At long last, DC/Vertigo is finally set to launch High Level, an epic adventure that does for cyberpunk what The Sandman did for fantasy. At least, that's the plan. But judging by what's been shown so far, this comic looks up to the task.
There may be one or two aspects of High Level that feel familiar, but make no mistake: it wears its influences from classical fantasy, heroic adventure, post-apocalyptic survival, and cyberpunk philosophy on its sleeve in bright, neon letters. Yet from its hardened heroine and her unwanted quest to save humanity's new future, all the way up to the mythical city for which High Level is named, that title is no accident. Vertigo wants everyone watching when they raise the bar for boundary-pushing science fiction.
Frankly, with Rob Sheridan recruited to tell this story, a fifteen-year-veteran as Nine Inch Nails' art director, most music fans would downright expect the comic to be pitched as a blend of industrial, cyberpunk, lo-fi, retro-futuristic ideas and visuals. Screen Rant had the chance to speak with Sheridan about not only those inspirations, but just as importantly, what story High Level isn't telling. By now, every science fiction fan has an idea of what a post-apocalyptic, harsh wasteland looks like. But with High Level, Sheridan and his art team are taking that future and leaping centuries forward in time:
We're calling it a post-post-apocalyptic story. The tagline that my editor came up with was 'This isn't the story of what happened, it's the story of what happens next'... Beyond a massive change to society, an apocalyptic change, what happens if most of history is erased along the way? It's kind of easy to imagine right now as we move forward year by year, so much of our history, our media, our communications are all being placed in computers, and servers, and the cloud. If all that infrastructure gets erased by dramatic climate change, by mass migrations, by war, whatever it might be, and then you take several generations of people just running on pure survival, you lose a lot of history in that process. And it becomes an oral history.
So I've always been fascinated by the idea of what would happen when the dust settles a little bit, and people started to create new civilizations. But they didn't have any of the historical context that we have.
That point is made perfectly clear with help from artists Barnaby Bagenda and Romulo Fajardo, Jr. rendering an unforgettable portrait of the book's lead, Thirteen. As one inhabitant of the world "that comes next," she muses on a book traded for as entertainment (when not handling the biological demands of life on the road). A book that sounds like The Holy Bible, but is now just one more artifact of a world that nobody remembers. Take a look:
It's here where the story of High Level strikes its chords of both familiarity and reinvention, not often seen in the post-apocalypse genre of movies, TV shows, video games, or comic books. There, the ones who remember what power used to be crave it now that they're given a shot. But what would that power start to look like once a new society began to build beneath it, around it, or isolated as far from it as possible?
I wish I could remember where I heard this, it was on like a Star Trek commentary track. Some futurist was talking about how we always have this idea that when society rebuilds itself after traumatic events, like really traumatic events, that it would look more or less the same. And the reality, he was saying, is that it actually wouldn't look anything like what we have now. Because when you remove all those institutions, and preconceived notions, and barriers, and rules... and give humanity a chance to rebuild itself purely based on its needs and its instincts, it might look totally different than what life looks like now. That's the inspiration for where the story begins in High Level.
Nothing sums up the idea of being motivated by needs and instincts than High Level's lead, Thirteen. The plot synopsis for the series promises that she will be unwittingly drafted into an epic, heroic journey. But our preview page below (showing Bagenda and Fajardo's singular style) proves that's not at all the kind of impression she gives when first introduced.
There's no guarantee that High Level's speculative, retro-futuristic story and hard sci-fi will prove the success that Vertigo has positioned it to be--after all, the genre of dusty, gritty, marauder-filled, post-apocalyptic wastelands is popular for a reason. But there's no way to miss how big a swing this book is taking at its first pitch. Sheridan intends to make the most of this opportunity, and assures fans that he knows exactly what kind of story he hopes to tell. And just as important, why now is the time it needs to be told:
I hope that [readers] come away from it with a lot of questions, and a lot of wonder. Because we have so much more of a story to tell and this was very much about planting seeds in this first issue. I would want them to start thinking about what it has to say about where we are right now. Because there's going to be some big themes about that running through the whole comic.
One of my favorite things of all time is The Twilight Zone. There is no better example of science fiction talking about things that it wasn't allowed to. You watch that now, and it's mind-blowing that it was allowed to air on network television at the time... They did that by tricking the censors, by telling fantasy stories that were really telling stories about right now. I think that's the best that sci-fi does, and that's what we hope to do with High Level.
The cyberpunk fans won't need much more urging to order their copy of High Level #1 (arriving this Wednesday). But if any are still on the fence, stay tuned for our full interview with Rob Sheridan. In the meantime, take a look at Vertigo's promotional poster teasing the characters of just the first world High Level will introduce, and the official synopsis below.
Hundreds of years after the world ended and human society was rebuilt from scratch, people continue to fight and struggle for basic resources to survive. But there is one place that is safe from this struggle—High Level—the perfect Utopia city at the top of the world. And while most dream of one day working hard enough to ascend to this life of luxury and comfort, Thirteen is not one of them. A smuggler by trade, Thirteen is just fine where she is—until now.
High Level #1 will be available February 20th, 2019 in your local comic shop, and digitally from DC/Vertigo.