Monday, November 1, 2010

Great Marvel Comics of the Late 1990s (Yes, They Do Exist): Deadpool

Today Deadpool has…four ongoing series, is that right? I don’t really understand why the market will bear this at the moment, but it seems incredible to me now that in the late 90s, there was only one Deadpool comic, and it was often teetering on the edge of cancellation. But believe me when I tell you, this is one of the best Marvel Comics of the decade, and at the time, no comic being produced meant more to me than Deadpool.

I’ve been trying to make a case in this series about the Marvel mindset circa 1996-1999 or so – after the near collapse of the industry as a result of the excesses of the early-to-mid 90s, editorial spent a few years re-evaluating their primary superhero properties and trying to get them back to “the good ol’ days” while remaining modern. It's back to bright colors and clean lines, but those colors (and letters) are done on a computer, and those clean lines are in service of that new "manga" fad we'd been hearing about that everyone was so sure would fizzle out in a couple years. So in light of that, Deadpool scoring his own comic in 1997 was a bit odd because he’s a symbol of that early-90s excess.

You could look all this stuff up on Wikipedia, but I need it here for context: Deadpool started out as an X-Force villain “created” by Rob Liefeld (co-creator Fabian Nicieza has apparently admitted that he was basically just a lift of DC villain Deathstroke, which is why he named him “Wade Wilson”: as an in-joke and as a pre-emptive strike against cries of “ripoff!”). A bloodthirsty, wisecracking killer-for-hire, Deadpool proved popular enough to eventually be spun off into his own mini-series. (If you were a mysterious supporting X-Men character in the 90s, it was pretty easy to get yourself spun off into your own miniseries.)

This sort of thing happened all the time in the early 90s – the fan-favorite villains got their own books, but for propriety/morality’s sake, they reformed or, more often, became antiheroes. Here’s how you do it: You give your villain a slight noble streak - he won’t hurt innocent people. You pit that character against worse villains than himself, so that he comparatively is the “gooder” guy. That way the character doesn’t lose the violent, gritty edge that made him so popular in the first place, but now you’re allowed to root for him. So the formula’s easy, but it’s hard to pull it off without being totally cheap. You get unconvincing reversals (Venom, who’s murdered prison guards on multiple occasions and isn’t above threatening Aunt May to get at Peter Parker, rather abruptly decides to dedicate his life to protecting “innocents”) or a lot of stock brooding about the long road to redemption.

Deadpool’s second limited series was written by the last guy you’d expect: our old pal Mark Waid! And the standard seeds of redemption are planted there – there’s a notion that Deadpool’s a bad dude, but when it really counts, he’ll make a heroic choice, etc. etc. Not his best work, and I recall Waid saying in an interview if he’d known what a scumbag Deadpool was before accepting the job, he’d’ve turned it down.

So for whatever reason, Marvel decides to give ‘Pool his own series in ’97, and the job of writing it goes to Joe Kelly, then a newcomer. (The original artist was a young Ed McGuinness, who’d go on to dazzle us with three incredible JLA Classified issues with Grant Morrison but was still very much learning his craft at this time.) Kelly turns out to be a really good match for Deadpool. Partially it’s because Kelly can channel an appropriately twisted sense of humor for the character. It’s easy enough to write pop-culture references and jokes about how much this guy digs maiming and explosions to get across how cuh-razy and deeeee-mented your antihero protagonist is (although it’s not so easy to keep it from being irritating as hell; it's down to taste, ultimately, but I think Kelly pulls it off). Deadpool’s words, however, always seem to adhere to some sort of central character logic. Not just a bunch of random, funny lines Kelly thought up on the bus, Deadpool “sounds” like the same guy from joke to joke, and he’s distinct from all the other smartasses who populate this book. The dialogue is in no way realistic, but it is consistent, so it at least creates the illusion of a “real” person, however fantastic he may be.

But more importantly, Kelly and Deadpool were a perfect match because Kelly was a new, relatively unknown writer, and Deadpool was a low-profile book crammed in its own corner of the Marvel publishing schedule. Working in the Marvel Universe is a lot of laboring in the shadows of giants. You’re trying to write Fantastic Four that lives up to Lee/Kirby, Spider-Man that lives up to Lee/Ditko, Daredevil that lives up to Miller, X-Men that lives up to Claremont/Byrne, and so on. Before Kelly got ahold of Deadpool, however, the character had never had that “definitive” run. Rob Liefeld, for all of his faults, was one of the last Marvel creators to pump new characters with staying power into the Marvel Universe, uninspired though they might be in conception. A writer can look at this assignment in dismay – “What am I supposed to do with a character like Deadpool? Where do I start? There’s never been anything particularly interesting about him!” – or you can look at the character as a blank slate.

And it’s quite obvious from reading the book how passionate Joe Kelly was about his blank slate. There is a hell of a lot of creating going on; Kelly basically a milieu and supporting characters for Deadpool from the ground up, but it feels like something that's been in place for years. He dips into Marvel lore but never depends on it – I keep harping on it for a reason, the best of these late-90s Marvel writers had discipline. He never treats Deadpool as an audition for a better gig; he poured everything he had in it as though convinced he’d never get to write another book for Marvel ever again.

And that was a very real possibility at the time! These were the days of Busiek/Perez Avengers and Waid/Garney Captain America…in 1998, who the hell was Joe Kelly, and who the hell cared about Deadpool? Chris Claremont likes to tell the tale of how he and Dave Cockrum, and later John Byrne, were pretty much just left alone in those early years of the new X-Men because then it was who the hell cares about the X-Men? Like Claremont & Co., Kelly seemed to be able to do pretty much anything he wanted to do on a midlist book (at least until cancellation rumors started circling around #25, a dance of “Yep, you’re getting cancelled, so you better wrap up all your storylines in the next few issues…no, wait, numbers are okay, you’d better come up with some new material…wait, no, actually…” that eventually drove Kelly off the book). And so, like many of the best creators do when left alone, their superhero books become bizarre, idiosyncratic, personal. Remember, I liked this “re-examination” phase Marvel was going through, but it was exciting to see a book that didn’t have to grapple with What Had Come Before, because What Had Come Before had been kind of crummy. Kelly and Deadpool were free to do their own thing.

And so what Kelly wanted to do was to turn that “long road to redemption” thing we’d seen a million times into something unusual. His innovation was to subvert this clichéd character arc by not making redemption a straight line. It’s “realistic,” in its way – if you’d spent the last however-many years as a paid assassin after escaping from a Canadian supersoldier program that had performed gruesome experiments on you to turn you into the perfect killing machine, you’d probably have a hard time making the transition too. He’ll look like he’s making progress for a couple issues – he spares the life of the Weapon X scientist who’s largely responsible for Deadpool’s condition – and then he’ll have a bad day and say “Screw it, this is too hard,” and go back to the dark side.

There may be some commentary on the quickie villain-turned-hero phenomenon in that Deadpool is trying to become a hero for all the wrong reasons. It’s a mixture of low-self esteem and trying to score with Siryn from X-Force, who thinks Deadpool might not be such a bad guy after all and harbors some sort of nebulous “feelings” for him for reasons largely unexplained. He falls in love with the idea of being a hero, mostly. You get the sense that he would be much happier if he could just give up trying altogether, but he can never quite let it go.

If he tries, he’s spurred to continue by Zoe Culloden of Landau, Luckman, & Lake, who believes that Deadpool is somehow destined to lead humankind into a new age of peace and prosperity. It smells a little like the standard “You have a mysteeeerious desssssstiny!” crap that got flung around a lot of comics of the day, but it’s undercut by the humorously corporate atmosphere of LL&L (Zoe is an “expediter,” and the firm offers Deadpool a 401k upon joining up) and, of course, by Deadpool himself. This promise of a cosmic destiny gives him a temporary ego boost…until he discovers his actual role in ushering in the new golden age is to kill a Predator-looking dude before he can kill an alien messiah headed to Earth. Even when promised a heroic destiny, Deadpool’s still little more than a glorified hitman.

But the upside to this almost-unending cycle of getting knocked down is that when Deadpool does manage to do the right thing (for varying degrees of “right”), it’s a true victory. Captain America can do a hundred noble things before Sunday brunch (and we love him for it, don’t get me wrong), but because Deadpool is wired for self-interest and violence, his little pockets of altruism mean more.

A similar thing could be said about the book’s tone. Deadpool is a character built for humor, a voice to poke fun at these comics we take so seriously. But Deadpool, for all its jokes and its typically late-90s bright color palette, could get quite serious and quite dark when it wanted to, and the contrast made it all the more powerful. We’re told Blind Al is Deadpool’s “prisoner,” but she seems, at first, more like a sassy sitcom mother figure. They trade insults and eat breakfast together and play wacky pranks on each other, and the whole thing seems pretty low-stakes. But then an issue like #14 comes along, where you find out about The Box, a torture chamber where Deadpool sticks Blind Al when she’s “bad,” and about the one time she escaped and went to hide out with an old flame…only to find Deadpool got there first and fed him, quite literally, to the dogs. Kelly’s quite comfortable using an assassin for comedy, but he never lets you get too comfortable about it. Blind Al stops talking to Deadpool and you're angry about it - "Just be friends like you used to!" But they can't, and you start to realize they never really were. Never forget that this is a dude who’s killed people for money. This isn’t just Spider-Man With A Gun.

So the question Kelly ultimately poses is whether or not Deadpool is a "good guy." And saying “Yes he is, because he tries to be better than what he is” isn’t really the final answer Kelly was going for, I don’t think, and my support for that is the “Dead Reckoning” storyline (#23-25) that wraps up the whole first two years of the series. The alien messiah I mentioned earlier is headed for Earth, and it leaves peace and bliss wherever it goes, but it also eliminates free will – it's basically a benevolent version of the Anti-Life Equation. So when Deadpool finds out, he makes a snap decision, and kills the “space baby” instead of saving it. And it makes sense because ultimately, Kelly’s Deadpool is a messed-up guy at the mercy of fate. He’s bad because he was created that way by Liefeld, because he got dealt a rough hand in life, and he’s good because people tell him to be, whether it’s Siryn or Zoe or Marvel editorial not wanting a psychotic killer to be the lead in a series. So it makes sense that he’d defend free will the one time in his miserable life he gets to assert his own.

As the fanbase gets older, and the comics themselves become increasingly self-aware, it’s hard for superhero comics to transcend themselves anymore. It’s hard now, and it was hard back in the 90s. But Deadpool the character and Deadpool the book were just scrappy enough to have something to transcend, and Kelly pulled it off like nobody else working at the time could have.


Josh said...

Thanks for opening my eyes to the few gems in the void that existed after I gave up on reading marvel post onslaught. Especially Deadpool. I really want to like the character but he's got a lot of strikes against him; created by liefeld, has four current ongoing books, gets alternate covers on books he's not even in, etc. But I like the basics laid down for him back in the late 90's. Thanks for letting me know its okay to like Deadpool.

Justin said...

Yeah, I haven't actually read a Deadpool comic since...I think Jimmy Palmiotti was writing it, but even then I was pretty much buying it out of inertia at that point. So I have no idea what current Deadpool is even like. I wouldn't even say he's a compelling character/property, aside from perhaps as an amusing antagonist/guest-star or a one-note mocker of superhero comics tropes (Deadpool looks like he's Marvel's Deathstroke, but he seems to function more like Marvel's Lobo).

That's the reason precisely why Joe Kelly's Deadpool was and is such a treat -- the character doesn't really have a whole lot of potential, so Kelly just had to MAKE IT ALL UP himself.

Richard Bensam said...

I can't believe you just made me interested to read about Deadpool! What a persuasive and well-reasoned case you've made for him, both as a character and for those comics in particular. That is some fine writing there. (Yours, I mean!)

Justin said...

Hey, thanks! That's really high praise, I mean it. I did hope this one would make someone at least consider picking up Kelly's Deadpool. Even accounting for boyhood nostalgia, I truly do think it's one of the more interesting Marvel runs of the last twenty-five years or so.

One nice thing about the current Deadpoolmania craze is that they've finally gotten around to collecting most of the run. Issues #1-25 (along with a #-1 flashback issue, a #0 Wizard exclusive, two annuals, and probably some other odds and ends) are available in a series of trades called "Deadpool Classic" vols. 1-4. Although, irritatingly, Vol. 1 collects New Mutants #98, his first two miniseries, and JUST the first issue of Kelly/McGuinness, and Vol. 2 picks up with #2 through 8. I mean, I GET it, but that's really not a cool way to structure these collections, Marvel.

Kelly was on the book through #33, which I don't think is collected, and might never be. When your whole series builds to #25, it's tricky to figure out where you go from there (you have to build momentum from scratch all over again, right?), but Kelly did something very unusual and interesting. Unfortunately, this is when cancellation was hanging over the book's head, and so it feels rushed in places. There's a big reveal that didn't get the time to explain that it needed, and as a result it doesn't make as much sense as it was probably supposed to.