hearted romps. But if he was going to be anything more than a one-off villain, psychological horror may have been an inevitable direction for him. He’s a mind controller who deprives people of agency, and who lives in a world where nobody (except Daredevil) ever says no to him. Everyone in his world stops being a functioning character when they get within range, and so he lives in a world of one, and he doesn’t care about anyone else. That’s all there from the start.

In his debut, the Purple Man is the cheerful Silver Age version of that character. And that’s fun in its own way, on its own terms. But it jars with the modern take, in a way that serves Jessica Jones’s story but casts a shadow over the original.

Bring on the comments

  1. Omar Karindu says:

    Taibak: You make it sound like someone like Crossbones or the Taskmaster would be a good Daredevil villain.

    Interestingly, both of them fought him in the 90s. However, it was a bit of a mess.

    Taskmaster was rewritten by D.G. Chichester as a compulsive mimic who’d had lots of plastic surgeries to try to resemble different people.

    Later, he got in a big fight with a bunch of minor Daredevil villains, along with the Tatterdemalion, over grease in a comedy two-parter.

    As for Crossbones, they met in the “Streets of Poison” storyline in Gruenwald’s Captain America. Crossbones caught Daredevil while he was already a bit beaten up and clobbered him. It was a bit of buildup for Crossbones’s big rematch with Captain America at the end of the storyline.

    I think either one would work, but they aren’t likely to be written into DD’s book any time soon, since writers tend to treat them as the henchmen of Avengers-level villains, not crime bosses. And in the case of Crossbones, I think he’s a bit worse than “amoral guy out for some cash,” given his neo-Nazi ideology.

  2. Michael says:

    And then there’s Zdarsky’s Daredevil 20 where Matt defeats Crossbones, Bullet, Bullseye and Rhino in the same fight. The Law of Conservation of Ninjitsu worked heavily in Matt’s favor.

  3. Jason says:

    Michael: “The Old Man Logan thing is Zdarsky correcting a mistake of his own making.[…] So in this year’s Daredevil 6, Zdarsky had Bullet[…]”
    Ah yes, that’s how it all went down. But that was a good change to Old Man Logan even if it was correcting Zdarsky’s own mistake, because fridging Lance was a lame idea. (No offense to whoever wrote that — Ed Brisson, is that it?)

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