In the scheme of the X-Men universe, there are a lot of different teams and characters to follow. Even though it’s a subset of the larger Marvel universe, it’s very easy to think of the X-Men and their related characters as their own thing. There’s certainly enough diversity in the cast with multiple team books aimed at different types of superhero stories (the X-Men for straightforward heroics, X-Factor for something with a bit of a detective bent, any incarnation of X-Force for higher grade violence and action, Wolverine for smaller scale stories featuring a lone wolf hero against impossible odds, and so on). The major unifying element of all these different brands is that they’re high on melodrama and angst over the mutant issue.
I’ve read through all the back issues and trust me, angst is a big part of X-Men history.
So when I was reading through the stuff from the early ’90s (you know, the period when X-Men was starting to get some major mainstream visibility thanks to the Saturday morning cartoon), I was really taken with the introduction of Deadpool.
For anyone who’s not familiar, Deadpool is a character created by Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld (Nicieza is a competent comic book writer whose material can probably best be described as fun, and Liefeld is a hack artist with no sense of human anatomy who was inexplicably popular during the ’90s). He was originally conceived as an antagonist for the New Mutants (who would soon become the first version of X-Force; I don’t think I can stress enough what a disappointment X-Force was as the follow-up from the first volume of New Mutants), but the fact that he was also an inside joke at Marvel as a copy of DC’s villain Deathstroke eventually led him to be re-branded as a comedic anti-hero. Eventually he gained enough popularity to earn his own solo book, which has forever after been associated with other X-books, even though Deadpool isn’t a mutant and his personal connections to other prominent mutants (primarily Wolverine and Cable) is tenuous at best.
And even though there’s not a whole lot about Deadpool that fits thematically in with the X-Men, his various solo series (he’s currently starring in the third volume of his ongoing series, and has had way more spin-off and mini-series than is healthy for a solo character) have generally been a welcome change of pace. Deadpool’s definitely a tragic character in his own right (he’s horribly disfigured by his healing factor, which was developed as a cure to his cancer, and he’s also insane due to the rapid regeneration of his brain matter), but most of the time he’s played for laughs as a comic book character who knows he’s in a comic book.
My opinion of him vacillates between enjoyment and annoyance, based mostly on how his books compare with other X-books that run contemporaneously with them. The early stuff, like Joe Kelly and Christopher Priest’s runs on Deadpool Vol. 1 are generally good stuff with plenty of comedy and just a hint of pathos thrown in. Later entries are more mixed; while Fabian Nicieza’s Cable & Deadpool was fun, it was never anything I was terribly thrilled to be reading, and Daniel Way’s run on Deadpool Vol. 2 was pretty much in the same category. The various spinoff series typically strike me as far inferior works that rely on extra violence and toilet humor to get by.
That brings me to Volume 3, which has been co-written so far by Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan. I’m not familiar with any of Duggan’s other work, but Posehn’s notable for his career as a stand up comic and character actor. I’ll be honest when I say that I was exhausted with Deadpool comics by the time I came across this one. Where I’m generally positively disposed towards the creative teams on the X-books for putting up an effort in the last decade to tell interesting stories without trading on lowest common denominator things (like absurd violence, sophomoric jokes, and poorly written, ludicrously drawn female characters), Deadpool’s series just never hit the same bar of expectations. I mean, the first major arc of Deadpool Vol. 3 revolves around him killing zombie U.S. presidents (all of them) that have been resurrected to take over the country.
This is not just silly stuff, but also stupid in multiple ways.
At the same time, Deadpool is a character that occasionally gets stories that do pour on the pathos. The most recent arc that I read from Volume 3, “The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly,” was surprisingly poignant, and has instilled in me some kind of hope that future issues will maintain the level of quality from that story. Of course, that one isn’t perfect either, since much of the pathos comes from the fact that Deadpool learns he has a daughter by way of a woman that he slept with only a couple issues prior to this arc as part of an extended gag (the issue where that happens is branded as a flashback story of one of Deadpool’s adventures from the ’70s; it’s full of ’70s pop culture cliches and all around ridiculous). The woman gets no further development besides being an obscure sexual conquest from Deadpool’s fictional history, and then she’s unceremoniously found dead at the climax of the story arc to give Deadpool mounds and mounds of angst (the only way this could be more classic women in refrigerators is if her body was found in an icebox instead of a mass grave). And I just don’t know what to do with that. It’s really problematic as a plot device, but the way Deadpool’s portrayed in the issue that follows his discovery is also extremely compelling.
And that probably best sums Deadpool up. He has a lot of potential to be a very compelling character, both for drama and comedy, but he’s wrapped up in so many narrative problems endemic to superhero comics. It’s a difficult puzzle to unwrap, because his point within the Marvel universe is to be someone that all the regular heroes have trouble getting along with because of his distasteful personality and penchant for unrestrained violence. Unfortunately, characters who are written that way have a tendency to attract certain kinds of narratives, and the devices that come up in those narratives are always going to be difficult to separate from interesting characterization and lazy, grotesque, sexist writing.