When I returned to comics in 2015, one of the first trades I read was Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan’s hardcover collection Deadpool (Vol. 1), containing the first twelve issues of their run going back to November 2012. It was a Christmas gift from Kalie and my first real experience of the Merc with a Mouth, outside of occasionally seeing him as an X-Force villain back in the ‘90s. I was instantly in love with the character! Posehn and Duggan’s take became the primary lens through which I view the Regeneratin’ Degenerate. With The Despicable Deadpool #300, Gerry Duggan ends his five-year run on the title. Over the years the tales have gotten darker and darker, as he’s broken Wade Wilson to a painful degree. As I read these stories my heart hurts, and I can’t help but wonder why do we partake in stories where the characters we love are damaged so severely?
To state the obvious first, I know stories can’t all be happy. The first rule of solid story writing is conflict. Unless you’re Seinfeld, you can’t tell a story about nothing (and even then, Seinfeld’s nothing was always more than most other shows’ something). We want to see characters challenged and we need to see how they face and (perhaps) overcome these challenges. Stories without conflict bore us and stories where the conflict is trite feel insulting and/or cheap. But there has to be a line between intense conflict designed to push a character (even to their limits) and breaking a character to the point where it seems the story’s born more of sadism than any sense of dramatic conflict right? This is where The Walking Dead has drifted over the last few seasons (and the reason I’ve stopped watching it) and it’s where Gerry Duggan has been taking Deadpool for years.
I’m not exactly sure where we find the line between engaging conflict and finding merciless joy in seeing the characters we love torn apart for our entertainment. Nor do I know why we find that sort of pain and emotional/spiritual destruction entertaining in the first place. All I know is when the darkness becomes soul-crushingly oppressive I tend to tag out. I can only handle seeing the characters I love endure so much. But I hoped, when I picked up The Despicable Deadpool #’s 287-300 as part of the sale my local comic shop was running for Free Comic Book Day, I could discern some sort of insight into the appeal or necessity of this narrative approach.
I grant, Deadpool’s never been the character of happily-ever-afters. Deadpool’s niche is the man on the margins. He wants to be a good guy, to walk in the footsteps of his heroes – people like Spider-Man and Captain America. Despite his noble intentions, no one ever wants him around. Yes, he never shuts up (and that could be annoying). Sure he’s crude and inappropriate. He’s also pretty horribly disfigured and doesn’t smell too great. But you’d think teams with as noble intentions as the X-Men (who fight for equal rights to those denied and protect a world that “hates and fears them”) or the Avengers (who are supposed to be “Earth’s mightiest heroes”) would see the heart in the man and welcome someone who wants to do his best to make the world better just like his heroes.
But they don’t. Often, they barely tolerate him.
As a result, Wade Wilson is always looking for a place to belong. He isn’t welcome among those he wants to emulate. And those who do find themselves close to him are often hurt by the shit storm swirling around him (caused, in part, by the fact that he’s left with the jobs too dirty for the other heroes to handle). Still, he rarely lets it keep him down and he still manages to be one of the funniest s.o.b’s bouncing around the Marvel Universe. At times his humor is a clear mask for the pain burning inside him, other times it’s a coping mechanism. And, of course, sometimes he’s just being funny because he’s a funny guy. But he’s a character in whom levity and despair are balanced remarkably well.
Over the course of Duggan’s run, the despair has outweighed the humor. While it’s been growing for years, Wade’s real march to hell began with Secret Empire. Before the Hydra allegiance was ever made public, “Stevil Rogers,” the Hydra-fied version of Captain America, asked Wade to kill S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Phil Coulson. When Coulson tries to tell Deadpool he’s on the wrong side, Deadpool replies, “Has anyone ever said that about Captain America…and been right?” The saddest thing is Deadpool was right…up until the Secret Empire.
As Hydra rises, Wade can’t help but stay aligned with Cap. He doesn’t like it but he has no other option to protect his daughter Ellie, who carries the mutant gene and would be persecuted in Hydra America. The most heartbreaking part of the whole Secret Empire fiasco was how it ripped apart Deadpool’s family. His daughter Ellie was staying with S.H.I.E.L.D. Agent Emily Preston, her husband Terry, and their son Terry Jr. Deadpool had to take Ellie with him and his killing Coulson (with information he tricked Preston into supplying) led to a fatal confrontation in Deadpool #35.
During the violent battle between Deadpool and Preston (whose consciousness had been uploaded into an LMD (life model decoy) of herself after she’d died and her consciousness had spent some time living in Deadpool’s head (Deadpool #6-24 (vol. 3))) the bloodshed was only matched by the emotional devastation. Preston felt betrayed by this monster she had mistaken for a man. Deadpool felt resigned to the fact that, no matter how hard he tried to be good, this was the only life – the only person – he could ever be.
As he destroys the LMD’s body he tells Preston, “My mistake…was ever trying to be good. You needed me…for a dirty job…and then the dirty work piled up, didn’t it? For you. For S.H.I.E.L.D. For Rogers. For the Avengers. Bu-but…you made a mistake too.” When Preston asks what that was Wade replies, “You got too close.” This line is tragic because he’s speaking literally (he has pulled the pin on a grenade she can’t see, severely damaging her robotic form) as well as figuratively (those who get close to Deadpool get hurt).
The Marvel Legacy relaunch with The Despicable Deadpool #287 didn’t get any easier. The Legacy event starts dark. More than the violence, more than the language, what underscores the heaviness of the tale is the humor. It doesn’t feel like it fits. Normally Deadpool’s violent, inappropriate, and hysterical. But his violent nature is unleashed in a way that overpowers anything else. As a result, the jokes feel forced in unnaturally, even if it is Deadpool who’s the star.
Deadpool’s trying to kill Cable because, when Madcap had infected his family with a biological weapon (one Deadpool unknowingly carried to them), Stryfe (the evil Cable clone) was the only one there to help. He told Deadpool the price for four lives was four lives. He’d save Deadpool’s family, but Deadpool must kill four people for him. The murders just keep getting darker as they take Deadpool further and further into the abyss.
The first, was Cable. Then, in issue #292, Stryfe sends Wade to the Daily Bugle to kill Irene Merriweather, the sometimes girlfriend of Cable. He murders her at her desk while she works.
Victims number three and four come care of The Despicable Deadpool #295 and shit…this one was hard to read. The target for his third kill was Evan Sabahnur – the teenage boy who is destined to grow up to become the despot Apocalypse. Seeing Wade point a gun at a child, and one who he’s spent a great deal of time protecting for that matter, hurt.
But it got worse with the final name on Stryfe’s list. He sends Deadpool to kill a civilian, a woman named Mariette Nelson. As Wade kills this completely innocent woman in her bed, so he can protect his daughter from Stryfe’s wrath, it broke my heart. Deadpool knows he’s a monster. He knows there’s no excusing what he’s doing. But he’s got nowhere else to turn. No one is there to help him. So he does what he must to save Ellie. These few pages were some of the hardest I’ve ever read in a comic book.
As with Wade killing Preston, I debated about including these pages as they are heartbreaking, but perhaps more than any other pictures in this post, these show the depths of darkness to which Duggan’s hurled Deadpool.
I know Deadpool isn’t a comic aimed at kids, so this level of darkness is far more justifiable than it is when they do one of their semi-regular “let’s break Spider-Man all to hell!” tales (which I wrote about here). But this is hard to handle all the same. I sat with these images, their tenderness matched only by the amount of pain they carry, for a long, long time. These panels – such tragically beautiful art paired with equally brilliant words – showcase the power comic books, as a genre, can hold. But there’s so much sadness…
What did Deadpool ever do to deserve this? And what are we, as readers, to take from all of this?
As these events unfold, Deadpool hates himself more with each passing issue. The li’l Deadpool recap in #297 says, “Okay, let’s do this fast. I’m Deadpool. I’m a piece of %#^$. I used to think I could redeem myself. That was stupid of me! Honestly, everyone would be better off staying away from me.” And the summary that’s been running on the recap page since Marvel Legacy began reads, “Possibly the world’s most skilled mercenary, definitely the world’s most annoying, Wade Wilson was chosen as a part of a top-secret government program that accidentally gave him a healing factor allowing him to heal from any wound. For a time, Wade tried to be a hero, throwing in with those who inspired him: Avengers, X-Men, Spider-Man. All he got for his efforts was pain. Forget that noise.” The darkness of the tone underscores the darkness of the narrative and the darkness growing in Deadpool’s soul.
The Despicable Deadpool has become a story about failed redemption, about a man who tried so hard to be good only to admit it was impossible. So, once he finishes with Stryfe’s hitlist, Wade begins plans to kill himself. He makes sure Ellie won’t carry the weight of his sins once he’s gone and then sets things in motion for his end.
[OKAY SO, FAIR WARNING, I’M GOING TO VENTURE INTO SOME SPOILERS FOR THE DESPICABLE DEADPOOL #3OO TO CONTINUE THIS ANALYSIS. IT JUST CAME OUT SO SKIP AHEAD TO THE NEXT BOLD, BRACKETED WARNING IF YOU HAVEN’T READ IT AND WANT IT PRESERVED, ALRIGHT?]
After his (needlessly disgusting) fight with the Avengers didn’t go the way he wanted, Wade goes into his backup backup plan. As he heads to New Jersey he thinks, “I put 20 million on my own head, and none of the villains could collect. My first backup plan was to present such a threat that the Avengers would throw me in some rubber room without a door or a pocket dimension that I could never escape from. I know what I have to do now. The question is: do I have the stones to do it?”
As Deadpool hitches a ride to New Jersey, in a VERY meta movement he’s picked up by Gerry Duggan. YES! I was so excited! Finally, finally I’d learn what the author sought to gain/create/explore by taking a character (a character known for his irreverence and humor, even if it is dark) and spending years kicking him when he’s down…only to then drag him further into his own personal hell after each kick.
Deadpool – “Ha! You’ve got to be $@#%@%$ me. I’m surprised you didn’t try to show up before now.”
Gerry – “Why? Is this hacky? I’m sure you have a lot of questions for me. I have written more issues about you than any other writer.”
Deadpool – “Nah, not really, Gerry. You’re just doing Grant Morrison’s bit from the end of Animal Man aren’t you?”
Gerry – “Uhh…I…uh…Oh. No! You’re right! $#$%! This is all I’ve written for, like, another 100 pages. Marvel is testing out a 25-dollar price tag on my last issue. Crap! What the hell am I gonna do?”
Deadpool – “Don’t worry, I got you. I know just how to end this $@#%-show.”
Gerry – “Oh, good. I’m glad you’re not mad. For what it’s worth, I’m sorry for all the rough stuff we put you through.”
Deadpool – [smiling] “You should be. I just need one thing from you.”
Gerry – “Name it.”
Deadpool – [pulling his gun] “Your car.”
Gerry – “No! Wait, I –“
[Deadpool shots him in the head while kicking him out of the car.]
Deadpool – “Apology accepted, by the way.”
I…I don’t get it. I was so hoping for some sort of rationalization, some explanation for why he handled Deadpool the way he has. But I got nothing. The shadow of a conversation, the hint of something, only to have it all fold so quickly. Again, I get conflict is necessary for literature but why break Wade so brutally? What purpose does this serve?
When Cap and Preston finally catch up to Deadpool on the New York Thruway (or, rather, Deadpool willingly crashes into them) a battle ensues.
Preston – “Dammit, Wade! I’m back – isn’t that what you wanted?”
Deadpool – “It’s not good enough! I’m a poison pill. I’m a bad penny. I’m a fingernail in the chicken nugget!”
Preston – “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life fighting you!”
Deadpool – “I don’t want to hurt you anymore! It’s like my mutant power is to kill people whether I want to or not!”
Wade goes back to Butler’s Medical Supply Store, the front business for Bartol Utler, the mad scientist who experimented on him and erased his memories in order to continually harvest his organs. When Captain America and Preston enter Utler’s facility, they find Wade laying on a table with dozens of needles in his body, flowing from dozens of I.V.s hooked up to him. It is an unnerving image, both oddly comical as well as eerily evoking the image of someone who’s had an overdose.
Preston – “No Wade…what have you done?”
Captain America – “What is it?”
Preston – “When Bartol Ulter used to harvest Deadpool’s organs for his experiements, this was the drug he’d give him to wipe his memory. A small amount used to wipe his memory for days – but I think Wade just took enough to mind-wipe himself.”
Captain America – “He told me he had one more name on his hitlist.”
Preston – “This is insane…”
As the drug begins to take effect, we see Wade moving through his own mind, gunning down all his memories – his first joining up with Preston and Agent Scott Adst, his trip to North Korea with Cap and Logan, his marriage to Shiklah (one of my absolute favorite narrative arcs in all the Deadpool comics I’ve read), and – most heartbreakingly of all – his entire relationship with his daughter Ellie. As he gazes at the memory of a Christmas they shared, Wade wonders:
Deadpool – “Maybe…maybe we can try to hang on to a few of these memories?”
Ellie Memory – “I think even Ellie might like that…”
Deadpool – [gunning down the memory and screaming] “NO! She won’t be safe if I’m part of their lives! None of them will…”
Ultimately, his own personal Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind works and, as all his memories fade, Wade finally finds some sense of peace and forgiveness. I…I don’t know what to make of this ending. I’m torn between it being a bold ending forged of a tragically powerful sacrifice, killing himself in such a way (because who are we without our memories? we certainly aren’t ourselves if we can’t remember what we’ve done or who we know, are we?) to save those he loves and it being a shitty cop-out. If Wade remembers nothing, then it’s like Gerry Duggan’s run never happened. Because, again, without our memories of events they can’t shape who we are. All he did, all he learned, all he suffered for…for nothing. It also seems like a way to keep the supporting cast Duggan introduced off the table for those who come after him. I don’t know. I’ve read the issue three times and I’m still not sure what I make of it.
[OKAY, IF YOU SKIPPED THE SPOILER-Y STUFF, YOU CAN START READING AGAIN BELOW THIS SET OF BOLD, BRACKETED, ALL-CAPS-LOCKED INSTRUCTIONS. COOLIO? COOLIO.]
I’m also no more sure what to make of all this then when I started. When I began reading The Despicable Deadpool to write this piece, I’d hoped to find some sort of an answer to my question. Why do we find such absolute desolation, such soul-crushing pain entertaining? Why do we, as fans, embrace the characters we love being so hurt and why do those who write their stories choose to hurt them so? But now, at the end, I have no idea. I know it hurts to read. I know I’d rather see conflicts for my characters that aren’t quite so destructive to their hearts and souls. Yet, I know these stories exist and I know they will persist AND I know we’ll keep returning to them. I’m sure the consumption of this sort of art (myself included, obviously) says something about us as a people, that we embrace this in our popular culture and fill our leisure time with such pain. I’m just not sure what that something it says is…
Do we like stories like this because they make us feel better about our own lives? Maybe, but that seems like a twisted mix of voyeurism and sadism to me. It can’t be that we turn to these stories because we’re inspired by seeing the characters triumph over their struggles either. Deadpool doesn’t triumph over the tragedies in his life. He simply endures…barely. So why do these stories exist? And what do they say about us? I don’t know.
During his 300th issue escapade, a memory of Preston in his mind laughs and tells Wade, “Ha! If the story ended here, it’d be a happy ending!” With gun in hand Deadpool replies, “We’re not allowed to do those in a Deadpool comic. Believe me, I’ve tried.” But the question remains for me…why? The Book of Job famously puts forward the question of unjust suffering, as God persecutes the righteous man, Job. When Job demands an answer of why from God, God essentially tells him there are many things the mortal mind can’t understand. It is an answer as infuriating as it is honest. But it’s Gerry Duggan not God who hurts Wade Wilson. Wade certainly isn’t an honest and righteous man either, nor is there a clear test of faith outlined in the narrative. Yet maybe, maybe that’s part of the point, part of the why I’ve been seeking.
Part of art is to reflect life, right? Well, we can’t really escape pain, can we? I mean, what is life without pain? To live is to suffer. And we certainly don’t always have a reason, a why, to our suffering nor do we always have a way out. Like Wade, we all have to deal with unfair pain, with more than we can handle and in these stories we see even a man who can heal from any wound can be broken beyond repair. Yet, even when he’s broken, he finds a way to get back up and go on…even if he can never quite be who he was before. Maybe that’s why we turn to stories like these, to know we’re not alone in our suffering. And maybe that’s why authors push beloved characters through the fire – to remind us that to suffer is an inescapable part of being human, that even the “gods” among us break, and that we too will stand again after it seems like we’ve been forever on the ground.
I still don’t know for sure. All I know is these stories can be hard, almost unbearably so, to read. But life can feel that way too and we can’t ignore it. We, like Wade, have to do our best to face it…even – or especially when – it makes us crumble.