Spider-Man/Deadpool #11 sees the return of the fill in issues for the title, with this issue written by celebrity guest Penn Jillette with art by Deadpool staple Scott Koblish. Celebrity guest comics are always going to be a toss up. The writer is going to be encouraged to maintain their unique voice – that’s why they’ve been brought on for the issue after all – but sometimes that voice flights directly in the face of the tone for the book. Perhaps the writer was only familiar with the broader strokes of the character, or maybe they wanted to capture the tone of a run that was more in-line with how they like to write. There are exceptions (Gerard Way, former frontman of My Chemical Romance, has proven to be a fantastic comic book writer in his own right), but if you enjoy a particular celebrity’s persona, chances are you’re going to enjoy their comic because that comic is going to reflect their voice and persona.
But there’s an opposite side to that coin. I’m personally not extraordinarily familiar with Penn & Teller. I know they do magic, and I know a little about Penn Jillette’s personal politics, but that’s about it. The deeper I got into this issue, the more I wondered if I was the intended audience for this issue or not. Is it fair to judge it as a Spider-Man (and Deadpool) title when it is so very much a Penn Jillette title? Before I go farther, I should mention that I did not like this issue. Normally that isn’t something to flat out state, but so much of my distaste for this comic comes from me scratching my head and wondering if this would have been appreciated better by someone who enjoyed Jillette’s act.
The issue opens with Deadpool and Jillette in a high-stakes Poker game. The two face off in a wager of increasing stakes until Jillette wagers that, if Deadpool loses, he will have to switch places with Teller, Jillette’s magic partner. To add another layer to the sequence, Jillette has both his self-insert character and Deadpool argue over the right to break the forth wall and Jillette’s skills as a writer. It’s a gag that takes up quite a bit of real estate in the issue and really one that had me groaning from the first time it was evoked. It would be one thing if the back-and-forth about breaking the fourth-wall was building toward something or served some greater function, but it is as if Jillette was told Deadpool breaks the fourth-wall a lot and to run with that. It’s a weak and overplayed aspect of the Deadpool repertoire and unfortunately, Jillette leans onto it hard. Taking a play from Dan Slott’s book, Jillette even seems to acknowledge that his set-up and execution for this issue is not the most inspired, but just as with Slott, acknowledging a technical flaw is not the same as fixing said flaw, even if it is played for laughs.
The issue picks up once it switches perspective to Spider-Man and Teller, gaining a little momentum as the plot begins to inch forward. The two find themselves at odds with X-men z-lister Tarot, a character that can bring cards to life. I will give Jillette props for digging around and finding a character that would play into his magician act, as well as integrating sleight of hand into the story. I just wish he hadn’t congratulated himself for it via narration boxes, even if the ham fisted self-aggrandizing is supposed to be comedic. Self-aggrandizing can work extraordinarily well as a joke, but it takes a slightly more subtle hand that what is presented here. You have to play yourself up as the buffoon with a straight man to act as the foil, otherwise the buffoonery comes off as too calculated and the boasts too genuine. Maybe that’s how Penn & Teller’s act typically plays out, I’m not sure. But if it is, perhaps splitting the two up was not a wise choice for Jillette.
Scott Koblish, previously seen in Spider-Man/Deadpool #7, returns for art duties. His lines are clear and his depictions of both Jillette and Teller are recognizable and accurate enough. While it’s nothing that floors me, the art is serviceable to the script and the visual storytelling flows smoothly. Koblish did do a good job differentiating the body language between Deadpool and Teller-as-Deadpool. Between his joyful stroll, paunch, and slight slouch, Teller-as-Deadpool is immediately visually recognizable which gives the visual humor for the story a little kick to it. Unfortunately, his decision (or maybe it was called for in the script) to draw Jillette giving a smug grin to the reader any time he mentioned himself was not so inspired, and pushed Jillette’s narration away from irony and toward earnestness. Colorist Guru-eFx really shines while depicting Tarot’s cards in washed out tones that add to their ethereal look, giving the issue its most interesting visual by far.
Fill-in issues are expected to be a little incongruous with the main title. After all, not everyone can or wants to ape the head writer’s style. However, this issue is completely divergent to what Spider-Man/Deadpool has been about. The first six pages of this are a Deadpool book, and then the remaining pages are a Spider-Man fight. The two do not mix, they do not become a sum greater than its two parts. By nature of being a celebrity writer, the writer is going to share some of the spotlight of the issue, but Jillette’s overbearing narration not only slowed the comic down to a crawl, but completely overshadowed the title characters. This story feels like something that could have been a five-page backup up than was stretched to a full 21 page comic, and I think the repetition of jokes that don’t have the steam to run as reoccurring gags (arguing about metafiction, silly translation notes) exacerbate this feeling. Maybe this is something to recommend to Penn & Teller fans, but this is certainly not something to hand off to a Spider-Man/Deadpool fan.