Deadpool Max #1. By Kyle Baker & David Lapham. Marvel Max.
It's a foregone conclusion that superhero comics always present us the readers with better versions of ourselves, caped men that have become everything we could ever be and more. The heroes are smart, bookish even, like we are, and though they're awkward around women they get the girl. They're always handsome, anyway. They've got some muscle to them. Their jobs can be relied upon to come through with enough to support at least a middle-class lifestyle. The villains and disasters are there because nobody wants to read something without any drama to it, but they always go down in the end, allowing us to get back to the best part of the comics: the proxy lives they slip us into. Nobody wants to be Spiderman, can you imagine the hassle? But who wouldn't want to be Peter Parker, that perfect mixture of Stan Lee nerd and Steve Ditko self-actualizer whose life looks as stuck in neutral as the real thing can feel but always seems to be moving inexplicably forward despite its serialized spate of roadblocks.
If that's the micro, here's the macro: the superhero's role in society is just as idealized as the men in tights themselves. The Golden Age was a processional of flamboyant war heroes and community policers, the sedated Eisenhower era gave with a massive cutback on the masks to a country that had seen enough action for a while, the resurgence in the dynamic '60s saw characters who began as happy cogs in the well-oiled machine of the military-industrial structure turn into soul-searching, largely inept vehicles for social change. This is textbook. And as the psychedelic travelers of the '70s gave way to the ripped commandos and media rebels of the '80s, it all fell into the doldums of the Bush-Clinton years. How was the ideal individual to behave in society at the close of the millenium? Nobody really knew, and despite the bold, globalist futurism of Warren Ellis's Authority, the hero market was as diffuse and aimless as its history had ever seen it.
Then -- nine eleven, and suddenly the heroes had a purpose again, if only a small and brutal one. If there had been a man in 2001 to 2003 or thereabouts who could have killed or even merely captured Osama bin Laden while we were watching, America would have made him a Caesar. Suddenly there was a reason for a moribund concept and a failing genre to exist again, and for a while there it looked like we were really going to see another Golden Age -- not only did the books get better but the flags flew in the panel backgrounds, jingoism became part and parcel of the narratives, and more and more of the ground that costumed villains and supporting casts had previously held began being ceded to the opposing forces of stock government agencies and road-company terrorists. Where for so long the game had been about making good people safe from a world that comes in varying shades of ugliness (usually somewhere between the brights of DC's Silver Age and the bloody blacks of post-Dark Knight urban terror comics), at the very furthest making the world at large safe for democracy by refighting World War II, now everything underwent a subtle but appreciable change.
There's a massive amount to be written about the way the tempers of the times are reflected in 2000s hero comics. As soon as the little WTC-memorial logos went up on the Marvel covers (soon replaced by a support-our-boys starstriped heart icon), the
books were no longer about the search-and-destroy programs Good ran on Evil. We were all more culpable than that. The world was more dangerous than in had been in a long time. Now the heroes had to understand why their villains were doing what they did, make an effort to parse who they were and where they came from, take them out without upsetting the populace if at all possible, and then use what they had learned from the encounter to make sure such things would never happen again. They did happen again, of course, because these are superhero comics for goodness sake, and the new modus operandi (as seen in Civil War, Grant Morrison's X-Men, Joe Casey's Adventures of Superman, ad nauseam) was too slight, too anesthetized, too real. See, the post-Alex Ross duty to verisimilitude that hangs around hero books like a bad smell had crossed some wires somewhere, leaving our dreams just as traumatized and careful as reality.
Who knows? Maybe if the heroes had risen up in one four-color spandex wave as soon as those buildings blew up on that day, and taken the fight direct to the Middle East for a few gung-ho years of open season on stereotyped terrorists, America's frustrated desire to kick some ass again wouldn't have bled into the Dadaist nightmare cry of real-life war. I'm not saying it would have worked out that way, just that it could have. Who knows? Because Hitler died to end the Golden Age, but we didn't kill him and we couldn't kill Nazism either. No, the hero comics have always been the best arena to go to war with abstract concepts. We dealt with our embarrassed grief quick enough -- we had those ever so of-the-moment "tribute" benefit books (anybody still have their copy of "Heroes"?), and that abominable J. Michael Straczynski-written issue of Spiderman, where Dr. Doom's tears of impotent rage made me laugh but that kid watching his dad's body get carried out on the stretcher sent chills up and down my eleven-year-old spine. I haven't read it since. I haven't needed to.
Ink is always the better currency, art always the truer riposte, ideas always the bombs that lead to the real brighter tomorrow. Comics have taught me this. What I did need to read, what everybody needed to read, were the next step comics, the ones where the musclemen we love hopped over to the Fertile Crescent and got the revenge we realized too late we didn't want to pay for in real human blood. There were two of those comics, remember? One was the big-ticket Frank Miller Batman propaganda graphic novel, Holy Terror, in which the Dark Knight was gonna go kick bin Laden's ass. The other one was a Crossgen book by noted genre-comics conservative Chuck Dixon. It was called fuckin' AMERICAN POWER, marketed as exactly what we could have used to get our crippling frustrations out: a new hero created explicitly to go after all the real-life, genuwyne, non-fictionalized terrorists on W. Bush's hit list. And kick their asses, presumably. Greg Land even quit Sojourn to draw it.
Neither comic came out. The War on Terror turned into a star performer on the list of America's most egregious atrocities. Life imitated art like crazy. We never got the real man, the Caesar who brought bin Laden's head into Times Square on a platter -- we were never going to. But we never even got him in the superhero comics, where it could really happen and so easily, where it could have done us some good without doing anyone else any harm. The mainstream moved on, Marvel crawling up itself with the handy old continuity shoehorn turning the halfbaked political salience of Civil War into the axis for an ever more obtuse, expensive saga, and DC retreating into a noxious mixture of nostalgia for the years when Khruschev held the Middle East down and the self-obsessive grossness of reality TV.
And now, of all times, we get the moment we've forgotten we were waiting for.
That picture's from Deadpool Max #1, as drawn by Kyle Baker. Baker has definitely been one of the more politically relevant voices in comics over the past decade, hitting hard and uncompromising with the pre-Obama black humor/black rage of Birth of a Nation and Nat Turner, and the viciously nasty Iraq satire Special Forces. Personally, I wouldn't have thought such a deeply radical voice would have given us the propaganda shot we spent Alex Rodriguez's Texas Rangers years salivating for. But as deft and devastating a sociopolitical firestarter Baker is, he's also the tip-top of current superhero cartooning, and he's nothing if not effective with the jobs he does. And with this ugly, shadowed little guilty pleasure of an image, Baker does hero comics the biggest favor they've had in quite a while.
Whether everybody working in the genre picks up on it or not, this is the cathartic end to an era of superheroes that's gotten dangerously lost of late. This is what all the books were trying to show us but dared not draw -- victory in the real fight, revenge for the lives that were taken as opposed to given up. The desire to get Osama bin Laden may have energized the field once upon a time, but it's been a millstone around the neck for years now, and by finally just drawing the damn picture, Baker frees us from that old raison d'etre. Old scores are settled now, and the heroes can go somewhere new, find bigger dragons to slay.
Of course, "going somewhere new" has always been the very hardest thing you can ask mainstream comics to do, so it's good that Baker, with David Lapham on scripts, spends the rest of the book showing us how. Though Deadpool Max reads like nothing more than a well-concieved, expertly crafted superhero comic where they can say fuck, that's a hell of a thing when it feels like the book comes from 2017. This is a bold step forward into the breach, an utterly stylish comic whose style is all its own. There are tiny snatches of older comics buried in the bedrock of this thing, some Preacher here, a bit of Joe Kubert or Miller there, but they're displayed as inspirational points of departure as opposed to lazily incorporated influences. Baker's art is as solid as ever, and its seamless synthesis of the different artistic hats he wears -- gritty draftsman, hyperkinetic cartoonist, forward-looking digital wizard -- makes it the best looking work he's done in years. The layouts in this comic absolutely breathe, condensing down in dark scenes before opening out to a yawning gape for action tracking shots that get downright surreal in their unflinching, Bugs Bunnyish shots of explosive blood splatters and flying viscera.
This comic just looks ahead of everything else out there, Baker using its pages to take his place with Frazer Irving and Brendan McCarthy as a dean of futurist computer coloring. But where those two go psychedelic, noise rock places with their machine effects, Baker is resolutely mainstream. The fibrous, tangible brushstrokes and calligraphic pen lines lose their blackness, blending into the backgrounds to define forms rather than merely sitting on top of them. Flat, monotone shapes are laid in behind the figure art, popping the richness of the linework out at you while functioning as gorgeous, near-cubist set dressing in its own right. As in real life, the carpets and desks and elevators in this comic aren't made of the same stuff as the people, and the tension between the viscerally handmade and the purely artificial gives the pictures a cold, demonic kick. It's both a purer and more evolved realization of what Frank Miller and Lynn Varley laid the blueprint for in DK2: comics as pop art that you can still dive into somehow. Past all that, it just looks beautiful.
While Baker is certainly the star of the show here, David Lapham comes up aces too, turning in the best comic he's written since Young Liars ended. Lapham takes the Max imprint's mature-readers purview far more seriously than anyone since Garth Ennis, turning it to a scathingly intense mixture of scatological laughs and explosive violence that, while populist, isn't the kind of the thing too much of the actual populace will be able to stomach for years to come. One of this comic's pictures is the closest-up close-up of a dick I've ever seen in the medium, and it's certainly the only close-up of a dick that has Deadpool tattooed on it in Ed Hardy/Hiroshige cartoon shorthand. And speaking of Deadpool, Lapham pulls off the world's dumbest, and thus hardest to write superhero with aplomb. In a world where most of the real stars still cling to the tenuous threads of sanity and social decorum but the pop-up media memes don't even pretend to, perfectly written mental illness feels like the right place for the superheroes to go, especially one who's gotten as big as quick and in in as inexplicable a fashion as Marvel's bootleg ninja-Wolverine. And despite all the men in thongs and reaching down toilets and surviving atomic bomb explosions, this comic grinds along in the correct 22-page pop song manner, the old pro Lapham cramming a standard action comic full of plot and character in with all the broken ground somehow.
It may feel like the future, but we've been living in the past for years now. Make no mistake: Deadpool Max is the present, a truly modern comic in every sense of the word. It's still a continuing serial published by Marvel, so it'll never change the landscape in the way that one dumb-ass picture of bin Laden does again. But next month the world will be something different from what it is now, and this comic is such a thing that issue 2 will be right there with it, moving forward like everything else does, like everything that doesn't ought to be. This is the end of an era, but there's no mourn or fanfare to it. Everyone should be more concerned with what comes next, and that's why they should be reading Deadpool Max.
I also did a first draft review of this comic you can read. Why would you do that? Because this link is also redeemable for one rumination on the incredible new issue of Seth's Palookaville (image below). Check it out.