By James Hancock January 13th, 2016
After seeing two extremely entertaining red band trailers for Deadpool (coming February 12th), I decided that it was time for me to up my comic book game and learn more about the character. Although I have been reading comics my entire life, Deadpool has always been a blind spot for me. Like most comic-obsessed teens in the 1990s, I first encountered Deadpool in ‘New Mutants’ #98 (1991) when he was introduced as a rather one-note mercenary by writer Fabien Nicieza and artist Rob Liefeld. Although at the time I read everything that Rob Liefeld drew, Deadpool seemed like yet another typical Liefeld creation, namely an interchangeable killer covered in large bulky pockets for lots of knives and guns. Once he made the move to Image Comics, Rob Liefeld would invent a few hundred more of these types of characters many of whom are best left forgotten. As the comic book industry entered the dark days of the late 1990s when the industry shrank by 80% and I found my comic book obsession being totally replaced by my new obsession with movies, I put Deadpool totally out of my mind. A few years later, when my comic book obsession came roaring back with a vengeance, I continued to ignore the character even when he would occasionally pop up in a title I was following. What I did not realize at the time was that during my hiatus from comics, something very interesting had happened with the character. Starting in 1997, writer Joe Kelly and artist Ed McGuinness had come along and out of a desperate urge to fight plummeting sales figures had decided to throw caution to the wind and completely reinvent the now infamous Merc with a Mouth. What emerged was one of the most entertaining and beloved comic book characters of the last few decades, one that has continued to evolve as a variety of writers and artists have brought their fresh perspectives to the character. For the last few weeks I’ve been gleefully doing my homework catching up on a lot these stories, some of which are absolute gems. So with only a few weeks to go until the release of what I hope will be an amazing movie, I thought I would compile an introduction to the character and some reading suggestions for anyone out there like me who overlooked the character for far too long.
The basics: Deadpool was designed by Rob Liefeld as an amalgamation of a variety of elements. With a costume inspired by the simplicity of Spider-Man, Deadpool combines the wisecracking of the classic Spider-Man persona with the ruthless killing efficiency of Wolverine (the Nineties gave us a lot of characters trying to cash in on the craze for Wolverine). His real name is Wade Wilson, a homage (bordering on theft) to the classic character Slade Wilson aka Deathstroke over at Marvel’s distinguished competition, DC. The final ingredient, Deadpool’s codename, was similarly lifted from the fifth and weakest film in the Dirty Harry franchise, The Dead Pool (1988). Like any character that has been around for decades, his origin story has been revised repeatedly over time. But for the sake of brevity all you need to know is that Wade Wilson was an extremely dangerous mercenary who volunteered in the Weapon X program hoping to find a cure for the cancer that was rapidly killing him. There he ended up with a synthetic version of Wolverine’s healing factor as well as a fractured mental state from subsequent experimentations. One major side effect of his healing ability is that his normal cells and cancerous cells do not die making his body resemble one giant disgusting mass of scar tissue. Some observers have compared his appearance to a melting candle. An expert marksman and swordsman, Deadpool also excels at martial arts of all kinds and often carries a device that allows him to teleport short distances. Basically he is Hell on wheels in a fight and very tough, if not impossible, to kill.
But what makes Deadpool unique is that he knows he is a comic book character. He breaks the fourth wall routinely talking to the reader and his creators just as frequently as he does to the many voices and personalities he has bouncing around inside his head, a trait that the upcoming film seems to have successfully adapted. When it comes to Deadpool’s complex continuity, Deadpool simply tells the audience to believe whichever version they prefer. When he is not transcending the pages of his comics, Deadpool revels in his love of bad pop music and his insatiable appetite for Mexican food, in particular chimichangas. Notorious for his short attention span, Deadpool also gets lonely very quickly, constantly seeking new friends and/or enemies to spend time with. What I did not understand for so long is that there is far more to the character than just the comic relief. In the hands of lesser writers, Deadpool simply says silly things while killing people. But in the hands of writer who really understands the character, guys like Rick Remender, Joe Kelly, or the writing team of Gerry Duggan and Brian Posehn, Deadpool becomes as multi-dimensional and fascinating as DC’s most notorious madman, the Joker. Some might think I am overstating the case with that comparison, but the Joker is another character who easily slides into one-note slapstick in the hands of writers who aren’t up to the task. Deadpool’s comedy only works when a writer also embraces Wade Wilson’s capacity for sympathy and his truly terrifying side, the side where he stops babbling incoherently and focuses on taking down a dangerous opponent with cold-blooded ferocity. For me, Deadpool is not insane, nor schizophrenic. He rants because it is the only rational response to the completely irrational world in which he finds himself on a daily basis. Long story short, I am a fan, and if you read some of the material I’ve included below, you will be too. For the sake of simplicity I have broken down the suggestions according to my favorite writers to date that have tackled the character. I’ve also tried my best to include every major storyline where these writers have used the character. There is no way I caught them all so any suggestions you have for future reading would be greatly appreciated.
Joe Kelly ‘Deadpool’ #-1-33 (1997-1999) “Spider-Man/Deadpool” #1 (2016, ongoing)
While Joe Kelly did not invent Deadpool, he might as well have in that his interpretation of the character is what led to the character catching on so dramatically with comic book readers. Working with artist Ed McGuinness (issues #1-9), Joe Kelly gave us so much of what defines the character today, most importantly, Deadpool’s awareness that he is a comic book character. As soon as Deadpool started talking to his audience his stock with Marvel fans soared. Whether he is discussing pop culture, baiting DC with references to Batman, or confusing his fellow characters talking about word balloons or other devices used in comics, this breaking of the fourth wall has liberated subsequent writers to experiment with Deadpool titles in ways that would never be allowed in more conventional comic books. To comic fans’ delight, Joe Kelly and Ed McGuinnes recently reunited for “Spider-Man/Deadpool” and the first issue had me howling in laughter repeatedly. It is a series that I hope will continue for a very long time.
Daniel Way “Wolverine: Origins” #21-25 (2008), “Deadpool” vol. 2 #1-63 (2008-2012), “Thunderbolts” vol. 2 #1-11 (2012-2013)
After more than two decades of Deadpool stories, many of his fans disagree on the definitive take on the character. Writer Daniel Way has definitely received more than his share of abuse from many of these so-called purists who would like to see the character of Deadpool trapped in amber never to evolve as a character again. What Way’s critics do not like is the way he writes conversations in Deadpool’s head from multiple points of view and for those readers, I suggest they stick with the writing of Fabien Nicieza, a perfectly adequate but in my opinion bland and predictable veteran of the comic book industry. Personally I love Daniel Way’s darker, more warped approach to the character which began in the pages of “Wolverine: Origins”#21-25 (2008) when Wolverine hired Deadpool to kill him as a part of an elaborate ruse to lure his son Wolverine’s Daken out of hiding. My favorite arc by Way has to be “Deadpool” vol. 2 #10-12 (2009) where Deadpool faces off against his old nemesis Bullseye. This was during Marvel’s Dark Reign period when Norman Osborn put a lot of psychotic supervillains, disguised as heroes, on the payroll of the US goverment. In this case, Bullseye dressed as Hawkeye takes on Deadpool on a 3-issue war of unimaginable carnage. What makes their encounter so fun is the undeniable bromance between the two characters. They both have incredible respect for the other’s unique skill set and spend as much time admiring what the other is capable of as they do trying to finish each other off. If you enjoy sick and twisted humor combined with savage brutality, Daniel Way’s vision of Deadpool will be right up your alley.
Brian Posehn & Gerry Duggan “Deadpool” vol. 3 #1-45 (2013-2015), “Deadpool: The Gauntlet” #1-13 (2014)
The best surprise in preparing for this post was discovering the writing duo of Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan. They are responsible for my all-time favorite Deadpool stories and for anyone curious about the character this is where I would suggest that they start. I started with issue #13 which features Deadpool in a 1970s flashback where he teams up with Power Man and Iron Fist. What makes this hysterical issue is so amazing is how the art and storytelling style reflect comics of that period in addition to the abundance of 1970s Blaxploitation cinema references. But the real storytelling gem is the story featured in issues #15-19 where Deadpool teams up with his fellow lab rats from Weapon X, Captain America and Wolverine, to explore the darkest chapters of Deadpool’s past. I don’t want to spoil anything but this is easily the most emotionally moving story I’ve read featuring the character, the best proof that there is much more to the Merc with a Mouth than silly one-liners and cartoonish violence. With astonishing art by Declan Shalvey, this story ranks as one of my favorite comic book arcs of the last five years. Sign me up for whatever these writers do next. Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan’s ‘The Good, the Bad and the Ugly’ gets my highest possible recommendation.
Rick Remender “Uncanny X-Force” #1-35 (2010-2012)
While not a mutant, Deadpool always seems to be associated with the X-Men franchise so it is only right that Rick Remender finally gave him a chance to shine in a proper X title, “The Uncanny X-Force”. The X-Men have had more than their fair share of ups and downs as far as quality storytelling is concerned ever since the classic days of Chris Claremont’s fifteen-year run in control of the franchise, but Rick Remender’s run reminds us all why we love these characters in the first place and what is possible when a great creative team stops trying to replicate the glories of the past. The premise is simple. From Wolverine’s perspective, there are existential threats to Mutants and the world that can’t be faced without a willingness to cross ethical lines that most superheroes and mutants refuse to cross. While the previous incarnation of this team acted under orders from Cyclops, this version of the team operates in total secrecy meaning there is nobody to help them when they get into trouble (which is always). The line-up includes some of the most cold-blooded killers in the Marvel Universe including Archangel, Fantomex, Psylocke, Wolverine, and of course, Deadpool. The tone of this series is almost unbearably grim so having Deadpool’s signature brand of comedy in the mix offers the perfect counterbalance to the dark and sordid stories Remender writes so well. The issues featuring art by Daniel Acuña are jaw droppingly beautiful and the covers by Esad Ribic are worth the cover price alone. Sadly the series ended after only 35 issues so my advice is simply to start at the beginning and work your way forward. What you’ll find is arguably the best X-Men epic of the 21st century.
Cullen Bunn “Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe” #1-4 (2012), “Deadpool Killustrated” #1-4 (2013), “Deadpool Kills Deadpool” #1-4 (2013), “Night of the Living Deadpool” #1-4 (2014), “Deadpool vs Carnage” #1-4 (2014), “Return of the Living Deadpool” #1-4 (2015), “Deadpools’ Secret Secret Wars” #1-4 (2015)
The last writer to make my list is Cullen Bunn. Bunn tends to enjoy writing “What If?” scenarios where he is not bogged down by current Marvel continuity so a lot of his stories are not official canon, whatever that means. Everything we’re talking about is pure fantasy after all. Without any concern for how Deadpool’s actions affect the overall Marvel line of books, Bunn routinely cuts loose in ways that would never be allowed in Marvel’s more mainstream books. So if you want to see how Deadpool could singlehandedly take on the entire Marvel Universe or how he would respond waking up from a food hangover to find himself in the middle of a zombie apocalypse, then Cullen Bunn is your man.
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If you’ve been a hardcore fan of Deadpool for the last few decades, you don’t need any help from me on reading suggestions. You are probably too busy calling me out for being a fake fan to read this post and you are probably right to a degree. That said, I know comics and I’d rather be late to the party than never to have had the joy of reading these stories featuring this amazing character. The movie Deadpool will be the first feature film from writer-director Tim Miller and we really have no concrete way of knowing what to expect from him but every frame of film I have seen so far feels true to the character as I understand him. My hope and my fear is that the movie will be a monster hit. If the movie works, we can expect more R-rated superhero flicks, something I am always in the mood for. But if it does work, we can also expect a variety of sub-par attempts to cash in on the R-rated superhero craze a successful movie will certainly ignite much like the same phenomenon we saw in the Nineties with bloodthirsty characters like Wolverine, Cable, the Punisher and Deadpool. At any rate, I hope you enjoy reading some of the suggestions I’ve made and let’s all cross our fingers that the movie we see on February 12th will be one to make us all proud to be fans of Mr. Wade Wilson. For now, as always, make mine Marvel.