So there’s this kid and his life sucks. He’s a loner – no friends. But it’s not totally his fault. He has a tragic past; he’s a victim of circumstances. But see, he’s got this gift. There’s something about him that makes him special and if he just got his chance, if by some twist of fate and turn of good fortune his circumstances just changed, if he was in the right place surrounded by people who could foster his talents and help him cultivate his gift, then that thing that’s really special about him… it would shine through. Then he’d actually be somebody. Somebody important, maybe even like a hero.
That paragraph describes the basic premise of Deadly Class, one of this week’s hot new comics. The book stars a homeless teen named Marcus, who is super introspective and sensitive. He contemplates suicide and thinks about god. Also, due to some secret in his past he is deemed suitable to join a school of deadly assassins. He’s handpicked actually. From out of nowhere, his gifts are recognized! Circumstances changed! A life of significance awaits!
Here’s the thing: that first paragraph… it also describes the basic premise of Harry Potter. And The Matrix. Interestingly, it’s also the premise of the Fox teen drama The O.C. (Seriously, see for yourself). Also it describes Harbinger, but I’ll talk more about that in a second.
Deadly Class has all kinds of buzz. On Wednesday, the manager of my local comic shop actually called out to me from across the store and complimented my taste when he saw me pick up a copy. I’ve already read a couple of rave reviews online. I’ve gotta admit the first issue kind of bugged me. Sure, Marcus gets invited to join an underground school for teenage assassins (literally underground!), which is kind of original, insofar as it isn’t a secret school for wizards or mutants. And Rick Remender has set the story in the late 80s. You can tell because a guy on the sidewalk mentions Phil Simms, and another character references Ronald Reagan. But really, as I was reading it, the whole thing felt kind of derivative.
Now, my point with that generic opening paragraph was to demonstrate that Remender is playing with an archetypal sort of story here. It’s a story that gets told over and over again. Not because everyone is actually copying from each other but rather because the story touches a cultural nerve. It speaks to some essential element of the human condition, namely teenage isolation.
I can’t speak for teenage girls, but every teenage boy I’ve ever known or read about feels inadequate, alienated, and lonely. Simultaneously every teenage boy has a desire to prove himself, to overcome adversity and get the girl (or guy). That is just the nature of teenagers. So, naturally we tell all sorts of stories that speak to this shared experience. Stories like Harry Potter and The Matrix convert this psychological experience into a larger-than-life, spectacular journey. They’re metaphors for the struggles every young person goes through. They’re also wish fulfillment fantasies, because the narratives are never about individuality. They’re always about inclusion. The kid who starts out on his own, isolated and picked on, ends up belonging to a movement, a team, an order. He joins the resistance. He leads a band of intrepid heroes. He answers the call of destiny, and his destiny – always – is to be loved and included and special. There’s nothing wrong with him, see. It’s just that he was in the wrong place, surrounded by people who didn’t recognize his greatness. Once he’s in the right place, supported by the right friends and mentors his innate talents and abilities will shine through. This is the logic behind every teenager’s desire to be in a rock band, by the way. Same fantasy.
There’s nothing wrong with retelling this story as long as you’re going to do it well. Remender hasn’t done that here; doesn’t mean he won’t eventually. But he hasn’t done it yet. Sorry to kick the crap out of everybody’s favourite new book, but there it is.
This brings me to Harbinger. I’ve never read Harbinger before, but on Wednesday (because of this) I picked up the first three issues. Now, here I’m talking about comics that are two years old, but they’re new to me… so… just deal. Harbinger also starts out with the misunderstood, mismanaged angst-ridden teen with secret gifts, in this case telepathic and telekinetic powers. But the story is superior to Deadly Class, for a couple reasons, mostly because the main character, Peter Stanchek, is more fully developed.
Specifically Peter has a moral weight that Remender’s Marcus lacks. Peter has a schizophrenic friend that he travels with, but it’s unclear whether Peter is protecting his friend or if he’s just using him as some kind of crutch. Peter is being pursued by a shadowy organization that knows about his powers, and by bringing his friend along for the ride, he necessarily puts him in harm’s way. Later, Peter meets up with a girl he used to have a crush on. In fact, he stalks her. And when she calls him out for his creepiness, he uses his mind-control powers to make her fall in love with him. Then, while she is under his control. They have sex. So, he rapes her. Harbinger’s writer, Joshua Dysart thus turns the teenage fantasy of love and inclusion on its head. For Peter, that desire has become pathological and violent. And while, like Marcus (and Harry and Neo) Peter is quickly recruited to join a secret order of superheroes, the cost for joining is that he has to face the consequences of his actions and accept that he is guilty of abusing his “friends.”
You know what Marcus has to do in order to join the King’s Dominion School for the Deadly Arts? He’s got to give up being homeless. Assassin vs. Homeless Person. That’s the moral quandary with which our protagonist is presented.
One other thing: Marcus is (of course!) brought into the order by a beautiful and mysterious teenage girl who sees the potential in our hero, even when all of the other teenage assassins doubt his abilities. Marcus didn’t need to change anything about himself, you see. He just needed to wait for the right super-hot emo-ninja to come along and recognize how special he really is.