Deadpool is about to reach a new zenith of his cultural popularity with the release of his blockbuster solo sequel just days away, but there was a time when the Merc With a Mouth was considered a longshot at Marvel Comics. That was before writer Joe Kelly, artist Ed McGuinness, and editor Matt Idelson launched the first-ever Deadpool ongoing series, and defined the voice that made Wade Wilson (and Ryan Reynolds) a household name.
While Rob Liefeld and Fabian Nicieza are correctly billed as the character's creators, the trio of Kelly, McGuinness, and Idelson not only told the story that would be adapted into his movie origin two decades later, they delved into Deadpool's twisted psyche for the first time, developing the psychology that is now part and parcel with the character. Straining against the grim 'n' gritty style that defined the period, the team also developed a flavor of metatextual humor that led to later writers directly breaking the fourth wall. Along with their blend of humor and pathos and the origin they developed for Deadpool, the meta-comedy they relied on for Deadpool's voice has come to be the most direct influence on the character's portrayal in film.
Newsarama spoke with Kelly and Idelson more than 20 years on from their character-defining series, and just days ahead of Deadpool 2's May 18 theatrical release, with the pair quipping and reminiscing their way through the secret origin of their Deadpool solo series, the genesis of the stories they told, and the surprising twists that never came to pass.
Newsarama: Joe, Matt, the two of you and Ed McGuinness were the first creators to do a Deadpool ongoing series. Now Deadpool has reached the point where his films are breaking records, and he’s one of the most popular characters in the world.
Can you take us back and recall the secret origin of your 1997 series? Did you come to Deadpool, or was Deadpool handed to you?
Matt Idelson: Deadpool was supposed to be a mini-series from editor Mark Powers, before I got the book. Mark had already hired Ed McGuinness to draw it when I came aboard – that’s where Ed’s life went off course [laughs]. I knew Joe through James Felder, and I knew your work cause I believe you were already writing for him?
Joe Kelly: Yeah, I had written some issues of What If? and stuff like that. I think that’s mainly what we had worked on.
Idelson: Right, so I just kinda knew you were sick in the head in the right way [laughs]. But what I mean is, you got what this book was trying to be, which is not just the 12th X-book to come out that month.
Kelly: The way I remember it, Matt was kind enough to let me pitch for Deadpool, and he was like “It’s probably gonna get cancelled in six issues.”
Idelson: Everything was then. We were in bankruptcy! It’s kinda sad that it’s 20 years later and I still wind up having that conversation with creators sometimes.
Kelly: It’s true. So I thought “Well, this book is gonna get cancelled, so let’s just have some fun.” And we put together this pitch that was just ludicrous – even more ludicrous than what we eventually published. It had Obnoxio the Clown in it, and Deadpool fighting Ego the Living Planet. At the time, "Heroes Reborn" was happening, so part of the pitch involved Deadpool stealing the "Heroes Reborn" universe from Franklin Richards and having the globe that contained all the biggest heroes to mess with.
Idelson: Don’t forget "Deadpool 1099." It was a story where Wade has to pay his taxes and winds up dealing with the IRS.
Nrama: The funny thing is, Deadpool is at the point now where these sound like totally plausible stories that Marvel might actually publish.
Kelly: Definitely [laughs].
Idelson: You gotta remember back in 1997, comics had reached a point where they were taking themselves ultra-seriously.
Kelly: That’s what I remember – a lot of the pitches you were getting were really right down the middle, “He’s a mercenary, let’s be grim and gritty,” that kind of thing.
Idelson: It could easily have been a Liam Neeson franchise.
Kelly: And since we had such a different take, I think that’s what led the pitch to get picked up. Maybe there was a little payola on the side, who knows? [laughs]
Idelson: I don’t think I ever told you this, Joe – I know I didn’t tell you this at the time, but I don’t think I even told you after – I was getting so much crap from people above me saying I was hiring a friend, I was screwing up my first chance to really launch a new title as an editor, but I pretty much told them “Piss off! I’m young and I know what I’m doing!” They thought we were doing it for the wrong reasons.
Kelly: They definitely didn’t think we knew what we were doing. But no, I didn’t know that story. More secrets for the secret origin…
Idelson: Or more names for the grudge list [laughs].
Kelly: For my shrink! “My whole life is based on a fraud!” [laughs]. Seriously though, I’m glad you took the chance on our pitch. I think history has definitely vindicated that it was the right call.
Idelson: It’s kind of amazing when you move from a company you’ve been at for a long time – and I’ve done that twice now, once when Marvel was in bankruptcy and I went to DC, and then when I left DC – when you leave your office, how much of the stuff you’ve amassed that you don’t really want to keep. At Marvel, Deadpool was one of the few things I wanted to keep. I kept a few things from DC, and that’s really it. So taking the risk was worth it.
Nrama: You mentioned this feeling that you’d get cancelled right away. Did that looming threat of cancellation chase you through the whole run? Did that give you the feeling of having some creative leeway to do those less expected stories?
Idelson: Not for me, cause the initial numbers were really good. So I was like, “OK, the pre-orders look really good,” and when I had to send the proofs around for approval before publication I was getting a lot of great feedback. So I kinda realized once they had the book in their hands they could see what we were going for and got what we were doing, and like I said the initial sales were strong for the first issue, so I figured we’d be fine for a while.
Kelly: Like Matt said, there was enough good feedback that the fear of cancellation quickly went away and we knew there was at least a year ahead of us. Obviously that first arc was built for a year. Then it wasn’t until the endgame where the sales had sort of leveled out where the threshold for selling books was something like 25,000 copies, somewhere around there, and we kept to like 28,000 and 26,000 and they’d be like “Oh, you’re probably gonna cancelled soon so you better wrap it up.” Then there would be a literal letter writing campaign, which people used to do, and they’d get a bunch of letters and give us another couple months.
Idelson: I think that was after my time.
Kelly: That’s how I remember it going down at the end of the run. We started going off the rails and skidded toward cancellation. That’s when I decided to step aside, cause I can’t tell stories that way, with that stop and start kind of pattern. Clearly it didn’t actually make a difference to Deadpool cause I left and it didn’t get cancelled. But the fear did eventually go away. There was some stuff in the middle that was challenging for other reasons. Once you hit a place where you’re in bankruptcy, people make decisions out of fear so it can become challenging. But we were going strong and people were enjoying what we were doing. We weren’t bulletproof by any stretch, but we were able to hold our ground for a long time.
Idelson: You know what our big mistake was? The big one that really hurt what we were doing was, we hired Walter McDaniel to do the art after Ed left. And Walter was awesome – working with him was great, and I love the guy. But stylistically, I think we should have stayed cartoony and gone with the other candidate, Pete Woods. I think we forgot that we could get away with a lot more using more cartoony imagery like in the first year, cause then we get to stories like Blind Al’s origin with all the German Shepherds and it’s like, “Wow he actually drew that really well… Maybe the humor is kinda lost in the realism.”
Kelly: It definitely wound up getting pretty dark. The key is in balancing those elements. That’s something the film did really well. Where the goofball comedy stuff can cover up the violence.
Idelson: Yeah, it’s like Wile E. Coyote and the Roadrunner.
Nrama: Speaking of which, Joe, you’ve previously mentioned Bugs Bunny as a major influence on your voice for Deadpool. What are the influences for that voice and humor you developed for Deadpool that feels so definitive now?
Kelly: I always talk about Robin Williams as a huge influence. And Terry Gilliam. I was very influenced by The Fisher King, not just for Deadpool but for my life in general. I was always a Robin Williams fan, whether it was Mork from Ork or his more mature roles.
Idelson: What about Patch Adams? [laughs]
Kelly: I think I skipped that one [laughs]. So yeah, it was Bugs Bunny and Robin Williams, and the thought that that stuff had to be grounded somewhere. And actually, we always talk about the Waid mini-series when his mask gets ripped off and he’s yelling that he wants his face back – that really kind of informed the idea that there are levels to this guy in terms of how messed up he is that he’s not gonna be a goofball. We’ve got to ground it in some dark psychological stuff, which I like. The Man of Action guys are always teasing me when I go too dark, like “Hey can we put some babies in a blender?” Sure, that’s a Joe Kelly story [laughs]. That kind of thing infiltrates all of Deadpool.
Idelson: I didn’t realize how much of it is apparently autobiographical [laughs].
Kelly: [laughs] Well, actually, there is some stuff like that in there… You know, someone like Robin Williams, when you find out the kind of life he led, battling depression and his demons, that wasn’t as prevalent when we were writing the book but that sort of stuff was in the air, Deadpool was trying to take a guy who was really broken but hiding behind humor and the absurdity of life, even embracing the absurdity of life and embodied it. Matt and I talked about that a lot, I think, cause once we made it past the initial pitch and actually had to make it a comic that was more than just jokes, that was the place we got to. What does it really mean to be an anti-hero? What does it mean to be a broken person and get thrust into that role? And what happens when you get the opportunity to actually do the right thing, but it’s someone else’s right thing, not necessarily your right thing?
Idelson: Yeah, that’s the end-point we could never get to – where he’s fixed and whole and healthy.
Kelly: That’s the thing – it was like, how much can we torture this guy and get away with it? And you kind of love him for it. It’s his resilience when he bounces back, or when he loses his temper and can’t bounce back.
Nrama: Your series is where Deadpool started to broach breaking the fourth wall. It doesn’t seem like that’s something many other mainstream comic books were doing at the time.
Idelson: I know we had him breaking the fourth wall in the recap pages, but I am not sure we ever had him actually do that in the stories at first.
Kelly: I’ve often said that I feel like the first literal “I’m in the comics” fourth wall breaking came from Christopher Priest, who took over after me. That first issue after I left, he had Deadpool tossing out that bag labeled “Joe Kelly’s ideas” and throws them in the garbage, basically. It was pretty funny. We did have him doing his own narrations. He was narrating his own scenes and was aware of it. I think that’s where the seed of the idea came from. I don’t think we ever had him directly break the fourth wall and acknowledge he was a comic book at all. But the idea of him taking the superhero tropes and owning them – like that first scene in our first issue where Deadpool is narrating himself fighting those guys, that was us.
Nrama: How do you think the films and other media have done at adapting that very specific voice you developed?
Kelly: Everybody has their own flavor of Deadpool, which is how it should be. As different creators come on and take over they have their own vision of who Deadpool is and how he should be portrayed. Even what we were doing was certainly a divergence. It definitely grew out of what Fabian Nicieza and Rob Liefeld had done with the character, but my goal was to take him in a different direction that was a story that I wanted to tell. And then people followed me. I think there are some writers and teams that felt more in line with what we were trying to do over the years. I think Gail Simone, her run is a great example. And Gerry Duggan, for sure, has really nailed it. And then there are other creators that went too far into the comedy, or too dark. That wasn’t what we were going for.
Deadpool is a guy who is totally incapable of doing the right thing, but he’s trying to anyway. And then every time he manages to pull it off, the universe kicks him in the junk. That was kind of our operational theme for Deadpool. So when creators follow that blueprint a little more closely, they come closer to matching our tone. Again though, I think it’s important that these characters can evolve and do change, and that different creators get to explore their voices. That’s what I did.
Idelson: We did that thing at the beginning, those recap pages, cause we thought “Why saddle the story with a bunch of crappy exposition?” and I know you had fun with the characters in those recaps talking directly to the reader. Obviously we weren’t the first people to do a recap page, everything has been done before. So I don’t know if we were the first people doing what we did with Deadpool, but we did it because we stumbled into it and it made sense as the story we wanted to tell.
Kelly: It’s funny, this has come up a few times. I don’t mind taking credit for Matt’s genius, but I’m not gonna take it from other creators [laughs]. I think Deadpool #11, the Forrest Gump issue we did, that aspect of putting him back in an old comic book, the weirdness of that, going after the Osborn hairdo, I think that starts to cement the idea of breaking the fourth wall. And looking at that you kinda realize the characters are saying things that are directed towards the audience, but no one is acknowledging it in that way. Like Matt said, we were playing with ideas that were out there in a way that felt organic to us and it stuck.
Nrama: You’ve brought up Blind Al a couple times, a character you introduced who is now a big part of Deadpool’s supporting cast. Where did Blind Al come from? How would 1997 Joe and Matt react to Blind Al being in movie?
Idelson: Considering how few decent superhero movies there had been to that point, I don’t think I could’ve wrapped my head around it.
Kelly: I never would have thought that Al would see the silver screen, but was incredibly happy with how she made it to the movie.
Idelson: That was pretty cool.
Kelly: Yeah, it’s pretty special. We were talking about Deadpool, thinking he should have a butler, kinda playing with Alfred Pennyworth as a trope. But Deadpool obviously wouldn’t have a butler, and if he did it would be the crappiest butler ever. So we made her a prisoner and then we thought about Rob Liefeld having said in early interviews that when he created Deadpool he wanted to do Spider-Man with guns, so we thought the butler should be Aunt May.
Idelson: Hence the hair [laughs].
Kelly: Yeah, the hair and, you know, she’s an old lady. And this sort of horrific relationship that they have. “Al” started with “Alfred,” and then we realized because of his face, he’d never live with someone who could see him in a vulnerable position, so making her blind made sense from a character point of view. And then we added this weird Stockholm Syndrome thing where they had a relationship and she was kind of a prisoner but kind of not. We ultimately had stories to explore that, some of which we got to and some of which we didn’t. I’ve told people before that the not-so-secret secret origin of Al is that she was the original Black Widow. She had had a torrid affair with Steve Rogers during World War II. Then she wound up working for the British government, and was responsible for this event she believed gave Wade cancer, so once that all came around, that was how she wound up kind of doing penance living with him. But then formed this twisted psychological bond.
Idelson: Boy, did we ever get shot down on that story.
Kelly: Yeah, did not get to do that.
Nrama: Speaking of other characters from the book, I want to bring up T-Ray. This may be a little bit of a question for hardcore fans, but it relates to that idea of these characters’ secret secret origins. In your minds, was T-Ray the real Wade Wilson?
Kelly: That was where I was getting to. The idea was, after we had told those first couple arcs we got through, we were thinking “What’s next?” And the question of why T-Ray hates Deadpool came up. Deadpool is a character that could have different origin stories, for the different parts of his life. Like, why did he go bad? Our version of that story also wound up being the basis for the movie. So the idea was that before he was Wade Wilson, he was this screwed up dude who took advantage of this couple and eventually took over the Wade Wilson identity. That was definitely one of the final arcs we were working on. People flipped out about it, to the point where they had to make sure and undo it in continuity. I think if we had gotten to do that story, it would have been a cool story. The payoff would have been fun.
It was this story with themes of identity. What’s really in a name? Who are you? What have you been running from your whole life? It would have opened up a ton of other stuff. I don’t think it would have done anything to ultimately undermine Deadpool, cause ultimately he’s still Deadpool. It’s just that “Wade Wilson” would have been an alias he had been using for a number of years. It was to show that he was a bad person, that there were times in his life when he was an awful, awful person and that was one of those times.
Kelly: That was the story I was telling, right up until my last issue. Then they promptly corrected course.
Nrama: They threw out the bag of your ideas.
Kelly: [laughs] Exactly! I just love the character of T-Ray though. I really enjoyed creating him and building him. Ed and I were watching a couple anime shows at the time that we were really into, so we were plucking elements we liked from these different shows. I loved seeing that in a comic book. Then Ed put the Band-Aid on his nose, which is funny cause he’s such a distinctive looking guy. The gag of the Band-Aid on the nose is that sometimes bank robbers or criminals will add something distinctive to their face, like a Band-Aid or a scar or something that will distract from their other features. Like, “I don’t know, he just had a big Band-Aid or a big cut on his face!” The fact that he tried this despite being a hulking albino with orange hair, that was a little tidbit that I always thought was funny.
I love T-Ray. My favorite was when they made a T-Ray Heroclix figure. That’s when you know a character means something to someone, because they make toys or something out of it. That was cool.
Nrama: I want to ask the two of you about how you feel your work on Deadpool relates to the films. Obviously when you work on characters at Marvel and DC, some of those characters may eventually come to the screen. But is it different seeing story elements and ideas you created yourself being adapted?
Kelly: Oh yeah. I don’t know, Matt, how you felt, but for myself, it’s bittersweet. Obviously you didn’t create the character, all credit goes to Rob and Fabian for that. It pisses me off that at the end of Deadpool, they don’t have a creator credit, just a special thanks. And it’s like, “Yeah, you guys made an awful lot of money to give someone a special thanks instead of saying who created the damn thing.” But that just goes back into the history of how studios treat comic books and comic creators. We’re kinda seeing that change in real time now at least in some of the Marvel movies. We’ve got creators and estates fighting legal battles to get there.
So that part becomes upsetting on some level, like they’re using all that stuff and no one let us know or asked or whatever. And then on the flipside, as a creator, it’s awesome to see something we really loved and created and had such a good time with being discovered by people 20 years later in a new format and love it. Blind Al is a perfect example of that.
And then the origin story that was onscreen, that’s really the origin story we told. That’s exciting too, that’s the Deadpool origin story that people know now. I know the screenwriters are fans of our Deadpool, so that’s very cool. We have some mutual friends so I heard about their love of the material. They’re fans, so they get it, and they did right by everything we did. So for me, it’s mostly awesome with a little slice of “I wish studios treated people better.”
Idelson: My perspective is so different as an editor. Nobody knows you’re there unless something goes wrong and then they kinda blame you. I didn’t go into it seeing what kind of credit was or wasn’t given cause that’s what I’m used to. But to me it was like, “Wow, they got the voice perfect. This is the way I remember the character,” which was pretty awesome.
Nrama: Before the first Deadpool film people said Deadpool HAD to be R-rated, that that would be the only way to make an accurate Deadpool movie. But your Deadpool wasn’t really an R-rated comic book. Do you think a hard R-rating is the fullest expression of the character?
Idelson: No, like you said, the comic was not R-rated. It was Comic Code Approved, man!
Kelly: We snuck a lot of stuff by the Comics Code [laughs].
Idelson: But that’s the thing, it’s kinda like you get the gag or you don’t. It’s not explicit. Empire Strikes Back was a very different movie to me as an adult than as a kid. I picked up on the simmering love story between Han and Leia, stuff like that. We got away with it because of the implication, we weren’t being outright explicit. And I’m not saying this directly about the movie cause it’s a different world today, and a different medium, but I sorta felt reading later Marvel Comics, post Comics Code, that they were taking the easy way out with some of the more graphic violence, some of the language they used. If you’re doing something just for shock value, you’re not really being clever. I thought the movie was a lot of fun, though, totally. But I do think they could have made it without going for the R-rating.
Kelly: When I first heard about the movie, I thought “Yes, it has to be a hard R.” But then, somewhere in that development process between when it was announced and came out, I kinda realized they don’t have to go that far. It’s fun seeing arms get cut off and heads explode and all this crazy movie violence, it gets you a certain value. To Fox’s credit, the way they decided to have their superhero movies stand out is to make them grittier and darker and that’s how you get movies like Logan and like Deadpool.
Idelson: Totally. I don’t think the movie took the easy way out with the shock value. I’m remembering when I was leaving Marvel there was a story where Nick Fury or Luke Cage was at an orgy and I was like “Well, why? What does that add to the character?” That’s what I’m talking about.
Kelly: The line between PG-13 and R is pretty blurry, so you kinda have to choose to shoot for that hard R. We’re gonna show lots of blood, lots of sex, and lots of language – it’s funny that’s where the line is drawn. But yeah, I love the movie. I’ve seen it a bunch of times. I have no qualms with how they adapted it. What it really was, is that by my lack of a crystal ball, I thought that by making it R-rated they were limiting their audience, limiting their crossover with the Marvel films. But obviously it broke a bunch of records so I was wrong.
Idelson: Yeah. That’s the weird thing. In 2018, a bunch of parents actually will take their kids to an R-rated superhero movie.
Kelly: When I saw it I was sitting next to one of those parents with like a nine year old daughter. I had been praying to the movie gods that when I go see the movie, please don’t make me sit next to a kid. And of course I did. Every time a joke or a reference would come across that the kid didn’t get the mom would lean over and explain it. Every time there was nudity or violence, the little girl would freak out.
Idelson: At least you weren’t trying to watch it on an airplane, sitting next to a baby [laughs].
Kelly: Right. I have since thankfully seen it in the proper context, without kids around.
Nrama: With the Deadpool movie rights potentially reverting to Marvel Studios, there’s a good chance we could see Deadpool teaming up with the Avengers in the not too distant future. Do you see potential for Deadpool in that world, in that context?
Idelson: It just depends on the interaction, you know?
Kelly: Exactly. There are many levels on which I enjoyed Avengers: Infinity War, but one of those levels was the crazy pairings, the team-ups you’d never expect to see. Those interactions are gold. So Deadpool with the right characters is gold. The last thing I did over at Marvel was Spider-Man/Deadpool. Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool alongside Tom Holland as Spidey would be hilarious.
Idelson: Look at that issue we did where Captain America showed up and Deadpool straight up rochambeaus him. If that had been a straightforward superhero fight, it would have been kind of boring. But based on the way they’ve captured the tone of all the characters they’ve brought in so far, I think they know what they’re doing.
Kelly: That would be an opportunity for a joke like one of our other bits of fourth wall, meta humor, where a censor bar appears over his mouth when he swears. That would be a fun visual gag to translate into a PG-13 movie.
Nrama: How is your perception of Deadpool as a character different now 20 years on with a higher profile than ever than it was when you started writing him?
Kelly: So long as the heart of the character remains the same, that he’s this guy struggling to be better and do the right thing, I think Deadpool is the same guy he’s kind of always been. It has been incredible seeing him start to show up throughout the Marvel Universe, and in other media, and seeing Deadpool cosplayers. That’s become way more elaborate and prevalent. It used to be you’d see like a Stormtrooper that was Deadpool themed, it was secretly Deadpool, so it was like he was infiltrating all these cons which I thought was so clever. And that spirit has really never gone away, this idea of a guy who does not belong in the hero pantheon clawing his way into their ranks. That’s been fun to see happen.
Idelson: As a character, I think he’s the same as he ever was, when the creators are paying attention to who Deadpool is and who he’s been. Not in the sense that he’s stagnant or standing still, but he’s the same Deadpool that’s been in the Marvel Universe all this time. Remember when we tried to do Deadpool month with a few pieces of merchandise for him? Now they’ve developed a whole cottage industry around him in the last ten years. I think that shows the appeal is still there and growing.
Nrama: When you were first putting this together, pitching it to Bob Harras and experiencing some of that resistance you mentioned, could you have imagined a world where Deadpool is so ubiquitous at Marvel as he is today?
Kelly: No. Definitely not.
Idelson: No. Not cause I thought it would fail, but everybody was doing what they were doing and the trend seemed to be towards books looking and reading a certain way, so I figured there was a place for it, but I didn’t think it would grow to be almost its own wing of the Marvel Universe.
Kelly: We were there during the time when, if you wanted to sell a book, you put Wolverine on the cover, which we actually did at one point.
Idelson: Well, we were at a point, really, where we were still doing that but it wasn’t really working as well any more.
Kelly: [laughs] That’s true. But at the time, he was the character, he was the one that showed up everywhere. It was Venom for a long time, it was Wolverine for a while.
Idelson: Ghost Rider for a little while.
Kelly: I never thought Deadpool would be the “it” character. We were doing stuff and it was hitting and landing, and it was great, but to see it grow well after we’ve had anything to do with that is amazing. It’s nice.
Idelson: It’s nice to make a difference.
Kelly: Yeah, exactly. We’ve both been lucky enough to work on these characters that were around well before we came along with decades of history behind them when we started, and now it’s another 20 years later. You get a certain sense of pride to be able to contribute a small bit of anything to that legacy, especially if it sticks a little bit. And with Deadpool, to have been there at the beginning of his life as a solo, ongoing character, I’d say it’s a cornerstone of my career – thanks to Matt directly, I should add – and I do have a great sense of pride knowing we contributed to something that’s lasted. Now we get to be the guys saying “I can’t believe this is still around,” 20 years later.
Idelson: There’s nothing quite like going into stores seeing Deadpool Classic collections. That made me feel old, that’s supposed to be like the Lee and Kirby stuff.
Kelly: My wife was quick to point that out. “You’re classic now? You’re old.” It’s good to know that while we’re getting old Deadpool is still young, out there kicking ass.