I haven’t attended school for some time now, but every year, without fail, I start to feel a bit of gnawing anxiety when it becomes clear that summer is over and fall is about to begin. I imagine that anxiety is even greater for kids headed back to high school. But what if there was a high school where tests and peer interactions didn’t just feel like life-and-death matters because of teen angst, they could literally kill you?
That’s part of the premise of Deadly Class—a creator-owned Image Comics series by writer Rick Remender and artist Wes Craig that transports readers back in time to the ‘80s and takes them to the clandestine halls of Kings Dominion School of the Deadly Arts, a secret school for teenage assassins.
The series, with its unique blend of slice-of-life-style adolescent angst and explosive violence, is a must for crime fans who enjoy both cinematic action and graphic fiction that explores the physical and emotional consequences of a life of violence. Plus, it’s about to return from a hiatus and a television adaptation is in the works!
So, if you’ve never heard of Deadly Class or have never had the pleasure of reading it, now’s the time to get acquainted. To help you catch up, I recently spoke with Rick Remender to help create this handy primer about the series.
What makes Deadly Class so special is that it's both a stylized-action crime tale and a period high school drama. Think Degrassi by way of Quentin Tarantino. Remender came up with the idea and the decision to set the book in the ‘80s when he decided to incorporate his idea of a high school for assassins with another creator-owned book he was developing called Reagan Youth.
“That book was taking a lot of the various misadventures that my friends and I had gotten into and weaving that into a narrative,” Remender explains. “So I had all these recollections, adventures, and catastrophes that I wanted to write about. One day it occurred to me that those two things mixed perfectly together and that I could take the experiences that I wanted to write about and magnify a lot of the horrors of adolescence into real life-or-death stakes in a high school for assassins.
“So those two ideas merged together and formed this,” the writer continues. “The '80s is obviously an important era for me because that was the time period I was cooked in. But also, as an adult, I don't think I could be as authentic trying to write the teenage experiences of somebody who is a teen right now. I don't think I could get the nuances as right as I could simply snapshotting my own experiences as a teen.”
The teens we meet in Deadly Class #1 come from a variety of different backgrounds. Some are the children of high-level covert operatives, while others are the offspring of power players in criminal syndicates from all over the world. They are a diverse group, but the roles they play within Kings Dominion will be familiar to anyone who survived high school, especially in the ‘80s.
“The idea is that each member of the cast is somebody who you knew in high school. And while there is violence, the violence is always tempered with the real emotional consequences afterwards,” Remender states. “Taking characters and a cast of people who are identifiable in a way that they are people you either were or knew in high school and then dipping them into these situations I think grounds the story while at the same time it's a heightened reality. So it grounds it in a way that you find yourself pulled into the story, at least I do when I'm writing it, because the characters are all built on archetypes.”
The central characters of Deadly Class are Marcus Arguello and his group of friends. The archetypes that they’re built upon include burnouts, punks, and other adolescent ne’er-do-wells of the ‘80s—characters whose lives revolve more around activities outside of school. Deadly Class stories often start on the grounds of Kings Dominion and then spill out into surrounding locales, like the city of San Francisco.
“I realized early in the writing of it that some of the more fun stories I had to tell were when we were playing hooky, skipping out, or going on road trips,” Remender remarks. “So I pushed them out of the school quite often. In the later and upcoming arcs, we focus more on the school. It's a home-base in that a lot of stories begin there, but I found the stories became more interesting visually—and to write—once they spilled out of the school and into the world.”
The misadventures Marcus and company get into in the outside world often involve explosions, gunfights, rooftop and vehicular chases, and brutal beat downs. Deadly Class offers readers plenty of exciting and over-the-top action, but Remender never lets readers forget that kind of excitement has real, and often lethal, consequences.
“The violence is stylized and heightened, which makes it more digestible because it's clearly not a snapshot of the real world. You're being shown something that is noirish, pulpy, and sometimes salacious. You're drifting into it and it turns into a Battle Royale-style action movie. So it becomes something exciting and dangerous, but hopefully not too unsettling,” the writer says. “I always compare it to a sort of merging of Catcher in the Rye, Lord of the Flies, and Battle Royale. The right mix of those three things is what we're going for in Deadly Class.
“For my work, I always try to ride that line where I'm telling hopefully human and identifiable stories that are relatable and express ideas that are important to me and at the same time dip into the fun of a genre like a crime story,” Remender continues. “So you get the best of both worlds. You get something that makes you think and like the characters. You sink into their lives and who they are, and then, when the gunfights begin, the book should have more impact.”
Bringing to life the excitement and high drama of Remender’s scripts is the Deadly Class art team of penciler Wes Craig and colorist Lee Loughridge. Remender chose the duo because of their storytelling skills and the signature look their art styles gives the series.
“Wes is a world class storyteller. There isn't a page that comes back that somehow isn't improved upon when I see it put together. He's a little younger than I am, but we basically grew up in the same era. So in terms of capturing an authentic snapshot of the era and what it looked like, I can imagine very few people doing it the same way Wes has done it,” Remender remarks.
“And Lee Loughridge had established a flat color palette in a lot of ‘90s books for DC Comics’ Vertigo imprint, but then that became not popular and he was asked to do some more full color renderings. So the first dozen pages of Deadly Class he had done were in his sort of rendered style. The more we looked at it, the more I could see that this was a time to go back to the really flat and clean color approach they used to use in the '90s. Sure enough, it really snapped into place. I think it brings out the best in Wes. I also think the flat color approach adds an identity to the book.”
Remender, Craig, and Loughride have been working on Deadly Class since 2014. The comic has 21 issues, but with all of the series collected in graphic novel form (start with either the softcover Deadly Class: Reagan Youth, which collects issues #1-6, or the oversized hardcover graphic novel Deadly Class Book 1, which collects issues #1-16) and set to return from a brief hiatus at the end of the month, now’s a great time to get caught up. The characters will hook you in, and then the velocity and consequences of the exploits they become involved in, which keep escalating as the series progresses, will keep you coming back for more.
Remender is currently hard at work finishing up the new Deadly Class arc, which kicks off September 28th with the release of issue #22. At the same time, he’s also developing a television adaptation of the series with a number of big names from both film and television, including Joe and Anthony Russo (The directors of Marvel Studios’ Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Civil War), who are serving as producers, and Adam Targum (Cinemax’s Banshee and their adaptation of Outcast), who is serving as showrunner.
“Miles Feldsott is my co-writer. We're writing the pilot together,” Remender says. “We've been working on this for about a year and a half now—developing, writing, and revising—and we'll actually be getting to work on the TV show very soon. So I hope we can see the show make it to the air within the next year.”