SPOILER WARNING: This article contains spoilers for “Deadly Class” #13, on sale now.
When you’re a teenager trying to forge your own identity, having a close knit group of friends to hang and commiserate with can be a huge asset. But for the students of Kings Dominion High School for the Deadly Arts, having a friend you can trust to watch your back is a necessity. The school in which writer Rick Remender and artist Wes Craig’s creator-owned Image Comics series “Deadly Class,” takes place is a secret San Francisco-based school for teen assassins. The school is especially perilous for its core group of outcasts and misfits who have to navigate both a dangerous curriculum and the book’s 1980s setting.
Recent issues have showed just how rough it can be for the teens as recently enrolled student Marcus Lopez, his girlfriend Maria and their friends tangled with some dangerous adversaries from their pasts. “Deadly Class” #13 saw them pay the ultimate price for underestimating their school’s overseer, the enigmatic Master Lin, as one of their number perished.
Remender joined CBR News for a wide ranging discussion that included that big death, as well as such topics as killing off characters in creator-owned books, the children’s author that influenced much of Remender’s work, and the writer’s long term plans for the series.
CBR News: Both “Low” and “Black Science,” your other current creator-owned books from Image, are about biological families, but “Deadly Class” also has a family vibe to it as well. Was that your intention?
Rick Remender: I think all stories end up being about family, because if it’s not blood family, it’s our tribes. Humans are such tribal creatures. Our need to have companions, friends, and a social circle is cooked into our DNA. It’s inherent in our need to survive throughout evolution that we have a tribe of people to help us; help us procreate and help us fight wild beasts. So everything really boils down to family, one way or another, I think.
Obviously “Deadly Class” is about a family of very emotionally scarred kids coming together, but it’s also a story about the misfits of a school banding together.
It really is. The people that I always gravitated towards were the misfits; the punkers, the goths, the hip hop kids, the skate punks, motorheads, and rockabillies. Those subcultures always spoke to both Wes and me. They felt more honest and felt more like home.
Also with these kids, their damage is obviously far greater than the damage of my friends and myself growing up and the things that we endured and went through. We were all pretty damaged though. We were a lot of fucked up kids who found a family together. Then over time we sort of tore each other apart [Laughs] as teenaged humans are wont to do. There’s a lot of ins and outs that I’ll be drawing from that will be reflected in this story.
So yes, these kids’ damage is obviously of a greater depth given that it’s not just abuse at home or verbal abuse or neglect. It’s sort of taking the latchkey kids of the ’80s and the various things that we were up against and magnifying it with even worse damage and baggage.
I’ve also thrown in some of the classic Roald Dahl orphan stuff that I had cooked into my brain from reading Roald Dahl as a kid. Every thing started with an orphan, or some kid whose parents are dead and they live with their grandparents, or somebody’s parents get eaten by bears at the zoo. [Laughs]
I imagine Marvel Comics could have been responsible for some of that as well with characters like Spider-Man.
Yeah, that’s true. The Roald Dahl, books like “James and the Giant Peach” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” always stand out in my imagination though. I always recognize those elements. People will look at Marcus and say, “Oh, that’s Batman’s origin!” and I’m like, “Nope! I think that’s actually subconsciously inspired by ‘James and the Giant Peach.'”
So the fun of it is to take that damage and the things I identity with like the band of friends I had, and dig through my journals or chat story with Wes. Most of the main cast are all built out of and inspired by real people we grew up with. I mix up the things that happened as to dramatize it without it becoming too masturbatory or personal.
And these are a fascinating and tragic bunch of misfits in that they’re all essentially child soldiers.
Yes, they are. They all come from various organizations and families that expect them to do terrible things. That, again, is a metaphor for where we all come from. We call come from families that expect things from us. To varying degrees our parents have hopes, expectations, and resentments and this is just taking that and magnifying it, making it something clearly dangerous.
Once I started writing this series a few years ago the metaphors started popping up left and right. That’s why it’s become such a joy to create this book. There can be fantastical assassination attempts, revenge stories, and chase sequences through San Francisco, but behind all of it there’s a metaphor for something universal. The people who like it really, seem to really identify it. There are a lot of universal themes.
You mentioned the big action sequences, but I think another draw of this series is that you give readers the physical and emotional costs of those sequences.
Yeah, I think that consequences are always an interesting theme. So much of pop culture in general is this carnival of consequence free violence, action, and promiscuity. That’s not realistic and the consequences are the most interesting aspect of any of it.
Just the physical injuries that I like to play a little fast and loose with. I like to do some brutal action and have a character walking around with some bandages later. [Laughs] In Marcus’ case, though, Wes and I have an idea for how badly his brain has been damaged in all the action in the first 12-13 issues. We counted like four major concussions. [Laughs] On top of that is the heavy LSD abuse. [Laughs] So we have some plans for his brain and his mind space. Again, more consequences.
Have you seen the Cinemax show “Banshee?”
No, but I’ve heard it’s great.
One of the things I love about it is you do see the physical consequences of the fights the main character engages in, but over time you really start to see how much emotional trauma he’s suffered from living a life of violence.
Yeah, that’s sort of a hallmark of any successful action story. The action is actually a byproduct of the character stuff and you’re actually identifying with some struggle that the characters are up against that reflects some struggle you’re up against.
â€¨That’s the hardest thing to find. You can develop a million books, and I’ve got a file full of 20 creator-owned books that I’ve developed and have not produced because I haven’t found that. I haven’t found that universally identifiable thing that makes you go, “Oh! I’ve got to tell this story.”
While we’re on the topic of violence and consequences, let’s touch upon a particular one that’s especially interesting in a teen book where the cast thinks they’re immortal: death. We’ve seen that happen a few times now. First with Chico, then with Lex and, in issue #13, Maria. What’s it like killing a character you created and own versus killing a character in a work for hire book? Is there a temptation to restrain yourself or go all George R.R. Martin?
I’ve been trying to surprise people with sudden deaths since I started doing creator-owned books 16 years ago. I’ve always just been drawn to that for the same reasons I think Martin is which are it’s an action-adventure story, with violence, but if I know that the lead survives the story than you’re never going to really subvert my expectations. Everyone has to be in danger in that sort of genre.
â€¨In life people die and the people around that person have to carry on and adjust their lives to that person’s absence. And if an ongoing work of fiction is so safe, if I know the worst that will happen to a lead character is that they’ll suffer an injury, it feels like there’s an artificial boundary between the writer and the story. There’s too much of the writing process and the confinement of that process in the story at that point, “Of course she survived. She’s the lead character.” So by killing a character unexpectedly I think you manage to subvert expectations. These characters live, breathe and die, and other characters have to react to that just like in life.
Fate kills people randomly and does terrible things all the time. So you, too, must do that in an action-adventure story. Much good drama is born out of those moments of terrible, crushing despair in life where someone you love has been taken, is suffering, or has left you. That’s the fodder for drama. So I like to lean into at least some of that.
â€¨As for the difference between creator-owned versus work for hire? In creator-owned I know when I’m killing somebody for real or when it’s a fake out. I know when I’m faking people out a bit with a point to come later. With work for hire you don’t control that all the time. With work for hire you can take some characters for a little while and with your editor pitch some ideas and tell a story, but ultimately the nature of mainstream comics is that’s going to be erased by somebody. It will be forgotten, and then when somebody who read those stories when they were 13 and loved them becomes a writer they’ll bring them back. [Laughs] It’s the nature of the beast.
In a creator-owned book you don’t have the legacy of 50 years of continuity or somebody who is convinced this version of a particular character is right and you’re wrong, so you can kind of do your thing.
Do you often find yourself regretting that you took a character off the board when you did?
Sure. Killing Maria was the hardest thing. It was so easy to write an outline two years ago and then build up to the point in the third arc after you think everybody’s won the day and had the classic, cathartic revenge story that there were mistakes made by the protagonists that end up causing the mortality of a character people like. It’s very easy to do that in an outline! [Laughs] It’s fun even.
You tell yourself, “This character will have done all of this and meet their end here and it affects these characters this way. Then this and that happens.” [Laughs] I had to have a lot of conversations with Wes and [Editor] Sebastian [Girner] to convince me to stick with that though, because once I got there I screamed, “No! I love this character we created! I don’t want her to die here.”
We had to stick to that plan because there was the integrity of that initial outline and our original intention. You need to be flexible and able to adjust stuff, but to pull back from something really major and terrible happening when it’s the initial intention of the story will often give you a weaker story in my experience. Ultimately, it was a good thing that it was hard to do.
I imagine these last few issues, where we got to see her kind of grow by confronting some of the things from her past, made you grow to love her even more. I know they made me more fond of her and made her death more painful.
For sure, and that’s the stuff when you beat it out in an outline it says, “Maria figures this out. Maria saves Marcus even though he’s a shithead and forgives him.” So you subvert expectations here and here and then the exciting moment of the outline is when they get back to school and see that Master Lin is not to be fucked with and Maria is gone.
In an outline you’re like, “Perfect!” But after you spend months working on those issues it can be very difficult. It was that way with Lex as well, and spoilers for “Low,” with the character of Marik. You build a character and you spend a lot of time trying to inhabit them and get to know them. You hope you don’t kill them in an offhand manner, but it doesn’t matter even if you kill them well and there’s a great point to it. Like in “Low” Marik makes the point to his mother, “You said we could do anything, but you never said it would be easy.” So there was a point and message to his death, he’s paying a price for her optimism, but it doesn’t make me any happier that I spent all this time with a character and now she or he is gone.
There’s an old adage about writing that says if you as a writer are having fun with something there’s a good chance the reader will too. I imagine the inverse of that is also true where if you’re troubled or heartbroken by something your readers will be as well.
I think so. It happens even when I killed a character knowing it would be reversed like when I had Rogue kill Scarlet Witch in “Uncanny Avengers.” That whole series was set up to lead to that moment; to show that if the mutants and the humans can’t get along they’re going to end up killing each other. I of course had a setup where that would eventually be undone when the time jump happened and the characters would earn their salvation, but I think the anger and outrage over that hit some people. It made them sad and uncomfortable. I think you want that in stories. So it’s something that I always try and build into my outlines, hopefully with a larger metaphor attached, or some meaning.
Let’s talk abut some of the characters that led to Maria’s death starting with Chico’s family, who were a cool and colorful collection of cartel assassins. My favorite was Chico’s older brother who had an almost “Raising Arizona”-style “Lone Biker of the Apocalypse” vibe to him. What inspired the creation of him and these characters?
A lot of it was stuff we’ve seen before. They were concepts taken out of the Bible: Father, Son, Holy Ghost. Then for the older brother we really wanted an escalation. We had shown that these cartel guys were not to be messed with. When we saw what they did to Maria’s family we got a pretty good impression that they were not good people. You want to keep elevating the stakes though.
â€¨Wes and I were on the phone talking about what to do and I had just seen an image of a biker. [Laughs] So I said, “What if we went just totally hog wild and did like a Day of the Dead biker; a giant, unstoppable, killing machine on the back of this huge, crazy, motorcycle who was swinging around a giant mace?” [Laughs]
I think you have to let yourself go to those places to make comic books fun. Within the confines of this world we’ve been building a Batman-style rogues gallery between the Cartel and Fuckface and his hillbilly gang. I like finding that iconic almost over the top imagery and those over the top ideas for villains. You want to put your heroes in a situation where you really don’t see a way for them to get out of. And you want to really hate at least one antagonist.
Then, as you said and as we saw in issue #13, Master Lin is not to be trifled with. It feels like you’re just starting to show readers how cunning and dangerous he is.
Yeah, the original idea for “Deadly Class” is a story we’re not going to tell until the fourth arc now. As I built that original story when I was doing my initial outline for the thing I just had the title, “Deadly Class.” Then I cooked something up that was sort of my versions of a “Battle Royale”-style situation. I realized though the problem with “Battle Royale” is that it’s a movie where at the beginning of the film you’re dropped in with a bunch of kids that are put in a situation where they’re all hunting each other. You kind of get to know them on the fly and you get glimpses of who they are, but you don’t really care too much. [Laughs] It’s mostly “Here’s ‘The Most Dangerous Game’ with teenage kids” and then off you go.
The thing that really attracted me to developing “Deadly Class” was the Reagan Youth aspect of it, which was the memoirs of the era, and the teen drama and soap opera. I wanted you to really get to know the kids before we start to escalate things. So the school has almost been a backdrop that’s a sort of C story while the kids are off doing all these other things like high school kids do. The most interesting aspects of high school are not when you’re in class. Plus, they’d just be coasting through school because they’re the stoners, punkers, drop outs, and whatever.
We’ve been seeding the fact that there is stuff going on in the school though. We’re going to start seeing more and more of that happening, and they’re going to have to start taking it all a lot more seriously as things progress.
Another adversarial character that you’ve slowly been developing in the background and people have been underestimating is Marcus’ roommate Shabnam.
Yep, never underestimate the sullen kid who gets left out of all the invitations. We moved so often that my social status at the various schools I ended up in would fluctuate, and we’ve all been that kid. We’ve all been uninvited. We’ve all been left out and I think what’s important is to learn from that. Elitism is at the heart of all human evil in some form or another and it’s important to never be an elitist or a bully to a kid in that situation.
There’s also the kind of person though who was incredibly unpopular and left alone to sit in their room and read “Dune” with no friends and instead of becoming wise to the lesson of “when I’m in a position of power I’m going to be kind to people” they become vindictive and dickish. They decide they’re going to take that pain that they felt and revisit it upon the world.
I’ve encountered a number of those people in my adult life and find their character fascinating because they’re looking to revisit all of the things that made them so sad and broke them so badly on anyone. Shabnam is a character that I’m going to be investigating a lot of those themes with.
We’ve talked about characters, let’s chat about some of the events that are in their immediate future. What is life going to be like for your remaining cast in the aftermath of Maria’s death?
The surprises come fast and plenty. The structure of the book for the next two or three issues will involve us experimenting with the passage of time. We’re also experimenting with blips of time and moving through events a little quicker.
So it’s almost like we’re going to be walking through a few months of Marcus’ journals, which has turned into some of my favorite comics that I’ve been associated with now that Wes and Lee [Loughridge] have turned in issue #14 and I’m getting to see the results. We’re just going to heap on all the unexpected changes that accompany adolescent life, and obviously more so accompany a bunch of kids who go to a high school to become professional assassins. [Laughs]
You mentioned Wes Craig’s art, and I want to take a moment to talk more about the work being done by him and “Deadly Class” colorist Lee Loughridge. They’re work seems to perfectly complement each other. Have Wes and Lee worked together before?
Yeah, they did a digital Batman story together a couple years ago and I was blown away by it. Wes has been doing comics for years and years, but it’s always been just one or two issues here and there. As he’s confessed to, because it’s work-for-hire he’s never been able to unleash himself and experiment and go crazy. So you’re looking at the next disco superstar. His pages come in and I just can’t believe them. They’re brilliant. They’re Mazzucchelli meets Toth meets Adrian Tomine. It’s a grab bag of the best comic book artists in the world and then this other huge thing that is all Wes.
His storytelling has such a dense effect because — well, a million reasons, but one of them is the high panel count. That’s something we wanted with the book because I wanted to reflect a lot of the Frank Miller stuff we loved; the high panel count stuff in “Dark Knight” and “Ronin.” I’ll write an eight or nine-panel page, though, and he’ll turn it into a 15-panel page! The effect is constant motion. There’s so much motion on every single page. Everything is constantly, “Bup! Bup! Bup! Bup!” There aren’t any giant, static images all that often, and when we get to those images I feel like it’s really earned.
There’s a discipline to that and it was sort of unraveled in the early ’90s by people going, “Hey man, when we get to a splash page it feels so good! Why don’t we make every page a splash page! Let’s mainline that shit!” [Laughs] So Wes’ discipline is pouring into the page in these Mignola-style beat panels and there’s a wonderful fluidity to it. It’s a treat. I think he’s the best.
Finally, I know you like to outline your books far ahead. How far ahead do you have “Deadly Class” plotted out? Do you know how it ends? And approximately how far are readers on the journey you and Wes have planned for them?
We’ve got up to issue #32 outlined right now. There’s some big, exciting stuff happening with the book that we can’t really talk about yet and I can imagine that the book is going to go much further than issue #32, but I know that it will at least go to that issue.
“Deadly Class” #13 is on sale now.