With a powerful script from Rick Remender and a masterclass in stylish high-energy storytelling by Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge, Deadly Class is a comic that hits its target.
As someone who attaches a bit of value to human life, I’m always a bit uncomfortable with the elevation of hit-men (and -women, and -girls for that matter) to the cool urban samurai of pop culture. So, the high concept of Deadly Class – a kid gets inducted into a high school for assassins – didn’t put it at the top of my pile.
However, the comic itself, by writer Rick Remender, artist Wes Craig and colourist Lee Loughridge, is executed with such panache that it won me over – for the first issue, at least.
Set in 1987, it tells the tale of Marcus Lopez, a homeless teenager in San Francisco whose life has been locked in a downward spiral since his dad – a Nicaraguan cop – had to leave his home country after being tricked into participating in a US dirty op during the Reagan administration’s campaign against the Sandinista government.
This is very much a book of two halves. The first provides a compelling snapshot of the desperation of homelessness – something as sadly prevalent today as it was then. (In fact, that’s not the only historical point of comparison in the book. Remender subtly draws links across subjects from bloody foreign policy to savage welfare cuts that force psychiatric patients out of care and onto the streets.)
As Marcus records his experiences in his journal, we see a number of brief vignettes played out over several months. The slick artwork might not deliver the visceral grime of life of the streets, but we get a real sense of his increasing bitterness and suicidal unhappiness.
However, although Marcus begins to think of himself as invisible (and the issue is certainly reminiscent of the ‘Down and Out in Heaven and Hell’ issues of The Invisibles), he’s actually under observation by unseen agencies.
Things come to a head during the city’s Day of the Dead celebrations. As Marcus faces an unexpected attempt on his life from armed police, it turns out he’s got a few guardian angels in the crowd, led by a tattooed girl who looks like she’s wandered in from a Paul Pope book.
As soon as the chase starts, the second half of the book kicks off with a very simple formatting trick; the page layouts slip off the perpendicular, creating a dizzying sense of dynamism. It also provides a real sense of San Francisco’s famous ups and downs – so much so that you half expect the comic to bellow “A QUINN MARTIN PRODUCTION!” at you. (One for the kids, there.)
Wes Craig’s formidable storytelling chops and figure work combine with Lee Loughridge’s super-stylised colouring choices to pop off the page. The creative synergy between the team is reminiscent of Fraction, Aja and Hollingsworth on their issues of Hawkguy – a book that has quite a similar feel to Deadly Class.
The concept of the series will haul in readers, but there’s also a nice text page at the back in which Rick Remender reminisces on the experiences of his own youth that fed into the story, highlighting the strong personal element that gives this opening issue an empathic edge. (Although the ’80s setting is also useful for swerving all the plotting problems raised by the ubiquitous presence of mobile phones, email and Google.)
This first issue was a much more engaging set-up than I was expecting, and it’ll be interesting to see how the mix of teen angst and genre thrills plays out when Marcus gets stuck into his studies at King’s Dominion High School for the Deadly Arts. Given his background and the fact that most of his fellow students seem to be odious little scrotes, it looks like there’s plenty of potential for conflict.
If Remender maintains the book’s original voice and Craig and Loughridge keep the style turned up to 11 when #2 arrives (in two weeks), Deadly Class could be a comic worth following.
Rick Remender (W), Wes Craig & Lee Loughridge (A) • Image Comics, $3.50, January 22, 2014