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Indie Comics Spotlight: Rob Sheridan's cyberpunk High Level is a warning to us all
Rob Sheridan is an artist, writer, musician, art director, film director, and now he can add comic book creator to his list. Perhaps best known Nine Inch Nails' longtime art director, Sheridan went on to create his own band and visionary style of glitch-art. A lifelong comic book fan, Sheridan's new cyberpunk comic High Level (DC/Vertigo), with its stunning artwork from Omega Men artist Barnaby Begenda, brings his career full circle.
High Level is a post-apocalyptic story about a woman named 13, a cynical smuggler with a price on her head who is forced to leave all she knows when a child with mysterious powers becomes her next cargo. But, this is more than a futuristic survival story cosplaying as Mad Max. It's executed with cinematic precision and that aspires to the greatness of Sandman, Vertigo's most acclaimed series.
In fact, Sheridan names Neil Gaiman and his epic series as his inspiration, explaining why writing for the newly relaunched imprint is a dream come true for him. SYFY WIRE talked to Sheridan about what it was like not drawing his own art and how hidden in his futuristic story is a message for right now.
You've done so much amazing in your career. Why comics and why now with Vertigo?
For me, it was a natural extension of being a visual storyteller and it was the perfect medium to transition into a new phase of storytelling for me and also just get to work on a medium that I love. I've been reading comics since I was a kid and it's like I get to do everything I'd get to do if I were making a movie, but with a much bigger budget and no limitations.
There are shades of 2000 AD and Heavy Metal, in this. Was that the look you were going for?
Yes, especially for this comic. When we were talking about how to visually represent the story, the first thing that came to my mind was '70s science fiction and '80s cyberpunk. I didn't want it to look like contemporary American comics. I wanted it to feel like those older European comics that got me into fantasy and sci-fi when I was young, like Heavy Metal and Moebius and 2000 AD of course. It's kind of a mix tape of all the sci-fi influences that have driven me over my life.
Did you look for artists with those sensibilities or did they already have that style?
When we discovered Barnaby Bagenda and Romulo Farjado, Jr, they just really had that flavor to them that felt, you know, a bit unusual and kind of a call back to all the things that I love.
Speaking of the artists, what was it like handing over the reins to them?
I've gotten better at handing over the reigns. When the editors at Vertigo [first] approached me they told me that they were fans of work that I'd done with Nine Inch Nails, particularly on this project we created called Year Zero, which had a dystopian storyline. But they were pitching it to me as a writer and I was kind of surprised by that, because in the back of my head I'd always thought, I’d draw and write the comic. But I'd never have the time. It’s actually kind of a relief because I shouldn't be the artist. I'm not a comic book artist. The skill that these guys have and the speed that they can work at is incredible. It's a very specific skill.
You've called this a "post-post-apocalyptic" story. When in the future is it set?
We're some odd hundred years in the future from now but we're intentionally a little bit vague about it. All of our recorded histories were entirely digital and everything was being stored on servers in the cloud, through networks. Then, it all gets wiped away and people run on a couple of generations of pure survival. A lot of history has been erased and replaced with mythology.
That was our way of reducing technology and repurposing it and it allowed us to distance ourselves from everything that has happened. This isn't so much about people scavenging through the wastelands. It's about how different groups of societies left purely to their own devices with no governmental structure rebuild societies in very different ways. This story isn’t about what’s happened. This is about what happens next.
The first issue was about 13 and her world, the second is about Minnow, the little girl with mysterious powers. Who is she?
For issue two, I wanted to just take a step back and focus on the characters and get us into the main story structure that's going to take us through this. And at the heart of that is Minnow, a little girl who's been used as a pawn of war [her whole life] because she has these mysterious powers that have been helping one faction of these two armies that have been waging in these sectarian battles for longer than anyone can remember.
She's never really had a real life. She's lived in war camps and she gets sent out on jobs for them to use her powers that get explained in issue three. Because of her powers and how they've changed the balance of the war, some people are viewing her as kind of as a messiah. And because she was stolen from High Level, they believe she needs to be returned there. But at the core of it, she's just a normal little girl who's just as curious and bright-eyed and scared as any other little girl would be and she just wants to go home.
And 13 is now her unlikely protector.
The concept is hardly new. The Lone Wolf and Cub, like Logan, The Last of Us, etc. It's a good mechanism to use for exploring 13’s character as well and seeing if this is something that she'll actually commit to this beyond just the money. You'll see a lot more vulnerability in her and how she realizes the consequences of her actions and the impacts of people's actions are much bigger than this kind of insular self-interested life that she's been leading.
What is 'High Level' in this story? Is it like Zalem or Elysium?
High Level is represented in the four ways from the characters’ view. First, there’s the utopian concept, of the last prosperous city on Earth with [promises] of a better life. Then there's the cynical, dismissive of vision of it. That it's something that's used to exploit people. And then you have the crazy cybernetic cults who've developed a whole religion around the idea that there's some sort of spiritual answer up there. And then there’s 13 who just doesn't care. She's just trying to make it work where she is. Her perspective is kind of key to the conflict of her getting sucked into actually having to go there.
This comic comments on so many things. Religious fanaticism, the military industrial complex, capitalism’s dependency on technology. If art imitates life, do you feel this is where we're headed?
What I wanted to do is kind of talk about where we are right now by way of fantasy. I think in the early stages, it started with the thought experiment of where are we headed if [we continue on the path ] that we're on right now. The first drafts that I wrote were very much thinking about creating a much more realistic world in the near future. Then [I thought], let's push it much further in the future and turn the past into myth. So on one side, it's about right now and on the other side, this could also be where we're heading in the future. In the end, it's going to be about how we push through both on large and small scales because I think that's the most important message right now.
Since you are so influenced by music, what did you listen to when you were writing this?
I have this thing where when I'm writing, I can't listen to music with lyrics. It messes with my mind. So I listen to a lot of ambient music, Aphex Twin, Boards of Canada and stuff like that. And I found this one really great website called You Are Listening To that takes random on ambient music tracks off of Soundcloud and then layers in the real-time police scanner from any number of different cities that you can choose from.
When are we getting a High Level movie or series? Because this comic is so cinematic.
Coming from a visual field, it was my instinct to write it cinematically but I also wanted to write it that way because my fan base from my work in music and visual arts, they're not exactly comic book people. They're the type of people who have read the Watchmen graphic novel and some stuff like that, but they're not going to the comic book store every week. But they're also the people who watch Game of Thrones and Avengers. So I tried to come up with a story I could tell in a way that brings people who love genre movies and TV shows back into comics. And I liked the cinematic format for that reason.