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Lost Gems: “Kingpin’s Midnight Massacre”

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We’re back, with another December of Mark’s “Lost Gems” — stories he considers among the very best Spidey tales, that are also unlikely to appear on any “best of” lists. For this year’s entry, Mark is going to pick one Spider-Man story per decade (60s, 70s, 80s, etc.). Hope you all enjoy and happy holidays!

This entry looks at Amazing Spider-Man #197, by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard:

asm-197-03If you want to talk about an underappreciated Spider-Man villain, then look no further than Wilson “Kingpin” Fisk. 

Wait, what did I just say? How can one of Marvel’s most distinct and enduring villains — a guy who can be found in movies, television, video games, etc. — be “underappreciated?” And you would be absolutely right … when you’re talking about the modern day representation of Kingpin, which is primarily a villain of the “Man Without Fear,” Daredevil. But what about the guy who first appeared in the pages of Amazing Spider-Man? The rotund baddie who John Romita Sr. first equipped with a cane, a topcoat. a cravat, and mounds upon mounds of girth  in an effort to make him something more than just another dime-a-dozen mafioso? Do I dare call him underappreciated? 

Putting aside the character’s mostly excellent appearances in the Ultimate Spider-Man series (“Learning Curve” is in the upper echelon of all-time Spider-Man stories, in my humble opinion … then again, Brian Michael Bendis, the book’s writer, is also well-known for his work on Daredevil), good old Kingpin hasn’t exactly been a part of many memorable Spidey stories over the years. He certainly doesn’t have any “There is no corpse” moments (a la the all-time great Daredevil story, “Born Again”) within the pages of Amazing or Spectacular Spider-Man. And even Fisk’s first appearance in ASM #50 — which has made it’s fair share of “best of” lists — usually gets its superlatives not for the Kingpin story, but because it’s within the pages of one of the most famous Spidey stories ever, “Spider-Man No More.” So where can a reader turn to find a really satisfying Spider-Man/Kingpin epic (that’s not named “Back in Black,” which, for all the love it gets from some fans, is something I find to be the totally opposite of a “Lost Gem” — overrated)?

How about “Kingpin’s Midnight Massacre” by Marv Wolfman and Keith Pollard, which, beyond being an absolutely awesome title for a storyline, is in many ways the “final” Spider-Man/Kingpin story before the character was co-opted by Frank Miller and Klaus Janson and transformed into the pop cultural phenom he is today? In fact, while nothing is ever truly final in comics (and everyone who participates either as a creator or reader should know that), the way Wolfman and Pollard frame this story, “Massacre” reads like a twistedly graceful exit stage left for Mr. Fisk and his lovely wife, Vanessa, which only adds to the story’s under-loved greatness. 

asm-197-02“Massacre’s” premise is wonderfully simple. Kingpin has captured Spider-Man — who at this point in time, as part of the build-up to ASM #200, was under the impression that Aunt May had died, thereby leaving Peter in a weakened physical/emotional state. Kingpin, himself, had been missing from the comics for about 30 issues or so, suffering with a bout from amnesia that he was triggered after a battle with Spider-Man. When Kingpin’s memory is restored, Vanessa provides him with an ultimatum: his love or his life of crime. Fisk has until midnight to make his choice, so rather than go quietly into the night, Kingpin decides to get one last dastardly crime out of his system before he rides off into the sunset with Vanessa: murder Spider-Man.

So “Massacre’s” narrative engine is powered by two tried but true plot devices: there’s the underdog Spider-Man versus an hyper-powered, psychotically obsessed adversary whose one goal is to end him, and then there’s the ticking clock to midnight. Considering how the story ultimately pays off, Wolfman and Pollard could have had a bit more fun conveying that ticking clock, but instead, both put the bulk of the focus on the knockdown, dragout fight that takes place between Spidey and Fisk. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, because Wolfman and Pollard put together an absolute wild, violent brawl, with Spidey just desperately trying to stay alive long enough to get away and Kingpin relentlessly coming at him like a horror movie monster. For folks like artist Ron Garney, who think Spider-Man should be able to mop the floor with a strong, but non-powered thug like Fisk (hence the butt-kicking Spidey administers to Fisk in the Garney/J. Michael Straczynski-created “Back in Black”), Kingpin probably gets way too many good shots in on Spidey over the course of “Massacre.” But it’s also one of the better brawls from this era of Spider-Man comics, with Pollard breaking down the action quite tightly before unveiling some full page spreads of total chaos and mayhem.

asm-197-01In the ultimate twist for the story, Kingpin has defeated Spider-Man and is ready to deliver the killshot when the clock strikes midnight and Vanessa walks in and repeats her ultimatum. Rather than finally squash the spider, Fisk stays true to his word and chooses his wife, leaving Spider-Man to contemplate what would have happened if Kingpin wasn’t madly in love with Vanessa. 

It’s arguably the most nuanced Kingpin had been written at that point in time, and obviously laid the groundwork for Miller’s iconic work that followed (in fact, when Miller reintroduces Fisk in Daredevil, the character is still retired and is only lured back out when a rival presumably kills Vanessa). Why this story doesn’t get more love for fans of Fisk is beyond me. Then again, the character has been a part of so many amazing Daredevil stories over the years (and Punisher too), I guess this late-70s pick gets easily lost in the shuffle.

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