For Marcus Lopez, each day at King's Dominion High for the Deadly Arts is an exercise in survival -- literally. His classmates are the children of the world's most prestigious crime families, each one uniquely equipped to expel him permanently. But Marcus is tough, a survivor, with a strong ethical code and a kindness that has caught the attention of the school's administration. Fresh off the streets and newly enrolled to become an assassin, Marcus finds himself facing the same disenfranchised, dangerous social negotiations as any high school kid in 1987 -- except the stakes for him are much higher.
In January, wildly-talented writer Rick Remender, up and coming artist Wesley Craig and colorist Lee Loughridge launch their newest Image Comics series, "Deadly Class." With it's dark, underground vibe and a cast of characters steeped in the iconic subcultures of the late '80s, this is a very personal story for Remender, who drew on his teenage experiences among punks and outcasts to create the story. Remender joined Craig to speak with CBR News about the series, which he believes will be a high point in his prolific career.
Rick Remender: Quite a few. At the core, beyond the real life stories I'm incorporating here, is the universal "feeling of being different than everyone around me." Classic teen drama stuff, but in my case, it was fairly intense. My family moved around a lot. We moved about every 2 or 3 years to a new house in a new neighborhood and I had to start over and make new friends. I was always the new kid. I was always the kid nobody knew anything about who had to start from zero and somehow create connections with other kids. And at that age it's difficult because kids are mean. By the time I was in 8th grade, I had made a good group of friends. We were living in downtown Phoenix and the Los Angeles punk rock/skate scene had sort of bled into the subculture there. So my friends and I spent most of our time skateboarding, listening to punk rock and, in my case, reading comic books and drawing.
But then, right before high school, my family moved to a small town south of Phoenix, right in the middle of the desert, where a punker kid definitely didn't fit in. So the first couple of years of high school for me were spent as this punk kid who was endlessly fucked with by a bunch of rednecks, jocks and hillbillies. Basically until I turned 16, when I got my drivers license and I left home. Some of the homeless feeling that I had will be explored through Marcus for sure.
Even after I got back to Phoenix and reunited with some of my friends, High School was a perfect magnification of my feeling that I don't belong anywhere. I had a good core group of friends; we were the freaks and punkers out behind the gym, smoking weed (back then our high school had a smoking area, believe it or not). My group of friends sort of became a magnet for all of the outcasts and freaks. The punkers, the Goths, skaters, hip-hop kids, dropouts, gearheads -- all the colors of the freak rainbow.
Phoenix was a violent place in the late '80s / early '90s, and standing out in a city like that led to numerous beatings, stabbings and shootings amongst my friends. I've seen a man shot in the head; I had a friend shot in the back while trying to flee a gunfight; I had a friend overdosed on heroin; another shot himself in the head; I had a friend who was stabbed; I was personally jumped and beaten by gangs, twice. Violence was just something you got used to being around. I wanted to explore that and magnify it.
I wanted to explore the idea of that meanness and that drama and that feeling of being ostracized and disconnected with some real-life danger. In that sense, there is a bit of a metaphor, building off of the cruelty that teenagers exhibit towards one another and magnifying the physical threats as well as emotional ones.
Wes, what connections do you have to the era?
Wesley Craig: Well, my teen years were more in the '90s Grunge era, but I had an '80s childhood, so my introduction to music, comics, TV, what little I could understand of politics, etc., all of that came from '80s culture. I have a love/hate relationship with what came out of that era (some of the best and the worst music of all time for example). Regardless of love or hate, though, it's all fun to draw -- mullets or mohawks.
Rick, it's clear even this early on, that subcultures among the teenagers in the book are prominently featured. What subcultures did you identify with growing up?
Remender: From the age of 11 to 15, I was entirely embedded in the punk rock scene. The aggression in the philosophy spoke to me, still does. I had a friend who was turning me on to hip-hop back then, and I was turning him on to punk. He was the only black kid in the redneck town my parents moved me to, and we were sort of outcasts together. Through him, I found Public Enemy, LL Cool J (who was incredibly legitimate in 1987), Eric B and Rakim, NWA, etc. In 1988-89, around the time that I was 14 or 15, I started discovering bands like The Smiths, The Psychedelic Furs, The Cure, Sisters of Mercy, Joy Division, The Pixies, the Bauhaus, so that by the time I was 16 and 17, my tastes ran to more of an eclectic mix. I was into most everything. The AM radio station branded it "alternative music" in 1988. A term we all hated, a term absorbed by the mainstream a year or two later to sell music to assholes.
Have you seen it reflected in comics in a way that's felt relate-able before?
Remender: Sure, but everyone's is a bit different. I was in high school from 1987 till 1991, so my experience is very specific to those years. You read something like "Love and Rockets," you can tell it's authentic and true to the era that Los Bros Hernandez grew up in. I think Adrian Tomine perfectly captures the Bay Area scene of the '90s in "Optic Nerve." I didn't move to the Bay Area until 1999, but I knew plenty of people, and as I was reading "Optic Nerve" '99 up through '08 during my time living in the Bay Area, I really got a sense for what a perfect snapshot Adrian was taking of life in Berkeley. There've been plenty of people who have captured various eras, all specific to the locations they grew up in.
Who are the main characters of your series? What are they like? Did you see them in your head before Wes drew them, or was their development a collaboration between the two of you?
Remender: Everything is collaboration. In a creator-owned comic book, there are no mandates handed down from anyone, nor are there any other objectives for you hit other than to cook up a comic book with your collaborator that you both believe in and feel excited about. The characters are new, and you can build them from the ground as opposed to researching years of continuity to satiate the more pedantic readers. So, while many of these kids are based on people that I knew growing up at the various high schools I went to, Wes and I work closely with series editor Sebastian Girner to make them our own.
I was fairly directionless after high school and ended up in some very bad places, doing some very bad things. So when I write a drug dealer with a ferret, there's a good chance that drug dealer was my old drug dealer. Almost every one of the kids in the school is an amalgam of actual people that I knew, and the others are characters that Wes and I built together from people we both knew. Wes and I have spent countless hours on the phone, talking about the era and kids we knew in high school and interesting aspects that we would like to explore in this series. And while I had general ideas of what they looked like, especially the ones based on people that I knew, Wes realized them in his own visual language, making them all entirely authentic to the era. When you see skate rats bombing the streets of San Francisco, they look like the skate rats you knew in the mid-'80s. When you see a Goth girl or a Straightedge kid, or Stoners, or a Metalhead or a Rockabilly kid -- Wes is one of the few people with the skill set to realize them so fantastically and also have them be entirely authentic.
Rus Wooton then cooked up a very distinct lettering style based on some of Wes' notes. Lee went in and did the same with the color approach. Everyone was free to, and pushed to, go in interesting and unique directions.
"Deadly Class" is, in simplest terms, a story of lost and discarded youth collected by a school for assassins. In many ways, the kids of the late '80s/early '90s were disenfranchised and let down by a failing economy and perhaps one of the widest generation gaps between parents/offspring that I can think of. Subculture became a deep substitute for family, and loyalties to various cultural associations were nearly gang-like. Is that what this school is? A place to create a new family? And without parents who are invested in the individual needs of their child coming into a world where no place is made for them, is the only sensible route investing in a legacy of violence?
Remender: "Subculture became a deep substitute for family." I think you hit the nail on the head, right there. Many of us were unsupervised, out in the world, trying to find where we belonged. We were lost. Many of us were damaged or broken and insecure, and we all found our identity in these various scenes. I gravitated towards the punk scene because of the aggression and the philosophy in the music. Because you could hear somebody talking about how kids should get together and do it themselves and make their own music and question the authority or the predominant cultural norms such as misogyny, golf, muscle cars, Coors Light, football and shitty music. Those are all things that I was feeling before I found punk rock, but there was nothing out there that was reflecting it back. Punk rock made me feel like I had found some sanity in a world that didn't make a lot of sense to me, and made me feel like I had a home.
King's Dominion School for the Deadly Arts is a collection of so many different kinds of kids, from so many different kinds of situations. But I don't think the school itself will feel like home to any of them. It's a scary place, where their lives are in danger, where they're expected to not only come of age, they're expected to learn how to be a top flight killer. That's a journey most of these kids are going to have a very difficult time with.
In many cases, the violence is a product of the conditions many of these kids grew up in. Or in other cases, dealing with what was expected of them by the crime syndicates their relatives belong to. In some cases, the violence is a manifestation of the abuse some of these kids suffered -- the real physical and ugly abuse that was all too real, and all too prevalent among my friends and me.
How did you come to work with Wes on this?
Remender: I had been following Wes' work for a few years. Really, I just stumbled onto it on the Internet when I found a piece he did of a spaceman in the classic Wally Wood style, a bit modernized, and I saved it in a folder. Then, one day, I was over at Lee Loughridge's, house and Lee was coloring Wes on the "Batman" story. He had one of the pages open up that literally kicked me in the nuts as soon as I saw it. It was a perfect comic book page. Lee and I have worked on numerous books together, and I am a big fan of his work, but I'd never seen a better fit for his coloring style than Wes. So I got Wes' contact information and I gave him a call to talk to him about "Deadly Class," a new series I was developing for Image. Fortunately, Wes liked the idea and signed right on.
From that point on, we got on the phone and spent hours and hours and hours talking about the era, talking out story beats, talking about character development points, talking out an approach to the book -- just basically collaborating to make something new that was 100% ours. And in doing so, we became friends. I think that when you get along with somebody, see eye-to-eye, there is a richness to the collaboration that doesn't appear otherwise. And I think "Deadly Class" will stand as a high point in my career because of it. We created this thing together ,and because we enjoy collaborating, there is a harmony to it.
The panel layouts are incredibly unique, especially in the way that they advance action sequences. How did you arrive at the final aesthetics?
Craig: Well, we own this -- which means we can do whatever we want. We entertained all options at first, then narrowed it down to what worked best -- logo, school designs, the look for the coloring and lettering, etc. Creating your own world up-front can be very time consuming, but in the end, it's one of the most rewarding aspects of a creator-owned book.
More specifically, I used borderless panels on a "Batman" comic I did with Lee, and Rick really liked that and asked me to keep it. The look of the action sequence in the book came out of experiments I'd been doing in my sketchbooks,trying to show motion in comic book form. Which is tough -- 'cause y'know, those things don't move.
Remender: Yeah, it all grew from months and months of ideas and conversations with Wes and Sebastian, and from Wes doing hundreds of hours of sketchbook and design time. We have so much back matter for the first trade paperback, it'll be great for people to see all that the work that went into frontloading this. My background is animation, so I was trained to get your characters designed and locked down on model sheets before you make a step towards the page or the final product. Wes went through and designed nearly every single character we see in the school on the first year's worth of stories before he started drawing page 1. We went back and forth and talked out what kids were wearing from different subcultures of the time, as well as physical traits. But the real credit has to go to Wes, who would literally take a script where I asked for 9 panels on the page, and would somehow extend it to 12 or 13 panels -- without the page feeling cramped. There is so much storytelling on every single page of this book. I hope people appreciate how much harder it is to produce a book in this fashion. Wes is literally bleeding on the pages. The idea was to somewhat emulate the panel count Frank Miller hit in "The Dark Knight Returns" while mixing it up with Chris Ware to stylistically look more modern. I couldn't be more proud of the end result.
Craig: These kids are '80s kids, but the story of being a teenager is always the same. I mean, the styles change, but there's always someone being picked on, someone who just got dumped, some girl spreading rumors about another girl, someone who's having a party and someone who's got a plan to get booze with a fake I.D. That's where I can relate to the teenage stuff, because I went through that just like everyone else, and no matter how many years pass, it's still easy for us to flash back to those experiences.
It seems Lee's color pallet connects to various timelines in the story. What influenced those choices for your team?
Craig: Well, first off, Lee Loughridge's colors on this are seriously some of the most interesting color pallets I've ever seen in a comic. I know that sounds like BS coming from me, but before we worked together on some stuff for DC, I was asking editors to work with Lee over and over because he was one of my favorite colorists -- and this stuff he's doing now is even better.
But to answer your question: Yes, art style and color schemes change to reflect changes in time, subjective experiences, etc. Two big influences on that are how I'd imagine that character sees the world, and incorporating art styles of my favorite comics from the '80s. That goes for color too.
Rick -- you've got two very different creator-owned titles at Image -- "Black Science" and now "Deadly Class." "Black Science" is totally wild, free-form, sprawling sci-fi, and "Deadly Class" seems like a very careful sociological commentary and character-driven story. Is one a reprieve from the other? And is it difficult writing those two very different worlds at the same time?
Remender: The trick is to make sure you frontload all of your outline work. I get my head into one story, I call up my collaborators and talk it through, and then we get it on paper. We bounce it around, we beat it up, we flesh it out, but the outline is done. We know where the story's going, we know the major beats. That means that if I have to jump in for an issue of "Deadly Class" after having just been working on "Black Science" or "Captain America," I can jump in and reread the last issue, then reread the outline to remind myself where were going, and hop right back into the story. If you do your homework, if you frontloaded like a grownup, and you do it right, you can juggle the stuff without it melting your brain.
The real trick for me on "Deadly Class" was to get back into that headspace of being 14 or 15. I have boxes full of notes I wrote and little journal entries I used to write on matchbooks, and I want very much to capture that same tone. I don't want to feel like a 40-year-old writing a 14-year-old. That's probably the most difficult thing, and that really doesn't come in until the final dialogue pass.
Is "Deadly Class" an ongoing? Do you have the story mapped out through the end, or are you letting it develop?
Remender: The book is an ongoing. Right now, we have about 24 issues mapped out, and that gets the kids up until their junior year of high school. Beyond that, we have basic ideas; like, I already know what the senior final assignment will be -- fun stuff like that. There's also numerous stories, things that actually happened to me, that will be peppered throughout the series, focusing more into the slice of life/sociology of it all. I don't want to be so plot-heavy that we're married to being stuck on rails, moving through an outline. I know the major character beats, I know where the stories are headed, but I want to be able to spend some time in this book just focusing on the color and the characters without having to have huge plot moments every issue.
I think we see that a lot in issues 4 and 5, when the kids go on a trip to Las Vegas with heads full of LSD, a story that is about 85% true to something that happened to me. I want to be able to tell those kinds of stories in the middle of the greater plot. With that stuff in mind, we're seeing every 12 issues being one of the years in high school. So the first 12 issues of the freshman year, the next 12 will be sophomore, and on and on. I very much think that we will hit issue 48 as the senior final assignment, and I already have ideas for the story that could take place beyond. Really, it just comes down to people's interest in the story that we are telling. If the sales are as strong as we've seen on "Black Science," and we can sustain the book, and I can manage to keep Wes excited about drawing it, I don't see it ending any time soon.
"Deadly Class" begins January 22. Don't even think about ditching.