When You Know You’re Just a Comic Book Character: Deadpool

The next essay in “X-Men and Philosophy” is “When You Know You’re Just a Comic Book Character: Deadpool” by Joseph J. Darowski.  The essay examines Deadpool as a postmodern character challenging the reader to question what it means to be inside or outside of a narrative through his knowledge of being a character in a comic book and the humour and situations that he generates doing so.

While I’m not an expert in the classifications of literature or, indeed, art forms in general, this strikes me as having the same sort of problem that I had with some postmodern philosophy, where it insisted that what postmodern philosophy brings to the table is the ability to question dichotomies, which the opposing schools purportedly weren’t able to do.  However, as an adherent of analytic philosophy, it was immediately aware to me that not only could analytic philosophy challenge and question dichotomies, it was actually crucial to it, as that was part and parcel of coming up with the “right” classifications of things.  Later, I came to the conclusion that the defining difference between the two schools was that analytic philosophy tried to put things in boxes while postmodern philosophy tried to take things out of boxes.  So while that did make challenging dichotomies easier and while postmodern philosophies would do it more often, both of them could do that on a regular basis.  And postmodernist philosophy’s importance on doing that raised the question of whether they could ever recognize or accept true dichotomies.

The same thing, I think, is happening here.  Breaking the fourth wall may be something that postmodern art and literature might do more often, but it hardly seems like such a defining trait so that anything that does that ever is postmodern.  After all, “Mad About You” breaks the fourth wall frequently, but other than that it’s a pretty standard sitcom.  It certainly doesn’t seem to be using that to try to get across any real point about the narratives or the reality or lack of reality of them.  It’s just using them to make people laugh by doing things that you wouldn’t normally do in a sitcom (which is acknowledge that it’s a sitcom and let the audience in on that joke).  Thus, if the primary purpose of that is to make people laugh, it seems to me that it doesn’t really count as postmodern.  It has to be doing something with that breaking of the fourth wall, not just doing it.  After all, breaking the fourth wall has been around long before there was any notion of postmodernism, so it hardly seems like doing that itself is enough to make a work postmodern.

So where Deadpool uses his ability to know that he’s in a comic book primarily as a means to tell jokes, it doesn’t seem obviously to be postmodern.  However, while the primary use of that mechanism is humour, it is also used to add drama or at times to indeed prime the audience to consider the line between the work and reality itself.  But is that enough to make a work postmodern?  “The Truman Show” does the same thing by making the main character someone who is unaware that they are actually in a TV show, but again it seems like simply questioning the line between fact and fiction shouldn’t be enough to make something definitively postmodern.  After all, science fiction with its idea of reality simulators has been doing that for a long, long time.  Exploring the idea, then, seems to be something that even non-postmodern works can do.  So it seems like to really be postmodern it must be trying to bring the audience into the work in a way that most other works don’t.  Perhaps it really is as Darowski, that what makes the postmodern the postmodern is that it tries to bring the audience into the work, while other works still maintain the separation, in general, between the audience and the work itself.  But then it isn’t clear that Deadpool really does do that, as it uses his concept primarily for humour and drama.

This is reflected in Darowski’s own examples, which often seemed a bit odd.  He singles out comics for forcing the reader to fill in the details between panels, but transitions in any medium do that, so while it’s more common in comic books it is not unique to them.  Also, he points to an example where Deadpool notes after eating salty instead of sugary cereal that he brushed his teeth three times and changed his outfit as if that is something that comics don’t do, except that comics do indeed do that fairly frequently and often for the same purpose (light humour).  He also talks about the time when Deadpool’s captions weren’t working and so he was talking out loud instead, but the issue with that is that it breaks the conceit that a real postmodern work would need there.  Deadpool could be someone who knows that they are in a comic and are indeed actually in one, or he could be someone who thinks that he’s actually in a comic and he just happens to be one.  So he could be more knowledgeable about ultimate reality, or he could be insane.  If his captions aren’t working and he’s talking to himself, that suggests that even though he is in a comic, he’s really just someone who thinks rather than knows that he’s in a comic, and so even if he does happen to be correct about that in his universe he really just is someone who is insane.  So that example weakens any potential postmodern aspects because it risks putting Deadpool back into his universe and sealing the portal off behind the audience, not bringing us into his universe and blurring that line.

Perhaps you could argue that raising questions like that is exactly what makes Deadpool postmodern.  And that might even be correct.  But because even that sort of scene has the primary purpose of making us laugh that seems debatable.  Breaking the fourth wall to make us laugh does not seem to be distinctively postmodern, and Deadpool, most of the time, is attempting to do just that.


3 Responses to “When You Know You’re Just a Comic Book Character: Deadpool”

  1. Tom Says:

    So it seems like to really be postmodern it must be trying to bring the audience into the work in a way that most other works don’t. Perhaps it really is as Darowski, that what makes the postmodern the postmodern is that it tries to bring the audience into the work, while other works still maintain the separation, in general, between the audience and the work itself.

    Hmmmm…..I’m not sure I really even like this definition of ‘postmodern’. There’s a ’70’s horror movie called “The Beast Must Die” where people gather at a mansion and the audience is explicitly invited to guess “Who is the Werewolf!” I don’t think that’s enough to make it pomo since that’s mainly done for fun.


    I’m also thinking of another horror film called “The Tingler”. In that one, the audience becomes part of the film’s premise of a ‘tingler’ entering people’s spines. Chairs in the theater were buzzed at certain moments and the audience was told: “Scream….scream….scream for your lives!” Same reason as given above.

    I’ve always thought of postmodern art as being referential or self-referential in some way. The ‘Scream’ films are a good case in point, since they rely on horror movie conventions (and explicitly rely on the audience’s knowledge of horror movie conventions). Works that are often thought to be postmodern like ‘Pulp Fiction’ often have constant in-jokes and movie references.

    • verbosestoic Says:

      Yeah, that’s a good point. We wouldn’t want to think of “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” as postmodern because it has audience participation. That being said, I think the defender of postmodernism would probably say that in those cases the separation between the audience and the fictional world is still maintained, and is just being played with and leaned on to tell a joke.

      I’m not as convinced of “Scream” as from what I understand — the series is on my list of horror movies to watch but I haven’t gotten around to it yet — it was an explicit parody, which wouldn’t be postmodern as I understand it. I haven’t seen “Pulp Fiction” either and so can’t really comment on whether it is really postmodern or not.

      Suffice it to say, though, my concerns about figuring out what is or isn’t postmodern seem valid [grin].

  2. Tom Says:

    Whoops. Forgot to include a link to ‘The Tingler’.


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