On Deadly Class and my post-high school years.
By Vikram Nijhawan, Senior Arts and Culture Editor
It’s a truth universally acknowledged (at least among the UofT undergrads who transplant Hogwarts identities onto their own school’s college system) that Trinity College is the Slytherin House of the university. Ambition, ruthless competitiveness, and back-stabbing are all perceived as valued traits for students within this elite group, at least according to outsiders. Given the college’s gothic aesthetic, along with the past infamous tradition of weekly High Table dinners in the ostentatious Strachan Hall – where attendees must wear black robes – likening Trinity to the whimsical school from one of my generation’s childhood staples, the Harry Potter novels, seems only natural. By contrast, my fictional reference point for Trinity before attending the college was a far more niche series in a less appreciated medium.
The Image comic book series Deadly Class, to quote co-creator Rick Remender, takes the high concept of “The Catcher in the Rye dipping into Generation X’s angsty punk rock underground”, with some ninjas thrown in for good measure. The story, not unlike J.K. Rowling’s more popular and family-friendly series, follows an orphan who gets inducted into a secret school for unconventional youths. That’s where the similarities between the two end. Unlike Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, Kings Dominion Atelier of the Deadly Arts is where up-and-coming teenage assassins, typically the children of powerful gangs and crime syndicates from around the globe, train to enter their lethal family businesses.
In a memorable episode of his podcast Revisionist History, Trinity alumnus Malcolm Gladwell shared a sociological study which revealed that the music you listen to at the age of eighteen is the music you’ll love for the rest of your life – something about these tunes getting hardwired into you during that formative stage of neural development. The first issue of Rick Remender and Wes Craig’s Deadly Class, which takes place during the titular “Reagan Youth” era in 1987, came out in 2014 – the same year I began high school, and right when my taste in comics also began to mature. Of course, I only discovered the series four years later, in 2018. I had just graduated high school and was preparing to enter another four consecutive years of education which in hindsight, given the intimate and cliquish nature of Trinity, would feel at times oddly similar to the previous four.
Comic book fans often cite the 1980s as the era in which the medium grew up. This darker, more adult turn was defined by groundbreaking stories which graduated from the superheroism and simplistic moral binaries associated with comics up until then. It was the era when now-seminal works like Alan Moore’s Watchmen or Frank Miller’s Batman: The Dark Knight Returns were first released. Knowing this, it feels all the more apt that the story Deadly Class, a twisted counterculture bildungsroman, be set during this decade of maturation for comic books as a whole.
“(While the series certainly scores in terms of representations across racial, ethnic, and cultural lines),” wrote my instructor for a course on graphic novels, within pointed parentheses, when I proposed writing my final term essay on Deadly Class instead of one of the texts on his syllabus, “(I had some difficulty buying the concept, even in its more metaphorical senses.)”
Despite its far-fetched premise, Deadly Class embraced the gritty implications of its milieu. There are no magical or super-powered individuals at Kings Dominion. Character deaths are permanent, with no elixirs or narrative devices to reverse them. For a series which Remender also summarized as “Richard Linklater meets Kill Bill”, the creators leaned heavily into the tone and sensibilities of the former over the latter.
Throughout my four years at Trinity, I can count the number of Wednesday night High Table dinners I’ve attended on one hand. This means I remember each occasion well – not that there was much worth remembering, save the bland food, cumbersome robes, and stuffy air within the dining hall’s grand oaken walls, which seemed to trap the humidity as well as the centuries of pomp and tradition. Aside from these dinners, I didn’t partake in any of my college’s obligatory first-year “Trinditions”, like The Humbling, where upper-years led “worms” (the colloquial term for freshmen) around the St. George campus, taunting the other colleges. Nor did I receive any invitations to partake in clandestine Episkopon rituals.
But throughout my freshman year, I tore through the Deadly Class comics, issue by issue, and during the second semester, I watched the weekly episodes of the comic’s TV adaptation religiously. Remender presented a story in which a confused and lonely freshman taking his last gasp of childhood, eating beef and black-bean sauce on noodles from the nearby food truck in his dorm on a cold February evening, could find comfort.
While Kings Dominion was hardly a comforting, transitional nook between adolescence and adulthood for its fictional pupils, for me the series provided just that. Deadly Class was my literary crawl space, a holdover from my own “in-between years”, in the same way that Harry Potter was for many of my fellow collegiates at Trinity. I’ve re-read the Deadly Class comics and rewatched the ten-episode series countless times since evolving from my former worm status during my first year.
As hard as I’ve tried, the story can never evoke the same joy as when I ventured into Kings Dominion for the first time. After four years spent pursuing an English degree, ostensibly developing a more refined literary palette, perhaps my perspective has changed. But the irony doesn’t escape me that this year, when I’m about to graduate, is also the year that Deadly Class’s ongoing run will come to an end.
Deadly Class will always remain a spectacular story for me – a premise and a world in which I could immerse myself indefinitely, with characters I came to know and grow attached to, who I’ve imagined as heightened versions of actual college peers. But it will remain special for me like the preserved contents of a time capsule. I can always reminisce from a distance on the pleasure Rick Remender and Wes Craig brought me through their authentic creative vision. The same pleasure elicited by a lettered Varsity jacket, or a graduation signet ring, or any other symbolic, nonexistent item containing fond memories from four formative years of someone’s life.
So long as I’m still willing to buy into the concept, in all of its metaphorical senses.
Vikram Nijhawan, 2T2. In Vitam Mortem.