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The opening pages of Rob Sheridan’s new Vertigo comic, High Level show its lead character stumbling on the Bible once and casually dismissing it, making clear this world is very different than the one we know.
This brief sequence establishes two big things about this world: that Christianity is a foreign concept and that many of the popular institutions of our current world are gone; and it introduces the themes about the systems of power, control, and manipulation that benefit the few at the expense of the many, which will be explored in this opulent, cyberpunk chronicle that features one of the more impressive world-building first issues you’ll read. SYFY WIRE has the exclusive preview of High Level #1, out in comic shops this Wednesday.
In this latest Vertigo 25th Anniversary relaunch, the first six-issue arc is structured as the classic adventure story, introducing Thirteen as the protagonist, disconnected from the main powers of the world. Described as a scavenger and cultural archeologist, she is forced to deliver a child messiah named Minnow to High Level, where the top of the food chain exists.
“It’s Harry Potter, Lord of the Rings, and Zelda, and the first arc is a journey, realizing the path forward is not to only look at yourself and your own interests, that we’re all in this together,” Sheridan explained. “The further it goes, we’ll get closer and closer to the center of powers and as that happens, you’ll see how that changes the story as the old centers of power changes society. Through the lens of Thirteen, we’ll see how different that is from (her home) Onida. After issue #6, things get really weird.”
The concept for High Level began during a period of time when Sheridan was at a crossroads in his life. Sheridan served as the art director for Nine Inch Nails for 15 years and developed the mythology with Trent Reznor on NIN’s fifth studio album, Year Zero, which included an alternate reality game. In 2014, Sheridan stepped away from creating worlds for the band, and traveled around the country in an RV with his then girlfriend, now wife, living a minimalist life, wondering what life would be like if the climate apocalypse happened and would render current technology useless.
“Then, mass migrations would follow and eventually wars, causing huge disruptions to society,” Sheridan continued. “You could see how that would violently interrupt the progress of technology. When everyone has to move because the climate is tumultuous and it destroys infrastructure, the cloud ceases to exist because it’s rooted in physical structures on the ground and requires power grids.”
“If we swipe away technological progress, and have people rebuild it from scratch, using bits and pieces, some of it is more futuristic than it is now, some of it is more primitive, helping create a more tactile type of technology like the 80s retro-futurism like Blade Runner or Total Recall where many things envisioned in the future were wrong, but also so much of it was right."
The initial plan is for an 18-issue big picture story, with nearly each issue visiting a radically different place and/or society. The first few issues show a Mad Max / Bordelands-type society, but by the time the first arc ends and the second begins, Sheridan says the series will morph into hard science fiction because the citizens of High Level live very differently than those in Onida, and that allows the art team of Barnaby Bagenda and Romulo Fajardo Jr. (who last worked on Omega Men) to seduce the reader.
Bagenda and Fajardo’s artwork benefits from the lack of inks, giving the interiors a unique painterly punch that makes it stand out from the typical Vertigo palette, instead looking closer to European imported comics. Every page and panel could be cover art, and every detail and margin is loaded with storytelling that would otherwise take too much time to tell in captions.
Readers may notice a few key elements in this first issue. Yes, it’s a futuristic world, and a certain sense of dystopia, but there is the absence of alien life in this future. That does not mean that strange things haven’t been created out of the repurposing of technology with genetics. The other significant thread is the mystery of what happened between the present day and the world Sheridan and Bagenda have imagined together.
“We’re seeing this through Thirteen’s eyes,” Sheridan says of his story, “She doesn’t know the history of the world. There’s only oral histories and what Thirteen will learn through books. She’ll learn things from other people and she has a cobbled idea of what the past was. In High Level #3, Thirteen tells Minnow about where she’s read about conflicting versions of America that she’s read about. It is sometimes described as this prosperous beautiful land of freedom and opportunity. Other times it’s described as tumultuous place of oppression and hate.”
“Thirteen will never have a crystal clear view of what really happened. Other people she meets along the way will know more than then her, but I want to keep it largely a mystery because we are seeing this story unfold through her eyes. But we’re going to give the reader bits and pieces of it to bring it together in their mind.”
Read SYFY WIRE’s exclusive five-page preview of High Level #1 and then check out the entire issue when it hits your local comic shop February 20, for $3.99. The standard cover is by Guillaume Hospital and the variant cover is by Francesco Mattina.
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