Guest Writer: Michael J. Miller
Horror fans, you are in luck! You know how Deadpool’s captivated the country and broken allllll sorts of box office records with his new movie?? Well, it turns out the Merc with a Mouth is no stranger to the horror genre either. That’s right! Everyone’s favorite box office darlin’ the Sassin’ Assassin has starred in several solid horror comics too. SO, if you like your Deadpool served a la Ryan Reynolds (and who doesn’t?!) then head to the theatre this weekend (along with the rest of America). BUT, if you like your Deadpool filtered through the lens of a horror tale, then this amazing story needs to be included in your reading list. Before he was a big time movie star, Deadpool walked the world of horror. Just like on film, Deadpool delivers. And there’s a lot more to this story than you might expect.
In 2014 Cullen Bunn and Ramon Rosanas gave us the hugely successful Marvel comic miniseries Night of the Living Deadpool. With Bunn, first and foremost a noir/horror comic writer, at the helm it was an homage to all manner of zombie classics. It was also a layered, intelligent, and challenging social commentary filled with social justice themes. I’ve read few books, let alone comic books, that I’ve found so intelligent. (I actually wrote about it here!) In 2015, Cullen Bunn returned to the zombie-fied corner of the Marvel Universe he created, this time pairing with illustrator Nik Virella, to create the sequel Return of the Living Deadpool. As with its predecessor, it’s fast, funny, and feels like a horror story wrapped in Deadpool’s irreverence. And as with all great literature, it challenges its readers to look twice at the world they’re living in and evaluate just how scary it may actually be.
The comic opens with Liz, a young human survivor of the zombie apocalypse. However, the zombies are no longer the biggest threat out there. You see, the zombies have started to become Deadpools. And the ‘Pools are even more dangerous than the zombies. She stumbles upon our Deadpool – the Deadpool – and he has no memory of what’s brought him to this place.
While he may have no memory of what’s come before, he does realize that it’s the end of the world. And, picking up the philosophical thread of the original, he also realizes a deep truth about human nature. Shortly after meeting Liz Deadpool tells her, “My mind’s been expanded by the idea that I don’t have to be unaccompanied.” This is an important truth – we can’t live in isolation. As human beings, we are made for community. We need others not just to thrive, but to survive.
The horror of this comic then comes in two veins. The first, is the obvious. It is a horror story after all and it’s filled with the death, grief, and violence we expect from the zombie apocalypse. Return of the Living Deadpool does the genre justice. Just like Night of the Living Deadpool, Return of the Living Deadpool is in black and white (save Deadpool) as an homage to Night of the Living Dead and The Walking Dead (comic). The medium certainly adds a creepiness to the frames. The story presses the sort of fractured isolation that comes with zombie apocalypses as well as the yearning for community. People seek both lost loved ones as well as other survivors they may band together with and (try to) live in peace in a world that’s now perhaps too violent for them. You can feel the stress of isolation as well as the desperate hope for connection. It also delivers what horror fans are looking/hoping for.
We see Deadpool facing throngs of zombies intent on eating his flesh.
We see creepy Deadpool clones joining the hunt in sadistic and spooky forms.
And we see the pain of losing those we love to this hellacious world. One of the most haunting and disturbing scenes of the miniseries comes when Liz and Deadpool finally find her missing mother…halfway between transformation from zombie to Deadpool. No matter the form, her mother is lost forever. And we feel Liz’s grief in a very real way. The scene could’ve easily come out of The Walking Dead where one of Rick’s group is mourning the heartbreaking loss of another member of their family. It carries that sort of power
The second vein of horror in this story is more subtle yet also plays with this theme of community. Perhaps the main, overarching message of the story is a scathing condemnation of cliques and group think – two of the darker areas of our culture. Using the narrative of first a zombie and then a Deadpool clone outbreak, allows Bunn to depict these problems as a literal plague upon humanity. While it may seem extreme at first, in reality it’s not that far off.
Again, we were made for community but we forge exclusive cliques all the time. It’s a habit so ingrained it can scarily be mistaken for our nature. We judge people based on everything from income to race to age to gender to religion to sexual orientation. In so doing we create and “us/them” culture that allows us to divide and judge. When we see ourselves as better than another, it’s easier to deny things like human rights…or even basic humanity. They become (as Kalie’s often written of on this site) Other. And “we” become better because “we” aren’t like “them.” This is the breeding ground of fear, anger, hate, and suffering.
Through the story, Deadpool constantly sees himself (and is referred to) as “the outcast” because he doesn’t think and act like all the other Deadpools do. Upon meeting a group of robed Deadpools, he is condemned for not being part of any faction. Deadpool tells them, “Hold up. I’m not ‘one of you’? You guys are all Deadpool right? Each and every one of you…totally ‘Wade in the U.S.A.’. But I’m not good enough to be in your little clique? Who do you think you are? Hipster kids who grow ‘just right’ into your faux-vintage skinny jeans so you can ostracize the kids whose parents buy ‘em Wranglers? If I’m an exile…if I can’t hear you little voices…it’s because I’m a free-thinker! I’m pretty sure I stabbed myself in the brain and scrambled my own noddle to shut you up! If you ask me, I’m the only one who remembers what it really means to be Deadpool!”
I won’t spoil the ending of the story, of course. It’s too good and certainly deserves to be read in its entirety. But while critiquing the other ‘Pools, Deadpool is condemning our culture – with a special nod to how horribly we treat each other and for such ridiculous reasons.
In a similar way, Deadpool outlines how we – as humans – divided ourselves so, while making the speech be about the Deadpool clones. He tells them, “We were all the same…but different. All the voices in our heads…they were asserting themselves in different ways. We couldn’t agree on anything. Well…almost anything. We knew we wanted to multiply – but not in the fun brown-chicken-brown-cow way. We came together in some sort of anti-Youngbloods lyric cult. We wanted to turn humans into zombies…and zombies into Deadpools…all so the different splinter groups would have enough members for their softball league or whatever. But I couldn’t do it. I knew it was wrong. And…despite the voices in my head…I broke free. I could feel you calling me back though. And I had to cut the voices out of my head.”
It’s a brilliant speech. Can you think of a better, more concise description of the human condition? Or what we do with our culture of exclusion? Yet Deadpool’s shown us the way. This too becomes one of the book’s most important lessons. Deadpool, as the hero, can’t save us. But he can show us the door to freedom. By following Deadpool’s model we too can liberate us from the original sin – the lies whispered into our ears by Mother Culture from the time of our birth. We too can break free.
As Liz told Deadpool the legends about what had happened she said, “The undead swarmed across the world like a disease. They hungered for the flesh of the living. And the beauty and prosperity and peace that was civilization fell before the horde. The world struggled against the swelling numbers of the undead. And – brothers and sisters – the planet’s immune system spat up the merc with a mouth to purge the zombie infection. One man…striving to save all of mankind…and he really stuck his &#$% in a blender with that one. From the flesh of the undead, an army rose…not dead…but alive. Alive…and oh-so-cruel. They were supposed to save us…to spare us from the zombies…but they turned against us. We face a new horde…and this time we must save ourselves.”
Heroes can show us the way. They can show us our potential. But no one can really save us. We need to do that ourselves. In “Another Sunny Day 12/25” John Mellencamp sang, “The air could be cleaner / The water could too / But what we do to each other are the worst things that we do.” It’s a deep and challenging truth, and one that echoes all through Return of the Living Deadpool. We divide ourselves. We judge each other. We let these horrible habits become a plague that threatens to ultimately whip us all off the face of the earth. Not much can be more horrifying than that! But there’s also good news. We can choose to change.
Going against the (seemingly) natural flow of culture is scary. It can even seem crazy to think we can live differently let alone actually affect change. But Deadpool’s crazy – and that makes him a perfect role model to free ourselves from horrible habits we’ve mistaken for human nature.
So we look to Deadpool! Yes, the humor’s often inappropriate and irreverent. Yes, Deadpool happily crosses all sorts of lines. But that’s part of the reason we love him. He’s also a lot more intelligent than your average comic book – and this story clearly proves that. So see the movie. Read these comic books. Let a little more Deadpool into your life. And maybe, just maybe, try to follow his example a little more. If we can all become a little bit more intelligent than the culture around us, well than we’d force the culture around us to finally become a little more intelligent (and compassionate and inclusive and loving) too.