Saturday, July 13, 2024

Deadly Class Creates a High School Experience to Die For

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Haha, I hate that title.

I’m going to be completely honest. When I first set out to write a review for Deadly Class (and prepare for sustained coverage), I did not expect to be giving it a recommendation. I had half-memories of pretension and high school philosophy, compounded with a seriously unlikeable protagonist. But during my reread I realized what had drawn me on the series in the first place, as well as how excited I was for it going forward. The series is currently in the middle of its fifth arc and it has been a whirlwind of interesting concepts, faux philosophy, irresponsible drug use, teenage angst and uncertainty, and violence. Quite a lot of violence. With a list of keywords like that, the series sounds like it would be immature, or made to appeal to a particular group of misfit or fringe niche. And yet it avoids the pratfalls of edginess by being acutely self-aware. Rick Remender’s writing and Wes Craig’s art have crafted something truly unique. So without further ado, let’s catch up and review.

The First Arc

Deadly Class opens with the protagonist, Marcus Lopez Arguello, living on the street. He’s a Nicaraguan immigrant whose parents died in a freak accident involving a suicide jumper. Now years later, he’s homeless and wanted by law enforcement for an undisclosed crime. He feels like he’s being watched and is contemplating ending it all. It’s a strong opening. Casting your hero at rock bottom (both economically and emotionally) from the get go gives you near limitless potential for growth. After a harrowing escape from police with the help of a group of teens, the true backdrop for the series is introduced, Kings Dominion School of the Deadly Arts, a high school for assassins located in the underbelly of San Francisco. Marcus is recruited under the school’s original mission statement, to give the underprivileged and downtrodden the tools to change the world. However, the school also trains the world’s elite as well due to the influence of alumni.

It’s at this point that the series introduces the cliques of the school, a narrative crutch I thought was going to weigh it down. There’s the obligatory Mean Girls’ moment where Marcus is given the rundown on the groups that operate in the school and whose in them, but then it digresses by not letting those cliques be the driving force of the narrative. They’re there, but the core group of students that are followed during the series are a composite of all the cliques, a la The Breakfast Club.

There’s Saya, a Japanese assassin with Yakuza roots and a breathtaking visual design, from the Kuroki Syndicate clique. Willie is the son of a prolific gang member and head of the Final World Order clique, albeit tenuously. Maria is the girlfriend of the head of the Soto Vatos clique and also the “adopted” daughter of his notorious cartel family. Billy is a directionless punk rebelling against the clique culture and nursing a hatred of his father. And Marcus is simply unsure of where he fits into anything and unwilling to commit. The cast is racially diverse, with very distinct yet nuanced personalities. It’s everything I usually ask for.

Don’t mind them, just The Breakfast Club with more racial diversity and murder.

After the school and premise is fully introduced, the first arc detours away from those concepts for the meat of its conflict: a road trip to Vegas to kill a man. It’s at this point that I think the series hit a proper resonance with me. Although the subject matter of the next two issues and the closing of the arc was serious (a whirlwind of violence), it was the first time I could read the characters and feel they were convincing high schoolers. There’s posturing on the road trip, and casual drug use, and an amazing amalgam of the two that still makes me laugh.

There’s a combination of sincerity and false walls during this part of the arc, and I think that’s honestly a lot of what made being a teenager such a pivotal moment in many people’s lives. Budding relationships begin to take shape within the group during the road trip as well. Marcus develops an infatuation with Saya that’s partially motivated by her effortless rescue of him at the start of the series, and Maria’s burgeoning attraction to Marcus gives the hints of what will probably be a unfulfilling love triangle in future arcs. And despite the whiffs of melodrama beginning to stink up the air between these characters, it doesn’t feel disingenuous or token, and I think that’s all it really needed to not engender hostility from me.

The first arc does close with murders, however, fulfilling the book’s promise of violence. The first one is Billy’s father, a small, hectic impulse crime shared by Billy and Marcus in a drug haze. The murder is inelegant and abrupt, and it seems to be a hollowing experience for both of them. For all the pontificating about violence as a solution by students throughout the arc, the brief experience of standing over a corpse shows how unfulfilling Billy’s attempt at catharsis was.

The second and final murder of the arc is less existential and more a product of self-defense to close out the adventure. Marcus goes from being in the position of power while ending a life to being utterly powerless as his life is about to be taken from him.

Maria’s boyfriend, Chico, catches up with the group just as Maria attempts to make a move on Marcus. The affair is halted in the process and Chico ends up bellowing for retribution in a show reinforced bravado. The situation escalates ridiculously fast, leading to a beating for Marcus, the death of several cops, Billy being stabbed, the em-asculation of Willie, and a gun pressed against Marcus’ head. There is no heroic fight from an underdog that you’d expect in most comics, Marcus spends the whole fight running and desperate to get away. He is no wunderkind. He isn’t very lucky either. He’s in over his head in this moment, and you really worry that he’s going to die. And then, in an act of desperation, Maria cuts down Chico to stop him from killing Marcus.

This second key murder by the group is just as adrupt as the first, albeit with a greater struggle preceding it. Chico is completely in charge of the situation, and then he is cut down. This was the cementing of a thread for Deadly Class and its relationship with death: it is always adrupt. People do not get to moan out death rattles or monologues on the nature of their villainy. When a blow falls, that is death. It’s used to much greater affect farther down the line, but the seeds were planted in this first arc.

My overall thoughts on the first arc are hard to summarize. Wes Craig’s art really allow me to forgive just about anything, and Remender’s writing seems to really understand the mentality of a teenager without writing an obnoxious child. Deadly Class introduces an amazing concept and setting in the first half of this arc, but then becomes bored with it almost instantaneously in favor of a road trip to Vegas to pass the time. Knowing the rest of the series, I’m glad for the legwork that was put in to establish the universe, as well as consequences that would resonate for the rest of the series. The characters only have room to grow moving forward, and I can’t wait to talk about it.

Tune in next time for my covering of the second arc: Poorly written, one-dimensional, evil hillbillies.

Images Courtesy of Image Comics

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