“Teenagers scare the living shit out of me,” belts Gerard Way in an old My Chemical Romance ditty, appropriately titled “Teenagers.” That lyric speaks for most of us. Teenagers scare the living shit out of almost everybody, and not without good reason.
From the view of anyone under 12, teenagers can access a bizarre new frontier of automobile use, cigarettes, training bras and thin mustaches, making them almost as relatable as the Reavers from Firefly. Teens are scary people who do scary shit, so their fictional exploits often involve perilous mayhem of some sort. There’s Buffy (and, like, nearly every other vampire thing), The Hunger Games, Heathers, The Faculty and basically every slasher movie. Since as far back as when Marlon Brando slapped on a leather cap in Rebel Without a Cause, and probably well before then, imaginary teens have been murdering and getting murdered.
Guns and vampires are both totally awesome, but nobody in the real world appreciates either actually existing in his or her general vicinity. Evidentially, writer Rick Remender — the man who convinced me to stop hating Deadpool with his run on Uncanny X-Force — encountered his share of non-fantasy bloodshed during a youthful stint in late ‘80s Phoenix, Arizona. “Violence was just something you got used to being around,” he writes in the afterward to Deadly Class, Volume 1: Reagan Youth. We can only speculate on how much of Remender’s personal history has been channeled into Deadly’s protagonist misanthrope, Marcus Lopez. While it’s improbable he attended an arcane high school that specializes in grooming top-shelf international assassins, Remender’s accounts of homelessness and LSD overload resonate with authenticity.
Compiling the inaugural six issues of Image’s ongoing series, Reagan Youth introduces Marcus to the streets of San Francisco in 1987. Marcus flees a home for wayward boys after engineering an unpleasant incident involving a nail bomb, and before that, swears to kill President Ronald Reagan in retaliation for the deaths of his parents, whose deaths indirectly stem from Reagan’s mental health funding cuts. Unlike most of those who dream about killing famous people, Marcus has a comparatively justified motivation to off the Gipper.
The wayward teen’s homicidal streak, relative sanity and lack of human attachments combine to form the perfect dark horse candidate to enroll at Kings Dominion School Of The Deadly Arts — an academy normally reserved for sons and daughters of the wealthy and amoral. As opposed to jocks and nerds and so forth, cliques at Kings Dominion adhere to stereotypes based on organized crime syndicates. Classes have titles like “Assassin Psychology” and “Beheading.” Fortunately, the story leaves campus before the “Hogwarts via Grand Theft Auto” conceit has time to get boring. Marcus and his new sort of friends don’t become three-dimensional until they hang out in back alleys, hotels, casinos and the parking lot of a Grateful Dead concert.
Part of the credit for this instilled humanity goes to artist Wesley Craig and colorist Lee Loughridge, whose efforts convey naturalism without any forced faux-realism. The pictures have mannerisms and plenty of movement, flexing a far greater panels-per-page ratio than we’re used to. I didn’t recognize the connection to ‘80s Frank Miller until Marcus’ channel surfing pays overt homage to The Dark Knight Returns. Entire pages occasionally include only one or two colors, keeping the kinetic action from appearing too crammed or hurried.
Despite the obligatory Fear and Loathing references, the wonderful latter three issues recall Gregg Araki’s criminally underappreciated 1995 opus, The Doom Generation, as much as Hunter S. Thompson. Some parallels with high school-aged Rose McGowan’s inexplicably perilous road trip through the desert are obvious, but the stories also make similar commentaries on adolescence. Marcus wistfully remembers playing on a swing set with a childhood playdate the day after he bludgeons a hole into a man’s skull. McGowan’s character plays a part in the execution of a half-dozen people without batting an eye, then her heart breaks when she accidentally runs over a stray dog. I’m not sure why that innocence/malice dichotomy feels so poignant in stories about teenagers, but it does. In Deadly Class, it’s wielded for a tale that’s equal parts empathetic and fucking terrifying.