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Tue, April 14th, 2009 at 2:28pm PDT

Comic Books
Augie De Blieck Jr., Columnist

THE INSANITY OF COLLECTING DEADPOOL

In recent months, I've complained in the PIPELINE PODCAST of the silly way Marvel has chosen to collect the "Deadpool" series from 1997. For the sake of "completeness," the first trade paperback ("Deadpool Classic, Volume 1") contains "New Mutants" #98 (Deadpool's first appearance), the two well-pedigreed four-issue mini-series (written by Mark Waid and Fabian Nicieza, with art from Joe Madureira and Ian Churchill), and the first issue of the on-going series. The second trade collects issues #2-8 of the series, as well as issue -1 and the first Annual.

Nothing against those first couple of mini-series, but it's the Joe Kelly-written on-going series that everyone remembers the most fondly and that deserves the best treatment. I'd go so far as to say the first year deserves an oversized hardcover collection. You have Ed McGuinness and Pete Woods on art, for goodness sakes, with an Eisner-winning issue capping off that year. With Deadpool appearing in the Wolverine movie now and starring in his own series again, it's time for a proper collection.

Instead, Marvel has followed this path, where issue #1 of a series is in a different volume from issues #2-8. Makes no sense. It's downright silly. Why not leave that first issue out of the first trade and use it at the start of the second trade? People who want Kelly's run will get it without having to buy more than they want; people who want Deadpool stories will still be able to collect them all.

Even worse, the current "Deadpool" series is getting hardcover collections ("Deadpool Volume 1: Secret Invasion" is in Marvel Premiere Edition format), but still nothing for the classic Kelly-penned series.

In any case, all this kvetching made me return to the books this weekend. Let's take a look.

DEADPOOL, 1997

I had forgotten just how deep the series went. This isn't just a book starring a Merc with a Mouth, a Bugs Bunny/Groucho Marx for the superpowered set. It's a series with a strong yet mysterious supporting cast, an overall plot structure, and a trademark banter than reveals character while cracking you up with pop culture references, streaks of black humor, and occasional fourth wall breaking. But Kelly also infuses a great humanity into Wade Wilson, a/k/a Deadpool. This is a character with a healing power suffering from cancer. He's classically a villain, but strains of heroism run through him. These aren't the kinds of "strains" that writers tack onto villains so the company can justify a regular series. No, Wilson is a character at a crossroads in his life. Everything that's brought him up to this point gives him mixed emotions. Kelly deftly includes Wilson's internal conflict in the story in such a way that he doesn't make Deadpool an angsty put-upon mutant. Instead, he makes him a character worth rooting for, even as he's slicing and dicing rebels in the jungles of the first issue -- for cash.

Deadpool #1 kicks things off nicely, introducing all of the supporting cast members quickly and efficiently. There are lots of question marks around many of them, notably Blind Al, Deadpool's roommate/hostage in San Francisco. We're also introduced to the Hellhouse (based in Chicago), which is a seedy place for villains to collect bounties on wanted people. (I don't mean "wanted" by the police, either. . . ) There we also meet Weasel, Deadpool's confidant, and T-Ray, a fellow mercenary and antagonist to Deadpool.

The first thing you notice when reading the book is the rapid-fire dialogue. It never stops. As befitting a "merc with a mouth," Deadpool is all about the reams of dialogue that come at the reader in a more voluminous manner than either Brian Bendis or Chris Claremont would probably want to write. But it fits the character, and it leads us to the heart of the series without hitting everything on the nose right off the bat. Joe Kelly's scripts do a wonderful job of dancing around plot points, often obscuring them or glancing off them to maintain the suspense of the title. As the issues fly by, you begin to notice that Deadpool is a deeper character than the one-off he was introduced as in "New Mutants" back in the day. He's an internally conflicted soul, caught between doing good and bad, led into the light by the woman he loves (Siryn) but caught on the darker side of things by an almost pathological need to create havoc and to use violence to solve his problems.

This isn't a book, much like Mark Waid's "Ka-Zar" that I talked about last week, which uses deep and meaningful conversations to propel the story and the characterization forward. Kelly uses all the trappings of superhero stories to tell his stories. Deadpool never goes very long before whipping out his blade or firing a gun, or getting into a physical altercation with someone. All of his conflicts are externalized. We're talking about a series that brings back Typhoid Mary to appear as a mirror to Deadpool's current problems, who then goes on a killing spree that ends only when her taunts of "hero" to Deadpool cause him to break down and beat her up but good. See? You get the fisticuffs, but then the character-based stuff that drives it creates a change in both action and character. Done right, it's a marvelous way to slide in character evolution without boring the reader of a very visual medium. Done wrong, it falls to the floor with a clunk. Kelly does a slick job with "Deadpool" of doing it right.

The non-stop chatter in the book will occasionally be somewhat dated to today's audiences. If you're younger and aren't all caught up on your pop culture references of the mid-90s, you might get lost once or twice. You're not missing out on too much there, though. There might be a missed nuance or two, but the point of the story is never the gags. And if you're like me, you enjoy the nostalgic feel of Ricki Lake and Keri Strug references. (Can you believe that Strug's memorable vault was back in 1996?)

The one thing that does bother me with this book is the number of "potentials" in the first eight or nine issues. Kelly set a lot of stuff up in the early issues without the hint of a payoff. There's one running gag of a homeless guy talking to random people about portents and omens. T-Ray is making a lot of noise and doing very little to Deadpool. There's the gang at the mysterious firm of Landau, Luckman, and Lake that appears here and there, to no effect. They star in the -1 issue, but that's an issue best taken as a stylistic exercise by Kelly and Aaron Lopresti to invoke Steranko's style, not as a fundamental chapter in the Deadpool story. There's even a panel near the end of the book whose background spells out "Steranko" in psychedelic 60s-era lettering.

I vaguely remember most of these things paying off in the years ahead. I know the T-Ray story peaks just after the one year point in the series, and that LL and L become regulars in the series a little later on. But the very nature of serial storytelling led Kelly, I think, to lay out more of cards early on than perhaps he needed to. It's nice to build up tension and introduce antagonists slowly, but it's overwhelming at some point to realize how little of it has paid off by the eighth issue or so.

THE ART OF DEADPOOL

I wasn't familiar with manga or anime in 1997, or I'd surely recognize the influence it has on McGuinness' art: Those thick lines. Those character designs that come either from a Disney animated feature or a Street Fighter arcade game. Those frantic action scenes. McGuinness' art, even this early in his career, was a fully developed thing worth looking at. Even today, I think the art in this book stands up. His storytelling has matured a bit, but the art style is notably polished. The speedlines for motions both large and small add a style to the art that wasn't common back then. Jim Lee and his clones might have adopted a large number of traits from the same source a few years earlier, but McGuinness goes in a different direction. It's fascinating to look at.

His characters emote. Deadpool snaps off one-liners like they're nothing, but the reactions to them are genuinely on the faces of those around Deadpool. Heck, even Deadpool's body language and occasional squint of the eyes on his mask can convey an emotion. It's not just the surface gloss of his influences on display here; there's an honest-to-goodness skill at work. And while some backgrounds might suffer for it, it's a trade-off I'm willing to make.

McGuinness' timing in the industry couldn't have been better. Deadpool premiered during Joe Madureira's X-Men run. McGuinness' style bears certain resemblances to Madureira's, mostly in that they seem to draw from similar influences. Heck, the two even shared a colorist. Christian Lichtner and his Liquid! Studio got credit for some of the early issues of Deadpool, as they also were regular colorists on the X-Men books and, as I recall, the exclusive Madureira colorists, even to this day.

This book was McGuinness' big break. Prior to this, his main claim to fame was a short run on a "Vampirella" comic. Remember when they published those? In any case, McGuinness acquitted himself well on the series, and has only gotten better, showing a great range of influences and experiences.

EVERYONE JUMP IN THE (DEAD)POOL!

Collecting Deadpool in individual issues today might prove something of a challenge, I'm afraid. That first year had a couple of detours, notably with a -1 issue during Marvel's "Flashback" event, and an annual co-starring Deadpool that fit in between issues and was a necessary part of the storyline. Kelly was writing both series at the time -- his "Daredevil" run with Cary Nord might be worth a future column -- so it was a natural fit. Playing the dark and moody Daredevil against the flippant and violent Deadpool was a stroke of genius. Kelly played with storytelling styles, using staccato Daredevil captions alongside the verbal running of Deadpool's mouth. It's the meeting between Deadpool's sidekick, Weasel, and Foggy Nelson that threatens to steal the whole show, even if it is just a couple of pages of pure hilarity.

Nevertheless, it's a fun book to look back on today. The "Deadpool Classics" trade paperback series may have one fatal flaw to them, but they do at least keep the reading order of the original issues straight for you.

McGuinness left the book shortly after the first year to work on Rob Liefeld and Jeph Loeb's "Fighting American" series, but Pete Woods' art was a natural fit for the style of the series. (I'd say his best work ever came on Chuck Dixon's "Robin" series, though.) Much further down the line, Christopher Priest and Gail Simone would leave their own marks on the character.

But it's always Joe Kelly's run on the series that's the most memorable for me. The character that Rob Liefeld created with Fabian Nicieza for an issue of "New Mutants" certainly grew into something more memorable and deeper than many of us could probably have imagined at the time.

That all said, the recent "Cable and Deadpool" series has been collected in a series of trades. I read that series sporadically, but enjoyed it when I did. Perhaps it's time to start reading those next. Can't go wrong with Fabian Nicieza and Mark Brooks, can you?

As usual, my eyes are bigger than the time I have available.

SOME MORE ATMOSPHERE FROM MARVEL 1997

The one thing that jumped out at me from reading all these issues is the sheer amount of editorial content in some of them. Marvel was keen at the time on pulling back the curtain to market their books. Short interviews became two page ads for upcoming projects. (That includes an interview with P. Craig Russell on a one-shot Doctor Strange special that sounds amazing to me today.)

Often, two pages of letters would be accompanied by two or three pages of annotated sketchbook material. The "Story So Far" opening ran two pages, before being moved into the fold-out front cover that added a "whopping" four cents to the cover prices at the time. And it seems like there were more uninterrupted runs of pages of story before ads, which were also clumped together in two page sections, so that the story wouldn't run on every other page the way it often does today. (Those right hand pages are more valuable to advertisers, don't you know?) I just counted -- many of these comics ran 40 pages, not 32. I guess Marvel was selling enough advertising back then to be able to afford an extra signature in their comics to sell their upcoming releases. You even had a full page ad dedicated to subscriptions at that time. You don't see those anymore in comics today.

Those art previews work well to give you a quick visual of the trends of the day (again, anything that looked like Joe Mad's work) as well as the characters that were in play at the time.

I very nearly reviewed John Ostrander's "Heroes for Hire" series this week, until 
"Deadpool" caught my eye and bent my will. The interesting thing here is that those two series, like last week's "Ka-Zar," all debuted in 1997. Marvel introduced a bunch of new series to various response that year. "Thunderbolts" was no doubt the most successful one, and still carries on to this day. Steven T. Seagle and original "StormWatch" artist Scott Clark combined for a relatively short-lived "Alpha Flight" series. "Man-Thing" and "Marvel Team-Up" each took a shot.

Finally, "Maverick" starred in his own series that year. I had completely forgotten about that one, but wanted to point it out here for two reasons. First, the character is back in Jason Aaron's new "Wolverine" series. Second, it featured art by Jimmy Cheung. I hadn't remembered that particular point, but now I'm curious to see the books. The preview images they showed in the ads at the time looked unmistakably like Cheung's work. That's never a bad thing.

Now I'm tempted to make this "Marvel, 1997" thing into a full-fledged series. Problem is, I only bought half those books that year. Who out there has a digital Marvel subscription? Are any of these 1997 titles available there? And would I ever have the time to read them all?

Being a comics fan is both exciting and frustrating, isn't it?

Next week: I might just do another review like this one. I pulled three series out of the long boxes this weekend. We'll see which one captures my fancy next.

AugieShoots.com celebrates the new baseball season, with the beginning of a week's worth of baseball pictures promise. Also, the Lonely Shopping Carts returned!

My Twitter stream (@augiedb) is like my public e-mail box. I check it daily, looking for responses and new conversational threads. Heck, you're more likely to hear back from me if you ask me something on Twitter than my own e-mail box.

The Various and Sundry blog is still alive, mostly for "American Idol" updates.

Don't forget to check out my Google Reader Shared Items this week. It's the best of my daily feed reading, now with commentary!

You can e-mail me your comments on this column, or post them for all the world to see and respond to over on the Pipeline Message Board.

More than 800 columns -- more than eleven years' worth -- are archived here at CBR and you can get to them from the Pipeline Archive page. They're sorted chronologically.

TAGS:  pipeline, deadpool, marvel comics, joe kelly, ed mcguinness

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