Deadpool – the Merc with the Mouth

As Wolverine is announced in the new Deadpool movie for two years time we look back at the creation of Deadpool.

“What coked-out, glass pipe-sucking freakshow comic book artist came up with that little chestnut? Probably a guy who can’t draw feet!”

“House blowing up builds character.”

In 1989, the House of Ideas was sold by New World Cinema to a company controlled by Ronald Perelman. In just three years, that house would get blown up and rebuilt, especially by two young men called Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld. By this time there had been a changing of the guard and “the majority of Marvel’s most popular artists … were once again under the age of thirty,” Sean Howe points out in his Marvel Comics the Untold Story.

Perelman realised that Marvel “had a potential to be a ‘mini-Disney in terms of intellectual property’.” He was so right. But the reason he would not be the man to realise this potential is explained by his focus on a company that was “ripe for exploitation and profit”. He had no interest in the content of what he was selling.

Todd McFarlane, a self-taught Canadian artist, wanted to get out from under any obligation to follow another writer’s scripts. To his surprise, he was given his own title: Spider-Man (no adjective). So how comfortable was he with his own writing abilities? “I don’t really consider myself a writer, so I don’t pay attention to writing.” Was this image-based approach going to work? (Spot the pun…)

In spite of an entirely unmemorable story, and with the addition of copies that were bagged (“I’m going to have to buy two, so that I can open one…”), the sales of issue #1 topped 2.65 million.

Rob Liefeld had a similar attitude to McFarlane. But, boy, was he full of ideas! When Bob Harras wanted a new leader for the New Mutants, he got bombarded with “pages and pages of costume designs and brand-new characters”. Out of this came Cable. Harras and Louise Simonson had some input into the character, but Louise soon realised “that Rob really wasn’t interested in the stories at all”. She points out that Liefeld “would do square windows on the
outside of the building, but round ones when you cut inside the building”.

McFarlane again: “If I can turn in 22 blank pages and the kids buy a million copies, who cares how comic books have been done for the past 50 years?” Ron Perelman certainly didn’t care. Sales improved when Liefeld started drawing New Mutants with issue #86, but when it was relaunched as X-Force, poly-bagged and with 5 different trading cards, it sold nearly four million copies! And this coincided with Marvel’s launch on the stock exchange. Shares rose on
the first day’s trading. Perelman pocketed $10 million dollars personally. But amidst all this Rob Liefeld made one really brillaint decision. When Louise Simonson left the writing chores on New Mutants, he asked for Fabian Nicieza to replace her. Together this new power duo introduced a bunch of new characters: Domino, Shatterstar, Feral, and the best of them all, Deadpool.

Liefeld realised that his new characters had to compete with the popularity of Spider-Man and
Wolverine. So, Deadpool can regenerate, but in a different way from Wolverine (or Captain Scarlet, or Keanu Reeves’ and Matt Kindt’s BRZRKR). Weapon X by Barry Windsor-Smith shows the agonies Logan goes through to recover. But Deadpool can lose his head and then fit it
back on (in The Immortal Hulk a literal loss of his head does not spell the end for our green giant). Stan Lee’s dialogue in Spider-Man is genuinely witty. The Merc with a Mouth obviously needs dialogue to come out of that mouth. It would take a while for Deadpool to evolve into the wisecracker we now know and love, but very few characters arrive fully formed (Superman did not originally have krytonite; the X-Men did not originally sell very well). Eventually, it seemed that Deadpool was even immortal (“cursed … with life,” remarked Thanos).

At the start, Deadpool was a supervillain, rather than an anti-hero. He was also sometimes compared to DC’s Deathstroke. But if you compare the X-Men, say, with DC’s Doom Patrol, you
will soon see that there is little completely new under the sun. Deadpool’s name is even Wade Winston Wilson, which as well as sticking to Stan Lee’s alliterative rule also somewhat resembles Deathstroke’s surname which is, eh, Wilson. It’s all good fun for the fans.

Liefeld’s comics were all the better for having a good writer. Of course visual media like TV, movies, and comics require good writing. As Hitchcock famously remarked, there are only three
things you need for a movie: the script, the script, and the script. He could spend over a year developing a script and then shoot the whole movie in a month because everything had been carefully thought out. Compare the best issues of Fantastic Four by Lee and Kirby, with The New Gods and the Demon which Kirby produced by himself at DC. The captions and the dialogue on the DC books really let down Kirby’s good looking ideas.

A remark by Nicieza is a useful guide to the character: “Deadpool is whatever… his brain tells him that he is in THAT moment. [Due to his neurons being affected by regeneration.] And then the moment passes.” Ironically, for a character conceived by an artist who downplayed the importance of words, it is the changes that writers have brought that make him so unique. In one story it was implied that this fluid character was the offspring of the Trickster God, Loki. In the world of Deadpool, almost anything is possible. Including… How can a comic book have even one wall?

You may be asking, what is this “4th wall” that everyone refers to? In a traditional theatre, the audience is separated from the stage by what is called a proscenium arch. Behind that is a room which only has 3 walls, with the 4th, facing the audience, invisible. The actors behave as if they are unaware of the audience, but the audience can see whatever is going on. When a character breaks that illusion and speaks directly to the audience, the actor is said to be breaking the 4th wall. In comics terms, the “wall” is the panel border. Behind the border the characters act out their story. When a character looks out at the readers and speaks directly to them the convention is broken.

Joe Kelly (who, as well as being an incredibly nice guy was one of the creators of Ben 10 and wrote the great Graphic Novel I Kill Giants) is credited with Deadpool breaking the 4th wall in his 1997 series and this has become a defining characteristic in most of his stories and in the Fox movies.

Deadpool is even aware that he is a fictional comic book character. He can even read back issues of his opponent’s comics. This awareness has continued into the movie version where he can remark that there are only two X-Men in the huge mansion because that was how far the film’s budget stretched.

“Bad Deadpool … Good Deadpool.”

Never one to hold back on an ill-thought-out opinion, Liefeld remarked in 2012: “Testament to Deadpool’s appeal and durability is that he thrives regardless of being regulated o D-list talent. Marvel A-list never touches.” Never mind how insulting this sounds, it is also quite untrue. Deadpool: The Circle Chase (1993) had as its creative team Fabian Nicieza and Joe Madureira.

In 1997 Joe Kelly’s ingenious use of breaking the 4th wall gave the character the final touch to its uniqueness. And his collaborator was Ed McGuinness, hardly a D-lister. However, the first part of Liefeld’s statement is completely correct: Deadpool has incredible appeal and durability. Deadpool has featured in video games, animated films, even a pinball game. But Deadpool has featured in video games, animated films, even a pinball game. But the movies proved a huge success for 20th Century Fox.

The first movie (2016), no doubt helped by a cameo from Rob Liefeld himself has so far taken
$783.1 million and the second (2018) slightly more, at $785.8 million, the highest-grossing X-film from Fox.

Perelman’s idea of Marvel as a “mini-Disney” has been replaced by the even bigger reality of Marvel being part of Disney. Now that Disney has aquired the franchises which were at Fox, Deadpool is slated to be part of the continuing MCU. Fabian Nicieza is said to have written a screenplay, but as I write Wendy Molyneux and Lizzie Molyneux-Loeglin are listed as the current
screenwriters. But, in Holywood, anything can change anytime. Maybe James Cameron will do it? Or maybe we’ll get a super-long version from Zack Snyder? Will it make a billion? Probably.

It came as a surprise to hardly any industry watchers in 1992, not at all long after the enormously successful year that they’d all just had, that Liefeld and McFarlane, along with Jim Lee, Erik Larsen, Whilce Portacio, Jim Valentino, and Marc Silvestri left their past careers behind them and formed a publishing company with the apposite name of Image. It has evolved into a company which publishes many terrific creator-owned titles such as Mark Millar’s which have a link to non-Marvel/DC blockbuster movies. But back at the start it was just a bunch of enthusiastic guys – it was all guys – who wanted to have control over their Intellectual Properties. “I’ll be the first to tell you that we [the Image collective] were never the best artists,” remarked Liefeld. “ We were never the best at anything, but just like a song or a band or whatever, we caught on and we toured rigorously.”

How did that work out? Well, in 1997, McFarlane’s Spawn was a huge live-action movie and an animated series. But an announced live-action sequel has yet to appear. In 2018, Netflix were meant to be acquiring Rob Liefeld’s Extreme Universe for a very large sum of money. But the deal fell apart.

Marvel themselves had not done so well under Perelman. Huge sales did in no way equal the number of actual readers. There are still many unread, bagged copies lying around. 1991’s BOOM! Was followed by 1996’s BUST! However, like Deadpool, Marvel regenerated under their new owners and are now thriving. The new owners, you see, had respect for the characters and stories which there is no proof that Perelman ever read.

But for all these guys, 1991 was one of the most important years in their lives and Deadpool one of the greatest new characters to appear.

This article by John McShane first appeared in History of Comics 1991. Read all twelve editions and 28 more titles by giving a donation to ComicScene here

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