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Deadpool 2 is imminent, following up the 2016 film that introduced the wider world to the chatty, bloodthirsty, dubiously sane and surprisingly good-hearted mercenary Wade Wilson. The world fell in love, and with good reason – Ryan Reynolds has a way with high-speed banter and he’s a dab hand with both open and repressed emotions. I’m a long-time fan of the character, so it was a treat to see Reynolds bring him to life so well. All the more so because the character is genuinely difficult to write. Lean too hard into his comic side, and you have a grating, insufferable shamble of occasionally mean jokes and pop culture references whose freshness will inevitably fade. Lean too hard on his dramatic side, and you have one more boring macho tormented angry murder bro. If you carelessly make him too vicious, you’re left with an awful man doing awful things and the comedy sours. And given his origins and history, Deadpool cannot ever be straightforwardly heroic and good, not completely.
Wade Wilson is a tough character to get right, as talented, funny writers have learned. Take, for instance, Christopher Priest (Black Panther). In an essay written shortly after the conclusion of his run, Priest admits his time on the book “wasn’t my finest hour.” He kicked his story off with Deadpool arriving in a trailer park for characters who had then fallen into comic book limbo and tossing a duffel bag labeled “Every good idea [iconic Deadpool writer Joe] Kelly ever had and everything that made this book work” into a tar pit. At the end of the run, Deadpool returned to the park and apparently hurled Priest’s corpse into the same pit. Deadpool has thwarted creators before, and he will thwart them again.
Some creative teams, however, have found Deadpool alchemy, taking a recurring goon from the late days of The New Mutants and the early days of X-Force and forging him into a distinct, popular character.
First up is Joe Kelly who, alongside artists Ed McGuinness, Bernard Chang, Shannon Denton, Pete Woods, Walter McDaniel and David Brewer, set the template for Deadpool’s character in the first 33 issues (plus two annuals) of the first ongoing Deadpool series. Next are the great Gail Simone and the UDON art collective, who brought that ongoing to its (literally) explosive conclusion and then brought Wade back from the dead after a detour into the life and times of the pseudo-Deadpool Agent X. And though Kelly, Simone, and their collaborators will receive the lions’ share of space here, I also want to shine a bit of a light on the Fabian Nicieza-written Cable & Deadpool series and Gerry Duggan’s lengthy, just-concluded run (the first big chunk of which was co-written with Brian Posehn).
Joe Kelly’s run is about a lousy, sometimes genuinely monstrous man who desperately wants to be good but never quite makes it thanks to self-destructive ways, an ugly past that intrudes just when things are looking up, and plain old bad luck. Kelly’s Wade is not just cruel to his friends, he’s frighteningly abusive, and then wallows in self-loathing. For as much as he might want to atone, Wade defaults to his worst habits, never quite believing he can actually become the man he wants to be. In the most somber part of Kelly’s run, Wade kills Ajax, the sadistic, eerily childish bully who tormented and tortured his friends in the lab where his powers were activated. And as he does, he mourns having to give up on his attempt to stop killing. In a later story, he confronts an alien that wanted to reduce everyone on the planet to a state of vaguely blissful delirium. Wade slays the being and saves humanity, perhaps his single greatest act of heroism, but confesses in the moment that he’s got no idea if he’s making the right call.
Yet Kelly’s Deadpool never ever stops trying, a self-awareness that develops over the course of the run. His arch nemesis, zombie sorcerer T-Ray, reveals that “Wade Wilson” was a name Deadpool stole from an innocent schoolteacher (who in turn became T-Ray) during his days as a brutal nomad known only as Jack: Deadpool was an even worse person than he had believed himself to be, but refuses to break. Yes, he’s a horrible person. Yes, whenever he tries to be good he either botches things or bad luck hits. But where T-Ray fell into depravity and vengeance, Deadpool kept pushing, kept trying. They battle, leaving T-Ray a broken mess and Deadpool at peace with himself*, though faced with painful death at the hands of the vengeful spirits of everyone he had ever killed. A devoted fanbase ensured the series’ survival (and necessitated some last-minute re-writes to the very end of the story), but if Deadpool had indeed perished fighting all his slain foes, he would have accepted it. He would have been okay. It’s something. Something massive even.
By contrast, Gail Simone’s run (including Agent X) posits that Deadpool, while happily a professional mercenary with a wicked sense of humor and a massive mean streak, is ultimately a genuinely decent human being. The trick is that Simone’s Wade doesn’t quite realize this: there’s no moment of clarity as in Kelly or Nicieza’s takes. He simply does right by his friends because they’re his friends. He rolls with life’s punches and usually finds something that makes him laugh.
When Sandi, his manager, is put in the hospital by her abusive ex, Wade’s there to make hospital food jokes and ensure that the staff treats her well (to the point that if she wants ice cream, they are to do nothing less than “kidnap Ben and Jerry.”). He also pummels the abusive creep senseless and bars him from ever returning to the city. When the mutant son of one of his clients assures him that it’s okay to be scared of his (unseen) horrifying face, Wade pulls off his own mask to reveal that they’re two of a kind (a major step forward for him from Kelly’s run, where Wade’s vanity made him hate looking at his horrendously scarred face). And, before starting a fight he’s fairly certain will kill him, Wade first forces his foe, the hateful, snobby telepath Black Swan, to heal his homeless biographer/friend Ratbag's (real name Erik) severe brain damage. Simone’s Deadpool doesn’t try to be heroic, or seek redemption. He just helps his friends.
Wade’s unassuming, even unknowing kindness carries over into his doppelganger Alex Hayden/Agent X. Black Swan’s psychic powers went haywire during his battle with Deadpool, producing Agent X, essentially a hybrid of Wade, Swan and Nijo, an honorable former Swan ally who Swan murdered for a perceived insult. Alex has Swan’s skill with firearms, love of high European culture (classical music, rare wines) and even his disgust towards the rude and uncouth. But he also has Wade’s sense of humor, his core decency and his loyalty to his friends. The biggest point of common ground between Wade and Alex? Their very justified hatred of Black Swan. Wade condemns Swan as a snob who disguises his cruelty with class contempt and feigned politeness. And, before killing him for good, Alex mocks Swan as a fool obsessed with his obnoxious certainty that his social standing makes him a superior human. Alex never entirely stops despising or wanting to murder Wade, but otherwise the two get along well enough. They even get together for a celebratory end-of-series vacation. Black Swan joins them, Alex having brought in a taxidermist to prevent him from cheating death again. He makes a dandy surfboard.
Nicieza, Duggan and Posehn’s Deadpools tread the middle ground between Kelly and Simone’s, albeit in different ways. Nicieza built Cable & Deadpool (later retitled Deadpool & Cable after Deadpool’s popularity exploded in the late 2000s) around the tense, fragile and ultimately deep friendship that developed between the mercenary and the time-traveling soldier who dreamed of building a utopia. Wade needed help to be good. Otherwise, he was content to amble from job to job, working for anyone who wasn’t too horrifying. Over the course of their shared misadventures, Cable tried to push Wade towards heroism both overtly and covertly. The latter backfired pretty horribly, but the two reconciled shortly before Cable’s apparent death (as seen above), leaving Wade the realization that Cable truly believed he could be a hero. In response, he vows to honor his friend’s memory and not let him down.
Duggan and Posehn’s Wade hews closer to Kelly’s, but more for his self-destructive tendencies than an inability to change, for change Wade does in their run. He discovers that he is a parent and takes in his daughter. He gets married (to a succubus). His popularity explodes to the point where he not only joins the Avengers, but for a time he funds them. And, after the calamity of HYDRA’s Secret Empire (wherein Wade joined forces with an evil version of Captain America and wound up killing two close friends on his orders), he decides to blow up the life he had worked so hard to build. Even then, Wade isn’t so much reverting to his past self as he is deliberately plowing down the most painful path he can, to punish himself.
So what does make these disparate takes on Deadpool work so well? Senses of humor, for one, whether that means Wade having to impersonate Peter Parker after getting thrown back in time to a classic Spider-Man comic or cackling at his own demise. Acknowledgment of Wade as a dynamic character, for another, rather than a perpetual motion meme machine. Finally, the care taken to develop a thesis on who Deadpool is and then executing it. In other words? These creative teams take the business of being ridiculous seriously. But not so seriously that this seems out of place:
*Over the years Deadpool’s creative teams have gone back and forth whether T-Ray was telling the truth. As it currently stands, Wade Wilson has always been Wade Wilson.
This article featured art by David Brewer, the UDON collective, Reilly Brown & John Malin, Declan Shalvey and Walter McDaniel.