There are two things we can say with absolute certainty about Deadpool. First, he is everywhere right now. I mean EVERYWHERE. With an amazing movie and a growing list of monthly titles it seems the Merc with a Mouth is trying to channel Spidey in popularity as well as the mask design department. Second, he is the most meta, self-aware, fourth-wall breaking character in the entire genre. To honor both of these hallmark traits I’ll be doing a trilogy of posts this week on the Sassin’ Assassin, the Regeneratin’ Degenerate, the man, the myth, and the legend (if only in his own mind). Each of these posts will explore Deadpool at his most meta. And he’s never been MORE META than he was in Cullen Bunn’s Deadpool Killology.
Cullen Bunn’s writing has consistently been one of the most brilliant things I’ve encountered since my return to comics. I’ve written about his work with Deadpool before in Night of the Living Deadpool and Return of the Living Deadpool for Kalie’s horror blog, Just Dread-Full. I was deeply moved by their depth and the powerful presentation of social justice issues through each series. I had no idea comic books could be so intelligent! What was truly remarkable to me about Bunn’s writing was that he managed to provide such depth, such uncompromising social commentary, without sacrificing any of the humor, pop culture references, violence, horror (in the case of these series), and fun you’d expect from Deadpool. Clearly there was more to be found between the covers of comic books than I’d remembered.
Driven by my growing admiration of his work, I recently picked up Cullen Bunn’s first turn with the Merc with a Mouth – Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe (2012-2013), Deadpool: Killustrated (2013), and Deadpool Kills Deadpool (2014). I was not disappointed. Again I found stories completely unlike anything I’d ever seen (or expected to find) in a comic book. Cullen Bunn elevates my appreciation for this genre each time I encounter his work. In these three graphic novels he doesn’t just allow Deadpool to break the fourth wall. He has Deadpool blow it up and incinerate the debris. Along the way we experience an examination of war and conscience, PhD-level literary criticism, and a searing indictment of the myth of redemptive violence.
To begin by defining our terms, the Myth of Redemptive Violence is the idea that violence can ever bring about a positive result. I take issue with calling it the Myth of Redemptive Violence as myths aren’t lies so much as stories told to impart deep, abiding truths about human existence. I’d prefer it was called the Fallacy of Redemptive Violence (but nobody consulted me when the name was chosen). Anyway, this is the main issue I struggle with in regard to comics – both comic books and the films they inspire. One of my most deeply held personal beliefs is that violence can never solve anything. Violence only begets more violence, growing in scope and destruction. No matter the religious tradition you examine, violence never brings redemption. Taoism calls for balance. Buddhism and Hinduism teach of karma, and the highest respect for the journey of the soul in all forms of life. Islam teaches that war may be just or unjust but never holy. Judaism works towards a Messianic Age when the lion will lie down with the lamb and the swords will be beaten into ploughshares. And Jesus encourages us to turn the other cheek, love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us.
Superheroes however perpetuate the Myth of Redemptive Violence by (more often than not) solving all of their problems with their fists. Iron Man is the good guy. Fill-in-the-blank is the bad guy. Iron Man punches the bad guy until he can’t get up/stops being bad. This implies that violence can be used to stop evil, that violence can be used to a productive end. That is never the case. I love the experience of comic books so much (as I’ve written about and will obviously continue to write about!). But this one teaching, buried at the heart of most comic book conflicts and their resolutions, always nags at me. I know this is wrong…yet I find it entertaining nonetheless. Here, in one of the darkest comic series I’ve ever read, Cullen Bunn deconstructs this fallacy and presents a master class on the true nature of violence. It left me a little disturbed and very unsettled.
Obviously, through the course of these three posts, plot points will be discussed and the major theological and philosophical themes of the books will be revealed, explored, and deconstructed. All the same I will refrain from any major PLOT spoilers. I don’t want to ruin some of the most brilliant books I’ve ever read for you as you really should have the chance to experience them for yourself. Especially if you like comics to challenge and unnerve you, then these volumes need to be in your collection! Cullen Bunn, with Dalibor Talajic delivering arresting illustrations, delivers a dark and twisted classic in the first graphic novel of the Killology.
To give these amazing volumes their due, I’ll be exploring each individually. Beginning at the beginning we turn to Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe. The very first words of the book are, “Witness, if you will, the beginning of the end.” It’s not just the end of the Marvel Universe in this story. By the end of this miniseries, Deadpool will upend the very foundation of comic storytelling by showing how twisted the Myth of Redemptive Violence and thus the very nature of comic narratives are. It’s the end of ever being able to look at comics as a medium in the same way again.
It begins, symbolically, with Deadpool killing the Fantastic Four. They were the beginning of the Marvel Universe. They were the first Marvel superheroes. So, as Deadpool begins to rip apart our understanding of the genre it’s only natural that he starts where it all began. It should also be noted that Deadpool is not as funny in this graphic novel as we would normally expect. In another masterstroke, as Deadpool shows us the world of comic book storytelling in a new light, we see him in a darker, more monstrous way than ever before. We get neither the narrative nor the protagonist we expect.
With the Fantastic Four dead, Deadpool then turns his attention to the Watcher telling him, “I don’t see things the way other people do. There’s something wrong with me.” As is often the case through this series the meaning of this line comes on two different levels. First, Deadpool is messed up, twisted perhaps beyond salvation in this series. He is killing everyone in sadistic ways. So, something is wrong with him. Violence, murder, the darkness that allows for such action is not normal. But neither is his view of the big picture. Deadpool is slowly seeing behind the curtain, beyond the lies culture sells us to perpetuate its injustice and oppression. He sees something in the world of comic books that others can’t (or won’t). That vision is what motivates him to be a force of freedom. So there’s also something wrong with him because he isn’t buying into the game any longer.
Deadpool becomes aware of the audience, looking right at the reader, as he kills the Watcher. He tells us, “Well, whoever they are – those little peeping toms out there in Never Never Land – they’re going to want to keep their eyes peeled. They’re gonna want to see what’s next. They’re gonna want to watch this world burn!” This is the full disclosure moment. Deadpool is letting us know in advance exactly what he’s going to do. He’s burning down the lies that allow the narrative to function as it does, as entertainment. He is opening our eyes. And that can be a painful process if you’re not ready for it. So this is the decision moment for the reader. Do we put the volume down and walk away? Or do we look through Deadpool’s eyes, troubling as that will end up being, as he brings everything we think we know down around us?
If we continue to turn the pages we see, again and again, how violence and killing warp us. To underscore this point, Bunn has Deadpool kill Marvel’s heroes in twisted, sadistic, and violent ways. The majority of these conflicts and killings I will leave for you to discover should you read the volume. One example alone can illustrate Bunn’s point. While we often see the epic battles and climactic deaths in comic books as exciting, Bunn is showing the reader that battles and death are anything but. Watching Deadpool put a bullet through Spider-Man’s head goes a long way to reminding the reader that there’s nothing entertaining about fighting and killing. It is a shocking moment provoking a visceral response. Instead of the usual excitement that fills comic book battles, these ones leave the reader with an uneasy feeling in the pit of their stomach.
As he battles Wolverine, Deadpool tells him, “Your tendency to come back from the brink of death has nothing to do with your healing factor. Your mutant power isn’t regeneration. It’s popularity.” Deadpool is frustrated by the fact that the characters we, as fans, love will always come back from whatever death they face because they sell comics. He is angered by the reality that they live and die for our amusement. Deadpool shares this truth with Professor X before he kills him. “So what if I break the fourth wall?” he muses. “It’s the fourth wall that’s been breaking me…crushing me…crushing each and every one of us…for as long as we’ve been in existence.”
Deadpool’s monologue during his final battle in the series (I won’t ruin who he makes his last stand against of course) reveals all he’s come to learn. He growls, “All these years everyone thought I was just a lovable goofball…a homicidal goofball but a goofball just the same…but I can see through all the bullshit and see the world how it really is. All the senseless deaths…all the resurrections only to be killed again…the freak mutations…the cosmic rays…the chemical disasters…the unrequited loves…the secret wars…the secret invasions…the hero’s journey is all about pain. Don’t you…don’t you get it? We’re puppets! And Geppetto’s feeding us through the wood chipper for shits and giggles! I can save us all from the endless cycle of continuity!”
There are certain works I’ve read that forever changed the way I looked at the world. Paulo Coelho’s The Alchemist, Daniel Quinn’s Ishmael, Dalton Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun, Thich Nhat Hanh’s The Heart Of Understanding – the list goes on. Deadpool’s monologue at the end of this graphic novel earns a place on that list. I’ve loved comic books since before I could read and I’ve never thought about their stories or their characters in this light. But he’s right. Yes, they are all fictional characters…but isn’t it a little fucked up that we get such enjoyment out of the perpetual torment of characters we love? The work begs the question, shouldn’t we care a little bit more about the artistic creations we connect with? Shouldn’t we want health and happiness for them? Most important (and most troubling) of all, why is the violence, why is their pain so entertaining?
Bunn’s critique of violence works in two masterful ways throughout this volume. First, he has Deadpool realize how perverted it is that we find people fighting, killing, dying, and being resurrected just to go through it all over again in an endless cycle amusing. Then, Deadpool tries to save everyone from being puppets in that way by killing them all in a vicious and violent fashion. As his killing spree begins to pick up steam he tells the new voice in his head, “You’ve always been there, lurking deep inside me. I think it’s you who’s been rotting me from the inside out for all these years.” Inside all of us is the potential for violence. That’s the balance, the other half of our free will. If we’re free to choose, we can choose to be evil. But the more we give into that darkness, to be violent, to kill, the more it rots us from the inside out. We are not meant to kill. We’re not wired for it, emotionally or biologically. We’re social creatures by nature. We lack any evolutionary tools for violence – no claws, no fangs, no armor, no heightened senses. Yes we adapt to the idea quickly, but we’re not made for it. To kill we must break something inside of us and Bunn illustrates that with striking clarity.
So Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe is dark, disturbing, and as rich in theological and philosophical issues as it is in violence (wow…there’s a sentence I never thought I’d type!). It raises some haunting questions for the reader who wishes to take it seriously, on a level beyond a bloody story of superhero murders. They are questions I’ve wrestled with every since reading this graphic novel…and they are ones I’ve not been able to answer. These questions haven’t stopped me from picking up my weekly file nor have they diminished the experience of reading comics for me. But they do linger in the back of my mind, challenging me. That’s something great literature does. And with Cullen Bunn at the helm, Deadpool becomes the stuff of great literature.
So, META Level One is complete! We’ve seen Deadpool’s stark awareness of his life as a comic character drive him to break down the very foundation for those stories. But Deadpool (and Cullen Bunn for that matter) is far from finished. There will be more on Deadpool, great literature, blood, guts, violence, horror, humor, and fourth-wall breaking tomorrow! So come on back for the next part of my very Deadpool Trilogy. Woo hoo!