This week sees the release of Deadly Class #24, a continuation of Rick Remender and Wes Craig’s look into the trials and tribulations of students at an underground school dedicated to training them to be assassins. This latest issue continues the overarching story of this being “year two” in the lives of the characters introduced in the first issue (those that are still alive, that is). That being said, this seemed like it would be as good a time as any to talk about the series and explain why “year one” is a worthy addition to any comic collector’s bookshelf.
The story begins by following Marcus Lopez as he tries to both survive on the streets of San Francisco and evade the police who are searching for him after his bloody escape from a child workhouse passing for an orphanage. One night as he flees from pursuing police he is saved by a group of like-minded teens and brought to Kings Dominion, a Hogwarts-type school where he can be trained to fulfill his potential as a future assassin. Que the Harry Potter References.
What immediately jumps out from the book is the palpable feel of the Nineteen-Eighties. The series wears its time period on it’s sleeve, not afraid to spin out references to classic bands and rap groups to reflecting the grunge aesthetic of the time – from many of the characters’ appearance to the layout of the city and school at large. Volume one, titled “Reagan Youth”, weaves in the political policies of President Ronald Reagan to the tragedy of Marcus’ life and informs on his choice to enroll in Kings Dominion.
Adding to the vibrancy of the Eighties look is artist Craig as he brings some fantastic work to the construction of the series. His art brings out the grunge style of the era in all its imperfect glory. His work also shows flashes of psychedelic beauty in between the angst of high school drama. The back half of “Reagan Youth” sees Marcus on an acid trip as he and his friends stay in Las Vegas, and the results from Craig are a mixture of hilarious, scary, and melancholic moments.
Some of his best work on the series comes from the brutality of Kings Dominion. Taking a more realistic approach to the fighting that takes place adds to the gritty feel these creators – specifically Craig here – add. Even from the more adept students shown in the book, training their entire lives before even setting foot in the school, their fights are bloody and drawn out across dozens of panels. The final volume, titled “Die for Me”, sees the entire freshman class engage in battle to weed out students who aren’t a legacy – students exactly like Marcus. These fights aren’t like the movies. People get badly hurt before anyone can be called a “winner.”
Craig’s art, while great, rises to a higher level with each script from Remender. In the afterward to volume one, Remender talks about his own youth as a child of the grunge era, echoing Marcus’ journey throughout year one of the story. There are even times in the series that feel like Remender pulled stories from either his own life, or from the lives of the people he knew. Scenes such as an ill-planned prank getting the better of Marcus in a comic book store and the drug-addled depths he falls to as his friends Willie and Saya abandon him after a profession of love gone wrong feel more realistic here than most things being produced in comic books today.
Even with the backdrop of kids learning to be assassins, Remender brings heart-rending moments that challenge the reader to grapple with the emotions and choices the characters go through. Seeing Willie and his best friend Marcus face off at the end of volume four carries a deep sadness to it as Remender took such care to show the two of them grow close over the course of the previous books. Going from completing class projects together to hunting each other down is a slow burn that readers watch fizzle to the point of explosion. There are times when these moments make you marvel at how you can care for fictional characters. A rare feat for a story to pull off.
Remender also brings plenty of emotional baggage to Deadly Class. Not his own, necessarily – but the kinds of issues that children, raised in such a brutal world, would experience when attending high school. I mean, high school is normally a hard four years for some. Now add in ancient weapons and the looming threat that your classmates have the skills to end your life. Talk about stress. But the emotional issues do help to counteract some of the more outlandish moments that rise from the book. It’s like adding a sprinkling of The Breakfast Club into Ninja Assassin.
Yet the emotions sometimes can get a bit too much. Volume three, titled “The Snake Pit”, is the chief suspect here, as this is the collection that sees Marcus go through the roughest patch of his first year at Kings Dominion. At times it works, but eventually it begins to feel like glutton for punishment as our protagonists fall deeper and deeper into their self-loathing.
By the end of “Die for Me”, the story reaches as good of an ending as one could want. In many ways it feel like the end of a Harry Potter novel. Our characters end their first year at school, ready to return for their second go-around with new trials and fresh faces to add to the cliques. No spoilers, but it’s an ending that’s fitting for the narratives set up from the earliest issues, and Remender and Craig stick the landing.
Deadly Class is very much great serialized storytelling. That’s why it’s hard for me to recommend going out and buying the latest issue and jumping on from there. However, going back to the very beginning isn’t a Herculean reading task and will introduce you to some very compelling characters worthy of the emotional investment.
Deadly Class volumes one through four, collecting the story arcs Reagan Youth, Kids of the Black Hole, The Snake Pit, and Die for Me, are available now. The latest issue, issue 24, is also available now in comic book stores.