Phillip Morgan ‘18 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer
Ronald Reagan pulled a lot of shady crap during his presidency, but hardly anyone ever talks about how he cut funding from mental health facilities across the country or the disastrous consequences of that decision―say, a suicidal schizophrenic woman jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge and crushing your parents on impact in front of you. That image is our first glimpse into the twisted life of Marcus Lopez Arguello, our main man in Rick Remender’s new Image series Deadly Class, and it leaves no questions about how this story is going to play out.
Between having to leave Nicaragua due to the political unrest (exacerbated by a Reagan-sanctioned CIA coup d’etat no less) and his bizarrely cruel orphaning, it’s easy to see why he would hate Reagan, but his desire to actually murder the president appears decidedly out of his reach given his status as a homeless teen in 1987 San Francisco. He knows it too. We bear witness to Marcus’ propensity for violence early on, savagely beating up an old wanderer for taking one of his shoes, and the burn marks and scars that cover his arms and back heavily suggest he’s been in more than his share of grave encounters. There’s no sugarcoating the hopelessness of his situation, and even he’s ready to give up. But just before he concedes defeat and hurls himself off a building, he is talking by the quiet whisper of a girl. And down the rabbit hole he goes.
Ironically, they are formally introduced at the Day of the Dead Festival, as she (and other mysterious youths throughout the crowd) help him evade capture by the police, who are pursuing him for reasons that are never really delved into, only hinted at as the story progresses. But whatever Marcus did must’ve been horrific, because he’s attracted the ever-watchful eye of Master Lin, who doubles as the cold, ruthless headmaster of Kings Dominion School for the Deadly Arts and a pretty ingeniously crafted dark parallel to Mr. Miyagi. Here we learn that Kings Dominion is a secret high school filled with the problem children of the world’s top crime syndicate to train them in becoming assassins that will be able to retake the power back from the elite, or “change the world with a bullet” as Lin so eloquently puts it.
Now, the idea of a secret high school for a specific group of “gifted youngsters” is certainly not a new concept, but make no mistake, this is no Hogwarts or Xavier Institute rip-off. Oddly enough, both the physical and social layout of the school is more in line with that of Mean Girls, only here the cliques are ten times as terrifying (see: The Dixie Mob, Final World Order of South Central LA, Kuroki Syndicate, Soto Vatos, etc.). In true teen movie fashion, our outcast hero Marcus manages to piss off nearly all of them after his nerdy guide Shabnam gives him a quick crash course on the social hierarchy. We don’t really get to know the faculty beyond a few panels in his first few classes, but courses like “AssassinPsychology,” “Beheading,” and “AP Black Arts” taught by teachers who look like rejected Defense Against the Dark Arts professors from Harry Potter suggests much promise in future issues.
Meanwhile, Marcus’s ill-conceived swan dive into the Kings Dominion social scene introduces to quite a few more colorful members of the student body, and no teen movie stereotype is without parody (portraying the son of Stalin’s top assassin as the colossal jock bully and the daughter of a Neo Nazi hitman as the blonde Queen Bee are nice touches in particular). But Remender goes even deeper with the four students who helped Marcus initially escape the police and eventually become a dark take on The Breakfast Club (Saya, Maria, Willie Lewis, and Billy Black) and the precision with which Remender nails their interactions as disaffected, psychologically damage teenagers through all the ultraviolence, substance abuse, crazy acid trips, and general mayhem is just damn perfect.
The most vividly explored of all these is between Willie and Marcus during their ill-fated first assignment for AP Black Arts, who have a very insightful conversation about the importance of appearances which ultimately becomes the central theme of this first volume. Willie, as the son of one of the hardest OGs in South Central Los Angeles, has grown up in a culture that believes having a rep is the only way to maintain protection, and so he keeps up the lie that he murdered all his father’s killers after they invaded their family home in order keep his remaining family from looking weak, though he honestly wants nothing to do with his father’s criminal activities. Marcus argues that such posturing is pointless, as pretending and masking emotions shows the true weakness of a person. It’s a pretty scathing criticism, especially when all the kids, including himself, prove him right, with disastrous consequences. Marcus claims to not be concerned with showing weakness, only to go out of his way to look cool in front of his new friends―by killing his homeless friend Rory in a desperate attempt to pass his and Willie’s assignment, taking nine hits of acid without even blinking, and agreeing to kill Billy’s abusive father, who is also a Las Vegas Drug Smuggling Kingpin. Peer pressure is real kids. And it’s terrifying.
If you find inner turmoil bland, fret not, this book has plenty of terrifying action for your violence-craving mind, along with enemies way scarier than the shoe-snatching homeless guy. We meet Chico, leader of Soto Vatos who gets quite upset when he suspects Marcus is after his girl, Maria, following the gang to Vegas for a… civil discussion. Also popping in and out of the woodwork is a delightfully deranged figure known as Chester, a beast-lovin’ hair metal reject who appears to have been roommates with Marcus at the orphanage, following his exploits with the Kings Dominion gang and dropping hints that Marcus may have done something horrible to him and the Boy’s Home, and now he’s planning revenge that will only be slightly less gruesome than his face. Scarier than both of those crazy killers, however, is the crazy acid trip Marcus undergoes in the volume’s third act. Sure, getting your face kicked in by the son of the most feared crime lord in South America in a convenience store in Vegas sounds horrible, but it’s even worse when from your perspective a maroon crocodile is sitting idly by telling you to get up and fight.
On top of all of that, the artwork is simply breathtaking. Wes Craig and Lee Loughridge create a densely colorful world with Deadly Class, contrasting 80s neon with the grungy aesthetic of the San Francisco punk underground to give the environment an eerie, sinister quality without sacrificing vibrancy of color. Every gory detail is in place, and the characters and their movements feel real despite the level of violent encounters and insane rooftop jumping (there are worthy comparisons between the art here and on Remender’s prior run on Uncanny X-Force as well as Mark Waid’s current run on Daredevil). However, where the duo really shines is their depiction of Marcus’s near two-issue acid trip. His hallucinations are a terrifying spectacle, complete with Vegas Neon Lights cranked up to 11, as images of Reagan, skulls, and other creepy creatures hover in his world. Even when he’s getting beaten to near death, a smirking maroon crocodile appears and advises him to run away. Loughridge and Craig manage to not only convey to terror of a particularly bad trip, but also how real and tangible the insanity is to Marcus, and all we can do and hang on for dear life.
This volume is selling for roughly $9.99 at most sellers and contains the first six average-sized issues of Deadly Class that cover Marcus’ induction and first week of school at Kings Dominion. It’s a steal compared to same-sized volumes of more popular titles, but even if it was regularly priced, it’s more than worth it. Reliving all the horrors of high school, the 80s, and the Reagan Administration with a delightfully dark twist, Volume 1: Reagan Youth is proof that Deadly Class has the potential to be one of Image Comics’ strongest titles, and these first six issues will only leave you wanting more. Just watch out for pop quizzes/poison darts.
Final Grade: 9/10