“What about Agent X – wanna tell them about him?”
“He’s pretty much an Earth-2 copy of me. And not nearly as funny.”
— Weasel and Deadpool, Cable/Deadpool #38 recap page
As it is right now, with all the various Deadpool series and general emphasis on the character going around Marvel, one of the more interesting concepts is the Mercs for Money. Deadpool runs his own mercenary franchise with a bunch of B and C-listers and each one appears to relate to Deadpool in some way. There’s the living cartoon character, the down-on-his-luck mercenary, the murderer who wants more out of life, the good man corrupted by a world of violence, the hideous sideshow freak, and the competent hero that everyone thinks is a joke.
Considering it came right after the big “Death of Deadpool” fake-out, it reminds me of the whole Reign of The Supermen storyline that followed Superman’s “death” and resurrection in the ’90s. Coincidentally, Frank Tieri actually did write a Deadpool parody of that whole Superman saga. It was called Funeral for a Freak and it very easily could have killed the character for good. By that I mean killing people’s actual interest in Deadpool, thereby forcing him into obscurity like the other members of Mercs for Money.
Joe Kelly really springboarded Deadpool into relative popularity in the late-90s, but the writers that followed couldn’t really keep the ball rolling all too well. There were good stories and good characters thrown in, but nothing that made it must-read. By the time Frank Tieri’s run was going on, sales were in the toilet and Deadpool was doomed to cancellation. The fact that Funeral for a Freak was too on the nose, hollow, and featured the most insulting finale didn’t help.
Luckily, he was immediately followed by the short-but-memorable era of Gail Simone, UDON, and the creation of Agent X. Granted, it didn’t exactly help the sales, but it did give the Deadpool corner of the Marvel Universe a much-needed critical shot in the arm that helped keep the property afloat. It kept him alive as a cult favorite, which eventually caused him to become a mainstream hit years later. Even with only five issues to her name, Simone’s run on Deadpool is considered one of the all-time best.
The funny thing is, the basic idea is the same as Tieri’s run. Simone wrote a Deadpool version of Death and Return of Superman, whether she intended to or not. Personally, I love that big Superman arc and much of it comes from the “Return” aspect. With our hero dead and gone, the replacement characters created a strong mystery rooted in a ridiculous, sci-fi superhero world. Which of these guys was the real Superman? Were any of them the real Superman? If none of them were, then where was the body? If at least three of these Supermen weren’t the real deal, then what were they?
Once the dust was settled, it led to a handful of new characters. It was great.
While Tieri wrote a storyline based on the idea of introducing one-note copies of Wade (Superhero Deadpool, Psychopath Deadpool, Vigilante Deadpool, and Pop-Culture Superstar Deadpool), it was nothing but a big reference with a genie being shoved back into the bottle by the end of the story. Simone actually followed up on what made Death and Return of Superman so interesting in the first place and applied it to Deadpool.
The real beginning came just a month before Simone took over Deadpool. Taskmaster, the Marvel mercenary and occasional Deadpool foe with photogenic reflexes, got his own four-issue miniseries in 2002. It was written by Ken Siu-Chong (the guy who does all those Street Fighter comics) and drawn by UDON, which is basically more of a studio house style put together by various artists, though mainly Alvin Lee.
Taskmaster was always just a plug-in villain for nearly any hero and Marvel finally decided to give him a little spotlight and a redesign. No longer did he look like Swashbuckling Skeletor. Instead, he was Skull Man from Mega Man 4 joining the SWAT Team. Otherwise, the series played up his kickass power set. Any human motion seen by Taskmaster is immediately remembered so that he can copy it without training. While stories have always played up his ability to shadow the skills of Captain America and Hawkeye, this one got more creative with it by going deeper, showing his personal life and the fact that he can also use his power to be a great chef or dancer.
More importantly, it introduced a character named Sandi Brandenberg. Sandi acted as just a normal, rather one-dimensional woman for Taskmaster (or Tony Masters) to try and seduce. The kind of romantic interest who shows up simply so the protagonist can realize that he can never live a normal life blah blah blah. She ended up getting shot and was last shown in the hospital thanks to the bad guys of the mini.
Curiously, the first issue featured a look at Taskmaster’s email inbox, which included something coming from “Deadpool, Inc.” A little bit of foreshadowing there.
Anyway, in 2002 we got Deadpool #65, by the creative team of Gail Simone and UDON. It began with a flashback to a meeting between four Japanese gangs called the Four Winds. Deadpool was hired by one leader to pull a hit on another, but things went astray when fighting with one of the henchmen. Deadpool got knocked through the sunroof and flailed around with his gun on the way down. Miraculously, he killed all four leaders (including the one he was hired by) and cheesed it to freedom. As he ran off, that one goon he battled, later identified as Nijo, looked on in anger.
Also in the background in all of this was Black Swan, a well-dressed German man with a gun in hand.
The hit, which had one-in-a-million odds, made Deadpool a legend in his field. He became so successful and so in-demand that he stepped up his game and made his operation a bit more professional, changing it to Deadpool, Inc. and hiring a personal assistant who happened to be none other than Sandi.
He also ended up hiring a stray, mentally-broken homeless man known only as Ratbag to be his biographer. Ratbag’s inclusion in the run mostly came off as a borderline mean-spirited series of jokes that paid off in one of Deadpool’s best character moments.
Also of note was a character who showed up briefly a couple times named Outlaw. A scantily-clad cowgirl mercenary, Outlaw appeared to have a physical interest in Deadpool, though became irate whenever anyone called her by her nickname “Crazy Ines.” This was more about world-building than anything else.
The overarching plot of the five-issue run was about Deadpool being accosted by an annoyed Black Swan, whose power was being a “brain hacker.” He put a virus in Deadpool’s brain that slowly caused his mind to collapse upon itself. He’d forget words, gradually lose his motor skills, and would suffer constant migraines. Physically, he could come back from any wound, but with his mind falling to pieces, what good would it do?
Meanwhile, Nijo was working as an agent of Black Swan. He wanted revenge on Deadpool for killing his brother (one of the mob bosses), though when Swan told him to kill a hospitalized Sandi, he outright refused as his beef was only with Deadpool.
While having his own set of adventures, which included Dazzler, shrinking Rhino and keeping him on a keychain, and other weirdness, Deadpool was able to get some intel on Black Swan via a Taskmaster guest appearance (Sandi using her connections). He headed to Black Swan’s stronghold for the final battle.
In this final showdown, a few notable things happened. First, Black Swan turned on Nijo and impaled him with a sword. As he explained it, Swan was the one who shot all those mobsters (including Nijo’s brother) as his magnum opus final assassination, but Deadpool got the credit and that pissed him off.
Deadpool brought a bomb with him with a deactivation code that only he knew. At first, he forced Black Swan to fix Ratbag’s head. A sane Ratbag ran off, leaving Deadpool and Black Swan to have a sword fight. Black Swan kept trying to search Deadpool’s mind for the code to stop the bomb, but Deadpool pulled an Ang Lee Hulk and force-fed Black Swan the full contents. Deadpool’s insanity proved too much and took him out of the fight.
Unfortunately, Deadpool’s bomb then went off, ending the series with the apparent death of our hero. Still, at least his series ended on #69. Wade would have appreciated that.
Luckily, the final page claimed to not be the end and mentioned that the same creative team would return in two weeks with Agent X #1. Curiously, the cover for Agent X #1 looked an awful lot like Deadpool #69.
The series began with Sandi parking her car in her apartment complex, only to be accosted by a half-dead man covered in scars. And not the Wade Wilson “body covered in burned sores” way, but “scratches all over like he just went a couple rounds against Wolverine and Sabretooth.” Not to mention the skin tone of a cadaver. Sandi fed the man out of the kindness of her heart, but soon found herself intrigued.
He had amnesia, yet inexplicably had this innate knowledge of Sandi and a feeling to seek her out. He had a healing factor and a talkative personality, making him seem extremely familiar. More than anything else, he got to stick around due to his deep need to be the best mercenary ever. Sandi – who didn’t want to go back to being exotic dancer “Sondra” – decided she wanted to still make money through running a mercenary business.
Due to the amnesia, the stranger decided to name himself Alex Hayden. Although he couldn’t figure out where he even came up with such a name.
The first six issues acted as an introductory arc. Taskmaster was brought in to train Alex upon Sandi’s wishes, but he figured Alex was bad news and proceeded to brutalize him on a regular basis. Outlaw was brought in to train him in gunplay, leading to an adventure where they went from being rivals to romantic partners.
But of course, the Death and Return of Superman mystery was there. Was Alex Hayden actually Deadpool? Sandi figured it was likely and tried to jog his memory to no avail. Taskmaster was sure he was Wade, figuring he was messing with everyone for some reason. Outlaw didn’t think he was because Alex’s skills with a gun were way better than Deadpool’s ever was.
There were all these little hints and clues tossed in throughout the story. Alex had a personality very similar to Deadpool’s, but he seemed a little more grounded. At times, he would come off as more gentlemanly and high-class. He was ambidextrous. In one scene, he beat up Taskmaster and Taskmaster made it a point to mention that there was something preventing him from copying Alex’s moves.
Similarly, the series introduced a mutant teen girl named Mary Zero whose power was the inability to be perceived or remembered. No matter what she did, nobody noticed her existence, giving her free reign to do whatever she wanted. Alex, for some reason, was able to see and communicate with her.
Now, there was one huge, obvious hint buried in the art. Sometimes in comic art – especially in manga art, which UDON is inspired by – it’s not especially easy to immediately tell the difference between a white person and an Asian person. This would be one of those instances as Alex Hayden is Japanese. You’d think Sandi and Taskmaster would have pointed out, “Hey, we know for a fact that Wade Wilson’s definitely not Japanese,” but that would have pretty much given away Alex’s identity to the reader.
Plus maybe Wade had an image inducer up his butt or something. Wouldn’t put it past him, really.
Alex’s attempt to make a name for himself led to him being paid for his first job with an abandoned amusement park. He made it the headquarters for Agency X. He also went to war with the new Four Winds, run by its new leader Higashi. While a polite and business-oriented man, Higashi was pushed by his advisor Saguri to become more ruthless, especially when the possibility of Alex being Deadpool came up.
Ultimately, Saguri was taken out of the picture and Higashi became a bit of an ally to the team, especially due to his attraction to Sandi.
Taskmaster, still pining for Sandi, wasn’t pleased with that part.
Issue #7 continued the mystery a bit with a scene where some CDs Alex ordered from the internet arrived. Not only were they classical European composers, but Sandi realized that Alexander Schumann and Franz Haydn were the inspirations for Alex’s name.
After an adventure that involved superhero underwear fetishists, Alex figured that Agency X should be a team thing with himself, Taskmaster, and Outlaw. Unfortunately, Taskmaster was too into flying solo and Outlaw had to leave to go take care of her dying father. That left Sandi, who was still interested in seeing this through, while Mary Zero popped in to say that she would help and that Alex would never be rid of her.
That was basically her final comic appearance.
Not kidding. It’s hilarious.
One of the reasons she was never featured again was that Gail Simone and UDON left Agent X behind due to arguments with the editor. Normally, that would be a thing you shrug off and hope the next team is good, only this was their baby and it hadn’t finished growing up. The mystery remained and the person with the plan of where it was going was no longer on the payroll.
That meant we got five issues of fill-in teams. #8-9 were done by Buddy Scalera and Mitchell Breitweiser. While having Scalera, a former Deadpool writer, was a good idea, the two issues about Alex hunting down an invisible man were especially forgettable.
The next two issues, by the team of Evan Dorkin and Juan Bobillo, was easily the best fill-in story. The gruesome story brought in Fight Man, a spinoff character from Dorkin’s fantastic Bill and Ted Marvel series. Fight Man’s supervillain ex-wife hired Alex to kill the hero, but Fight Man was so down on his luck, that he went along with it…as nigh-impossible as suicide was for him.
Unlike Scalera, Dorkin was willing to include supporting characters. That said, his use of Sandi got a bit of a mixed reaction. In this story, Alex and Sandi ended up sleeping together within several pages, all while Taskmaster went from being overprotective of Sandi to not caring that she decided to go on her very first assassin job alone. It didn’t really feel too in-character based on what came before, but at least Dorkin was trying something.
#12 was done by future-Deadpool-writer-for-way-too-long Daniel Way and artist Kyle Hotz. A rather nothing issue, Alex took on a rookie mercenary called Murder. Despite the blurb on the very last page, it’s pretty apparent that this was meant to be the final issue of the series, dropping Alex Hayden into obscurity. The recap page, opening scene, and ending all talked up how Agency X wasn’t working out and needed to close down.
Normally, that would have been it, but then Marvel decided to take a page out of the ’70s playbook. Latter Deadpool and his spinoff had lousy sales and Cable’s Soldier X series was suffering the same fate, so why not just do a Power Man and Iron Fist and shove them together into one series? A great idea, except Deadpool was off in limbo, possibly dead in an unfinished mystery.
Gail Simone and UDON were brought back into the series to do an additional three issues to wrap everything up and bring back Deadpool. The cover to Agent X #13 featured Alex, Sandi, Outlaw, Taskmaster, and Mary Zero standing together with the tagline, “WE’RE BACK!”
Mary Zero wasn’t referenced once in those three issues, by the way.
The opening scene showed two hooded men on a boat on their way to the US. One wandered around, unresponsive, while the other protected him from fellow stowaways. The savior removed his hood to reveal Black Swan, alive and well, though annoyed that he couldn’t bring himself to actually kill the attackers.
Alex and Taskmaster got hired to protect Four Winds leader Higashi on a job. Alex was emotionally torn apart for cheating on Outlaw with Sandi while Taskmaster was torn apart by his jealousy. After the job, the three returned to Sandi’s place, only to find Black Swan waiting there for them.
And he brought his mute friend.
Upon seeing Deadpool alive, Sandi and Taskmaster were shocked, but Alex had his own unique response. On instinct, he lifted his gun and shot Deadpool in the head. He couldn’t explain why he did it. Just that seeing Deadpool filled him with violent anger.
“I swear it feels like this guy killed my brother. And since I don’t think I have a brother, that’s just weird.”
While Deadpool recuperated, Black Swan spilled the beans on the backstory. In that final battle from Deadpool #69, the mental onslaught mixed with the explosion caused a jumbling of memories, personality traits, and even special abilities to scatter into the minds of the three men in the room: Black Swan, Deadpool, and the corpse of Nijo.
Agent X was Nijo, filled with Deadpool’s jokester personality and power set, along with Black Swan’s high-class sensibilities, gun skills, and disgust for rude people. He also had trace pieces of Swan’s mental abilities, explaining why Taskmaster couldn’t copy him and why he could perceive Mary.
Black Swan had pieces of Deadpool and Nijo in his mind and makeup, allowing him to survive the explosion. While he inherited Nijo’s love for Radiohead and Nine Inch Nails, the most important aspect of his personality was Nijo’s pesky honor. Swan was compelled to set things right.
As for Deadpool, his healing factor was finally starting to fix his brain (the point-blank headshot probably helped kickstart that). Despite not fully understanding it, Swan explained that Deadpool’s healing factor was more than just a physical ability and he could regrow his memories. Not that it was doing much good at the time, since he had the mind of a 3-year-old.
A very dick-obsessed 3-year-old.
Black Swan put together a séance-type event at the abandoned amusement park to give Deadpool and Alex their memories back. No longer with a conscience, Black Swan used the power/mind trading to amp himself up. His mental powers became godly and he proceeded to overwhelm Alex, Sandi, and Taskmaster.
Meanwhile, a lone figure was shown searching through a nearby car and finding a pair of katanas. On the final page, a fully-recovered Deadpool laughed maniacally while impaling Black Swan from behind.
With Deadpool back in action, Agent X #15 brought back the “similar cover pose” gimmick that started the series.
The final issue was an excellent climactic battle where Alex Hayden, Deadpool, Taskmaster, Sandi, the Four Winds, and a returning Outlaw (who was none-too-pleased about the Alex/Sandi hook-up) took on a levitating, mind-reading Black Swan who could stop bullets in mid-air. In the middle of the mayhem, Taskmaster finally revealed his true feelings to Sandi.
Alex came up with a plan to confuse and explode Black Swan, which succeeded. Using his own psychic magic, he returned Black Swan’s memories of dying in the explosion back to where they belonged and in the process purged all of his badass, X-shaped bodily scars and turned his skin tone into that of a normal human being. Yeah, I don’t know how that works either.
Then the heroes unloaded their guns into Black Swan just in case. To make sure Black Swan was dead for good and couldn’t simply heal, they had him stuffed after the fact.
(Not that that stopped Daniel Way from bringing him back years later with no explanation.)
Sandi and Taskmaster ended up together and Taskmaster showed interest in finally joining Agency X. At the same time, Alex offered Deadpool a spot, but he chose to go off on his own. At first, they shook hands as friends, but then decided they kind of hated each other and started fighting while the others wandered off.
The final page featured everyone going on a lengthy vacation together, taking the stuffed corpse of Black Swan with them. I guess I spoke too soon about Mary Zero never showing up again as her arm could be seen peeking into a group photo at the very end.
I only just noticed that now.
Sadly, that was it for that version of Taskmaster. Other than an appearance in Power Pack, the UDON Taskmaster look was quickly forgotten about the moment he showed up in Charlie Huston’s Moon Knight series back in his classic duds.
I guess he and Sandi weren’t meant to be as they never shared the same page again.
As Cable/Deadpool kicked in months later, writer Fabian Nicieza went with an idea of playing with established concepts and characters rather than introduce new stuff. That meant that by the eleventh issue, Alex made an appearance. Artist Patrick Zircher decided to keep all of Alex’s scars despite the events of Agent X #15, simply because they looked cooler and more iconic to the character.
He wasn’t wrong.
Caught up in one of the least-confusing storylines in the series, Cable was in a coma (with the Six Pack trapped in his mind) and Deadpool needed the Fixer from the Thunderbolts, Weasel, and MODOK to help him bond Cable with a techno-organic creature to make him whole and awake. Like I said, one of the least-confusing storylines.
Alex was hired by an unnamed benefactor to make sure Cable wasn’t revived, but ultimately failed after a lot of bloody fighting with his mercenary mind-brother.
Months later, House of M happened. The big event is notable in this context for three reasons. First off, in the rewritten world where all the heroes got to live more fulfilled lives, one of the background characters appeared to be none other than pre-explosion Nijo dressed in his goggles and a big X strap.
He never had any lines and nobody referred to him by name, so it just ended up being a neat Easter egg.
After House of M ended, they did the whole Decimation storyline about most mutants being depowered. Outlaw, being a mutant herself, became a minor character in the X-Men books.
As for Mary Zero, a book of Deadpool character profiles called Deadpool: Rank and Foul mentioned that she lost her mutant powers during M-Day. Probably for the best.
Alex, Sandi, and Outlaw returned as a team in Cable/Deadpool #38. In a plot that worked to differentiate Alex from Deadpool while also removing him as a top mercenary, Nicieza did a story where Alex was captured by Hydra and experimented on. They imprinted him with genetics that both gave him extreme arthritis and also made him excessively obese.
Sandi and Outlaw hired Deadpool (who was only a few inches tall at the time thanks to Pym Particles and rather enjoyed how endowed the two looked from that point of view) and he successfully rescued Alex. Unfortunately, Alex was in no condition to keep merc’ing, so he had Deadpool take over action duties at Agency X for a bit while Alex remained the boss.
It was a necessary change of status quo for Deadpool. Cable was being written out of the book due to important X-Men crossover stuff and Deadpool needed a new supporting cast to play off of. And so, Alex, Sandi, and Outlaw became regulars for the final twelve issues of the series, although they rarely actually did anything.
In the final issue, with New York being ravaged by dinosaurs with alien symbiotes, Outlaw talked Alex into getting off his fat ass and getting back to being a warrior. No longer fitting in the Kevlar trench coat, Alex opted for a sumo look and went to flattening alien/dino hybrids.
He then showed up in the series’ final scene, where Deadpool’s supporting cast joined him for a friendly get-together. Alex was still wearing his loin-cloth, much to everyone’s chagrin.
Sadly, that was Alex’s final major comic appearance. Sandi’s too. To go back to the Superman comparison, Alex’s staying power ended up being less Superboy and more Eradicator.
In the Deadpool miniseries Suicide Kings, Outlaw appeared with a supporting role and mentioned that, although he had a lot of work to do, Alex was making some headway on the weight loss.
Outside of a couple background X-Men appearances, Outlaw had her moments of prominence. Prior to Shiklah’s introduction, she was one of the go-to love interests for Deadpool. Not only did they end up sleeping together at the end of Suicide Kings, but the 1950s reimagining miniseries Deadpool Pulp included her as a femme fatale working against the government.
There would be one last story to revisit this era in Deadpool history, at least. In Deadpool #27, Wade celebrated his wedding to Shiklah. The backups featured stories by all of Deadpool’s major writers from over the years talking about all the other times he’s been married, including a story by Gail Simone and Alvin Lee about Deadpool’s never-before-mentioned marriage to Outlaw. Various Simone characters appeared in the crowd, including Ratbag.
Alex warned Wade about the pitfalls of a sex-starved woman with mutant super-strength, but Deadpool didn’t catch on until their first honeymoon night when she shattered his pelvis. What followed was several pages of Deadpool slowly dying Futurama-style until he presumably had his marriage annulled.
As much fun as Alex Hayden was, I suppose he’s just one of those characters who exists as a phase, much like how the Mercs for Money concept will be completely done away with in two years – three years tops. Still, with Deadpool’s current popularity and comics’ love for cannibalizing the past, it’s only a matter of time before the scarred and possibly-still-overweight mercenary makes his return. Personally, I hope he does. I miss that knockoff.
Besides, they just brought back Evil Deadpool and he’s terrible. If Alex doesn’t come back in some form, it’s just a travesty.
Gavin Jasper figures that if Taskmaster isn’t going back to his UDON look, they might as well give that costume to Finesse. Follow Gavin on Twitter!