Deadpool wasn’t always a comics (and movie, and video game) superstar. The Merc with a Mouth started out much smaller, as a supporting character in one of the many X-Men comic books. We talked to the people who created and shaped him, to find out how Deadpool conquered the universe.
Deadpool was first introduced in 1991's New Mutants #98, which was co-written by Fabien Nicieza and Rob Liefeld. He was a bad-ass, wisecracking assassin with two swords, a tonne of guns, and mysterious link to that series’ then-star, Cable. Liefeld and Nicieza are both credited with creating the character, and each of them feels not just a strong ownership of him — but also a sense that a part of themselves are in him.
“Unapologetically, absent me there is no Deadpool. Period,” said Rob Liefeld. “I am the name, the costume, the look, the origin and the attitude. Great one-liners are the result of other writers. But there’s no Deadpool at all in existence without me.”
Nicieza has a slightly different take.
“Deadpool exists because of both of us,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s actually a perfect combination of an artist and writer working together. Rob created an excellent design, character name and basic story background and it merged perfectly with the tragic twist, humor and personality that I brought to the work. I think the character was always stronger for the sum of its creative parts, as most successful characters are.”
The whole reason Deadpool was introduced was Liefeld wanted to emulate his idols – comic book legends like Frank Miller, John Byrne, Walt Simonson, who wrote, drew and created their own characters. He’d already had a huge success with the mutant Cable, and he used that popularity to introduce several more characters. Among them was Deadpool.
“I spent a year with Cable, turning the New Mutants into this formidable fighting force, and this guy walks in the door, disrupts their tactics and takes them all down one by one,” says Liefeld. “It’s a great way to introduce a new character, walking in the door and taking all your favorites down.”
That shocking introduction came not just at the perfect time, but the perfect visual influences. For Deadpool’s look, Liefeld drew on two of the most popular comics characters of the time: Spider-Man and Wolverine.
“The visual of Deadpool was very informed by Spider-man,” Liefeld said. “Recently, I asked [some friends at Marvel], ‘How do you remember when I walked in the studio with Deadpool? They said, ‘You pulled it out of your bag and said ‘Spider-Man with guns and swords.’’ That’s how I pitched it to them. A smart-ass mercenary.”
As for the origin, Liefeld went to one of the most famous stories in their history. “I told Marvel, ‘You call Wolverine ‘Weapon X.’ Weapon X stands for 10. Have you ever shown 1-9?’ They said ‘No.’ This was 1990. So I said ‘Great. Deadpool was the guy they experimented on before Wolverine.’”
Then there’s his personality, filled with attitude and saturated in the mind of Nicieza.
“Unfortunately, his brain is my brain, in all its sad, pathetic glory,” Nicieza said. “Most of us have a filter. If I said a tenth of the things I think I’d get my ass kicked every day. Deadpool is that without the filter. He has the biological excuse that he can’t filter himself, so he can say the most inappropriate things, go off on complete tangents, and pull cultural references out of his ass all in one panel.”
“I scripted the book and gave Deadpool the sarcastic, abrasive personality as a counter to the stoicism and machismo of so many of the other characters in the book,” Nicieza continued. “Rob channelling his love for how [Todd] McFarlane was drawing Spider-Man into Deadpool’s costume also played into my giving him that trickster personality.”
Almost immediately, all of that came together and spoke to audiences in a big, big way. “Marvel said, ‘Rob, this is the biggest reaction to a character we’ve ever gotten,’” Liefeld said. “With only about 10 pages, he sparked.” Why? “You’ve got to start with the visual,” he added. “Fans know, de facto, that costume is a cool looking costume. And it looks good on all body shapes and sizes: young, old, large, small.”
After New Mutants #98, fans and editors alike demanded to see Deadpool again as soon as possible. Which was fortuitous timing. Two issues later, Liefeld and Nicieza were getting ready to end New Mutants, and launch a new X-Men book called X-Force. In August 1991, X-Force #1 came out, and to this day remains the second-best-selling comic book issue of all time. Liefeld’s original plan was for Deadpool to come back around #5. He came back sooner.
“I can literally tell you, he’s a product that the fans demanded,” Liefeld said. “X-Force #1 sold 5 million copies. By default, the second issue dipped and did 1.3 million copies. But the cover of X-Force #2 is Deadpool. It’s not X-Force, It’s Deadpool.”
And yet, even though the character was incredibly popular, he hadn’t even scratched the surface. “Huge love to Fabian and Rob for the inception, but I’ve always considered Deadpool to be a creation that had many parents,” said Gerry Duggan, who currently writes the character. “Like a less-horrible Freddy Kruger origin. Gail Simone, Rick Remender, Joe Kelly, Mark Waid, Jimmy Palmiotti, Dan Way, and so many more creators left Deadpool better than when they found him. I inherited a character that was already on the way to being a moonshot.”
That moonshot took some time, though. A few years after X-Force launched, like a lot of 1990s creations, Deadpool’s popularity began to slide a bit. In fact, when Joe Kelly came on board Deadpool’s solo comic in the late Nineties, it was almost a mercy job. “When I started on the [Deadpool series], I’m not kidding when I say they thought it was going to be cancelled after 3 issues,” Kelly said. But then the fans would write letters, and it just kept coming back. Kelly ended up sticking around for several years, and he believes that because the readership was small but vocal during this time, he was able to push the character’s limits further, with little consequence.
This resulted in Deadpool’s comic book personality evolving, changing, and solidifying into the character as we know him today. For example, Deadpool becoming a pop culture commenter. “We did Deadpool’s first baby book,” Kelly said. “I wrote an evil story about Deadpool and Barney and Deadpool had to eat Barney to survive, it was fantastic. I also got to kick Captain America in the nuts, which was a special moment.”
The most famous change in this time though was that Deadpool started breaking the fourth wall. Liefeld and others credit Kelly for coming up with that, but the writer himself isn’t so sure. “I never think that I actually came up with that, but everyone tells me I did,” Kelly said.
He said Deadpool addressing the audience came about simply because the character was “completely insane”. “So that really helps,” Kelly continues. “The fact he’s so nutty and out of his mind made it appropriate to do that stuff. And honestly, I was kind of finding my voice as a writer.”
Nicieza too gives Kelly the credit for the idea but points out Deadpool’s fourth-wall-breaking had happened before, and had served a more practical purpose early on. Marvel had started doing recap pages at the beginning of each comics issue, and Nicieza thought that was a bit “dry” for Deadpool.
“So I asked if I could have standing figures drawn for page one and I would have Deadpool talk to the readers about what happened,” Nicieza said. “Once you do that, you automatically start breaking the wall with a hammer.” Deadpool would also answer fan letters at the end of each issues. “So the title basically was being “bookended” by Deadpool directly addressing the readers on a monthly basis.”
At this point Deadpool had the cool costume, mysterious origin, could comment on the world he was in, talk to the audience, and kick ass all at the same time. For most characters, that might have been enough. But Deadpool was on a different path.
When you look at the biggest characters in the world, characters like Batman, Superman, Spider-man and Wolverine, they made their names not just in comics. They had major roles in other media as well, either on TV or in movies. And though Deadpool did appear on the Disney Spider-Man animated series, his popularity has decidedly more modern roots. Video games and the internet made him the character he is today.
“Video games, in my opinion, are where he took on his new larger life,” says Liefeld. “Deadpool exploded for the youth around 2010 with Marvel vs. Capcom. He was the most popular character. He does kicks then mocks you as he hits you and dances around you when you hit the ground. My neighbourhood kids, I walked into my living room, and there were 8 kids on the sofa and they all want to play Deadpool vs Deadpool, and they didn’t know who Deadpool was.”
Then there was the internet. “Deadpool came of age on the web,” said Duggan. “There are kids that only know him from the pages and panels that get posted to Tumblr. The best of every era of Deadpool is distilled and shared. It’s obviously done the character a bit of good.”
Those hilarious snippets are usually in line with the cynicism associated with the internet, too. “I always say I’m a happier person when I’m working on the character because he allows you to purge a lot of crap from your subconscious,” Nicieza said. “He is like a walking enema for foul thoughts."
“It’s the tone,” adds Kelly. “There are a million Khaleesis at comic conventions, and they’re all regal. But Deadpool shows up as Elvis [or] a Stormtrooper, [and] he becomes a meme. He’s infiltrating your favourite thing, and that’s pretty great.”
And the character has a million in-jokes, like the references to chimichangas. “Deadpool’s love of chimichangas was based completely on an in-joke between myself and the late Mark Gruenwald,” said Nicieza. “Years earlier we’d seen a Saturday Night Live skit where Jimmy Smits was over-pronouncing Spanish words, one of those, I think, was ‘chimichanga’. Mark and I spent most of that Monday in the office over-pronouncing words with a bad Spanish accent, and cracking each other up.”
Later, he was inserted into classic stories like Moby Dick, put up against the god titan Thanos, played strictly for comedy in a kind of Mad Magazine sense and more. “All the other characters have the same boundaries,” said Liefeld — except for Deadpool.
“My secret weapon for Deadpool is always the element of surprise,” added Duggan. “I always want to surprise the reader. I’ve never felt restrained by Deadpool at all. His stories are always so tragic. We’ve managed to pack a lot of horror and drama into our run. The comedy is usually right before you turn the page and get hit upside the head with some tragedy.”
Tragedy would befall the character on the next place he’d infiltrate though. His first foray on the big screen came in 2009’s X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Ryan Reynolds was cast as the character, but they fiddled with the origin and took away Deadpool’s two biggest assets: his look and his attitude. What was left was a big hunk of violent goo, and fans were outraged.
“People forget, the Monday after Wolverine made $85 million they announcedDeadpool with Ryan,” said Liefeld. “And I met with the producers. They called me up and said, ‘We know we went astray. Let’s talk, let’s meet.’”
That meeting was likely the first seed of the film that opened on February 12, written by Paul Wernick, Rhett Reese and directed by Tim Miller. It took seven years — but with this movie still pulling in giant box office bucks, we’re finally in the Deadpool renaissance. “Deadpool today is like the Wolverine of the Nineties,” said Kelly. “Put him in anything, and he’ll sell.”
But, to his creators, Deadpool is more than just a cash machine. He’s a tailor-made vehicle to do whatever you want.
“The great news about Deadpool’s popularity is that it’s supporting a lot of great stories,” Duggan said. “I’m grateful for the comics that Fabian, Cullen Bunn and Joe Kelly have been wrenching on. I love having new Deadpool comics where I don’t always know what’s going to happen on the turn of a page.”
Images: Marvel Comics, 20th Century Fox