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Deadpool No. 65.
Deadpool No. 65.

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Deadpool, explained

While raunchy humor and cynicism have become Deadpool's trademark characteristics, he also represents something unique to comic books.

Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

Deadpool is getting a sequel. That's impressive, given that the movie — which is led by an actor who hasn't had a box office smash since 2009 — earned a follow-up film before it was even released, and thus before it made a single penny on American soil. On the surface, it sounds like blazing insanity on Fox's part.

But it isn't. Not even close.

The studio's confidence in Deadpool stems from the character's unique place in the Marvel Universe. Unlike Iron Man or Thor or Captain America, Deadpool goes into his own movie as one of company's most popular heroes and one of its most visible personalities. He appears in quite a few different comics; one minute he's helping the Avengers take on Red Skull, the next he's using a shoryuken on Kitty Pryde, and after that he's hanging out with Cable and Spider-Man. He's a frequent (some might even say overexposed) guest star in other heroes' stories, but he also gets the spotlight his own books.

Deadpool, a.k.a. Wade Wilson, has a healing ability that rivals that of Wolverine and looks like what would happen if psoriasis had psoriasis — the result of an experiment, performed in desperation in response to terminal cancer, gone awry. It's not a terribly unique origin story.

And while his raunchy humor and cynicism are what the character has become known for, Deadpool also represents something unique to comic books: He's part of a narrative that's run continually for 25 years and has changed and adapted in different ways, under different writers and artists along the way.

How Deadpool came to be

The key to understanding Deadpool is to understand the era in which he was created. Deadpool makes his first comic appearance in 1991's New Mutants No. 98, by writer Fabian Nicieza and artist-writer Rob Liefeld. When we first meet him, he's ready to "frost" Cable's "mechanical butt":

New Mutants No. 98. (Marvel)

Liefeld's Deadpool looks like a red fire ant on growth hormones; I'm not sure what's going on with the undulating sack of "muscles" in his legs. Eventually, we would learn of Deadpool's participation in a complicated plot involving a former girlfriend who had infiltrated X-Force, an offshoot of mutants and the X-Men franchise. But right here, in this debut moment, we understand that he's a mercenary who isn't afraid to kill people. And that already reveals a lot.

Because when it comes to superheroes, violence is personal.

Whether a superhero is willing to kill people is one of the biggest tells in comics. The concept is simple: Villains are expected to kill with reckless abandon, and heroes are not. Showing restraint and not killing someone, even though that person may have done a lot of fucked-up stuff, is what defines a hero. Those are the goalposts.

And the stories where heroes do kill — like when Wonder Woman kills Maxwell Lord in Wonder Woman No. 219 or Fantomex kills a reincarnation of Apocalypse in Uncanny X-Force No. 4 — are major turning points in terms of those heroes' morality.

Right off the bat, Deadpool seemingly has no conscience, which sets off all the alarms that he's a villain. But there's something else in play here, and it's that Deadpool is a reflection of his era's major comic book trends.

Like a tween who has just discovered Slayer or Megadeth, in the '90s comics began to shift toward edgier, more violent, and more sexualized stories. At the time, there was also a shift toward graphic violence in other pockets of culture, including video games (think Mortal Kombat) and movies (like Natural Born Killers).

But the shift in comics was seen as a response to the years of stories published under the Comics Code, a set of editorial standards — good always triumphs over evil, nothing overtly sexual, no gore — the industry imposed on itself to keep comics clean and parents happy. It allowed for a continuation of the themes in Frank Miller's The Dark Knight Returns and Alan Moore's The Watchmen — two darker, edgier stories that dissected the idea of the superhero.

Creators quickly embraced the trend, which led to the creation of Image Comics — Liefeld actually left Marvel in 1992 and co-founded the company, whose flagship hero, Spawn, was more violent than Marvel or DC's characters could be. Image's other comics, like The Savage Dragon, Witchblade, and Gen 13 were also popular, and they artistically stretched the boundaries of how comic books depicted sex and violence.

Deadpool was created at the beginning of this spurt. It's why he talks about killing and uses slang, which at the time was hipper than it is now. And we know from Liefeld's subsequent work at Image that he'd always wanted to push for edgier stuff but didn't finish that vision with Nicienza and Deadpool.

How Deadpool became the character we know today

Deadpool has undergone many changes throughout the years. Right from the start, he was something different from Marvel's stable of characters, thanks to his violence and edge. He had the grit of the X-Men — who were immensely popular at the time — but allowed writers and artists a vehicle to push further beyond their territory.

However, what would ultimately set Deadpool apart, and allow him to progress past the hyperviolence of the '90s, was his ability for breaking the fourth wall.

Deadpool began to take his current form in 1997, when writer Joe Kelly and artist Ed McGuinness began the Deadpool solo series. The shift was predicated by a copious amount of freedom granted by a general lack of editorial interest in the character.

"With Deadpool, we could do anything we wanted because everybody just expected the book to be canceled every five seconds, so nobody was paying attention," Kelly told Newsarama in 2009. "And we could get away with it."

The "anything" Kelly is talking about is Deadpool's unhinged, fourth-wall-breaking personality. During Kelly and McGuinness's reign, he not only spoke to the audience frequently, he also became something of a cypher, pointing out the ridiculousness of the superhero genre and reflecting readers' own thoughts and ideas back onto the page.

Guinness's style complemented Deadpool's sarcastic tone, as there was a jokey, almost friendly aspect to the comic. The shapes were rounder, the characters more cartoonish, and the art belied Deadpool's seriousness and violence:

Deadpool No. 4. (Marvel)

For example, in Deadpool No. 4, he mocks Stan Lee's "true believer" catchphrase and addresses his readers directly. Then, later in the comic, he has a psychotic breakdown where you can't tell who he's addressing:

Deadpool No. 4. (Marvel)

Kelly used the psychotic voices in Deadpool's head and his habit of breaking the fourth wall to set the tone for the character. On one hand, Deadpool was smarter than the rest of the characters in the book because he was self-aware. On the other hand, you couldn't really trust him because of his deep psychological scars.

In the comics industry, Deadpool offered a unique viewpoint and voice. However, despite their groundbreaking work, the Kelly-McGuinness collaboration didn't chart that well, usually hovering around the 30s on the comics best-seller list. Kelly eventually left the comic. But what he and McGuinness started stuck with the character.

In Kelly and McGuinness's hands, Deadpool was less serious. To be clear, less serious doesn't mean bad or not smart. But if you compare Deadpool's storylines to some of the X-Men storylines of the '90s (e.g., the Legacy Virus, an allegory for the AIDS epidemic), the character wasn't entrenched in the same kind of somberness.

A writer named Christopher Priest stepped in at the tail end of 1999 with Deadpool No. 35. And right away, some of the elements that Kelly introduced — self-awareness, irreverence, talking to the audience — were fleshed out and expanded upon. Priest started grafting the reader-addressing, gory bits of Deadpool onto the character's bones, making them prominent and inescapable. And we started to see heightened satirical, often violent sequences like the one below, from issue 38, where Deadpool tries in vain to scar himself to break Loki's curse:

Deadpool No. 38. (Marvel)

This is just a nifty, funny way that Deadpool subverts and spoofs the idea of the super healing trope. When you encounter characters in comic books who can heal, it's usually in battle; chances are they're beat to a pulp and come back and end up doing something triumphant. Deadpool and his writer and artist are satirizing that, but still getting the point across.

This signature mix of humor, brevity, and physical violence would fade when Priest left the comic 2000 with issue 45, but was brought back by writer Gail Simone and main artist Udon Studios in Deadpool No. 65:

Deadpool No. 65. (Marvel)

What originally began with Moore and Miller's dark and well-executed tales in The Watchmen and The Dark Knight Returns eventually cascaded into an era of very serious, gritty comic books and storylines that grew popular due to their propensity for violence and the macabre. But that style eventually became monotonous, because every creator was jumping on that bandwagon. Deadpool represented something different and lighter — something that was still plenty violent, but that people could laugh at.

Deadpool's humor and self-awareness are what make the character unique. They're what give him continuity and imbue him with longevity beyond the cynical, gritty hyperviolence of the '90s. He was created during the trend, but managed to outlast it by cutting against it.

And slowly, Marvel and the men and women creating Deadpool began to realize that his humor was the most necessary part of the character who'd become known to many as the "Merc With a Mouth."

Deadpool has a heart, sort of

If I were to pick one page from the past six months of comics that perfectly represents what Deadpool is like today, it would be the first page of Spider-Man/Deadpool No. 1, written by none other than Joe Kelly and drawn by Ed McGuinness:

Spider-Man/Deadpool No. 1. (Marvel)

Spider-Man and Deadpool are tangled in a web, hanging upside down over a sea of bad guys. And in this very dramatic moment, Deadpool is joking about how the friction of his leather and Spider-Man's wriggling is turning him on. It's hilarious, queer, weird, and sarcastic, but it's not done at anyone's expense, except for maybe the all-too-serious Spider-Man. That page is a full realization and embrace of Deadpool's quirks and self-awareness, but it's also indicative of how the character is currently being written.

In the past few years, there's been a push to make Deadpool funny but also to establish his moral compass. It adds another layer of depth to the character. Deadpool can be funny, irreverent, and murderous. But Marvel wanted to emphasize the idea that behind all of his outrageousness, Deadpool has a soul. And so we began to get flashes of Deadpool framed as a tragic figure.

In 2010, he was part of writer Rick Remender and main artist Jerome Opeña's Uncanny X-Force — a black ops group of X-Men (and allies) who do what the X-Men can't (mainly by killing). Deadpool, being a mercenary, should've been a seamless fit with the group.

But in the first arc, the X-Force must face a reincarnation of the villain Apocalypse, who happens to be a child. And one of its members, Fantomex, guns him down. The incident rattles Deadpool to his core, and he ends up clashing with the team:

Uncanny X-Force No. 5. (Marvel)

It's a heartbreaking moment, not only because we see Deadpool deal with the trauma, but also because it shows what the rest of the team thinks of him. That team is composed of X-Men, who are supposed to be protecting the people shunned by society. They're supposed to be "better" people than Deadpool, but he's the only one who's showing remorse.

Wolverine doesn't see Deadpool as a person, claiming that Deadpool is just with the X-Force for the money. But it's later revealed that Deadpool hasn't been cashing his checks.

Perhaps it's because Deadpool is lonely, but he enjoyed being part of the group. So leaving it was not only a big deal for him, it also showed there are some things he takes seriously.

This is hammered home in Marvel's 2014 AXIS crossover event (also penned by Remender), where Apocalypse and Deadpool confront each other in battle:

Avengers & X-Men: Axis No. 7. (Marvel)

Deadpool, healing abilities and all, is no match for Apocalypse, who is now all grown up. Apocalypse thrashes Deadpool while he pleads — knowing that Apocalypse is capable of being better. The scene underscores Deadpool's sense of morality and calls back to his tangled time with the X-Force. Now, it's important to note that the complicated storyline involves villains and heroes getting their personalities inverted, but there's a sense that Deadpool (who refers to himself as Zenpool) still holds on to some of that kid murder trauma.

It's strange to compare this modern Deadpool, a dirty-joke-throwing, tragic mercenary with a rigid sense of morality, to the Deadpool we first met some 25 years ago. His humor becomes a defense mechanism, and beneath the mask is a character who struggles with his own humanity. He's certainly grown up in the past 25 years. And the comic-reading audience has, too.

Why we root for Deadpool

When people try to explain fans' love for Deadpool and the new Deadpool movie (in theaters now), it usually goes like this: "He tells dirty jokes, kills shit, and yells stuff about tacos, and dudes love him for it." And maybe that's true for some fans and some iterations of the character. But that's a terribly compressed view of the hero and his fans.

Even if you don't read Deadpool comics religiously or subscribe to his sense of humor, you can still appreciate the way the character has evolved throughout the years. That type of evolution for any kind of fictional character — the ability for different writers and artists to interpret the character and push him to be better over a continuous 25-year narrative — is typically only possible in comic books.

And the fantastic part is that he's still changing, one inappropriate joke at a time.


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