The following is a review I wrote for “Return of Wolverine #1” for PopMatters. Enjoy!
How do you navigate a world where everything is ultimately meaningless? That is a question that self-proclaimed nihilists and “Rick and Morty” fans often struggle with in heated philosophical debates.
I’ve tried contributing to that debate before with my own insights. I’d like to do so again while also tying the discussion one of my favorite superheroes, who just happens to have had a very successful movie this year. For me, that’s as big a win-win I’ll get without also referencing ice cream and bikini models.
I still want to further the nihilism debate, though. To do that, I need to re-frame the initial question I stated. How do you navigate a world where you know you’re just a comic book character and everything you do is subject to endless retcons, marketing gimmicks, and the occasional time traveler?
That’s basically the life Deadpool lives every hour of every day. Unlike the myriad of other iconic superheroes owned by Marvel and governed by their Disney overlords, he knows he’s a comic book character. His tendency to break the fourth wall is the most common manifestation of that knowledge.
It doesn’t seem to bother him, though. It hasn’t stopped him from doing things like joining the Avengers, teaming up with Cable, and marrying a succubus. He still cracks dirty jokes, shoots people and the occasional shape-shifting alien for money, and generally does his own thing outside the traditional superhero archetype.
Deadpool is the PERFECT nihilist hero.
I know “nihilist hero” isn’t really a thing, but given the philosophical underpinnings of nihilism, that really doesn’t matter much. When I say Deadpool is a nihilist hero, I don’t just mean that he’s someone who personifies a concept the same way Captain America personifies American ideals. With Deadpool, I’m referring more to the way we process the often-depressing implications of nihilism.
Those concepts can be pretty difficult to anyone who thinks about them for more than two minutes. At the core of nihilism is the idea that life, the universe, and everything in between has no inherent purpose. Nothing you or anyone else does matters in the grand scheme of things. Whether we’re random clumps of matter or comic book characters, it’s all ultimately pointless.
For many, that’s a scary notion. That’s why it’s only natural that people will cling to ideologies, religions, and simple hobbies to forge some semblance of meaning out of a meaningless universe. It often requires that we not care about the truth and simply accept the possibility of truth, which can be difficult when the universe constantly reminds us how harsh and unfair it can be.
For someone like Rick Sanchez of “Rick and Morty,” there’s no getting around the meaninglessness of it all. His approach and advice in navigating a nihilistic universe often boils down to not thinking about it. While that advice is actually more useful than it sounds, it’s not very heroic.
This is where Deadpool sets himself apart. The fact that Deadpool knows he’s a fictional character establishes that he understands how meaningless his existence truly is. Everything he knows, loves, and holds dear is nothing more than the whim of comic creators who ripped his name and his appearance from an established DC character.
How does anyone deal with that kind of knowledge? Even the smartest, most capable characters in the entire Marvel universe, which includes gods, aliens, and alien gods, don’t have the insight that Deadpool has. It’s the kind of thing that would drive even a powerful mind insane.
However, Deadpool is not insane. He’s crude, vulgar, obnoxious, annoying, self-destructive, immature, and impulsive. He once made 372,844 pancakes for no reason. That’s absurd, but it isn’t insane. You could even argue he’s “super sane” in the sense that he’s more aware than most of how the world works.
That sort of awareness tends to inspire chaos in characters like the Joker or misanthropy in characters like Rick Sanchez. With Deadpool, though, that knowledge inspires something different. Instead of misery or clown makeup, Deadpool embraces this understanding and jokes about it.
He does all that while being a wise-cracking anti-hero who will help the Avengers save the world while also shooting a dishonest pizza guy. That may sound eccentric, but it also reflects the key component that establishes Deadpool as a nihilist hero.
Part of what makes a hero heroic is why they do what they do. Superman is often held up as the gold standard because he does the right thing just because it’s the right thing. He doesn’t need another reason. You could argue that’s the most important reason for any hero.
While Superman’s morality still works in a nihilistic context, I don’t consider him a nihilist hero because he operates under the assumption that his life, his role, and his actions have meaning. Deadpool knows this isn’t true because he knows he’s a fictional character. However, that makes his style of heroism more nuanced.
There are times when Deadpool’s actions are selfish and other times when they’re entirely selfless, often within the same story. In both his movies, he alternates between heroic and not-so-heroic actions fairly easily. There’s no internal conflict. He just does it, doesn’t bother with the particulars, and cracks a dirty joke along the way.
For other heroes, the reason for their heroic actions is often as critical as the actions themselves. To them, there is a larger meaning to their heroic roles. That’s why they’ll often hesitate or agonize over doing something for selfish reasons. That basically happens with Spider-Man every other issue.
That’s not an issue for Deadpool, though. He’ll be selfless and selfish, depending on the situation and his mood. If the world is in danger of being overrun by renegade space gods, he’ll step up and be a hero. If the world is not in danger, though, he’ll gladly take a few mercenary gigs and shoot some people for money.
In both cases, there’s no moral conflict. In the context of nihilism, there shouldn’t be because those details don’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Whether Deadpool saves the world or makes a few quick bucks shooting a pick-pocket carries no significant weight. He does what he does because he chooses to. He even dares to enjoy himself along the way.
In a meaningless universe, you can be a selfless hero. You can be a greedy prick, too. It doesn’t matter either way. The only thing that matters, in the context of nihilism, is that someone chooses it because they want to and not because they think it serves some higher purpose. For someone who knows he’s a comic book character, those are the only choices Deadpool makes.
He’s willing to make jokes about that. He’s even willing to exploit it, as evidenced in the post-credits scene of “Deadpool 2.” I would even argue that entire movie cemented Deadpool as a nihilist hero because what he did rendered a great deal of the plot meaningless in the end. However, it still counted as meaningful to him because he chose to be both heroic and selfish at the same time.
There’s no question that there are characters who are more heroic than Deadpool. There are also plenty of characters who are more selfish than Deadpool, but still call themselves heroes. However, it’s Deadpool’s ability to be both and laugh at the meaninglessness of his existence that makes him the greatest nihilist hero.
Not every love story begins with a daring rescue followed by a witty exchange, culminating in an act of passionate lovemaking. Fairy tales and romantic comedies tend to present an obscenely skewed picture of how love actually manifests. In the same way porn gives fanciful depictions of sex, most love stories present an idealized, but flawed understanding of romance.
To be fair, though, love in the real world tends to lack that magical nuance. That’s why those fanciful depictions have so much appeal in the first place. It’s also why “Sugar,” the latest slice-of-life graphic novel from Matt Hawkins and Jenni Cheung, brings something interesting to the world of romance.
It doesn’t involve superheroes. It doesn’t involve elaborate emotional entanglements, either. It’s just a unique, engaging, and distinctly sexy story that resonates in the current year. This being the same creative team behind “Swing,” another novel love story that I lauded earlier this year, the bar is higher than most.
While I’ll won’t say “Sugar” is better than “Swing,” it has plenty to offer for those looking for a different kind of love story. This is not one of those boy-meets-girl or girl-crushes-on-cute-guy narratives that follows a familiar script. It doesn’t try to reinvent the genre, either. Instead, it takes two characters who find themselves in frustrating, but believable predicaments and has them find each other in a unique way.
Julia Capello and John Markham aren’t eccentric personalities with extreme quirks. Julia is a 23-year-old college student working multiple jobs, constantly worrying about tuition and her financially struggling mother. It’s not a ground-breaking basis for a young woman, but it never comes off as overly-tragic. Hers is a story that many young people today can relate to.
The same goes for John, a middle-aged businessman who thought he did everything right. He married his high-school love, created a thriving business, and played by the rules that men believe they’re supposed to follow. Then, out of nowhere, he finds out his wife is cheating on him and she serves him with divorce papers. In an instant, everything he thinks he knows about love is shattered.
These are two people with significant emotional deficits. Julia makes it clear that being alone doesn’t sit well with her. Her love of romance movies and her reactions to her roommates kinky antics with her boyfriend make that apparent. John is broken and lonely, needing a new connection to fill the void that his ex-wife left in his heart.
How they come together isn’t that romantic, in terms of logistics. Their first interaction is an otherwise forgettable joke in diner. However, their paths eventually cross again, this time with much sexier interactions. Instead of turning into a traditional relationship, though, these two follow a different path.
This is where “Sugar” twists the standard romantic narrative. Instead of two people coming together in moments that go onto inspire Taylor Swift songs, they end up following a much messier path. John, who is still very hung up on his wife, doesn’t jump into another relationship. Instead, he seeks an “arrangement,” of sorts.
Instead of an actual girlfriend, he asks Julia to be her sugar baby. That’s a term that exists in the real world and often gets conflated with prostitution. In fact, that’s a common refrain throughout “Sugar.” Julia goes out of her way to belabor the fact that she’s not just exchanging sex for money. It’s worth belaboring too because that’s not the crux of their arrangement.
Yes, the arrangement does involve sex.
Yes, the arrangement does involve activities associated with dating and relationship.
No, the arrangement does not involve the promise of marriage, kids, and a white picket fence.
No, the arrangement does not involve contracts, dungeons, and bondage in the mold of “50 Shades of Grey.”
In practice, it doesn’t necessarily convey the traits of an epic love story. It doesn’t depict that of a kinky porno, either. The arrangement between Julia and John serves a defined purpose that benefits them both.
John is someone who has spent most of his life in a relationship. Being alone for him is untenable. Julia is someone who clearly wants intimacy, but struggles to fit it into her hectic life. The arrangement they pursue together fulfills them both in a particular way. John gets companionship. Julia gets intimacy and some badly-needed financial support.
If that were the only result of the arrangement, though, there wouldn’t be much of a story. It doesn’t take long before Julia and John encounter various complications to their arrangement. Emotional entanglements do enter the picture. Some of them are a bit predictable, but others are less obvious.
There’s an underlying sense that neither character really understands what they feel for one another. John often finds himself pulled in multiple directions by his emotions whereas Julia tends to make more assumptions than she should. It makes for an eventful emotional journey, which leads to some interesting choices in the end.
When all is said and done, “Sugar” comes off as a real love story, but in an indirect sort of way. It take a strange, meandering path to get to that point, but it still gets there. While a second volume of the story is teased at the end, the story feels complete. There’s a sense that both Julia and John take a step forward in their lives, both together and as individuals.
There are a number of flaws with how “Sugar” goes about guiding Julia and John through the story, though. Neither character has much of a supporting cast. Both Julia and John are surrounded by archetypes with the personality depth of meathead jocks from 80s teen movies.
John’s business partner, Richard, is basically a well-dressed frat boy whose only role is to present the idea of an “arrangement.” His ex-wife, Karen, is even less developed. She is the personification of everything that rabid anti-feminists dread, a callous bitch who preys on the emotions of rich men while indulging her hedonistic proclivities on the side.
Julia’s supporting cast isn’t much better. Aside from a roommate who constantly encourages her to get laid and bosses that see her as nothing more than a cog with a pretty face, there’s nobody that really complements her. The people around her are just extra and bring little to the table.
On top of that, there are times when Julia and John rely too heavily on tired tropes. John has a few moments where he tries to be a White Knight and Julia has a few moments where she tries to be overly independent to the point of being an asshole about it. While these parts of the story can be eye-rolling at times, they don’t take away from the overall story.
At its core, “Sugar” is still a love story. It’s just a very different kind of love story. It takes two people in need of love and brings them together, albeit in an unorthodox way. It still works, though. It still evokes just the right emotion without resorting to princesses and dragon-slaying.
If I had to score “Sugar,” I would give it a 7 out of 10. It’s a solid, above-average story that applies just the right amount of romance and sex appeal. It has a novel concept that has plenty of potential, sexy and otherwise. It lacks the various support structures necessary to make it feel complete. Compared to “Swing,” it doesn’t quite measure up in terms of refinement.
Unlike “Swing,” this is a love story that feels more definitive. It’s concise, streamlined, and genuine in ways that few love stories dare to be in an era where one or more love interests has to be a superhero. Hawkins and Cheung once again achieve something special and sexy with “Sugar.” It may never be an epic love story that inspires a James Cameron movie, but it doesn’t have to in order to be sweet.
This has been a rough summer for fans of superhero comics, romance, and weddings. For a fan like me, this summer couldn’t have been rougher without adding a broken air conditioner to the mix. Between the depressing outcome in X-men Gold #30 and the disappointment in Batman #50, this summer has been a one-two punch to the heart.
While it’s pretty disheartening, I’m not totally discouraged. Being the admitted romantic I am, I believe love will eventually win out. I know that sounds corny and ripped right out of a Disney movie, but wouldn’t put so much energy into so many sexy love stories if that belief weren’t sincere.
Even so, I feel as though the current mood surrounding romance and superhero comics has a lot of room for improvement. Mr. and Mrs. X #1 was a good start, but only to a point. There’s only so much that I can do as a fan, aside from buying comics that depict quality romances with great sex appeal. Beyond that, my influence is limited.
As such, I’m going to take a moment from complaining about the current state of love in superhero comics and try a little exercise in romantic imagination. By that, I mean I’m going to contemplate the romantic potential of superheroes that will probably never cross paths, due to rights issues and belonging to different publishers.
It’s a sad fact of life and copyright laws that Marvel characters cannot interact with DC characters. However, that doesn’t mean certain characters don’t have romantic potential. In fact, I believe some have more potential than they do with anyone in their current continuity.
What follows is my personal list of the top six non-canon superhero couples. Not every couple on this list is a Marvel and DC character paired together, but given how many iconic characters those two companies control, it’s somewhat unavoidable. Also, please keep in mind that this is just my list. It is by no means definitive. This is just something meant to inject a little romance into a summer that badly needs it.
Number 6: Black Panther and Vixen
When it comes to healthy romance, it helps when two people share the same quirks. Whether that’s wine tasting or underwater basket weaving, having similar distinctions go a long way towards helping a couple thrive. It’s for that reason that I believe Black Panther and Vixen have the quirks/kinks to make a romance that’s both functional and sexy.
Black Panther’s star has risen quickly thanks to a billion-dollar movie, but his romantic history has been somewhat stagnant. His brief, but bland marriage to Storm of the X-men came off as a gimmick rather than a relationship. While he has chemistry with Nakia, it’s only the very general kind.
That’s where Mari “Vixen” MaCabe sets herself apart. Her powers, abilities, and personality is largely driven by her connection to animal spirits. It’s very similar to the connection that Black Panther has with Wakanda’s native deity, Bast. Being connected to animal spirits and having a fondness for jungle-themed costumes gives these two a unique connection that they haven’t had with their in-universe love interests.
I believe these two would complement each other in unique ways. Vixen is cunning and charismatic. Black Panther is strong and diplomatic. Alone, they’re both pretty strong. Together, they’re even stronger and much sexier.
Number 5: Dr. Strange and Zatanna
This is another instance of two people having shared interests, but with Dr. Strange and Zatanna, it goes deeper than that. These two are some of the most recognizable mystical characters in their respective worlds. Dr. Strange is the Sorcerer Supreme in Marvel and Zatanna is one of the most skilled magicians in the DC Universe. Together, their magic can be pretty potent, literally and figuratively.
However, it’s not just because of their mystical skills that I believe they would be good together. In their respective universes, both characters struggle to maintain even a semi-functional relationship. Zatanna often finds herself on the outside looking in with love interests like Batman and John Constantine. Dr. Strange has never had much of a love life outside Clea, who is almost always relegated to a supporting role.
Zatanna is not the kind of woman who is content with a supporting role. She’s someone who fights alongside Batman and the Justice League. She can handle the crazy mystical threats that Dr. Strange deals with on a regular basis.
For Dr. Strange, he finally has someone who can deal with his attitude and arrogance, which is a tough barrier for any potential love interest. Again, Zatanna dealt with Batman. Any woman who can deal with Batman has an edge. The fact she isn’t afraid to show her legs off and be a bit more playful with her magic also helps.
More than anything else, Zatanna is someone who could make a man like Dr. Strange smile while he works. That, in and of itself, is a kind of magic that helps any relationship.
Number 4: Batman and Sara Pezzini (Witchblade)
This one kind of breaks the mold because it doesn’t pair a Marvel character with a DC character. Sara Pezzini, also known as the bearer of the Witchblade, is not a Marvel character. She’s a product of Top Cow Productions. She comes from a very different world compared to Batman, but that world makes her uniquely equipped to handle being Batman’s lover.
Batman requires that a romance be complicated and prone to tragedy. Few women can handle that. While Catwoman came very close to making it official, it’s a testament to just how tortured Batman is in his love life, among other things.
For Sara Pezzini, that’s exactly the kind of man who brings out the best in her. Unlike Catwoman, Sara was never a thief. She’s a cop and a very dedicated cop. Throughout her long-running series, she defines herself as the kind of hard-nosed, tough-as-nails person who doesn’t hesitate to run into the crossfire of a gang war or a demon army.
Beyond just being a cop, Sara deals with far larger problems that come with being the bearer of the Witchblade, an ancient weapon that tends to attract insane threats, even by NYPD standards. Batman already deals with homicidal clowns and thugs who are half-crocodile. They can handle the craziness in each other’s lives.
More importantly, though, Sara can do something that so few women have ever done for Batman. She can complement him as both Bruce Wayne and Batman. As a cop, she can actually help Batman’s efforts to fight crime in Gotham. He can, in turn, help her deal with the supernatural horror shows that tend to follow her, as only Batman can.
On nearly every level, Batman and Sara Pezzini make each other better. They’re the kind of couple that can work together and be together. That kind of romantic combination is potent. Plus, Sara Pezzini’s hardened attitude might actually help Batman crack a smile every once in a while.
Number 3: Superman and Captain Marvel (Carol Danvers)
This is probably the most controversial pairing on this list because Superman has one of the most iconic romances of all time with Lois Lane. Carol “Captain Marvel” Danvers, on the other hand, has no relationships that even come close, even if you take into account her affair with alcohol.
The reason I believe these two would forge a powerful romance is because Carol Danvers embodies the best traits of both Lois Lane and Wonder Woman. She’s a skilled fighter like Wonder Woman, having trained in the military and fought in interstellar wars. She’s also uncompromising in her pursuit of truth, much like Lois Lane.
Beyond just having the best traits of two iconic women, Carol brings something else to the table. Unlike Superman, she wasn’t born with her powers. She got them in an accident that merged her DNA with that of an alien. At the heart of her story, she’s a human who becomes an alien. Superman, by contrast, is an alien who becomes human.
That unique dynamic, the struggle between being alien and human, is something that Superman has never been able to share with either Lois or Wonder Woman. Someone like Carol could both help him through that journey and fight by his side. She’s tough enough to go up against anything, be it a mad Titan or an evil super-genius billionaire.
Superman is, at heart, an ideal. He’s an icon because he sets an impossible standard for others to aspire. Carol Danvers defines herself by doing the impossible and fighting for it every step of the way. That shared struggle can create the kind of love that empowers two already powerful characters.
Number 2: Captain America and Wonder Woman
This one is probably the most logical pairing on this list. In fact, Captain America and Wonder Woman are probably the one instance where their potential is greater than that of any in-canon romance and it’s not just because their movies were so similar.
Captain America and Wonder Woman are ideal love interests because they both represent the best of their respective worlds. Captain America is the embodiment of the American spirit of freedom and justice, reality-warping retcons aside. Wonder Woman is the personification of womanhood, compassion, and a warrior’s spirit. They both set high standards and pride themselves on achieving them at every turn.
It’s a standard that Steve Trevor never achieves, despite being Wonder Woman’s primary love interest. With all due respect to him and Chris Pine, he’s not on Captain America’s level. In fact, Captain America is the kind of guy Steve Trevor aspires to be, but never achieves. That elevates him in terms of how he relates with Wonder Woman.
Beyond just showing Wonder Woman the best a man can be, Captain America can hold his own better in a drawn out battle. He may not have Wonder Woman’s level of powers, but he’s also a man who regularly fights alongside the likes of Thor and Hulk. He’s not just capable of working with demigods. He actually leads them. It’s easy to see why Wonder Woman would fall in love with a man like that.
On Wonder Woman’s side, she can do more than just punch the Red Skull harder than most women. She’s the kind of woman whose compassion and love of justice is second to none. Even though she’s not American, she embodies many of the American principles that Captain America champions. She may very well be the only woman he can love as much as his country.
Number 1: Deadpool and Harley Quinn
This one was a no-brainer. In terms of sheer sex appeal and romantic compatibility, Deadpool and Harley Quinn are in another league on top of being from different comic book worlds.
I don’t think I need to say much about Deadpool’s eccentric tastes in romance. Between his overtly raunchy movie and the fact he married a succubus in the comics, the man isn’t just attracted to crazy. It’s practically an omega-level fetish for him. In terms of crazy, sexy, and all the weird fetishes that go with it, Harley Quinn checks every box.
Beyond her fondness for clown makeup and obscenely short pants, Harley has always been defined by her love with madness. Love is what drove her into a world of villainy when she crosses paths with the Joker. While that relationship has many quirks, plenty of which are quite unhealthy, it shows that Harley loves men who aren’t bound by sanity.
Deadpool wouldn’t just fill her crazy quota and then some. He would offer her the healthy kind of crazy. He’s the kind of guy who reserves gratuitous violence to those who deserve it and that has been a major struggle for Harley for much of her history. He wouldn’t just be able to carry her through that struggle. He’d make her laugh just as much as the Joker and with only half the property damage.
Unlike the Joker or a succubus, Harley and Deadpool are also the kind of relationship that would have a level of sex appeal that is literally crazy. Beyond Harley’s love of skin-tight clothes and Deadpool’s “super penis,” these two would know how to have fun and blow things up, in and out of the bedroom. With these two, you never have to worry about things getting boring.
There you have it. That’s my list for the best non-canon comic book couples. I imagine this list will cause some disagreements. That’s okay and I welcome further debate on the issue. If you think there are other couples I should add to the list, please let me know. This is a rich and sexy topic that’s ripe for discussion.