Zebediah Killgrave was born in Rijeka, in what was at the time Yugoslavia and is now in Croatia. As an international spy, he was sent to infiltrate a chemical refinery. During the mission, he was accidentally doused with a chemical that turned his hair and skin purple. Caught outright and questioned, Killgrave offered a weak, inadequate alibi to his captors. Much to his surprise, he was believed and released. Several more incidents of this nature demonstrated that the nerve gas had given Killgrave the superhuman ability to command the wills of other people. Calling himself the Purple Man, Killgrave embarked on a criminal career.
The Purple Man has vacillated between an actively criminal life and easy retirement. Morally, however, he has never reformed. He can most commonly be seen in expensive purple street clothes.
He uses his mind control powers early in his criminal career to force a woman to become his wife; before she recovers and leaves him, she becomes pregnant with his daughter, Kara Killgrave. Kara inherits his discoloration and powers and becomes the Alpha Flight-affiliated superhero called the Purple Girl, and later Persuasion.
The character largely disappeared from Daredevil's adventures in the 1980s. He did make a few more appearances in the Marvel Universe, most notably in the graphic novel Emperor Doom. Doom uses Killgrave to power a machine called the 'psycho-prism' that allowed Doom to control all minds of everyone on Earth (Doom himself is immune to Killgrave's powers, due to Doom's incredible force of will). Wonder Man manages to escape the mind-control effect due to having spent time in a sensory deprivation tank. Wonder Man breaks Doom's hold over several selected Avenger colleagues. An enraged Sub-Mariner smashes the device, which results in Killgrave's apparent death, although he somehow survives.
He later reappeared in the pages of X-Man, where it was revealed that he was the mastermind behind Nate Grey's dramatically sudden rise to super-celebrity status as a miracle worker in New York City. He had been subtly manipulating both the population of Manhattan and Nate himself into accepting and embracing the young exile from the Age of Apocalypse as a modern messianic figure, who would then become so psychologically empowered by hero-worship that he could and would literally change the reality of the world using the full potential of his mutant power. The plan ultimately fails when Nate learns the truth and loses his confidence, thus reducing his power. Killgrave goes once more into hiding.
As detailed in the series Alias, the Purple Man has since been revealed to be linked to the history of Jessica Jones. When she was the superhero Jewel, he used his mind control powers to subdue her, forcing her to live with him while psychologically torturing her for several months. He ultimately sends her off to kill Daredevil. Mistaking the Scarlet Witch for Daredevil, Jones attacks her instead. Jones is beaten into a coma by the Avengers before they discover that she is brainwashed.
Before helping her out of her coma, the mutant telepath, Jean Grey is able to give Jones a psychic switch that prevents the Purple Man from controlling her again. When Jones recovers, the incident with Purple Man leaves her so traumatized that she leaves her life as a superhero behind and becomes an unsocial private investigator. Later, the Purple Man escapes again and tries controlling Jessica to kill the Avengers, but she is able to resist and knocks him out. Daredevil later has the Purple Man imprisoned in the Raft, a jail designed for super-powered criminals.
However he escapes briefly, when Electro creates a riot at the Raft. Purple Man then attempts to use the opportunity to mind control Luke Cage into killing the then soon-to-be-Avengers, and threatens Jones and the unborn child she is carrying for Cage. Unknown to the Purple Man, drugs had been put into his food to negate his powers during his imprisonment, so he is unable to control Cage, who subsequently beats him to a pulp in response to his demands. Baron Zemo saves him from this beating using the moonstones, so Cage only believes himself to be beating the Purple Man.
Later, the Purple Man returned shortly before (and during) the House of M crisis and manipulated the Thunderbolts, while being manipulated himself by Baron Zemo, who used the moonstones he had recently acquired to leave an image of Purple Man behind in prison so that the authorities would not be aware of his escape. When Zemo, who was only using the Purple Man to "test" the Thunderbolts, learned of his torture of the Swordsman, however, he temporarily sent him back to prison as punishment.
His power enhanced by Zemo's use of the moonstones to allow him to be heard all over New York City simultaneously, he then enslaved the whole city, using the superhumans as his personal army - except the Thunderbolts, whom he had worked to turn against each other. Eventually, he was defeated by the Thunderbolts member Genis-Vell. Zemo teleported the Purple Man back to him and tortured him for his failure before sending him back to prison once more.
During the Civil War, Purple Man was able to use the confusion to hijack a S.H.I.E.L.D.squad and flying platform to escape to Canada. He was chased by U.S. Agent, but managed to push him off the platform, severely injuring him.
The Purple Man's status afterwards was briefly touched upon in Super-Villain Team-Up: MODOK's 11, in which he was revealed to have taken over a casino in Las Vegas; in a flashback in New Avengers #35, he was among the villains recruited to join The Hood's crime syndicate, offered 'seeding money' to use as funds to expand the empire.
During the "Scared Straight" crossover between Thunderbolts and Avengers Academy, the Purple Man is revealed to be incarcerated in the Raft Maximum Security Penitentiary, as Tigra warns her Academy students not to look at his face or read his lips. During a subsequent power outage caused by Academy member Hazmat, the Purple Man, at the head of a small gang of mind-controlled inmates, again crosses paths with a lone Luke Cage, now supervisor of a Thunderbolts team composed of Raft prisoners. However, Cage makes short work of the Purple Man and his "recruits", revealing that the nanites that maintain control over his Thunderbolts also shield him from Killgrave's influence.
During the Fear Itself storyline, Purple Man and a majority of inmates are freed after the Raft is severely damaged by the transformation of the Juggernaut into Kurrth: Breaker of Stone and the subsequent damage caused by Kurrth's escape. Before escaping the Raft, the Purple Man attempts to kill a comatose Puppet Master in the prison infirmary, and makes statements indicating that he was behind the Puppet Master's manipulation of Misty Knight's Heroes for Hire organization, using them to establish a criminal organization by proxy while incarcerated. He is prevented from killing the Puppet Master by Heroes for Hire operatives Elektra and the Shroud, but Killgrave attacks the pair with a mob of mind-controlled inmates driven into a frenzy. When the heroes hold their own against the assault, the Purple Man changes tactics and turns them against each other. He subsequently escapes the Raft via the Hudson River.
Purple Man begins to form a new criminal empire with the help of Avalanche, Headhunter, Shocker, a new Death-Stalker, and a new Scourge.
The Purple Man’s body has been altered to produce chemical pheromones which, when inhaled or absorbed through the skin, allow Killgrave to control their actions by verbal suggestions. The effects only last as long as he is physically present and are somehow keyed to his personal voice and speech-pattern. When he departs, the level of chemicals is reduced within his victims at various rates (dependent upon their metabolisms), and then the victims regain full cognizance of self. Killgrave can influence hundreds of people at one time, and his victims can be controlled to perform actions against their will. He also seems to have some control over the release of his pheromones into the atmosphere, as he is able to walk hidden among crowds without influencing everybody. The Purple Man's body has also been mutated so that he is able to recover rapidly from trauma and to heal from severe injuries. In at least one instance, he entered a death-like state while his body healed itself. Not everyone is susceptible to his mind-control abilities. Doctor Doom has demonstrated that his supreme willpower can easily overcome the Purple Man's powers, while DareDevil is able to resist because being blind allows him to focus his concentration on resisting the Purple Man's verbal commands.
The Purple Man of Earth-460 was known as the President For Life. He was President in the United States. This is the same Killgrave that sent Earth-460's Captain America into the past, unintentionally creating the Marvel 1602 universe.