(Originally posted at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat.)
Superhero comics do a lot of things well; depicting criminals realistically isn’t one of them. Multiracial vest-sporting gangs, bad attempts at dialect that consist primarily of leaving the d’s off the word “and” and the g’s off anything ending in “ing,” Mafia stereotypes that involve grandiose ring-kissing and boss-of-bosses crap that never actually happens–it’s what I’ve come to expect from all but the best costumed crimefighter comics that take a break from supervillains to delve into the underworld. So I picked up Kingpin #1, the first issue of a new series about the lord of organized crime in the New York City patrolled by Spider-Man and Daredevil, with expectations lower than the odds that Paulie Walnuts will live through Season 5 of The Sopranos.
I like the character–he currently makes regular, compelling appearances in Brian Bendis and Alex Maleev’s ongoing Daredevil title, alternately menacing and protecting his horn-headed archenemy in a pulp-fiction pas de deux. And it’s not that I doubted the talent involved in this particular Kingpin project. Writer Bruce Jones, the oldest “new kid” on the Marvel Comics block, has reinvigorated The Incredible Hulk, turning it into something creepy, mysterious, edgy and (get this) sexy–all while hardly ever showing the Hulk himself (it’s the threat of turning into the Hulk, Jones realized, that makes the life of Bruce Banner so interesting). Layout artist Sean Phillips turned in the best artwork for Uncanny X-Men in recent memory, while finisher Klaus Janson is rightly renowned for his legendary Daredevil and Batman collaborations with Frank Miller (the Daredevil books featured the Kingpin quite prominently), as well as his strong solo work (I particularly like his adaptation of Clive Barker’s best short story, “In the Hills, the Cities,” found in the recent collected edition of the Barker anthology comic Tapping the Vein). Nor was I echoing the kvetching of the continuity wonks, who’ve complained loud and long that the Kingpin series, taking place as it does during a time when both the Kingpin and his web-spinning nemesis are just starting out in their respective careers, is playing fast and loose with the strictly-monitored timeline of the Marvel Universe (in all his appearances up to this point, Kingpin appears to be much older than Peter Parker). I’ll buy anything if it gives me a good story and tells it with impressive art–but this was a crime comic set in a superhero world, and experience has taught me that instead of the usual comics-title superlatives (Amazing, Uncanny, Invincible, Ultimate), that kind of comic might as well be tagged with the adjective “Inessential.”
It’s great news, then, that the creators of this comic devoted to the meanest, most murderous bastard ever to cross paths with the tights-wearing set know that, like revenge, the Kingpin is a dish best served cold. This is a crisp, gritty, brutal book, indulging in no honor-among-thieves cliches and getting straight to the heart for whom power is an end in itself.
Still known as plain old Willie Fisk at the time of this story, the title character is an enormous, bald side of beef navigating the dangerous intersection of street gangs and the Five Mafia Families of New York. This first issue concerns his and his newfound lieutenants’ attempts to simultaneously wrest control of the gangs from the Mafia, consolidate the gangs they take over, and expand their drug-dealing territory into white areas of the city. To say much more would be to spoil nasty twists that surprised even a veteran what-passes-for-surprise-in-superhero-comics predictor like me.
It’s not just the story that makes this debut issue so strong: the devil, as is his wont, is in the details. The stark, expressionistic tints employed by colorist Lee Loughridge play up the irrationality and violence of young Fisk’s world, and imbue the deceptively cartoonish Phillips/Janson artwork with menace. The imagery takes unexpected turns: with the flip of a page one can find oneself immersed in the sensual, pulpy eroticism that’s fast becoming one of Jones’s strongest suits. A brief cameo by Spider-Man is largely silent and appropriately eerie–after all, the intrusion of such a gaudily costumed, inhumanly powerful being into the mean streets would be genuinely disconcerting to Fisk, and should be so to us as well. Even the layouts of panels on the page and objects within the panels, facets of comic art too often neglected in superhero books, are smart: After you read the book, take a good look at the first & last pages and see what they alone tell you about the man called Kingpin. As it stands now, I’m willing to learn as much about him as this bunch is willing to teach.
(Sean T. Collins is a professional writer and editor who will stop at nothing to become the ruthless lord of all he surveys. Until then he blogs at Attentiondeficitdisorderly Too Flat, where this post originally appeared.)