Wes Craig's Got It Covered: The Deadly Art of 'Deadly Class'
Jan 16, 2020
by Troy-Jeffrey Allen
To recycle a tired but all-too true expression: “Teamwork makes the dreamwork.” For every tale of schism that produces a classic, there are more stories of creators co-existing to create a dynamite reading experience. “I started collecting Marv Wolfman and George Perez’s Teen Titans,” artist Wes Craig begins, recounting the first time he saw a true comic book collaboration. “That was the first thing I fell in love with. I felt like I was reading something a bit more mature than what I was used to, so it was really exciting. And they came up with those stories together, so they always felt like a very cohesive team.”
With writer Rick Remender, Craig has found that cohesion. Their title Deadly Class - a 1980s action-drama about a school for assassins - is easily one of Image Comics’ flagship titles, right alongside Saga and the recently deceased Walking Dead. That success is largely due to a ride or die fanbase. Just pull up Deadly Class on any social media platform of your choice. You’ll see readers wearing the book’s logo like a Nike symbol, cosplaying the book's characters, posting endless fan art based on Craig’s designs, and even going as far as to tattoo the artist’s work on their bodies. Even further, Avengers Endgame directors Joe and Anthony Russo are among the comic’s readership. The directors of the biggest movie in history rallied together for a short-lived TV show that, in the end, only strengthened Deadly Class’ visibility. Six years after its first printing, the comic has mutated into something akin to a garage band that made good.
But it all started with the comic book.
“Rick had two different ideas he was working on and having trouble with,” Wes Craig explains. “One was about his experiences growing up in the punk scene of the late 80’s, and another was about a school for assassins. From what he’s told me, it’s only when he stuck the two together that it really started working and becoming something unique,” Craig continues. “I was working with our original colorist Lee Loughridge on a 'young Bruce Wayne”' story, and that’s how Rick found me. I was a fan of Rick’s Marvel work and especially his pre-Marvel stuff like Fear Agent and Strange Girl. So when he rang me up to talk about this School for Assassins, set in 1980’s San Francisco, I was in right away.”
Jump forward 40-plus issues and Deadly Class remains one of Image Comics’ top-selling titles. With issue #44 out in March (featured here), the series concludes its “Bone Machine” arc. A five-parter filled with kinetic action and emotional acceleration (the comics' trademark). At the heart of this intense narrative are characters Saya, Helmut, Maria, and Marcus. Fan-favorite Saya makes her return to Kings Dominion Atelier of the Deadly Arts. Meanwhile, Helmut seeks revenge for his beloved Petra. Simultaneously, Marcus and Maria are now yearbook candidates for the cutest and most un-f***-with-able couple. Flexing their power position in the school.
And that's just some of Deadly Class' players. The title carries a large cast. Which makes cover choices sometimes difficult for Craig. He has sorted out how to consistently navigate what goes on the front, however. “Generally, Rick and I know where we’re going with the story,” says Craig. “But there are always these little different paths that happen as Rick writes it. The problem is these covers have to be ready months before the final script is written. So to work with this limitation, I usually suggest to Rick we do slightly ambiguous covers that have a lot of atmosphere and are open to interpretation.” Craig continues to describe the give and take between him and his writer. “I think Rick's a bit more traditional in that he wants the cover to reflect an actual scene in the issue, and we do that too, of course.”
This resulted in the cover to issue #44 (above). To keep up with Remender’s evolving script drafts, Craig opted for a symbolic image instead of a literal one. “I wanted to make you wonder what’s going on in Marcus’ head, and the other kids too.” He continues. “[I used the] design element - the snake and rat bones - as something a bit more metaphorical. It owes a lot to the great designs [Hellboy creator] Mike Mignola does for his covers. Lots of blacks, simple colors, kind of “floating” elements that work together. It uses a lot of principles I picked up from looking at his work.”
Mignola isn't the only inspirational source for Craig, of course. His shortlist of influences is - appropriately enough - very Reagan era. "For Deadly Class I try to keep it to the 80s," Craig says of his influences. "Frank Miller, Walt Simonson, Jamie Hernandez, David Mazzucchelli, Howard Chaykin…" The artist trails off, but it's pretty clear from issue one that Deadly Class is undeniably inspired. Craig excels at creating images that feel like pure stimuli. His angles are stirring. His sense of movement is impactful. His “acting” is palpable. The raw emotion of this book is on every page. There is something dangerous and unpredictable about the comic yet sophisticated and stylish in its execution. It's "deadly, "classy," and a clear labor of love for all involved. An artistic collaboration personified.
Deadly Class #44 (NOV190134) is available March 11, 2020.
More about Deadly Class #44:
"BONE MACHINE," Part Five
Finals are here but Marcus' plans haven't gone as expected. Quite the opposite. While he was making plans for Kings Dominion, Master Lin was making plans for him. The fifth and final issue in the "Bone Machine" story arc promises many unexpected and shocking events.
Troy-Jeffrey Allen is the producer and co-host of PREVIEWSworld Weekly. His comics work includes BAMN, Fight of the Century, the Harvey Award-nominated District Comics, and the Ringo Awards-nominated Magic Bullet.