Deadpool didn't become a bona fide smash at the box office over night. Creators Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld first introduced the "Merc with a Mouth" in the pages of New Mutants #98 in 1991. Deadpool went on to star in two mini-series before landing his own ongoing title in 1997. Writer Joe Kelly arguably defined Deadpool's voice as a wisecracking anti-hero struggling to do the right things — while still embracing his violent and psychopathic modus operandi.
Kelly recently spoke with SYFY WIRE about that initial Deadpool comic-book pitch, his moral ambiguity, developing the character's sense of humor and the casting of Ryan Reynolds in the feature films.
Thanks to appearances in New Mutants and a couple of mini-series, Deadpool was beginning to gain some popularity. What about the character resonated with you?
Matt Idelson was a new editor and was given the job to do Deadpool's ongoing. He offered me the opportunity to pitch for it. I responded primarily to something in the mini-series, that the character had the potential for humor and a lot of depth. I really liked this idea of a guy who was not built to do good but was trying really hard to do good. Then, I heard that creator Rob Liefeld was quoted somewhere saying, "I wanted to do Spider-Man with guns."
That kind of appealed to me as well, because Spider-Man is my favorite character. So, taking that humor and that layered anti-hero character really appealed to me. The first pitch was super-wacky and super-weird. I think Idelson was getting a lot of down-the-middle mercenary, tough-guy, straight-up anti-hero pitches. He wanted to go with something a little wackier. Plus, I know it's impossible to imagine today, but, it was a book they did not expect to go past six issues. I was told multiple times, "This book will be canceled in six issues."
At that time, Marvel was in bankruptcy. Was the book a hard sell?
I didn't think it was that hard to sell, what we wanted to do. Matt Idelson told me recently it was tough. I think maybe artist Ed McGuinness and I were a tough sell, or because I was new. It was an X-book. Putting an "X" on something still helped, so that part of it wasn't necessarily a tough sell. Like I said, they quickly ignored us because they didn't expect the book to do anything. Once it was a go, we could do whatever we wanted, which made all the difference in the world.
Marvel or Idelson never gave you any notes once you got going?
Oh, yeah. Matt and I spoke constantly. We didn't get big notes until the book started doing well, which is pretty typical. Matt and I talked all the time. We refined that initial pitch. We dumped out a lot of stuff. Matt was very instrumental in the storytelling. I've been lucky to have a lot of really good editors and Idelson is absolutely one of them. He's the kind of guy who pulls out the better jokes and pulls out the story you really want to tell as opposed to just going rubber-stamping and pushing it along. We collaborated all the time.
You dumped stuff from your initial pitch. Once you got the thumbs up for a series, how did your vision evolve?
That initial pitch was really Deadpool versus… forget about third tier…. it was eighth-tier characters. We live in a different world. It was Ego the Living Planet, which everyone knows from Guardians now. It was Deadpool fighting Ego or Obnoxio the Clown. It was all bizarreness for the sake of being bizarre. At the same time, there was the Heroes Reborn storyline where all the heroes were in that little blue ball that Franklin Richards was carrying around. That was an element of the original pitch, too. Deadpool didn't realize he had the Marvel Universe in his hands and was bouncing it off people's faces.
Once we reconstructed it, the goal was to have a lot of fun, do a lot of comedy, but build what would become the Dead Reckoning arc, which was Deadpool being convinced he could be a hero and that he was important, and finally starting to believe it, and then being faced with this terrible choice that doing the right thing meant everybody thinking you were a bad guy again.
As I've said many times, Deadpool is the kind of guy who wants to be good but is constitutionally incapable of doing so. When he finally does the right thing, the universe kicks him in the nuts for it. That was sort of the take. Then, we were allowed to use more guest-stars and build out the cast a little bit more as the book started getting traction.
One of Deadpool's trademarks is he's the "Merc with the Mouth." How did you establish his sense of humor and then stretch it as you went along?
Going back to Spider-Man, and using words as a weapon, was part of it. I always liked the take that Spider-Man was yammering the whole time because he was actually covering being afraid. Deadpool was using it to distract you and mess with your head. It was as deadly as any katana he was wielding at the time. For me, it was jamming everything in the bazooka and then shooting it out. Comicraft, at one point, was lettering the book. I think they gave me an award that was something like, "Longest bathroom read," or something. There was so much dialogue. I was sending letterers to the hospital.
But, it was that sort of Bugs Bunny, Robin Williams, rapid-fire combo, with a little dash of Monty Python. It's the sort of humor that I like with all the wordplay. It's then just picking on the characters in the Marvel Universe because this is the way Deadpool interacts with the world. Then, again, to have that dichotomy of when he's alone, you would get that other side of him, the darker and deeper side. To have that contrast was really important.
How did you decide what cultural points to hit over the years?
I guess it was whatever was in my face at the time. If there was a celebrity that was just everywhere…. This was pre-explosion of the internet, so it was people on the TV all the time that I found annoying or somebody you thought of in one particular role. Maybe someone Deadpool would find attractive that other people would not typically find attractive, there would be some gag like that. It was just taking anything that I touched, that people would respond to, and giving it a little bit of a tweak that they would recognize. The tough thing about the pop culture references is they get old super-fast.
You fleshed out the Deadpool universe by introducing supporting characters. What did that allow you to do from a narrative point of view?
Having characters that really pulled at Deadpool's central conflict was important. It was one of the first things I was taught by editors at Marvel, was this character wheel. So, having someone like Siryn in the cast pulling at the positive side of him and then stacking almost everybody else on the negative side of Deadpool – everybody who wants him to be a dirt bag or be a bad guy or reminds him of his past – that was great.
I love all those characters and Blind Al being one of my favorite examples. When we got our legs a bit, and we could use a Wolverine or Captain America, again, it's hard to remember there was a time when he wasn't in every book. Those first couple of times when they would meet up in the Deadpool comic book, they were like mini-events. They were a big deal when you would have Deadpool and Daredevil fighting about Typhoid Mary.
It was great to have a character like Deadpool, who was so dark and bizarre, shine a light on Marvel characters - who could be equally dark, or who were cleaner or more noble – and see what they pull out of one another. He's a great test to see how far they would go chasing down whatever the goal the two of them share. Or, what is their patience when dealing with someone like Deadpool? He really is good at immediately striking someone down to their core, and that's really fun from a writing perspective.
In what way did Ed McGuinness' art style inspire you?
Ed, besides being super-fun and being a wonderful human, his art style was critical because it masked how dark things were a lot of times. And, because it was a little more cartoony and had some video game influences, it helped me focus on action in a different way. It lightened any of the darker things we wanted to do. It became a lot easier to swallow when you saw Ed draw it as opposed to when Walter McDaniel drew it.
I love all the art and all the people we worked with on Deadpool, but the more realistic the art style, the grittier Deadpool felt, even if I didn't change a line of dialogue. Ed's bouncy, open style really set the stage for us to explore a deeper character than if we had a gritty, realistic artist off top. I think that would have made the book too heavy and probably would have knocked us out of the running a lot sooner for an ongoing series.
Ryan Reynolds championed for a Deadpool feature film for over a decade. What were your thoughts when he was finally cast as the lead?
I thought of you and a conversation we had a decade ago. You told me "I talked to Ryan Reynolds and he really likes Deadpool, and really likes your Deadpool." To hear a Hollywood person digs your stuff is always cool. You were like, "He was really passionate about it." Then, it obviously took a very long time to manifest in the way that it did. So, when it finally did, and it happened in this iteration, I was thrilled.
I don't know Ryan Reynolds. I have never met him. But, this idea he was somebody who was on the train from the early days and then finally got to see this thing realized, that's like a win for the old school. I love it. What he's done for the character, they've become inseparable. He is Deadpool now. I fear for his mental state. They are so intertwined. I know he's such a good improvisational comedian. He can just bang this stuff out, so I hope he's well. It makes me happy. I'm thrilled for everyone. I'm thrilled that this character, who was a cornerstone for my career and important to me, has become the icon that he is now.