With the launch of High Level #1, DC/Vertigo is sending readers on an adventure into the future of mankind that lays beyond the apocalypse. Beyond the post-apocalypse, as a matter of fact. And after taking one look at that world, even casual readers will see how the artwork is to thank for High Level making one of the most ambitious comic debuts in recent memory.
Whether it's the story's hero, Thirteen, the colorful characters that live in this brave new world freed from the rules of the old, or the cybernetic mutant cultists that fester beyond the fringes, High Level has to be seen to be believed. Our interview with High Level writer Rob Sheridan delved into the pop culture inspirations ranging from Star Wars to The Twilight Zone, and gave plenty of credit to the artists creating this strange universe along with him. Now, we're diving in with High Level artists Barnaby Bagenda and Romula Fajardo, Jr. (Pencils and Colors, respectively) to learn how this incredible world came to life, one pus-filled mutant at a time.
The premise of High Level is one that Rob Sheridan, your writing partner seems to have been piecing together for years. So I'm curious to know how he initially pitched the world itself, or what sticks most from that pitch in your memory. Because it sounds like the book has a WIDE variety of designs, technologies, and characters you're bringing to life from issue to issue.
Barnaby: At first I had no idea what Rob wanted with the overall themes. Rob and [Editor Andy Khouri] came to me with this reference mood board from various comics, art and video games. It wasn't until I did a couple of mix and match concept art sketches based on that mood board and brainstormed with them that I finally found the look.What caught my interest was that High Level is what happens post-post-apocalypse. High Level still has that junkyard salvage technology look, but in more vibrant and expressive way.
Romulo: I was actually astonished. They showed me the initial designs and concept and I was a bit overwhelmed and scared that I might not bring justice to this story and world. But the great thing about Rob is that he really wants you to be part of Thirteen’s world so you can properly visualize his concept.
Rob is very open about the movie and video game influences that he was inspired by in creating High Level's setting, and the town of Onida to begin with - things like Mad Max, Borderlands, Star Wars. Are there influences that you've both turned to in developing the look and feel of the series? Are they the same ones?
Barnaby: I tend to go the opposite direction for my influences and tried to mix those with Rob's ideas to create a new look in terms of overall themes. Most of my influences come from video games such as Jet Set Radio, Sunset Overdrive and a little bit of Japanese manga here and there.
Romulo: I was inspired with the Japanese animation Tekkonkinkreet, especially the visual style of Treasure Town. I like the idea of bright palette and explosions of different lines and objects that add a nice contrast to the theme of the book. I also drew inspiration from the outrageous and imaginative imagery of Jodorowsky’s Holy Mountain, especially the brilliant use of bright colors.
I've heard a little bit about the approach to pencils and colors that you both are applying with High Level, and how the decision to skip the inking process may not be what a lot of superhero comic readers will be used to. Can you describe that a bit, and how and why you chose to take that approach for this book?
Barnaby: I'm open to all kinds of different methods in creating a comic book, but I always love the look of pencil to color. I like the soft looks of it. In my earlier years as an artist I grew up copying my favorite artists for material study. Artists like Joe Mad and Michael Turner to name a few. Most of their works are based on this method. I think it was a common thing back in the 90's.
Fortunately, my editors know what works best for my line work and decided to go with this method.
Romulo: Barnaby and I have done this before on the Omega Men book, though I hope I didn’t overdo it on High Level. I got so excited really, especially when they showed me some of the concepts in the book and I thought "I need this to look like a video game or at least close to it."
The world of High Level is really bursting with color and life on each page, but the early marketing has put the book's hero, Thirteen, front and center as the face of the series. She has a unique look--more than one, actually, in just the first issue. Can you talk about the process, or challenge of getting her design down?
Barnaby: Unlike most comic book characters, Thirteen doesn’t have a fixed design costume/clothes or haircut for each issue. Thirteen is an expressive and fashionable character that keeps changing her looks every issue. I am a little concerned about her still being recognizable in each issue, so I decided to add a triangle tattoo on her forehead as an anchor point. That way you can still recognize her despite changing the costume or haircuts.
Romulo: Rob and Andy guided me through the process. We went back and forth on picking out the colors for Thirteen. It’s a long process but definitely worth it.
Rob Sheridan also admitted that his scripts are incredibly detailed, and probably a lot lengthier in descriptions than a lot of comic book writers. You all have clearly developed a rhythm and understanding by now, but is it more of a challenge when you know the writer is also an artist, and has maybe a clearer image in mind? Or is it a case of welcoming that level of detail to try to pursue the same end result?
Barnaby: I think it can be challenging at times, but Rob is also an artist which helps. Rob has given me a lot of creative freedom, but I also have to make sure that I am on the same creative track with him in terms of creating the world of High level.
Romulo: With my experience I really love working with detailed writers. I always look forward to learning more and applying this knowledge towards future projects.
Rob did tease that this series will be leaving the desert and wasteland behind for a bit more cyberpunk/hard science fiction, as the story takes Thirteen on her quest to High Level. Without spoiling anything, can you give readers a tease of what they're in for, or some of the inspirations you used to build the world of "the top one percent" of High Level's inhabitants?
Barnaby: Hover bikes, Mutated animals, Cyberpunk tribes. All aside I think the most important thing is readers will see Thirteen grow and overcome all the tough decisions she has to face.
Romulo: To be honest, I really don't know what will happen yet and I am really excited about what Rob and Barnaby will come up with. All I know is Thirteen will definitely have a one hell of an adventure.
Bonus Question: Was the mutated cybernetic mafia cult leader in Issue #1 the most disgusting character to design, or the most fun?
Barnaby: Both. The idea of an infected prosthetic augmentation is disgusting and yet so much fun drawing all that pus and bloated skin.
Romulo: It’s disgusting! He reminds me of the guy in the Robocop movie that crashed into toxic waste and melted his whole body.
High Level #1 will be available February 20th, 2019 in your local comic shop, and digitally from DC/Vertigo.