Sunday, March 22, 2009

The Essentials: Deadpool by Joe Kelly

Not too long ago, some friends and I were talking about the truly iconic characters in comic books. The characters that transcend the genre and become ingrained in the public consciousness, that people who are both fans and laymen are inherently drawn to because there's something that makes them stand out among the pack. Superman, Spider-Man, Batman, the Hulk, Wonder Woman, Iron Man, Aquaman, Captain America, the Flash, Daredevil, etc. etc. These are characters who have gone through changes over time, but who have always maintained or reverted to a certain default state because they have too important a place in the hierarchy of comics not.

The talk turned to who was the last character to join this pantheon. Who was the most recently-created charcter who could reasonably be called iconic? Convention holds that a character like that hasn't come along since the 70's. The usual suspects include Wolverine, the Punisher and Swamp Thing, all characters who have broken away from the pack at some point and transcended the A-list. However, I threw a bit of a wild card out there:

And the funny thing was, nobody really disagreed with me.

Ok, unlike the bulk of the characters we place in that rarified air, Deadpool has not starred in his own movie or been on "Superfriends" (although the former will be somewhat remedied in a couple months with "Wolverine: Origins" and I'm now struck by how amazing a "Superfriends" mash-up featuring Deadpool would be), and he has certainly not permeated mainstream consciousness to the degree of even a Green Lantern or Punisher, but he's on that cusp. He's a character that a lot of people who aren't hardcore comic geeks at least know of to some degree and gets placement in a lot of cartoons and video games and toylines because there's just something about the character that hits that casual fan sweetspot.

And as far as folks who actually read monthly comics go, there are a huge amount of Deadpool fans who are vocal and excited about the character. As a veteran of more than a few Marvel convention panels, I can say that when we make a Deadpool-related announcement, it gets more of a pop than when we announce stuff about even Spider-Man and the like. Moreover, since the late 90's, Deadpool has always had an ongoing series because I think if he didn't there would be a riot. Creators from Brian Michael Bendis to guys who come in from outside the industry are chomping at the bit to find a way to write him because he has that kind of following amongst their community as well.

It's tough to explain the zeitgeist around Deadpool, but I'll attempt to do so anyways, because I think a good deal of it can attributed to one really good writer.

Probably what stands out to me most about Deadpool is the way the character has "risen above his station," so to say. I think Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza would probably have no trouble acknowledging that when they created the character in 1991 they weren't looking for much more than a cool-looking adversary for Cable who had some neat add-ons as far as the yperactive pop-culture quoting and the scarred up face. Nicieza and Mark Waid--two writer whom I hold in extremely high regard--added a bit of meat to the bones as far as giving Deadpool some dimension in his two 90's limited series, fleshing out his past and adding some supporting cast, but again, I doubt either had designs on making the character particularly enduring.

Then along came Joe Kelly and an incredible 33-issue run on a Deadpool ongoing series that I'm guessing most people wouldn't have given past 12 issues in their offices pools (in the event that anybody was having office pools centered around how long a Deadpool series would last).

You can't get 6 issues, let alone 33 (or the 69 issues that Deadpool's first ongoing ran), just out of "kewl assassin with swords and guns." What Kelly did was take a harder look at what would be going on inside the psyche of a dude like Deadpool, combined it with a great sense of humor, a unique supporting cast and more, and created a very different kind of super hero book. He set a template that successive writers such as Deadpool's original co-creator Fabian Nicieza and current DP steward Daniel Way have been able to continue tapping into over a decade later, that of the most unlikely hero in the world trying to do his best against his nature.

In his first few issues, Kelly makes sure to establish that in the mercenary world, there's nobody better than Deadpool, and that his peers either revere him for how bad ass he is or hate and are jealous of him for the very same reasons. As long as he's got the mask on and a target to stab or shoot, Wade Wilson is the coolest cat around, quipping and flipping his way to whatever he wants.

However, when the mask comes off, we see that Wade is an extremely flawed and messed up dude, both physically and otherwise. Via Weasel, DP's geeky tech bud introduced back in his first mini, we get to see 'Pool at his best, doing the merc thing. But one of Kelly's early triumphs is the introduction of Blind Al, one of the most unique supporting characters in comics, and perfect for an offbeat character and book like Deadpool. Al is a cantakerous old blind lady who Deadpool has "taken hostage," having lived in her house for years with her waiting on him when he needs it. Al is the warped Aunt May or Ma Kent of Deadpool's world, as she sees the true, beneath the mask Wade and challenges him yet is terrified of what he's capable of. She gives Wade shit and pushes him to be better than he is, making the fact that he refers to her as a hostage seem ludicrous, but whenever he gets a bit too dark, unlike Weasel or the other characters, Al backs off because she has also seen him at his worst and knows he is far from a joke.

So you've got the "public" Deadpool we'd gotten to know via his X-Force appearances and minis as represented by how he is amongst his fellow mercs and with Weasel, but the "private" Deadpool that Kelly delved into and expanded via his interactions with Al and his inner monologue (and sometimes dialogue, because, y'know, he's nuts) was where the magic happened. This guy who's great at his job and has the respect/annoyance of his peers puts up a front of bravado and humor to mask the fact that at the end of the day, he's got nothing. He's an ugly motherfucker who lives with a blind granny who he needs to keep a prisoner in order to have anybody to talk to. His life, which he portrays to the world around him as being the shit, is in fact just shit. He's miserable. And deep down, he knows he can do better.

And that's a guy you can root for.

Joe Kelly transformed Deadpool into an iconic character for a different era in that he was not a millionaire with a square jaw or even a nerdy high school kid with a heart of gold; he was a deeply deeply flawed individual who indulged in violence, heard voices in his head, had a face that looked like hamburger and killed people for profit--but he wanted to be better.

He was not the Punisher or even Batman. He did not feel content or justified in his actions. He was just kinda resigned to them. That was his routine.

Then he got offered something better.

Early in the Deadpool series, Wade is approached by representatives from the "interdimensional law firm" of Landau, Luckman and Lake, who inform he has a destiny to become a great hero and save the world. Wade rejects this as nonsense and continues along his semi-merry way, but over the next 25 issues, amidst much chaos and many good, entertaining stories, the super-structure is Deadpool struggling with the idea that he does have the capability to be more than what he has always been, and dealing with how much that terrifies him.

As Deadpool embarks down the journey to his ultimate destiny, Kelly deftly weaves in brilliant stories fleshing out Wade's complex past, explaining how he came to be who and what he is, while also tossing out fun one-two-issue romps and crazy fights with an eclectic mix of guest stars from Sasquatch to the Hulk to Bullseye to Taskmaster. He balances the heavy stuff like Deadpool's dealings with Typhoid Mary or doomed attempts at romance with Siryn with absurd comedy with the Great Lakes Avengers or the funniest issue of any comic I've ever read in which Wade becomes Silver Age Peter Parker (more on that in the next post). The first 25 issues of Deadpool are just a great potpurri of entertainment, from easy reading fun to deeper psychological contemplation, and Kelly juggles it masterfully.

A brief aside: I'm not saying much about the art because there's really no need to. Joe Kelly's run on Deadpool had some fantastic artists, including Ed McGuinness and Pete Woods, but I mean no disrespect to their work when I say they were just icing. Rob Liefeld did a great job when he designed Deadpool because it's a look that's hard to mess up; it's inherently cool-looking. The artists who handled the first 33-plus issues of Deadpool did some great action work, etc., but the character and the writing was really the main event.

Anyways, as per usual with these Essentials, I could go on, but I'll try to wrap up. The first 25 issues of Deadpool read wonderfully as an offbeat epic that keeps twisting and turning every which way. You get everything you want and stuff you'd never expect. Joe Kelly seriously connected with the character and his world and just got it in a very special and unique way. He drops seemingly inconsequential bits in the first five issues that won't pay off until the tail end of his run. He works in what has become vintage Deadpool bits like breaking the fourth wall in a way that does not seem contrived. It's an incredible run.

In many, ways, Kelly's final eight issues of Deadpool feel like a horrible tease. He's just finished a story that seems impossible to top, and indeed almost make you wish there were no more Deadpool stories after (just kidding, that's crazier than Deadpool; it really does have a great ending though), then just as he gets his wind back and seems like he's cranking into opus number two, he's gone. We get an awesome Deadpool/Wolverine fight that include 'Pool knocking Kitty Pryde around with Street Fighter moves and a few other gems, but it's really just those last few scraps on the plate after an amazing meal.

What Joe Kelly did with Deadpool is a feat. He took a character who by all rights should have gone out of style with the likes of Crule and Gunfire and made him an icon. If you have ever even been mildly entertained by Deadpool or would like to be, you owe it to yourself to check out this run. The first two issues just got collected in the volume one of Deadpool Classic (which also had his debut and the minis), so hopefully more will be coming later this year.

You can also do what my pal Jordan did and spend like $200 books getting every Deadpool appearance ever in handbound hardcovers on eBay, but you could also continue to feed yourself.

Coming soon, I'll go more in-depth on some of my favorite stories from those 33 radtastic issues.


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Sohaib Zahid said...

So...yeah...I read this just now (7 years after you've written it) and I just wanted to say...awesome, awesome review bro.Kelly made 'Pool one of my all time fav characters back in the day and that goodwill for Mr Kelly and DP continues to this day! Can't wait to read his new run (with Spidey to boot!)