This week at Loser City we’re going to be discussing some meta mercenary works, commercial projects that tried to thwart their for-hire origins with some self-commentary, for better or for worse. Today we’re resurrecting and updating an essay Nick Hanover wrote for Comics Bulletin on Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe, a miniseries by Cullen Bunn and Dalibor Talajić that initially seemed to comment on Marvel’s morbid run of heroes killing other heroes alterna-stories before becoming its own miniature cottage industry as Deadpool went on to kill classic literature and variants of himself. With Deadpool all over the news right now due to a heavily hyped Ryan Reynolds film take on the character, we decided to indulge in our own bit of meta mercenary work, because, well, no one demanded it.
“Because you demanded it…”
It seems like a relatively benign phrase. We live in a country with an economy based on demand so of course something we demand will be perceived as a good commodity, a work worth commissioning. And ultimately that’s what Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe is, a commodity that we “demanded” through the success of predecessors utilizing other, equally popular characters, assassins all. But what, exactly, are we demanding? What have we asked for and what does that mean?
Those are the questions not-so-subtly lurking beneath the surface, and exploring them means exploring the meaning of both our interests as consumers and the relationship between creative team and character. There’s an implication behind the phrase that our interests as consumers have taken creative team and character hostage, that our buying habits have literally forced Cullen Bunn’s hand, causing him to pen Marvel guro to be drafted up by artist Dalibor Talajić. And it’s an implication that unfolds more and more obviously throughout the four issue mini series, concluding with “real” repercussions.
In general terms, Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe is exactly what its title promises, a comic that shows the Merc with a Mouth killing off icons, outlaws, notables on either side of the good/evil divide. Spider-Man’s brains get blown out. X-Men have their flesh melted off. Cosmic beings get decapitated, Avengers are blown to smithereens, tiny men are smushed. If you’re into killing your idols, there’s plenty of that. If you’re into gore, you’re covered. But where this mini’s predecessors — including even Marvel Zombies — tried to integrate honor and desperate measures into the narrative (super folk are going rabid and need to be put down, basically), Cullen Bunn takes a different tact in Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe, surgically removing the comic half of Deadpool’s tragicomic persona in the process and ultimately indicting us, the consumer, as the true villain.
“Because you demanded it…”
Around issue three — or the second time that phrase appears — it stops being so benign. The first issue presents the possibility of Deadpool’s actions being the result of mind control, initially signifying that this series will be about desperate measures, just like the others that came before it. But in it final pages, it goes off the rails, with Deadpool brutally murdering a Watcher, those occasionally silent, more frequently verbose fourth wall breakers, audience surrogates and documenters of Important Events. It’s meta commentary on meta commentary, our murderous hero/tool literally destroying the framing device What If…? made famous, turning his sights on us in the process. It’s grim but still vaguely funny, if you’re so inclined. It’s just Deadpool, doing his Deadpool thing, breaking the fourth wall, because we demanded it.
The fourth wall jokes are still there in issue two, not quite as goofy but still around, even as the kills are more “shocking.” Over the span of the issue, Deadpool single handedly kills off the bulk of Marvel’s big icons. No more Spider-Man, Captain America or the Hulk in 2012. A possible savior appears to somewhat offset that but the third issue is when Bunn’s intent is crystal clear. This isn’t Deadpool killing the Marvel Universe’s population but literally killing the Marvel Universe. This is Deadpool killing character, the concept, because we demanded it. Destroying narrative, because we demanded it. And this is where everything gets immensely complicated because we are no longer discussing a work with real narrative purpose or artistic intent, at least not in any normal way. From here on out, Bunn wants us to talk about being a mercenary.
It’s not a coincidence that Bunn’s story centers around Marvel’s most popular mercenary. Deadpool as a character has no technical allegiance, he’s as likely to pop up fighting alongside Wolverine as he is to pop up stabbing Wolverine. At the time of Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe, he was making more and more appearances on teams, including more serious works like Uncanny X-Force where Rick Remender managed to transform him into a believably complicated, tragic personality but really all that matters to his copyright holders is that he functions as a sellable brand. Both Bunn and Deadpool were chosen for this story; Deadpool would be killing the entire Marvel universe no matter who was writing or drawing him but Bunn, then mostly known for indie work like The Sixth Gun, perhaps said yes because he saw a chance to comment on his own mercenary antics. Because we demanded it, he was paid by a subsidiary of one of the largest media enterprises in the world to write a story in which one of their most popular brands destroys swaths of other brands they own, all of varying degrees of popularity. And they did that because we as consumers apparently like to watch favored brands destroy each other in isolated situations that we know won’t affect the “realness” of those brands.
Specifically it’s the kind of insanity that makes Deadpool’s insanity — a trademark of his and a large part of why he is the Merc with a Mouth — cancel itself out. It’s so ridiculous that just learning this fact makes Deadpool obtain a kind of uber-insanity that offers him ultimate clarity and grants him the power to eradicate his specific reality. Deadpool’s mission turns into a kind of PSA, where he lectures us on continuity and fan demands and illustrates the narrative dead end we’re all heading towards. To that extent, Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe functions like a hyperviolent take on In the Realm of the Senses, which notably commented on lust by forcing audiences to witness so much explicit nudity and unsimulated sex that all eroticism was lost and a new sexual fascism took over, reducing physical pleasure to a bodily function. Like that film, Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe is mindless and boring from a plot perspective, but that too works in its favor: you demanded violence, you got violence but narrative stakes and character development weren’t part of the deal.
Instead you get an abundance of grotesque kill scenes, both in regards to Deadpool and his victims. Talajić illustrates some of these like torture porn, like a scene where Wolverine “relatives” X-23 and Daken are strung up in a Saw-style contraption, locked in a room that monitors their vitals and sears them with flamethrowers whenever their healing abilities try to do their thing. Others, like that Spider-Man assassination, begin like a standard goofy Deadpool battle, with all the bright colors and soft lines that entails, until the shocking violence kicks in, Spider-Man’s brains spread across the street while Deadpool doesn’t joke so much as mug. And then others ramp up the cartoonishness to a queasy extreme, like this sequence where the Invisible Woman tries to make Deadpool’s head pop like some Tex Avery figure:
If that sequence wasn’t happening as the Invisible Woman is covered in the blood of her family, standing over her brother’s dead body, it wouldn’t be that unusual for a Deadpool story. Talajić arguably has the most unenviable role in this production because he has to turn Bunn’s bleak script into something that visually skirts the line of goofy satire and vicious horror. Readers are visually used to Deadpool being a kind of Wile E. Coyote for the Marvel U, a guy whose plans always go wrong and thus put him through a very painful series of unfortunate events, but it’s okay because we know he’ll bounce back with his healing factor. Talajić leans on that physical comedy but a large part of why the series succeeds is because he sets it up to shock your system, so you get pages like the Invisible Woman blowing Deadpool’s head up like a balloon, the standard Deadpool punch line thwarted because it begins with his plan succeeding, followed by a desperate character trying to shut him down in a way that would maybe be comedic in a different time and a different place, before culminating in him bouncing back and viciously achieving victory.
By the end, Deadpool has reduced every other hot property in his reality to rubbish and fluids and he uses the corpse of a basically unpopular character — Man-Thing, specifically — to enter the Nexus of All Realities where he can either work his way through all the alternate alternates out there, killing each off one by one, or he can track down the heart of it all: the reality housing a fictionalized Marvel HQ, where Cullen Bunn and his collaborators, editors and corporate bosses all look on at the meta-meta-commentary he is creating, salivating at the post-ironic hilarity of it all. Weirder still, this is a plot point that used to be pretty common in the Marvel U, as the Fantastic Four notably interacted with Stan Lee and Jack Kirby frequently, with the Marvel comics explained away as official documents of their adventures. But Bunn is reaching past that and is instead aiming for some Kurt Vonnegut/Kilgore Trout level metatheatrics, actively asking his own creation to reach out and kill him or at least give him a chance to do right.
Because, after all, we demanded it. Bunn and Talajić are just following directions, taking a paycheck and hoping to avoid a comic Nuremburg trial by at least giving the character they’re portraying the opportunity to get vengeance, even if it’s just on paper and doesn’t really count anyway. Bunn’s intent may be somewhat self-serving but in some ways it appears to be working. Many of the fans who picked up the series have complained about being underwhelmed by it, or confused, or otherwise just thrown off and technically that’s the point. You came to Deadpool Kills the Marvel Universe looking for fun, goofy death and bizarre, comedic scenarios and instead what you got was your own post-ironic awareness thrown back at you, the artist-consumer version of a dog getting its face rubbed in its own shit until it gets the message. You’re supposed to feel awful, and guilty and dumb, whether you demanded it or not.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover