Although comic series last for decades and often span hundreds of issues and dozens of stories over the years, there are some arcs that stand out from the crowd and remain especially significant among fans of sequential art narratives. It could be a story that changes everything in its own universe, a tale of such quality that everything before and after seems to pale in comparison, or just a defining moment for a beloved character. Over the next couple months, I’m going to be breaking some of these down for you.
This week, I’m going with that last one and exploring the ultimate motivations of one of Marvel’s up-and-coming superstars, the one and only Merc with a Mouth, Deadpool. As I’ve written before, I’m not super pleased with what Marvel has done with Wade Wilson ever since he broke out as a mainstream favorite after his loathsome big screen debut in X-Men Origins: Wolverine, major roles in video games like Marvel vs. Capcom 3, and an obnoxious number of appearances across the entire comic universe. Wade has long been Marvel’s funniest character, but only in recent years has he become an actual joke.
So right now, I’m taking us back to the late 90’s to revisit Deadpool’s classic heyday and Joe Kelly’s Dead Reckoning storyline that served as a culmination of Wade’s attempt to put his ways of greed and murder behind him and become a true hero. It’s an arc that had a long buildup, a huge payoff, and in so many ways defines Deadpool not just as a zany comic relief character, but as a twisted but well-meaning antihero who uses humor as a defense mechanism to salve the wound of his own hopelessness. There will be spoilers.
Kelly was selected to write the inaugural run of Wade Wilson’s first monthly solo series and has gone on record as saying he greatly benefited from the book’s cult status. With a modest number of dedicated readers Marvel took a largely hands-off approach to Deadpool which left its writer with an unusual amount of creative freedom, which he used to its fullest to create a comic unlike anything else at the time.
The series began with ‘Pool headlining (and terrorizing) a mercenary agency as its most ruthless earner living in a secret hideout known as the “Deadhut”, where he kept an elderly blind woman as a prisoner/maid/comedic foil. Not the most respectable of aspiring heroes, but in that first issue Wade risks his life to correct a potentially cataclysmic mistake. Sure, the fact that he has a healing factor and can’t die makes this less impressive, but it was a start for a hired killer best known for harassing X-Men second and third stringers in New Mutants and X-Force. At this point, a woman working for a mysterious organization takes Wade under her wing and declares that he is destined to save the world. Who could say no?
Over 20-odd issues of Deadpool getting his ass handed to him on several levels while trying to turn over a new leaf and live up to his new destiny of protecting a coming “Messiah” who will bring peace and joy to all mankind from a fearsome monster known as Tiamat, the situation starts to smell a little funny. The organization of Landau, Luckman, and Lake uses questionable means to achieve their theoretical ends, they seem thoroughly uncommitted to Deadpool as their man, and are just kind of a mess.
To make things blurrier, we, the readers, are treated to a glimpse of the oncoming cosmic force destined to bring us bliss in the form when it passes a Shi’ar spaceship in transit, leaving them occupants with facial expressions resembling victims of the Joker. And is that drool trickling out of their mouths? Later, the powerful being Uatu the Watcher is seen sharing this fate. This is our Messiah?
Yeeeeaaaahhh….turns out there’s really only one way to ensure peace on Earth, and that’s a complete absence of free will. A being is hurtling towards Earth to possess our minds and render us all stupefied (but happy!) zombies. And the one sent to stop it is an alien hero known as Tiamat, also known as Deadpool’s target. Wade Wilson is told he’s the legendary Mithras, destined to slay Tiamat and usher in the new age of peace for humanity. But while he relishes the potential role of hero, our antihero is disturbed that in the end he’s reduced to only doing what he’s always done: killing who he’s told to kill.
In Deadpool #23-25, Dead Reckoning arc concluded the first stage of Wade’s monthly in epic fashion and cemented the standards and themes for the character for years to come. He goes from being a fun-loving psychopath doing whatever he was paid to do to and loving it to struggling to be a hero and being manipulated in his desperation into doing evil. After a massive battle that sees him picking himself up and coming back after devastating defeat, Deadpool moves to strike Tiamat down and is hit with a psychic communication from the alien forces arrayed against the Messiah, known to them as the Destroyer (as in “destroyer of civilization”) and dons Tiamat’s vestments to remain the only being free of its influence.
What follows is an incredible bit of existential writing exploring the themes of free will versus destiny and the moralities of each. Deadpool represents the ultimate in free will for better or worse – an avatar of anarchy; the natural enemy of the now-arrived Messiah/Destroyer, who enforces perfect order. As the Merc with the Mouth struggles with the weight that has been put on his shoulders and confronts the bringer of blissful peace as the last sane person on the planet (which is incredibly ironic since his insanity is what has always set him apart) he is confronted by the man LL&L brought in as their replacement Mithras: Earth’s greatest hero, Captain America, now the champion and mouthpiece of a cosmic being seeking perfect order.
Can you become a true hero by defeating the most heroic person on the planet to murder a cosmic being and end peace on Earth? Well, that’s the sort of thing that makes antiheroes so much more interesting than your typical white hat/black hat comic stories: sometimes there are no good choices and you just have to do what feels right to you.
Wade kicks Cap in the balls, destroys the Messiah, and is arguably left no better than he was before. Maybe worse. Did he do the right thing? Did he have the right to decide that the end of all suffering in the world was outweighed by something as subjectively valuable as free will? And nobody even knew what he did, their memories of the event erased by the destruction of the Messiah. To the rest of the world, he was still seen as just that dangerous, unpredictable idiot who kills people for money.
Dead Reckoning and the rest of Joe Kelly’s run is usually pointed to as the definitive treatise on the Merc with a Mouth. While he relentlessly cracks jokes and occasionally breaks the fourth wall for some bonus goofs, Deadpool is a character with hidden depths and some really tragic stories underneath his mirth. With situations like these, how could anyone keep their sanity intact? Any dope could decide that punching Hitler would be badass and stopping the Green Goblin from murdering a busload of children is a good idea, but some people don’t have it that easy, even in comic books.
While the story may not be as well-known as your Phoenix Sagas or your Civil Wars, it still stands as a really great and memorable story in Marvel’s canon, and a definitive one for someone what’s become one of their signature characters. Wilson has struggled on and off with his heroic aspirations ever since with mixed results, and Dead Reckoning is the story everyone is trying to live up to.
In addition, it almost certainly served as the inspiration for a storyline in Joss Whedon’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer spinoff Angel, in which a goddess (played by Gina Torres of Firefly fame) known as the Devourer takes over the world with mind-control to impart bliss and peace on all mankind only to be stopped by the titular antihero, who questions his own morality in restoring the world to its usual free and chaotic state.
When Joss Whedon thinks your story is worth stealing, you’ve done a good thing, so it’s no surprise that this is one the fans remember fondly. Newcomers to Deadpool would do well to pick up Kelly’s run and give every issue a read. In fact, Marvel’s current writers should give it a try too, if for no other reason than to see how the character is supposed to be written.