Greg: I was first introduced to the Austin Powers franchise as a kid, and immediately gravitated towards the big, broad aspects of the comedy. The accent, the teeth, the catchphrases, the physical set pieces — this is the kind of stuff that absolutely slayed 9-year-old Greg (who am I kidding, this scene will always work for me). On a recent rewatch, however, I noticed one joke that whooshed right over my head. The name of Powers’ secret agent boss is Basil Exposition, and his purpose in the film is to, well, spout exposition, the bits of narrative business necessary to understand what is technically happening in a plot. It’s a fun bit of satirical lampshade hanging, yet it nevertheless serves its actual purpose — get all the boring stuff out of the way to leave plenty of room for fun. Deadpool 22 has the unfortunate task of dealing with this, yet executes it rather gracefully.
The issue begins with Deadpool, still inhabited by the spirit of Agent Preston, being accompanied by a surly Robot Preston, or Presbot, into a pizza joint. Deadpool thinks Presbot is the work of Agent Adsit (which, yes, Patrick, I believe your comments on this literally being comedic actor Scott Adsit are spot on), but when Adsit calls to inform him it’s probably the work of a corrupt Agent Gorman, a brawl ensues, culminating in the decapitation of Presbot. Adsit jetpacks to the scene to take Deadpool to Agent Coulson regarding Gorman; Adsit, Coulson, and S.H.I.E.L.D. want to catch Gorman in the act of trading secrets and arrest him, Deadpool wants his money and to see Gorman dead. On their way to rendezvous, however, they’re intercepted by a cavalcade of D list attackers (Deadpool’s words, not mine) hired by Gorman. In this attack, Adsit breaks his arm and Coulson makes one of the more badass entrances in media I’ve ever seen, blasting away baddies with two uzis. They take Coulson’s flying car (!) to Ultimatum’s enormous and deadly flying ship, and the issue ends with Deadpool ready to get his kill on.
Clearly a number of moving parts in this issue, and sometimes the iconically joke-filled Deadpool repartee gets bogged down by some necessarily expository heavy lifting. For such heavy lifting and plot machinations to make sense and remain entertaining, they must be rendered as clearly and accessibly as possible. In that regard, artist Mike Hawthorne simply knocks it out of the park, producing images that simply, cleverly, and succinctly convey some complex stuff.
Let’s take a look at this panel:
Some tricky stuff being presented here, namely with the double image of Preston. Hawthorne must convey Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan’s notion that not only is there a Presbot leading Deadpool into the pizza parlor, but the real Preston’s spirit is inside Deadpool’s mind. The typically snarky yet immensely helpful recap on the previous page helps clarify this, but Hawthorne’s masterful touch is to feature the “real” yet purely “abstract” Preston acting as Deadpool’s reflection as he walks by the window. By absorbing this image, the reader knows without any other context needed that this Preston is a part of Deadpool, which means that something shady is going on with the Preston walking in front of them.
Hawthorne’s crystal clarity is effective not only with understanding the plot, but also with comprehending some of the joke constructions. Here are some panels that act as a brilliant set-up and punchline:
Without taking a moment to drink the entire panel in, Gorman’s answer to “What am I forgetting?” may seem like a non sequitur at best, or a pointless moment of false tension at worse. It’s easy enough to notice all the Spider-Man stuff around in the second panel, making “spideylover” an understandable choice, but what’s with that weird number dashed off at the end? If you look at the poster partially obscured by Gorman’s speech bubble, you’ll notice it’s for Canadian intellectual rock royalty Rush, and what was the name of one of their biggest albums again? That’s right, 2112. A brilliantly subtle yet immediately understood visual gag, courtesy of Hawthorne.
I like to talk about jokes a whole bunch in general, but especially when reading Deadpool. Partially because I’m a comedian and fan of comedy, partially because this is cowritten by a famous comedian, but mostly because Deadpool just happens to be a damn funny character by design. However, with an acknowledgement that I can’t help but oversimplify, there broadly tend to be two types of joke in any narrative comedy. Jokes that are in service of, advance, or organically stem from plot or character development, and jokes that do not. The first type of joke, for my money, is probably preferable, as it accomplishes its basic, visceral task — make the reader laugh! — but also goes above and beyond in accomplishing a narrative or character goal. The second type of joke can, particularly when placed in the context of the first type of joke, be distracting, and take the reader out of the story.
There are obviously tons of exceptions to this rule (the Austin Powers link above, plus jokes-for-jokes-sake films like Airplane! and Spaceballs), but in Deadpool the mixture can feel uneasy. I love Preston calling Deadpool the “Pun-isher” after a particularly groan-inducing one-liner, for example, as it’s funny as a piece of wordplay and straight manning, yet also reestablishes Preston’s role as calling Deadpool out when he gets too mouthy. Yet when the narrative takes an extreme detour to depict Preston’s family becoming upset when watching the Presbot get annihilated on TV, only for a bizarre, inconsequential, and vaguely satirical misdirection punchline — they try to find something less violent only to find an ultraviolent news report! — it feels out of nowhere, like a puzzle piece shoved where it doesn’t belong.
What do you think, Drew? Did Hawthorne’s art work for you? Did you get bogged down in some of the plot minutiae? Did I successfully prove that analyzing comedy kills it? And which of the three Austin Powers films is your favorite? For my money, you can’t beat Goldmember.
Drew: You know, I don’t think I ever saw Goldmember. What can I say? I was pretty firmly in my trying-to-seem-adult phase at that point, so was favoring the much more mature likes of Men in Black II and Scooby-doo. In my defense, I also saw some good movies in 2002, though I’m not sure many would earn me much in the way of adult bona fides.
Anyway, I think you’re right to scrutinize the balance of exposition and humor in this issue. This series has always featured high-concept conceits that require a good deal of set-up (malevolent presidents are brought back from the dead, Agent Preston’s consciousness is stuck in Deadpool’s brain, Deadpool’s estranged family is being held prisoner in a artificial mutant concentration camp in North Korea, etc.), but I’ve never found this series to be particularly expository. I think that’s largely virtue of the emphasis Posehn and Duggan were putting on the humor — the plot really just served as a frame to hang their jokes on. They tweaked that a bit in “The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,” but the plot was so personally important to Wade, it was impossible to not be pulled in.
In contrast, the personal investment here is pretty minimal — especially once Presbot is out of commission. This is basically a S.H.I.E.L.D. problem that Deadpool is helping with because he’s going to get paid. That’s the same level of emotional investment that Wade had with the dead presidents, only there are way fewer jokes here. That may be a welcome change for those who thought the first arc dragged on for too long, but the jokes are really what I come to this series for in the first place. Without the emotional resonance or the volume of jokes, this issue is pretty boilerplate superhero stuff — not bad, necessarily, but not particularly remarkable, either.
That leaves me looking in the margins for what might be going on once this business with Gorman is settled — Posehn and Duggan have always been sneaky about innocuously planting seeds for future story lines. Check out this exchange from the melee with all of the other mercenaries/bounty hunters:
They’re referring to the events issue 10, but I can’t see counting strikes or introducing an unresolved grudge unless this is going to come to a head in the future. Then again, Deadpool has dispatched Batroc in a single panel in each of their encounters, so it may be difficult to hang an arc (or even an issue) on his vendetta.
The other detail that leapt out to me was Preston’s husband’s reaction to hearing that his wife might return in a robot body:
I’m not entirely sure what he’s reacting to, there (is it just the fight?), but this could imply some conflict with Preston once she does get a robot body.
Yeah, I’m largely grasping at straws here. Like I said, this was a fine superhero story, but coming so fresh on the heels of the stellar “The Good, the bad, and the Ugly” arc, it’s hard to not be disappointed with mediocrity. I’m hoping this issue took on so much exposition to make room for more fun in the next one, but honestly, I’m mostly looking forward to the end of this arc.
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