I can’t think of any character more perplexing to the never-miss-a-Wednesday Marvel Zombie crowd than Deadpool. The character’s mainstream popularity is baffling – he’s the farthest thing from a good entry point to the Marvel Universe, he doesn’t represent the unique quality’s of the world in the way that, say, Spider-man does, and he barely has a handful of memorable stories to his name. As much as a lot of fans resent Wolverine’s massive popularity (which I think comes from a poisonous place of nostalgia more than anything, many fans still hung up about Marvel’s decision to reveal his ludicrously mysterious origins), Deadpool receives backlash at a much larger scale – but why?
On the surface, I’d say a large part of it is frustration that he’s a poor ambassador – being a superhero fan can be an insecure business. Despite their massive popularity at the box office and their overbearing presence in merchandise, I still find myself mocked by family and sneered at by strangers for throwing down a chunk of change for a complete run of DARKHAWK (which, for the record, I’m not saying I don’t deserve.) I think Deadpool is a very visceral reminder of that insecurity – he’s an invulnerable ninja frat boy superhero who makes dick and fart jokes. Not only do I think a lot of comics fans want to distance themselves from the juvenile man-child stereotype perpetuated by, among other things, Kevin Smith’s films, I think we genuinely want to show people what these characters are capable of. Would it be easier to shove these things under people’s noses if they were ready to believe writers like Brian Wood or Matt Fraction are capable of telling very human and real stories if the word Marvel wasn’t synonymous to them with Deadpool and Wolverine? I think the idea of a ‘comics ambassador’ was similarly a problem for DC fans in the ’90s – at a time when the genre was trying a little too hard to prove that superheroes could handle sex and violence, Superman seemed like a constant reminder that these things had a very earnest and silly place of origin, a constant reminder to the outside world that comics were kids’ stuff.
It’s interesting, because as much as we fans will instantly point to Deadpool’s tired status of self-aware prankster as the primary reason we dislike him, breaking the fourth wall is actually a Marvel staple, dating back to the earliest issues of some of their most popular characters. Stan and Jack both appear in FANTASTIC FOUR constantly, mocking themselves and the stories increasingly grandiose themes at equal measure, but really, Stan Lee was the most popular character during the Marvel Age of Comics. As sad as his mistreatment of Ditko, Kirby and many other talented artists is, the revisionist historians who cast him as some sort of talentless hack forcing artists to create his stories for him are missing out on one of the real joys of ’60s Marvel – Stan’s ever present voice in the narration captions.
Always ready to mock the melodrama and more complex themes that were beginning to define his superhero stories, constantly making cracks at the expense of the cliches so readily used by the superhero genre, Stan’s narration boxes make you feel in on the joke in the right kind of way. His relaxed and jovial tone eases the tension of one of Peter’s terrifying neurotic break-downs in the Ditko era, or after Johnny’s psyche is shattered from learning the secrets of the universe in Kirby’s cosmic opus. Lee may have not been writing comics in the way we currently associate, but his voice was very important to those stories, and kept many of Kirby and Ditko’s more pompous and heavy-handed elements in line.
Still, the hate for Deadpool is palpable, and even I have to admit that I can barely tolerate the character, and for a very superficial reason, and I apologize for the lack of originality – the constant meta-commentary is grating and obtrusive to telling memorable stories. Of course, it’s an easy shot to make, and one that becomes increasingly complicated considering that She-Hulk is one of my favourite Marvel characters, particularly John Bryne’s run on THE SENSATIONAL SHE-HULK – a title that Deadpool is entirely in debt to, a mad-cap absurd romp through comics tropes and cliches, a series that shattered its fourth wall beyond repair, a Marvel comic in the Marx Brothers mode.
Ironically, both Deadpool and She-Hulk were cast as humourists out of necessity more than anything. The She-Hulk originally featured in the 25 issue SAVAGE SHE-HULK, a title quickly put together after rumours began circulating that the writers of ‘The Incredible Hulk’ TV series were going to create a female Hulk which they would then retain the rights to. I think my pal Zane said it best when he described the David Anthony Kraft and Mike Vosburg series as ‘Hulk in a skirt’, and it’s true – as a fan, there’s a lot I love about that series, but it doesn’t go much beyond the premise of a single female lawyer that gets really mad and then breaks a bunch of things. Later on, Shulkie joined the Avengers, becoming your typical Bronze Age attempt at feminism, a no nonsense tough gal that embraced her sexuality and you better respect it, buster! I think this characterization was done with the best of intentions, but it’s pretty embarrassing to look back on.
It really was Bryne’s series that defined the character, but really, all he did was implement the oldest trick in the book – he gave She-Hulk the gift of self-awareness, of being concious of the fact that she was the lead character of a comic, that nothing truly bad would ever happen to her and that the minor annoyances that did show up were all the fault of one Canadian cartoonist and a bunch of geeky fans. But how is this any better than Deadpool? The humour certainly wasn’t any more high brow – I’m sure many readers remember the infamous issue that opens with She-Hulk skipping rope naked in an attempt to boost sales. Why do I love SENSATIONAL but write off Deadpool as cynical and empty snark?
I think it’s because there is something really sincere in wanting to take something apart and figuring out how it works, and fiction is no different. It makes sense that we endlessly curious and inquisitive human beings would reach a point where we stop enjoying stories and we start wondering why their even are stories, and it makes even more sense that this would then reflect in the stories themselves. It’s not that I wish Modernism never happened, it’s just that it gave us the easiest out we could ever ask for in covering up the way we feel. It almost seems as if we waited millions of years for an excuse to not admit that we cared, trying out multiple past times, religions and wars to prove how above life we all were, until this thing came down like a gift from God that we could wear as a mask for the rest of our life on this planet.
But it’s so frustrating, because it really doesn’t take much to point out that stories aren’t real. We kind of always knew that going in, and being constantly reassured that we’re better than the story we’ve made the choice to read makes the experience completely meaningless. At best, you can walk away feeling a little bigger and better about yourself, but I don’t think that’s what fiction is supposed to do, and I really think that’s the difference between She-Hulk and Deadpool – Shulkie worked as a device to explore the cliches and tropes of superhero comics because she had a real history with them, and Bryne was able to come up with legitimate questions about not only comics’ unique narrative functions (such as the practically surreal passage of time that is ‘the gutter’) but also the sexual exploitation and violence that seems so tied to superheroes. She-Hulk is actual irony in a complicated and intellectual way – but even if he is cracking jokes about what’s happening on panel, Deadpool is the exact thing he’s mocking.
Despite my seeming attitude to the contrary, I do think you can tell incredible stories that still explore the source of narrative or deconstruct the genre the story takes part in. However, it’s a really tricky business to get right, and I don’t think Joe Kelly, Daniel Way or Brian Posehn have ever been able to do it for Deadpool. But really, I don’t think it’s a failing on the writers’ part – I think the character inherently fails as any sort of commentary on fiction. You can’t have your cake and eat it, too, and I think Bryne understood that on SENSATIONAL – if you’re going to explore superhero comics tropes, the comic can’t just devote itself to using them and then have the character point out the ridiculousness of it all. You have to really have a conversation about why stories work the way they do, and include the characters in that conversation – Deadpool’s stories are so grating for precisely that reason. Deadpool doesn’t exist as a character in the way Shulkie did – he exists to be the very thing he’s mocking, a violent and sexist juvenile superhero whose self-awareness doesn’t mask his inherent emptiness as a character. Breaking the fourth wall may have always been a tradition at Marvel, but the intelligence and heart present in their stories and characters is the kind of tradition that will outlast us all.