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As the trailers for Fox’s Deadpool demonstrate, Wade Wilson becomes an unstoppable killing machine — albeit one with love for a good punchline — as the result of an attempt to cure inoperable cancer. As an origin, it’s a good one, and curiously fitting in a metatextual way, given that Deadpool himself is, in many ways, a joke that got way out of hand.
When he first appeared in 1991’s New Mutants No. 98 — plotted and illustrated by Rob Liefeld, at the time in the midst of a white-hot streak that would culminate in his helping found Image Comics a year later, with dialogue from Fabian Nicieza — Deadpool was far from the self-aware parody played by Ryan Reynolds onscreen. While he had a smart mouth (“Let me put you out of my misery!” he jokes, pre-murder attempt on one of the book’s heroes), the nascent Deadpool was an outright villain, a mercenary hired to kill one of the series’ leads.
Liefeld has been open about the fact that Deadpool was inspired by Deathstroke the Terminator, a villain from one of his own favorite comic book series, DC’s New Teen Titans. The parallels are surprisingly obvious when you look for them: both are (at least, in their first appearances) highly capable, deadly mercenaries who wear superhero costumes that combine full face masks with useful pouches that provide storage for a number of weapons, and both have advanced healing and increased agility as superpowers. While the names Deathstroke and Deadpool share a common (death) theme, Nicieza went one step further in coming up with Deadpool’s secret identity: Wade Wilson, as he ended up being called, is eerily close to Deathstroke’s alter ego of Slade Wilson.
When New Mutants was relaunched as X-Force later in 1991, Deadpool was added to the new series as a recurring antagonist, not so quietly becoming more comedic with each subsequent appearance. Nevertheless, the character remained a fan favorite at a time when Marvel’s fortunes were buoyed by a bullish market, going on to show up in issues of Avengers and Daredevil in addition to his X-Force appearances; the fact that he was given his own series — a four-issue miniseries that underscored the character’s growing debt to Bugs Bunny with episode titles like “Rabbit Season, Duck Season” and “Duck Soup” — in 1993 came as little surprise to anyone. A second four-issue series followed a year later, and then, in 1997, Deadpool received his own ongoing monthly title. Nothing would ever be the same again.
The third Deadpool series, initially written by Joe Kelly — who would later co-create Cartoon Network’s Ben 10 as part of the Man of Action collective — pushed the character into weird and wonderful new spaces. On the first page of the series, he’s commenting on the narration in the issue; within a year, he was time-traveling into comics published three decades earlier.
(Deadpool No. 11, “With Great Power Comes Great Coincidence,” sees Kelly and artist Pete Woods rework scenes from 1967’s Amazing Spider-Man No. 47 with something approximating loving disrespect. “Are you having a seizure? Speak English!” Deadpool says, when faced with someone spouting the slang that Stan Lee gave his teen characters of the era.)
By the time the series’ 27th issue rolled around and Deadpool started taking directly to the audience, the character as fans today recognize him was complete.
It helped that Kelly had also purposefully softened the character further than anyone had managed previously; by giving him a supporting cast of his own — including a love interest, although not the character Morena Baccarin plays in the Deadpool movie — he succeeded in turning Wade almost sympathetic, were he not so purposefully frustrating due to his stream of never-ending wisecracks. (And, of course, that while mercenary killer thing.) By the time Kelly departed the series in 1999, the Deadpool he left behind was, for all intents and purposes, the same one that appears onscreen in theaters this week.
Since Kelly’s departure, Deadpool’s comic book fortunes have waxed and waned; his solo series was canceled in 2002, but later revived in 2008 to much success. So much, in fact, that multiple spinoffs followed including Deadpool Corps, Deadpool Team-Up and the adults-only Deadpool Max; in 2012, the series was relaunched another time with comedian Brian Posehn co-writing a number of high-profile storylines that included the character’s marriage (to a personification of Death, of course) and apparent retirement. This being comic books, of course, that didn’t stick; the series was relaunched a fifth time as part of Marvel’s All-New, All-Different reboot in late 2015, with Deadpool back in action and firmly accepted as part of the establishment, going so far as to join the Avengers in the Uncanny Avengers series. Well, they did accept the Hulk in earlier days …
Whether such a fate awaits the cinematic version of the character is unknown. While there’s a certain thrill in seeing favorite heroes team up on the big screen, there’s arguably an even bigger one letting Ryan Reynolds make fun of everyone else in his own little R-rated universe. Let’s wait and see just how successful Deadpool‘s first weekend is before making any predictions; after all, it’s not like Deadpool would shoot first and ask quest — actually, never mind.
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