Deadly Class: Comic series tackles teen angst through 80's counterculture

Game of Thrones meets The Breakfast Club
Posted at 10:35 AM, May 07, 2020
and last updated 2020-05-07 13:35:02-04

Writer: Rick Remender
Artist: Wes Craig
Colorist: Jordan Boyd
Issues Reviewed: #1-43

When I picked up the first Deadly Class graphic novel at a comic shop two years ago, it was described to me as Game of Thrones meets The Breakfast Club. It’s an apt description in some ways but misses the mark in several others.

What it really boils down to is if you enjoy a well-told story with fantastic and deliberate art that can shock you and make you laugh hysterically in the same issue – this is a comic well worth your time.

Deadly Class is a weird amalgamation of a dozen different things but at its very core is about teenage angst and depression taken to the nth degree.

Set in the late 1980’s, a multi-ethnic cast of characters who all come with violent backstories converge on a school where drugs, booze, and counterculture run rampant. And in that environment, writer Rick Remender allows all the issues of youth to be explored in the most outlandish ways possible.

Marcus Lopez Arguello is the central character, a teenager from South America whose parents were killed when a woman jumped off a bridge and landed on top of them. This lead Marcus to living in an abusive boy's home where he grows a hatred for Ronald Reagan, who he believes was responsible for the death of his parents because of the presidents defunding of mental health programs that might have stopped the woman committing suicide. After escaping the boy's home, he is picked up by a mysterious Japanese girl and taken to the high school for assassins, King's Dominion.

From here, a laundry list of characters is introduced from the aforementioned Saya, daughter of a Yakuza crime boss, to progeny of the cartels, to the son of a KGB operative. Nearly every crime syndicate imaginable is represented and this powder keg of factions, alliances, teen angst, and musical cliques becomes a whirlwind tour of the dark side of human nature.

Deadly Class is a rare comic in that it takes a lot of pages letting the characters breathe rather than getting to the action as fast as possible. There are many issues that are just road trips or parties; letting the characters flesh themselves out through long diatribes over musical taste or their personal identities. The comic is also really funny when it wants to be – generally resorting to the type of extreme toilet humor you’d expect of teenagers (but again, taken to the nth degree).

The choice to set the story in the ‘80’s is not wasted by Remender, who will do anything to have characters fight over whether The Cure is mainstream, make references to The Smiths, have a romantic coupling between a metal head and a goth – if you are a fan of music and 80’s counterculture Remender's love and appreciation for the era will rub off on you.

Issues dealing with the character's use of drugs to cope with their lives are among Remender and Craig's best.

And that ‘80s aesthetic plays into Wes Craig's art. Craig is heavily inspired by Frank Miller. The character drawings are very much like those in The Dark Knight Returns or Ronin while retaining their own identity. Backgrounds follow Frank Miller’s simple approach. Craig is not afraid to have white space or solid color background panels – the focus is on the characters, not the environments.

The best aspect of the art is in how it moves. Panel-to-panel flow paints a movie in your mind. Action scenes are beautifully orchestrated while even the simple act of flicking away a cigarette comes with a certain momentum. Craig will place the same character in a panel three or four times in different positions just to create that illusion of movement and it’s some of the most effective work in that regard I’ve ever seen. Even his splash pages come with either an impossible perspective, or panels on top of the splash highlighting actions or dialogue. The term "cinematic" is pretty passe by now -- but it truly applies.
And the white space I mentioned before is generally used to either give Marcus or another character a place to compose their thoughts (much in the way Miller used white space for television dialogue in The Dark Knight Returns). If not that they add to that persistence of motion, or obscure something that is revealed in the next panel as if by a wipe.

Everything feels purposeful and the care and love put into every aspect of each issue is breathtaking.

An example of utilizing white space for storytelling purposes.

My only real problem with Deadly Class is that having read through it to the conclusion of its latest arc – some of the issues in the 20-range took me longer to get through than others. The series loses its footing for a few issues, focusing a lot more on discussing music, Dungeons and Dragons, and other nerdy stuff. It’s a kind of reprieve after the end of a major story arc and is used to introduce a new group of characters who play central roles in future issues, but it doesn’t feel as natural as what came before. Plus, the inclusion of so many characters means you lose valuable time with your favorites as Remender tries to balance half a dozen story threads and a dozen characters (who at this point are all over the globe). By about issue 30 the problems are ironed out and the story feels just as fresh and fun as at the beginning.

To return to what I was told in that comic book shop, if you like Game of Thrones you will enjoy the factions and fearless approach to killing beloved characters. If you like The Breakfast Club, well, Marcus has some choice words about your enjoyment of John Hughes’ films.