Graphic Novel Review: “Deadly Class” Vols. 1-3 (Issues 1-16)

High school is a bitch. And for Marcus Lopez, each social faux pas he commits don’t just result in embarrassment or social ostracizing from the cool kids. No, piss off the wrong clique at Kings Dominion School for the Deadly Arts and you might have Mexican drug cartels, the Italian mafia, Triads, the yakuza, Jersey Shore dope dealers, global intelligence networks, and a cadre of ninjas, serial killers, and psycho rednecks on your ass.

Set in the late ‘80s, Rick Remender’s Deadly Class is the antithesis of everything that John Hughes’s teen dramas were peddling to kids back during the Reagan era. There are no innocent virgins or morality tales about young love. Even the racial and social milieu will be completely foreign to the Hughes aficionado as Remender focuses on poor, disenfranchised, and outcast Latinos, blacks and Asians in his story. The majority of white characters that do appear are psychotics, inbreds or sycophants.

Deadly Class opens in San Francisco with the emotionally damaged and physically scarred Marcus squatting under a bridge, homeless and begging strangers for loose change.  After getting caught in the middle of a chaotic chase scene involving several detectives and a gang of seemingly prepared teen bruisers, his life is inextricably linked to his saviors.  The leader, Saya, is a mysterious Japanese girl clad in tight jeans, leather vest and gloves, a cigarette always dangling from her lips, and a kitana never too far from her. She saves Marcus from certain death and takes him to meet Master Lin, a decrepit Chinese man whose short stature belies the menace hidden underneath.

The meeting between Lin and Marcus is simple and straightforward. Master Lin invites him to join his school, an academy where teenagers are taught to be assassins. Of course, like any true blue hero protagonist Marcus refuses. Although his life is anything but pleasant, he has no reason to get mixed up with Lin and his students – until, of course, his fellow disaffected youth Saya talks to him, and his attraction to her compels him to join.

What makes Deadly Class a cut above the usual teen actioners is that Remender and artist Wes Craig take the time to build a believable world even as gory, violent, bat-shit events occur. As Remender has stated in interviews for this work, he was inspired to put a few of his experiences as a teen in the late ‘80s into graphic novel form. It is evident through the dialogue that Remender had lived or known these characters personally. Mining his troubled youth, the writer doesn’t paint a rose-tinted view of high school or adolescence. Several pages are devoted to the introduction of Marcus to the various characters and cliques of Kings Dominion, and the best parts are when we delve deeper into their backstories. Marcus and his friends are broken and damaged; at best the ones who are able to cope with the trauma of surviving either end up as sociopaths or maladroit loners. The violence that Marcus and his compatriots commit are, as Remender and Craig illustrate, futile attempts to rewrite the inherent injustice they continually witness. As one of the characters eloquently sums up, the goal of every young angry teen is “to change the world with a single bullet.” Yet, every murder committed exacts a toll and continues the cycle of death.

Marcus vacillates from being flawed to outright infuriating as he burns bridges faster than he can build them. It’s no coincidence that Craig draws the compelling Marcus as a lanky teen whose rugged good looks are contrasted with a body riddled with scars and bruises. Marcus is not only damaged but is in constant battle with his dark side that has pretty much marked his body.  The first volume of the trade paperback portrays him as a likable enough kid who sticks up for the weak but lets his desire to be liked get the better of him. We angrily yell at the character for committing mistakes that we all have done yet ultimately root for him to survive.

In the second volume, more of Marcus’s backstory is revealed and Remender gets us readers to empathize with him even as we watch him lie, cheat, and eventually plan the total annihilation of a group of rednecks and their zoophilic leader. We are ultimately still on Marcus’s side until the third volume as hormones and his infatuation with Saya forces a schism to occur between Marcus and his friends, and the seething psychopath underneath slowly oozes out, forcing us to wonder whether or not Marcus might not be the villain in this story after all.

Craig’s meticulous attention to detail within each panel is so well done that upon rereading several issues it was quite a delight to discover the Easter eggs he leaves for readers that have a deep passion for ‘80s retro culture. Every clique and character is rendered in a unique way; even without having to read the dialogue on the page I had a good grasp of who was in the panel, a tough thing to do with a work with such a formidable cast of characters. The coloring by Lee Loughridge effectively utilizes color as a way to telegraph mood and is equally as impressive as Craig’s skill with a pen.

As an ongoing work there is no telling how the overall story will go. Remender keeps his cards close to his vest, and with the way he ended the third volume, it is difficult to sense how Marcus will be able to survive as all the students in Kings Dominion are pitted against one another. He also has no qualms about killing off characters he spends several issues developing. Like the high school milieu it is set in, Deadly Class is a brutal heartbreaking read that will be an essential part of any comic fan’s library.