Deadly Class 101: What You Need to Know About Rick Remender and Wes Craig’s Brutal Comic Book Epic
January 16, 2019 | Sam Stone
January 16, 2019 | Sam Stone
Checking out SYFY's Deadly Class? Here's the lowdown on the comic, now in its fifth year.
Tonight marks the debut of SYFY’s Deadly Class, a searing new live-action translation of the blood-splattered bildungsroman created by Rick Remender and Wes Craig. The show follows five years and, as of today, 36 issues of the source material comic, featuring colors from Lee Loughridge and Jordan Boyd, letters from Rus Wooton, and editing from Sebastian Girner. The epic stars an ensemble of wayward teens training to be career assassins at a brutally competitive school lying beneath San Francisco. After half a decade of twists, turns, love triangles, and power chords, here’s what you need to know to get started on one of the most intense and enthralling sequential art experiences available.
Spoilers ahead for the Deadly Class comic series.
Deadly Class’ first story arc is called “Reagan Youth,” and that title forecasts both the context of the story and its singular aesthetic, brought to electric life by Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge. (Reagan Youth is also a hallowed punk band, but we’ll address that point next.) Remender's journey starts with homeless orphan Marcus Lopez recounting how a mentally ill woman killed both of his parents after she jumps off the Golden Gate Bridge. Marcus doesn’t blame the woman, though; the tragedy stems from President Ronald Reagan’s defunding of national institutions throughout his terms. Specifically, the Omnibus Budget Reconciliation Act of 1981—and its repeal of President Carter’s Mental Health Systems Act—indirectly leads to the death of Marcus' parents. The legislation shifted the government responsibility of caring for the mentally ill back on the states, forcing patients in federal facilities onto the street and arguably igniting California’s homelessness epidemic. As a result, Marcus vows to assassinate President Reagan, kicking off his future orientation into Kings Dominion Atelier of the Deadly Arts.
Artist Wes Craig and colorist Lee Loughridge embrace the clean, hyper stylized—and loud—visual cues of the decade. Loughridge employs mood lighting that veers from fevered pinks to narcotic blues, sickly greens, and tense yellow/oranges. His coloring avoids gradients, using uniform fills of neon with splashes of halftone textures. It’s a gorgeous, more rugged evolution from the works of creators like Patrick Nagel, famous for his Duran Duran album covers. Boyd would continue that striking approach when he took over coloring duties with issue #15.
Craig, then fresh from his 2014 Blackhand Comics compilation, uses an inspiring range of far, mid, and extreme close-ups shots, formatted into inventive paneling. He’s unafraid to use text in negative space or warp perspective when Deadly Class’ characters fall down hallucinogenic rabbit holes. That aesthetic maintains blockbuster cinematic momentum, keeping in step with the sheer bigness of the decade and all it heralded.
Both Rick Remender and Wes Craig have said that Deadly Class wouldn’t exist without punk rock, and its deafening influence bleeds through every panel. The comic swims in references to punk and other ‘80s staples. Marcus, the disenfranchised loner rebelling against authority in whatever form it takes, is a punk rock avatar from the moment the reader first witnesses him. He takes teenage disaffection to an acidic level as he spits in the face of not only the police, but the school and its headmaster—Master Lin—who attempt to recruit him. He soon discovers that the patriarchy of Kings Dominion tries to wedge these kids into stereotypes—enforcing its immoral and insane vision of the world onto its students—as they fight to break out of the roles assigned to them by the rotten older generation and their traditions.
From fellow student Lex's Sex Pistols shirt to the Bad Brains poster in the comic store where Marcus works, punk is the omnipresent ethos of Deadly Class, with titles and storylines taking direct inspiration from the movement. As previously mentioned, the first volume and pilot episode of the SYFY show are both named “Reagan Youth,” paying homage to the influential NYC-based punk band. The second volume, “Kids of the Black Hole,” references a song by The Adolescents, who Saya and Marcus later see in concert in the same volume. The California punk band plays the song live while the romantic pair slam dances at legendary venue The Fillmore.
To deepen the connection, former Black Flag frontman, solo musician, poet, photographer, and actor Henry Rollins stars in the SYFY show as poisons professor, Jürgen Denke. To hear Remender and Rollins discuss their shared love of punk, check out the debut episode of the Mirror/Image podcast.
Remender also gives an impassioned shoutout to Athens, Georgia pop innovators The B-52s in issue 19, as a random musicphile describes the group as a "bunch of art school kids... putting together a mix of doo-wop, surf tones, and free-flowing oddball psychedelic lyrics" to a condescending record store clerk. The comic also pays homage to Killing Joke, The Damned, The Cure, The Smiths, Love and Rockets, Suicide, Bad Religion, and many (many) metal bands (and other bands) as the series progresses.
A school devoted to training youth in all things murder, Kings Dominion is the premier incubator for the international criminal underworld. For Master Lin to ensure that the lowest levels of society wield power, no criminal organization is omitted at the school, with each student reflecting a different socio-political association. The katana-brandishing Saya represents the Yakuza archetype—specifically leading the Kuroki Syndicate—that appears more prominently as the series progresses, while Maria is both orphaned and absorbed into the power of the Latin American drug cartels, falling in with the Soto Vatos.
The specter of the Cold War looms especially heavily in the series, with Russian student Viktor and new student Helmut embodying different facets of the Soviet Union’s far-reaching influence. Helmut comes from a divided Germany and Viktor descends from the KGB itself, claiming to be the son of Joseph Stalin’s top assassin. And while not directly tied to the Soviet Union itself, rockabilly devotee Quan is largely a product of the Cold War, an extension of the lingering wounds of the Vietnam War and the heroin rings that came into global prominence during the long, bloody conflict.
Various aspects of American gang-life are also represented in the school, from morally conflicted Willie’s Los Angeles-based, Menace II Society-era First World Order (F.W.O.) to Brandy, descended from brutal white supremacist hate groups in the Deep South, informing many of her own personal conflicts with the globally-minded student body.
With its international cast of killer characters, Deadly Class readily employs flashback sequences—rendered in moody, muted color palettes—for its main characters to build up their backstory and share their deeper motivations with the reader. The diverse backgrounds of its characters allow Remender and Craig to infuse their story with robust settings, expanding well beyond the confines of San Francisco and Kings Dominion.
Saya’s upbringing in a Yakuza family is juxtaposed with Maria’s own experiences among the cartels of Mexico. New student, Zenzele, harbors her own dark past in apartheid-era South Africa, gradually revealed to readers in the more recent story arcs as it becomes increasingly clear that each and every character is haunted by their respective pasts.
The traveling nature of the series isn't restricted solely to flashbacks. In the spirit of youthful rebellion, the students frequently leave school for their own joyrides that lead to blood-soaked consequences. An early escape sees Marcus lead his friends in a teenage Fear and Loathing adventure to Las Vegas, climaxing at the Circus Circus hotel where Hunter S. Thompson and Remender have both lodged. The most recent story arc, "Love Like Blood," witnesses a lengthy stay in Puerto Penasco, Mexico, where multiple characters’ pasts descend and two long-absent protagonists make their welcome return. In the world of Deadly Class, death knows no border.
Deadly Class' creative team isn't shy about the dire ramifications the students at Kings Dominion face—expulsion from the school tends to be fatal. This reality takes on a severe emergence for Marcus, Saya, Billy, Willie, Petra, and dozens of other students in the "finals" of their first year. Contrary to his initial statements of empowering the most marginalized segments of society, Master Lin orders the students who come from established gang and syndicate legacies to murder the "rats"—students who come from lesser means without the support of a larger criminal organization. Chaos and tears follow in a flurry of fatalities and betrayals that we won't spoil here.
After these events unfold in volume four—"Die For Me"—the comic pivots forward to September 1988 by introducing the new Freshman class of Kings Dominion Atelier of the Deadly Arts, and they are wonderful. Debuting in issue #22, this crop of pupil killers comes from a wide array of backgrounds and cultures, much like the preceding class. Zenzele hails from South Africa and, much like Marcus did, chafes against the blurred morality of her new school. A Christian fundamentalist, the character frequently writes letters to her parents and harbors biting secrets that hint at an inner turmoil that reveals itself throughout future issues. Frequent flatulent comic relief (and metal lover) Helmut comes from the East German National People’s Army, wields an ax, and clashes with Victor. Rockabilly acolyte Quan was raised in Vietnam and Cambodia and finds himself embroiled in a web of conflicting allegiances. Tosahwi is a Comanche skate punk from north Texas whose acerbic nature fronts a deep-seated mistrust of authority. Finally, Ireland's Cormac makes a memorable—albeit brief—layover in the comic before testing the patience of Master Lin.
These characters feature heavily in volume seven, "Love Like Blood," as they brawl with the Yakuza and mesh into the lives of the characters established in the first year.
Out today, Deadly Class #36 moves the epic in another startling direction. Fresh from the carnage and new allegiances forged in the Mexico-set "Love Like Blood" arc, Marcus embarks on a psychedelic spirit journey with a startling conclusion. Pick it up at your local comic book store to see what devastating roads Marcus, Saya, Maria, and the new class will travel as Deadly Class ratchets tension to new levels.
Tune-in details for SYFY's Deadly Class:
Wednesday, January 16 @ 10/9c