December usually means students turn their thoughts to looming final exams, Herculean seeming tasks that will test them on the knowledge accrued across an entire semester. Some students worry these tests will end their lives — metaphorically — but for the student body of San Francisco’s Kings Dominion High School for the Deadly Arts, that fear is a literal one. That’s because Kings Dominion is no normal school. It’s a secret underground school for teenage assassins in training.
In their creator-owned Image Comics series “Deadly Class,” writer Rick Remender and artist Wes Craig have been documenting the bloody and turbulent misadventures of new student Marcus Lopez Arguello and his misfit friends. The past 16 issues have been dangerous and harrowing for Marcus and company, but when “Deadly Class” returns on December 23 for a new arc titled “Die for Me” the student body will embark on their biggest and most perilous adventure yet as a “Battle Royale”-style final exam begins and the students of Kings Dominion’s freshmen class turn against each other.
â€¨CBR News spoke at length with Remender and Craig about the scope and scale of of the game changing new arc, how they’ve adjusted their approach to the book and the impact “Die for Me” will have on the title moving forward.
CBR News: When “Deadly Class” returns this month a big “Battle Royale”-style conflict breaks out in Kings Dominion. I believe at one time this was originally going to be the starting point for “Deadly Class,” but in order to give your story some emotional resonance you wanted to back up and get to know your cast, correct?
Rick Remender: Obviously a lot of this stuff is inspired by things like “Lord of the Flies” and “Battle Royale.” In terms of the latter, one of the things about that film is you’re thrown right into that story. I always thought it would have been better if it was a TV series. More and more I’m thinking comic books and TV have the format right. Yes, there are great films, but there are fewer and fewer all the time. Plus, television and comics add a long form which gives you the ability to really ramp things up and build. So we were able to develop things and tell a lot of stories about the cast members and who they are and where they come from before the alarm bells go off and we start the big fight.
Wes Craig: Yeah, I remember that was the first thing Rick talked about. Our first conversation was what’s happening at the end of the third arc. That’s where the first issue was going to end. [Laughs] It worked out a lot better this way. You get to know everybody.
Wes, last time I spoke with Rick about his feelings on killing characters in a creator-owned book, but as an artist who co-created and designed these characters how does that impact you? Were there any past deaths that were especially painful for you to depict?
Craig: Yeah, for sure. I loved drawing Maria. There are certain characters with big personalities and there are others that through their adventures become a lot more fleshed out in my mind and Maria is one of those people. So yeah, that was too bad. It’s a school for deadly assassins though. [Laughs] So things get real once in a while.
Sounds like things will get especially real in “Die for Me.” How rough has it been working on this arc?
Remender: For me, it’s the same sort of difficulty that we hit when it came time for Maria to have a bad time. You plan these things out, spend the time building to them, and you kind of fall in love with the characters if you put the time in, and Wes and I talk on the phone like gabby little girls every few weeks. We really invest in these cast members so when it comes time to talk about who is going to get the hatchet it’s very easy to do when it’s a year out.
A lot of the planning we do comes a year out and now that we’re here I notice every time we talk about the final story and what we’re actually going to do the body count goes down. We grapple with whether or not we’re actually going to kill a character and I think that’s a good sign. For a book about teenage assassins killing one another we’ve killed very few of the cast members as it turns out. [Laughs]
Previous action-intensive “Deadly Class” stories have focused on Marcus and his friends as they’ve tried to escape their pasts and their mistakes, but it looks like in “Die for Me” you’re telling an action story on a whole other level. How big is the scope and scale of this arc?
Craig: We’ve both just come back from Thought Bubble where we were telling people about the next arc. We were like, “It gets pretty crazy,” but it’s been pretty crazy almost the whole time. It hasn’t been an easy ride for any of our characters, but things definitely do get amped up in the next arc. This is when the poop hits the fan. This is when the big plan gets executed.
Remender: Scope-wise it’s going to spill out across the Bay Area. Again, really the the joy of all the long form planning we’ve done is that pretty much everything that’s happened in these first 16 issues is setting up something that’s going to pay out in this story; things that you thought were resolved, things that you thought were small, and characters you thought were just peripheral and not to be paid attention to. You’ll realize that that those characters have been up to stuff the whole time. We’ve been showing them and seeding what they’ve been up to, and now it’s all going to come to a head.
So the arc deals with the entire school as the freshmen class go into their final assignment, which is for two thirds of the class to kill the third that was targeted. That’s not only going to take place in the school under San Francisco, it will also have some international ripples.
So we’ll catch up with some character we haven’t seen in a while, but will we also meet some new characters?
Remender: For sure, and the character focus is going to be shifting a bit here and there. As some characters die, others will then take a more prominent role in the story.
Craig: Yeah that’s something we haven’t talked about much. I’ve been doing sketches here and there of other characters that can fill the roles of people who might not make it through this arc.
Remender: I’ve already told Wes though that Wacky Jojo is not going to make it into the cast. He’s like, “But look! He’s got a big fancy wig!”
Remender: I’m like, “No, man, I don’t think Wacky Jojo fits.”
â€¨Craig: [Laughs] That’s not a character. Although I do keep trying.
Remender: [Laughs] We need to write that down Wes. Wacky Jojo needs to make a background appearance in the next issue.
Craig: Okay. That could be amazing.
Much of “Deadly Class” has been about what Marcus and his friends get up to outside of the school, but it sounds like with “Die for Me” we’ll get an opportunity to see the various school cliques collide and potentially the perspective of King’s Dominion students whose world revolves more around the school.
Remender: Oh yeah, the school! The thing that we never spend any time at! [Laughs]
Remender: That was one thing we kind of figured early on though. The school was going to play a bigger role coming into this arc and in some of up the upcoming stories. So we let ourselves kind of drift in and out and tell some stories about the misadventures of the kids as they sneak off into the night to be mischievous.
Craig: Yeah, it’s funny every time we’re at the school we’re both kind of itching to escape along with the students and go and have some fun. [Laughs] It’s a school for assassins, though, so we do have to check back in once in a while.
It seems natural that a lot of the previous issues took place outside of school, though, since your focus was really on the misfit kids whose lives were not defined by school, whereas with some of the other cliques like the cheerleaders and the jocks school is their world.
Remender: And most of the students there are passionately there competing with one another. They’re in a situation where their parents or their sponsors are the heads of criminal organizations, or spy organizations, or street gangs. They’re fiercely competitive as they’ve been indoctrinated into their various criminal syndicates thinking that this is a right of passage. So they’re willing to come to this school and kill or be killed. Whereas our cast are all not as passionate about being in the school and the competition.
They all kind of just landed there. So yeah, that’s a very good point. That definitely does speak to why they’re not staying late in Master Zane’s karate class. Also because Master Zane got shot in the face.
[Laughs] It seems like this story is an opportunity for plenty of physically capable and violent kids to step up and cause some mayhem, but what does “Die for Me” mean for kids like Shabnam who have to rely more on their cunning?
Remender: Oh Shabnam…
Craig: You really get an opportunity to see what everybody’s skills are in this story. They all come on strong. You get to see Viktor use his muscle and you get to see Shabnam use his intellect. And a lot of kids are going to be using their ability to run the hell away from the school and try to hide from the chaos.
â€¨Remender: We also get to play off some of the kids who are not “rats” and not being hunted. They’re expected to go out and hunt their friends who are rats, and I think the decisions that they make will unearth a whole lot about their characters. We’ll also get to see some surprising choices from some characters. You’ll think you know these people, and then you’ll recognize that we’ve just shown you a kind of two dimensional snap shot of them. Once you see their motivations, what they’re really about, and why they want to graduate their choices will hopefully surprise people.
I think all of the seeds for all of the choices that they’re making have been laid in this series to date. It’s also been fun to take characters like Shabnam and a handful of others out of the sidelines where we’ve been sort of building them in the background and move them to the foreground a little bit.
Shabnam is a wonderful character in that a lot of us have periods in middle school or high school where we were outcasts, nerds or picked on. Most good hearted and intelligent people come out of that thinking, “Wow! I’m never going to do that to anybody! And if I’m ever in a situation of power over somebody else I’m going to be super nice to them because that felt really shitty.” Shabnam is the other kid who was picked on and made to feel inferior and his reaction to it was, “I’ll show you all!” So he’ll be twice as petty and twice as vindictive in his treatment of others.
He’s based on somebody Wes and I know. [Laughs] It’s a couple different people mixed.
â€¨Craig: Yeah, one of my favorite things has been seeing all these other characters get their moments. There’s a scene in issue #19, which I’m about to draw, that’s one of my favorites because you get to see a glimpse of one of the “bad guys” and his reasoning makes just as much sense as Marcus’, or Billy’s, or any of the supposed “good guys.”
Our bad guys won’t be 100 percent evil. There are a lot of gray areas going on in the book.
What’s it like writing a story that involves all this action and all these emotionally charged scenes? Are you guys handling “Die for Me” differently than other arcs?
Remender: Not really, in terms of process. I think the one thing for me that I had to get my head around in terms of the violence was there’s something to be said. This is a metaphor in the same way “Lord of the Flies” is a metaphor. It’s a snapshot of human frailty and viciousness and a look at a group of kids from all over the world that ultimately can represent various aspects of the world stage. In that it does have something to say about violence, mob mentality and competition.
In terms of the rest of it though, at least from my end, it’s been built the same way we’ve built most of the stories, which is I take a kernel of an idea and call Wes. Then we spend a few hours talking it out, and after that off I go to type everything up. Then off he goes to draw it up.
There’s a lot of collaboration in every aspect of the book. We’ve gone through so many iterations of this outline. There were so many different versions, but ultimately we made some hard choices on who lives and who dies, and I think people will be shocked by the choices we’ve made. I think there is something to be had for each one of the deaths, and they do say something beyond just being “Ye Olde Hyper-Violence” [Laughs]
Let’s talk a little about bit about your other collaborator, colorist Jordan Boyd. I think the way he lights scenes in the book is phenomenal. It sounds like he’s going to have a lot of opportunity to add some extra emotional impact to scenes in “Die for Me.”
Craig: Yeah he’s doing a great job. He’s similar to Lee [Loughridge], who started with us, in that I don’t have to explain a lot. Sometimes I won’t even tell the colorist what a particular person’s hair color is because I forgot it, but then I get the colors back and it’s the same kind of color I had in mind.
It’s a situation like that where you can just feel how in sync you are.
Remender: When I think of you and Jordan I think of NSYNC.
Craig: [Laughs] Just two members though. Just two tight knit bros.
Remender: You guys are like the sweet, sweet NSYNC bros of “Deadly Class.”
Doing flat colors and making it work is an entirely different form of art. You can’t rely on rendering. You can’t rely on hard light sources to separate things. It’s all contrasts and it’s all palette. And I can’t imagine anyone doing a better job with that than Jordan’s done. I’m picking up that approach and using it to make sense out of Wes’ terrible art.
Remender: Make sure you indicate in the interview that I did not laugh after saying that. [Laughs]
Finally, an arc like “Die for Me” really does beg the question of where does “Deadly Class” go next? Are there any hints or teases about what comes after the arc that you can leave us with?
Remender: This is very much our “Empire Strikes Back” to speak in the parlance of the current obsession — again. I think where we leave the series is going to be wholly unexpected. The good guys don’t always win, and sometimes the person you think is the good guy is the bad guy — and sometimes there’s a clown named Jojo Witherspoon in the background. [Laughs]
Remender: So I think we subvert expectations quite a bit, and where we leave the cast that remains, and where we leave the story is pretty exciting. This story is a big change for everybody; it’s a big status quo change, and it’s the one that we’ve been ramping up to for awhile. Everything that happened leads into this and then pays out coming out of it. So I’m excited to give that payout to people who have read the book and enjoyed it so far.
â€¨Craig: Yeah, when we come back the school is going to be quite different for sure.
Remender: It’s going to be called Happy Rainbow Party Puppy Town where everyone’s dreams come true.
“Deadly Class” #17 is on sale December 23 from Image Comics.