I’m reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each. They won’t all be interesting to everyone. The comics or the thoughts. Dip in as you like.
… from December 1999. A comic in which Deadpool tells the story of his first encounter with superheroes.
Storytelling by Christopher Priest, Paco Diaz and Andy Smith. Inks by Smith, Holdredge and Pepoy. Colours by Shannon Blanchard. Letters by RS & Comicraft’s Troy Peteri. Edited by Ruben Diaz.
A mysterious scientist holds Deadpool prisoner in a big tube! The same mysterious scientist also holds Death herself prisoner! In a separate big tube! Deadpool is slowly turning into snot!
What is going on? Who is this mysterious scientist? Who is he working for? What is he trying to achieve? How did he capture Death herself? How funny was snot to this book’s intended audience?
It would be easy for me to learn the answers to nearly all those questions.
All I would have to do is read the next couple of issues in this arc. They would almost certainly clear things up nicely. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that if I was trying to write some sort of helpful guide to continuity or aspiring to speak with any sort of authority then I should probably read those issues. Not going to. I’m not aspiring to authority and I’m not interested in being helpful. I’m just reading every Fantastic Four comic and posting four thoughts about each, and since one of this week’s thoughts is literally just “I’m not very keen on Deadpool” then I won’t be reading any more issues of Deadpool than I have to.
Here’s the thing though. We’re not considering this comic today out of interest in Deadpool’s tube/Death/snot situation. We’re considering it because, from within that tube, Deadpool tells a story. It’s the story of the first time he ever met a superhero. He tells us that he’d never even seen one before the events he here narrates. This is first contact between Deadpool and the superfolk. This is the day he met Ben Grimm.
That story is both smaller and bigger than the story about the big tubes and the snot. It is smaller because it is all wrapped up in this issue, while the story about the big tubes looks like it maybe goes on for another two. It is bigger because it’s part of the ongoing narrative of how Deadpool fits into the world in which he lives.
If I were to read issues #36 and #37 of this volume of Deadpool then I feel confident that I would arrive at what I might reasonably take as secure knowledge regarding the questions asked above. What’s going on? Who is this mysterious scientist working for and what is he trying to achieve? How did he capture Death herself? I reckon I’d find out. I reckon those comics would be happy to tell me.
But if my question was “Who was the first superhero that Deadpool ever met?” then what would it take for me to arrive at what might reasonably be considered secure knowledge regarding that?
Just this issue, perhaps? After all, this issue presents Deadpool’s narration as broadly reliable (by explicitly correcting it in the places where it is not) and clearly has Deadpool tell us the story of the first time he met a superhero. Maybe just this issue is all we need to feel confident saying that Ben Grimm was the first superhero Deadpool ever met.
Come on, though. This comic came out in Nineteen Ninety-Nine. Would you take the bet that, seventeen years on, it remains an Astonishing True Fact of the Marvel Universe that the first hero Deadpool met was Ben Grimm? I wouldn’t.
The mysterious forces that 1602’s Reed Richards identified as working to endlessly prolong superheroes’ stories prevent us from ever reaching a point where we can stand back, cross our arms and regard their stories in totality. Maybe you’re a bit of a Deadpool expert and can tell me who, in Two Thousand and Sixteen, is currently understood to be the first superhero that Deadpool ever met. Maybe you can even tell me that my suspicions are unfounded and that it remains Ben Grimm. What you can’t tell me is that the matter is settled and that we’ve arrived at concrete and final knowledge. A new revelation, wrinkle or retcon could always be around the corner.
Deadpool has met both Moby Dick and Sherlock Holmes, and much fannish and/or theoretical discussion is possible about where the boundaries of those characters’ stories lie. What is a novel? What is a canon? That sort of thing. A sort of thing that’s functionally meaningless when discussing characters involved in massively multi-authored, multi-decade superhero narratives. We know that these characters’ texts have no boundaries, just an endless space into which they’re constantly expanding. These narratives are not reaching for any stable point where what has been asserted as true can be trusted to remain so.
You’ve probably seen Chris Tolworthy’s fascinating and enviable project ‘The Fantastic Four 1961-1989 Was The Great American Novel.’ If you haven’t, you can probably guess what it’s up to from the title. It’s the Fantastic Four considered as a novel, and that’s a trick it’s able to pull off thanks to the ‘1961-1989’ part. Setting that limit and slamming the door on the Fantastic Four’s endless expansion is what allows that project to treat the work as something novel-shaped. Without that “1961-1989”, or a similar limitation, then the Fantastic Four can only be considered as a big pile of comics.
I’ve had a go at setting a limit for this project, Have Them Fight God. The first issue of Secret Wars IV ends with the destruction of the Marvel Universe. So that seemed like a good place.
That sets limits.
Sure, a (disputed) number of the Fantastic Four survived the end of the Marvel Universe and helped create its replacement, but nevertheless it’s been stated that “The Marvel Universe 1961-2015” was a thing. A thing that ended. A sufficient object of enquiry. We can make confident statements about what was ‘true’ within “The Marvel Universe 1961-2015” without having to worry that a forthcoming development will reveal that Steve Rogers was secretly running Hydra’s MySpace page all along. It becomes a stable truth that whoever the first superhero Deadpool met was whoever he was said to have first met when the music stopped in Secret Wars IV.
The only way for that to be challenged would be for a proposition made on the same narrative level as “The Marvel Universe 1961-2015 was a discrete entity” to come along and assert that it wasn’t. We’re able to treat the fictional construct that existed between those years as something like a novel for as long as we can consider 1961 and 2015 to be something like endpapers.
This might already be being challenged. During Secret Wars IV it was in Marvel’s interest to put it about that events of unprecedented import were afoot; that the universe created in 1961 was no more and that a new world had replaced it. After Secret Wars IV it was naturally in Marvel’s interest to put it about that it was business as usual, that we should maintain our prior level of investment and continue with our habitual buying of their product. Al Ewing’s post-Secret Wars IV comics have talked about how the universe has been destroyed on seven occasions and is now in its eighth iteration. That’s a proposition made on the same narrative level as “the Marvel Universe 1961-2015 was a discrete entity” that seems to suggest it wasn’t. This death and rebirth of universes malarky happens all the time and it’s no big deal and we shouldn’t worry too much about it and should all carry on as we were.
It seems even moves to give these fictions stable limits can be briskly destabilized. Have Them Fight God will still just be considering the Fantastic Four 1961-2016 but has no aspirations to consider it as a novel. The Fantastic Four 1961-2016 Was A Big Pile Of Comics.
Deadpool tells a story. It starts with him about to drown a nun and ends with him refusing to allow a child to die. It is very much about him working out his values.
“It suddenly mattered to me […],” he recollects from inside his big tube. “Y’know… where the line was.”
He could probably get a head start on finding that line by thinking about what differentiates the two atrocities. Throwing a tied-up nun into the East River is extravagantly appalling. Being complicit in the death of a child is banal. It reads right for Deadpool to be capable of the first evil but not the second because there is a transgressive pleasure to be had in breaking taboos around religion and respect. The statement “Deadpool drowned a nun” might typically be expected to elicit a gasp and a nervous giggle. The statement “Deadpool killed a child” might typically be expected to provoke revulsion. It’s not how the two actions work morally that set them apart, but how they work textually. He is capable of one because it’s the right sort of horrific and incapable of the other because it’s the wrong sort of horrific.
So there he is on the Brooklyn Bridge, puzzling this all out. Murdering the nun is a “routine snatch and croak” for him, and he’s treating his bound and gagged victim to a monologue on how he longs for something more. He still intends to kill her, and it appears he eventually does so after it’s revealed that she has a moustache, but he is frightfully bored by the whole carry-on.
Whatever it is he’s looking for, whatever line suddenly matters to him, it will have to be found with reference to the genre in which he operates as a character. What is and isn’t okay for him to do is determined by how it reads rather than by a consistent and externally applicable moral philosophy. And how his actions are read is inextricable from the sort of fictional universe in which he performs them. It is a superhero universe.
So what Deadpool needs to do, before he can achieve any sense of what sort of person he is, is work out what he is in relation to superheroes. Specifically, what he is in relation to the Fantastic Four. This issue is about Deadpool being confronted with his being a superhero-shaped non-superhero in a world that exists to tell superhero stories. This issue is him having a think about how he fits.
The obvious answer, given his nun-drowning starting point, is that he fits as a villain. As soon as he’s engaged with the world of the superfolk, then it’s the Manichean quality of the genre that strikes him..
“I was really impressed by the whole idea. Y’know…’Heroes’ and ‘Villains.’ As though life actually was that simple. I’d never really thought of myself as a villain — […] But, suddenly, something was different. Like all of a sudden it mattered how I defined myself.”
In both Two Thousand and Ten and in Nineteen Ninety Eight, the Top Trumps card game had a ‘Marvel Super Villains’ deck available alongside their pack of Marvel Super Heroes cards.
You know who is in which deck.
You know that Magneto is depicted right there next to the Red Skull, their ideological and moral differences erased by the fact that they’re both officially Villains. No matter how much characterization and nuance might be applied to these imaginary people in the worlds where they exist as stories, the gravity of the world in which they are sold as spaghetti shapes will eventually drag them back to their determined category.
Loki’s final action at the end of Kieron Gillen’s Journey into Mystery is to damn the inhabitants of world outside his story. Loki knows that whatever he does within the fiction, however he might change and grow, Loki will still always end up in the Top Trumps Villains pack. The god of stories can’t trump the god of spaghetti. While there are characters who’ve been able to definitively switch category, they’re those on whom the gravity of SpagettiWorld only ever pulled lightly. Emma Frost gets to stay a hero, but Doctor Octopus will not. It matters too much outside the fiction that he’s a Marvel Super Villain. Similarly, Steve Rogers won’t get to stay a Nazi. He’s a Marvel Super Hero.
Within the fiction of the Marvel Universe, then ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ are social constructs. People identify as superheroes because ‘superhero’ is a idea that exists in that world because the Fantastic Four had it. But ‘hero’ and ‘villain’ are also ontological categories because this is a fiction that is secondary to the business of selling duvet covers and socks and will contort itself to fit the process by which that is happening.
Deadpool is absolutely right in his intuition that something has suddenly changed for him. Interacting with the Marvel Universe, rather than just living an off-panel backstory, exposes him to the physics that will drag him to one Top Trumps deck or another. So we should probably be absolutely clear on the different ways in which a Marvel character can be considered a ‘hero’ or a ‘villain.’ There are three.
- Someone might be the hero of the story. Heroic fiction traditionally works by asserting values and presenting a character who exemplifies them. The things that the cartoon Steven Universe thinks are good are the things that the character Steven Universe represents. Steven Universe is the hero of his story.
- Someone might be a hero in the story. ‘Hero’ exists as a job description in superhero universes and someone can quite easily hold down that job without being anything like a hero of their story. Extreme examples might be characters like the superheroes from The Boys who, as complete monsters, fail to align with the values presented as good by their text. They are the villains of their story but identifiably occupy the role of superhero within it. Less dramatic, but more important, examples, would be characters conscientiously doing superhero-ing but with little narrative weight. Look! There’s the Bulleteer and Plastic Man buzzing around towards the back of crowd scenes in Infinite Crisis! Are they heroes in Infinite Crisis? ‘Course they are. They’re heroes and they’re in Infinite Crisis. Are they the heroes of Infinite Crisis? Don’t be twp. They just buzz around at the back of crowd scenes.
- Someone might be a hero regardless of story. The Punisher is not understood as a hero within the Marvel universe and none of this century’s notable runs on the character have treated him as exemplary of values they were purporting to be good. Ennis, Aaron and Remender were all quite agreed that what their damned and exhausted character exemplified and what their stories were working to exemplify were two different things. The Punisher is neither a hero within his stories or the hero of his recent stories. He’s still going in the Marvel Super Heroes Top Trumps deck though. Because he’s categorically a Marvel Super Hero in a sense that’s divorced from narrative. We’re all spaghetti in the end.
All those go for “villain” too. So what looks simple to Deadpool, a clear hero/villain binary, are actually three different axes defining a space in which there’s a lot going on.
It’s easy to be misled though, when you’ve been invited to join the Frightful Four. Deadpool tries on two supervillainous roles in this story, experiencing a pure expression of the ‘villain as job description’ concept by getting a gig as a Hobgoblin stand-in and then teaming up with the Frightfuls. Everything about the Frightful Four suggests a world of clear divisions. There exist heroes called the Fantastic Four, so there exist villains called the Frightful Four in response.
The Wizard, their leader, almost seems perfectly designed to unify the ideas of ‘villain of the story’ and ‘villain in the story.’ Keep an eye on this guy. Originally a Human Torch baddie from Nineteen Sixty-Two, the Wizard endured to oppose the Fantastic Four in each of their book’s three final runs before its cancellation. There he is in the Hickman run. There he is in the Fraction run. There he is in the Robinson run. Being a Bad Man in each.
But what’s Bad about him exactly, what sort of wrongness he represents, is different every time. In the Hickman run the Wizard is wicked because he values ideas over people. In the Fraction run he is wicked because he subscribes to oppressive and exclusionary notions of family, and in the Robinson run he’s a generic bogeyman there to restore all the cliches that the previous runs had been subverting. There’s no need for the Wizard to ever have any consistent desires or ideology. He just exists to be a Bad Man. What ever kind of Bad Man the story needs.
We might have a bit of fun trying to assemble a consistent narrative of What Wittman Wants, but really he’s a villain because he’s a villain because he’s a villain. What he wants is the opposite of what the story thinks is good. If Jonathan Hickman is telling a story that contends that people are more important than ideas, then the Wizard’s all about Not That. If Matt Fraction is telling a story that contends that families don’t have to conform to oppressive norms then the Wizard thinks Oh Yes They Do. He is always at hand to help hide the gaps between being a villain in the story, of the story and regardless of the story by being exactly whatever kind of dick we are being asked to understand a dick to be.
Bentley ‘the Wizard’ Wittman is a remarkable (non)character though. Most people operating within the Fantastic/Frightful dichotomy are more freely mobile. The Frightfuls have barely had a member who wasn’t an amnesiac goodie, a mole, an alternate version of a hero, someone acting against their will, or someone who was later redeemed in some way. To be a member of the Frightful Four is to be a villain in the story, but there’s nothing about it that guarantees you the status of a villain of the story. Unless you’re the Wizard.
Trying to save Franklin’s life, Deadpool expresses what he’s come to understand about how heroism and villainy work. “This is just a gag, kid,” he says.
I’m not very keen on Deadpool.
I’m not very keen on Deadpool.
Some of that might just be bad timing.
Halfway through Nineteen Ninety-Two, my childhood enthusiasm for Marvel comics wound down and off I drifted to get my teenage kicks from Dark Horse and VERTIGO. I didn’t drift back until Two Thousand and One.
So when I left, Deadpool was an entirely undeveloped ‘Spider-Man but a mercenary’ figure who I took to be of equal value and interest to characters like Gideon and Kane that his creators were also throwing at the wall back then.
And when I came back, Deadpool was there… and yet he wasn’t. In the early Two Thousands, the character existed in his own spaces and his own books, impinging on the consciousnesses of none but those inclined to seek him out. I was not among that number. Nothing of what I recalled about the character drew me towards him and every single person on the internet with ‘Deadpool’ in their screen name seemed like a total wanker..
See what’s happened there! By that point I had sat out the entire decade in which Joe Kelly created the version of the character that people actually like and I had failed to notice that the Gail Simone run was happening. Everything I’d been oblivious to had been everything with the potential to endear him to me. Wade Wilson, you and I were never meant to be.
Then the Great Deadpool Explosion of the late 00’s happened. Not in response to the character’s appearance in Wolverine Origins, but in response to the anticipation of the character’s appearance in Wolverine Origins. A wave of enthusiasm built up when it was announced that the kid was gonna be in pictures, and then rolled right on over the disappointment of the film. Nobody was even still talking about Wolverine Origins by May of Two Thousand and Ten, a month in which there were nine comics published with Deadpool’s name in the title and a generous handful of others in which he featured. He’d become a significant part of Marvel’s publishing program. He’d become unignorable.
Sure, it was possible to ignore whatever was actually happening in books like Deadpool, Deadpool: Merc with a Mouth, Deadpool Team Up, Prelude to Deadpool Corps, Wolverine and Deadpool and the others, but it was impossible to ignore their ubiquity. It was equally impossible to ignore the character’s congruence with the values of a community that had adopted him. 4Chan’s /b/ forum was sadly still relevant at the time and its basic moral mechanism (“nihilism ∴ libertarianism expressed as cruelty”) was identical to the basic mechanism of a Deadpool joke. That culture understood him as theirs, and the particular way that the comics embraced meme culture showed that they agreed. The Deadpool of Two Thousand and Ten was 4chan as a superhero and everyone involved knew it.
So yeah, bad timing. The point at which I first had to think about Deadpool was not a point at which it was possible to like him.
I’m not very keen on Deadpool.
If you go to many British provincial alternative comedy nights then you’ll start to notice the same thing happening at about two out of every three. A male performer will romantically or sexually proposition a male member of the audience. A ha ha a ha hah ha. Oh, such japes!
There’s a lot going on with that, and most of it relates to discomfort and threat. The first thing to note is that it’s often done to abrogate threat. The male comedian wants to do a thing that requires propositioning a member of the audience and knows that it looks a particular sort of creepy if he starts cracking onto a woman from the stage, so instead he goes for a bloke. Fair enough.
Having started down this path to avoid discomfort and threat, the comedian then proceeds to re-introduce and exploit it. His target will be ideally be drinking lager and will, at some point in his life, have been described as a ‘geezer.’ The audience member who reads closest to a working class, blokish, heterosexual man will be selected to receive the comedian’s affections.
We know that we’re in the fundamentally liberal, middle-class setting of a twenty-first century British provincial alternative comedy night. But look what’s happening! A man we feel we cannot count on not to be homophobic is being wooed by another man! How does he feel? What will he say? We are invited to enjoy the hilarity of this danger and to enjoy the assumed discomfort of the target. We are to imagine him dying for our sins.
Look at the mechanics of that. We (and I’m using that pronoun because this is a joke that only works through absolute complicity) are creating a situation in which the very idea of male/male attraction becomes a joke by using the acceptability of male/male attraction. That homosexual desire is Officially Tolerated in that space is used to make a performance of homosexual desire into something humorous and uncomfortable. That’s some Foucauldian shit.
There are other jokes that work like that.
Deadpool is one of them.
This is a character who frequently expresses same sex desire but only ever under circumstances where it constitutes a joke about the incongruity of his behaviour or the discomfort of the object of his affections. Deadpool is allowed to fancy blokes to let us laugh at the idea of blokes fancying blokes. He might very well be Officially, Canonically Pansexual but functionally he is of no value whatsoever as queer representation. He works like the straight male comedian cracking on to the guy in the audience. He is a joke at our expense.
Two, or maybe four, thoughts ago, I took it for granted that even independent of considerations of narrative function, morality and branding Deadpool is a superhero-shaped concept. That feels intuitively true, but how does it work? What makes a thing like Deadpool and a thing like the Fantastic Four the same sort of thing? There are a lot of boring and obvious ways we might answer that question, but this issue goes
(No. No. No. Wait. THERE’S ANOTHER THING)
I’m not very keen on Deadpool. Can’t stress that enough.
Probably it’s just nerdy fan partisanship. A lot of the business of being emotionally invested in superheroes involves feeling protective of your faves. How vulnerable our little friends are! How assailed on all sides by the cruel words of the ignorant and the vicious whims of their writers! There’s a level of investment, differently expressed in different fan cultures, that leads us to see these characters as under our protection from the many threats they face.
One of those threats is the possibility of some bastard coming along and stealing what makes them special.
On tumblr I once posted a panel from Paul Tobin’s Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man. A panel of Spidey bamboozling a foe with amusingly inappropriate quips. Loads of notes, it got. Quite right too. Paul Tobin’s Marvel Adventures: Spider-Man is the best. But then one of the notes…ONE OF THE NOTES…was someone saying…AND I QUOTE… “Since when did Spider-Man become Deadpool?” That wasn’t easy to type. My hands shake even now. There’s Spider-Man, there he is, bamboozling a foe with amusingly inappropriate quips. Like a spider can. And there’s someone, there they are, looking at that, LOOKING AT THAT, and thinking “Since when did Spider-Man become Deadpool?” Flames. Flames on the side of my face.
Not that Spider-Man’s really someone I feel protective about. He’ll be fine.
She-Hulk, on the other hand. Actual Best Superhero She-Hulk. Actual Official Fourth Wall Breaker of the Marvel Universe She-Hulk. I feel very protective and partisan regarding She-Hulk. Deadpool can empty his pouches onto the table and give her back her schtick RIGHT NOW, thankyouverymuch.
Two, or maybe six, thoughts ago, I took it for granted that, even independent of considerations of narrative function, morality and branding, Deadpool is a superhero-shaped concept. That feels intuitively true, but how does it work? What makes a thing like Deadpool and a thing like the Fantastic Four the same sort of thing? There are a lot of boring and obvious ways we might answer that question, but this issue goes for something surprisingly revealing.
When Deadpool first catches sight of Ben, he immediately starts thinking about what unites and divides them. “I wanted to ask the guy for his autograph,” he says. “Seems silly now. I mean — Here was a guy who’d found himself . A man who’d been disfigured and shunned by the public — but he’d somehow come to terms with things. I wanted to ask him how he did it. Buy the guy a brewskie. Instead I shot him.”
What appears immediately important there are their shared origins and their differing levels of success in responding to them. Ben’s disfigurement set him on the path to becoming the idol o’ millions and Wade’s disfigurement set him on the path to routine snatch and croaks. What’s really important though is that Ben is wearing bunny ears.
Nobody ever talked about Deadpool for long without talking about Looney Tunes, the vicious twentieth century cartoon series about reality-bending sadists taking lingering delight in the torture of their victims. Road Runner, Tweety Pie, Speedy Gonzales and Bugs Bunny, the most malicious incarnation of the folkloric rabbit trickster, twisted physics and causality into amusing shapes to delight us with the inventive ways that they could hurt people. Grant Morrison’s Animal Man story ‘The Coyote Gospel’ famously made the association between their theatre of cruelty and the superhero genre’s, but it’s apparent to everyone acquainted with Deadpool. Obviously this guy is something like Bugs Bunny.
But it’s Ben wearing the ears.
“I’m just treading water,” says Deadpool, reflecting on his life to the nun he’s about to drown, “Kinda like you’re about to do.” It’s a moment of comic cruelty. He’s inviting his distressed captive to reflect on the fact that not only is he about to kill her, but that she’ll die in a desperate and futile panic. It’s a moment of casual sadism. The issue ends with another joke promising violence; Having escaped from his big tube, Deadpool seizes the scientist by the throat and announces that he has another tale to tell – “The Egghead Who Got Himself Whacked!”
A lot of things happen between those two jokes. Deadpool joins the Frightful Four, accepting a role as villain. Deadpool encounters Ben, prompting him to consider his relationship to heroes. Deadpool attempts to save Franklin’s life from a lift shaft into which he’s fallen.
That last action is presented as a moment of understanding. By trying to save Franklin’s life then Deadpool has relegated adherence to villainy to just being a gag and gained a sense of where ‘the line’ is for him. Trying to save Franklin from the lift shaft is where Deadpool comes to understand what superheroes have to do with him.
Then it’s pulled back.
Deadpool has understood nothing.
Franklin is not in the lift shaft.
Ben it wearing the ears.
Franlkin’s been watching Deadpool from the top of the shaft. Watching him flounder desperately in the rubble like a drowning nun. And when the moment is right, when the moment is most Looney Tunes, Franklin produces a huge gun and shoots him. Ben then appears and does his catchphrase. It’s a promise of violence. It’s an expression of delight. It’s a man taking pleasure in doing harm. It’s clobbering time.
I’ve seen some pretty creepy images of Franklin Richards in my time, but not many compare to the panel of him gleefully peering down the lift shaft, eyes wide in rapture, as Ben repeatedly pounds on his subdued foe.
Deadpool, this comic has it, belongs with the superheroes because the pleasures he offers are inextricable from sadism.