There's a new chapter being written at DC/Vertigo, and the comic book imprint is hoping that the launch of High Level will help to plant a new flag in the genre of hard, cyberpunk, science fiction epics. And at the same time, forever change what readers define as a "post-apocalyptic" adventure.
The premise alone is enough to hook movie and video games fans tired of the same red-brown, sandy, cannibal-filled canyons and deserts that make up most "end of the world" stories. The world of High Level may have suffered through that very stage when its version of humanity fell, but readers won't see it. Instead, the story dreamed up by writer Rob Sheridan begins centuries later, when those who survived built their own communities, factions, and conflicts.
With High Level #1 launching today, Screen Rant got the opportunity to ask Sheridan about his strange new world, the colorful characters inhabiting it, and how those who dwell in the dust differ from the lucky few who met the end of the world with enough left over to build High Level, a miracle city at the top of the world. Read our interview below, and see if you are as excited for High Level's cyberpunk story as we are.
Well, I sure hope you're not tired of talking about High Level yet.
I'm not tired of talking about the book, I really am not used to having to talk about myself, and do self-promotion so much. It's kind of a new thing for me. So I hate all the self-promotion aspect of this, it feels exhausting to keep being like, 'Buy my book, buy my book, buy my book!' But I've been living the world of High Level for a year now, so I'm definitely into talking about it.
I have to imagine even for any kind of property that is fresh, or a new idea, it has to be even more of an effort on your part to try to keep it fresh after weeks and months of talking about it.
Yeah. And also, my fans, my audience aren't necessarily comics people. I'm new to this world. So trying to tell them, 'Please go out to a comic store and buy this thing,' you know? It starts to feel dirty after a little while. Artists have managers and PR people for a reason, it's not in our nature to want to announce ourselves all the time. We just want to make things and put them out in the world and hope people care... quietly.
Well, High Level is soon to arrive from DC/Vertigo and your artists Barnaby Bagenda and Romulo Fajardo, Jr.. I have to say, the most interesting part of this pitch is the story that you're NOT telling. I know you know what I mean, but for readers, High Level isn't a story about the fall of society, or the post-apocalypse.
Yeah, we're calling it a post-post-apocalyptic story. The tagline that my editor Andy [Khouri] came up with was 'This isn't the story of what happened, it's the story of what happens next.' We thought it would be interesting to move--I've always been fascinated by the idea that beyond a massive change to society, an apocalyptic change, what happens if most of history is erased along the way? And it's kind of easy to imagine right now when, 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. And 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 kind of 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.
Or the baggage.
Or the baggage, exactly, it works in both ways. A big theme about the story of High Level is what baggage remains? Who are the people who are keeping that baggage intact? That has a lot to do with how differently the 1% is going to survive the apocalypse than the 99%.
Yeah, the way people talk about the future lately, 'if we're even around then,' or more and more often talk about the impending end of civilization as we know it... That almost seems like we're giving ourselves a pass to say, ' Oh, we'll die out and not even see it.'
[Laughs] Yeah. Yeah.
So when you take the mental commitment to sit down and actually put to paper what happens to those who don't get off so easy... Is that a satisfying mental exercise for someone future-looking like yourself, or did that turn out to be a different creative experience than you thought?
I think the idea of pushing it quite a few hundred years in the future, past the difficult parts, made it interesting to think about... 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, society will rebuild itself based on its needs and based on its instincts, rather than all the things that you realize.
There's so many invisible strings that are guiding us to behave in certain ways, to live our lives in certain ways. Part of the story of High Level was inspired by me and my now-wife going off grid for a while and just living in an RV and rediscovering ourselves. But you quickly realize that you're completely trapped by a system of finance, and credit scores, and identity, and government documents. And you can't just do your own thing, really. And if you want to try to do that you'll get punished by the system in many different ways. And it's really hard to dig yourself out of that, as I discovered. So there's a lot of things that are holding us in certain patterns that we don't even realize. A lot of invisible hands that are making it so we do things the way that we do them. And if you remove all those, 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 kind of the inspiration for where the story begins in High Level.
From the sound of it High Level is going to be wearing its politics, or maybe it would be better to say its ideologies and opinions on its sleeve, like you say, almost by what is no longer there. I know it's not the case so much anymore, but I always thought science fiction started as a place where you could talk about things you couldn't talk about anywhere else. How much of that is in the DNA of High Level?
I think everything of that is in the DNA of High Level. One of my favorite things of all time is The Twilight Zone, and there is no better example of science fiction talking about things that it wasn't allowed to. I mean you watch that now and it's mind blowing that it was allowed to air on network television at the time that it aired, you know? And they did that by definitely 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.
But I also think that it works really well--much like the Twilight Zone did--and even things as simple as Star Wars, you know. Star Wars was, despite what many fans might now think about it, was actually a story about fascism, you know? It was written by a guy who came up in World War II, and it's a story about good an evil. But it didn't have to be read in that specific way, it just gets under your skin because you're enjoying that fantasy. So one thing that was important about setting High Level in a fantastic vision of the future was that we weren't beating you over the head with politics. You can read this as a fun, sci-fi adventure if you want. But there's ideologies behind it, that hopefully will creep in and effect you and make you think about things.
Well, if you open a comic book with a blue-haired woman in a gas mask emptying a septic tank, I'm obviously hooked.
[Laughs] Tell me more about your specific interests.
Everything about where this story starts, the backstory that we don't get makes it all the more tantalizing. Allowing that built world to just make itself known, little by little. You've probably got these descriptions polished and honed in these past months, so I'll ask as bluntly as I can: who is Thirteen, when readers meet her?
So, Thirteen when we meet her. There's a lot--beyond just the politics and ideology of what led me to create this--there's also a lot of personal stuff in it. Thirteen is kind of me: who I was as a cocky, snarky twenty-something hipster kid who thought I had everything figured out and thought nothing else mattered. So she's meant to be a little bit annoying, a little bit selfish, a little bit brash at the beginning. She's cocky, she's got her own thing figured out, she's got everything just the way she likes it, she doesn't want anything to fuck with her world. The last thing she thinks about is the bigger picture of everything that's happening outside of her comfortable little world that she's set up for herself.
We had to strike a balance obviously, where we didn't want her to be like... so annoying that you don't want to follow her journey, but she's meant to be a little bit abrasive in the beginning. Because she's got to have room to grow, and she's going to discover that it's important to care about the world outside yourself. And there's a message in that about how our only path forward is realizing that we're all in this together. And trying to realize that all these things that divide us day in and day out we're actually facing much bigger things that we're all in, on the same path.
The archetype of the setting would be a journey or mission the size of a Mad Max, or Big Trouble in Little China. But I understand that Thirteen's story is going to be a lot grander, or more unexpected than from the first issue?
Yeah, the obvious--from people who have read the first issue--the obvious comparisons come in of Mad Max, of Borderlands, which are very accurate, I love those things. But it's weird because you're kind of releasing the first fifteen minutes of the movie a little bit, you know? The comparison I always draw is like, imagine if you put out just the first fifteen minutes of Star Wars and it's just this whiny kid in the desert [laughs]. And then they're like, 'No but really it gets crazy, it goes all kinds of places! Just come back in a month and we'll show you the next fifteen minutes.'
So I kind of smile at those comparisons because where it's going is in a much, much harder sci-fi territory. And the story was conceived structurally of very much a classic adventure story. I was an only child, I was a loner, and I always identified with stories like Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, things that start out with--Zelda is a great example, I loved them when I was a kid--things that start out with this person who is a nobody, isolated way far away from the big conflicts of the world. And they get through fate, or chance, or whatever, roped into going on this journey towards...they get closer and closer to bigger conflicts and it opens up the world through their eyes. And that's the first arc of High Level. Beyond that it gets really weird [Laughs].
Well, yeah, I think people these days are kind of used to seeing a post-apocalyptic wasteland and thinking, 'Yeah yeah cannibals, spikes on their shoulders, okay, next.'
I'm curious to know how you navigate that in creating your own vision. Because I have to imagine it can be as challenging avoiding the things you really like as much as the ones you want to avoid.
Yeah. I don't have any problem wearing my influences on my sleeve a little bit. They gave me a chance to write my own comic book, I' going to make it all the things that I love, fuck it, you know? They might never let me do this again [laughs]. So it's very much inspired by everything I loved from '80s and '90s science fiction. And part of the reason behind this vision of the future where technology has been mostly wiped out and then rebuilt from scraps of the old world was to create a tactile '80s retro-futuristic future where everything is discs, and wires, and buttons, and old monitors, and I just love that aesthetic very much. I wanted to create an aesthetic where that seemed possible in our future. But it's going to move away from that you know.
It stays in Mad Max territory for about two and a half issues and then it starts to.. the fun thing about the journey aspect, and especially the journey towards where the center of power and wealth is in this world, is that we get to move through a lot of different landscapes and meet a lot of different characters. And there's a statement about how different the people of Onida are living and the people of High Level are living. So you'll be out of Mad Max territory pretty soon, and it'll be all kinds of different shit.
So that's the 99% idea of the story?
Yeah sort of, because there's the other 99% which are people who are desperate and dying, and we'll see those later. Thirteen's community is a community of people who are living with what they have. They're traders, and they share everything, and their economy is mostly based on things that they've found from the old world, they've scavenged out of old storage pods. There's a difference that we'll show in like, the idea of people living in a way that's content and working for them that aren't caught up in some kind of larger scheme that's telling them that they always need to be moving to a higher level. They always need to be wanting more, and more, and more, and... you can draw the obvious comparisons there to late stage capitalism [laughs].
I can also imagine a writer approaching that kind of future universe. But for someone with such an artistic background in different media, what was it like working with Barnaby and Rom? Did they live up to the reputation of comic artists being almost alien super-geniuses?
[Laughs] They did! And way beyond my hopes, actually. I was nervous about that because I've always thought about making a comic book since I was a little kid... and sketched around in my free time or whatever. But I always figured I'd never have the time to do it because as an artist in that world, I'm very slow. They would have to give me a year to do one issue. I like to do illustrations, but you can be a good illustrator, but that doesn't make you a good comic book artist. It's a very specific skill, it's really, really special what they know how to do in terms of anatomy and facial expressions. And speed! I mean the speed that they work at is incredible. So when Vertigo came to me and asked if I wanted to pitch an idea, they didn't even consider that I would be the artist. They had seen my work with Nine Inch Nails as a storyteller and just wanted to see if I had ideas to be a writer...
Is that a compliment?
Yeah! It is actually. Because that's where I want to move in my career after doing the Year Zero thing with Nine Inch Nails I realized I'd spent too much time away from storytelling and that was something I wanted to get into. I was actually writing a book at the time. Then they suddenly came to me with this idea to pitch something, and it turned out I had an idea sitting on my shoulder. So it was kind of relieving. It was like, 'We'll find artists who can bring this vision to life.' And when we started talking about artists, my main thing was I wanted to create this future vision of America, but I wanted it to feel almost alien and I wanted to draw from European sci-fi fantasy like early Heavy Metal, Moebius was a big influence, and give it a totally different feel than a straightforward gritty, dystopian thing that we've seen a million times. And make it almost feel like an alien planet even though it's our planet and our country.
So when they presented me with some ideas for artists, I was really drawn to the unique style of Barnaby and Rom. Barnaby has just been amazing in taking descriptions of things and bringing them to life perfectly, and making them better, even. So it's been an amazingly smooth process where I'm not like, 'Oh god this is not how it's supposed to look!' You know? It's actually been so awesome, it's the best job. Waking up every morning to emails with new art that bring everything to life exactly how I'd hoped, and in many cases even better. The unique way that those two work together gives it a painterly, different kind of look different from a lot of comics.
Has the process changed since then? I could see the descriptions getting shorter and shorter as it becomes clearer that you're on the same page.
Yeah, I think so. It's so hard for me because I have an art direction background where my scripts are very long, probably annoyingly so for Barnaby. They're very, very descriptive of everything. I think I've gotten faster at writing them now because he is so good at understanding what I'm talking about and adapting it. Definitely the first script is always the hardest, but it was quite a journey on this one. We went back and forth on a lot of things many times. Now we're in a really great rhythm where I don't need to nitpick things as much, and I can take off my art director hat a little bit and just focus on the story. Because Barnaby and Rom have got this.
DC/Vertigo put together a trailer for High Level, which they don't do for every book (listen to it with the music on). It includes some serious praise from some experienced Vertigo and DC writers already. Since you defined yourself as an artist primarily for the last fifteen years, so how much of that feedback is validation, and how much is it adding pressure to the story you're telling?
One thing that is cool for me is that we've had a really long development time on this. It was greenlit a year ago this month and already had a solid pitch that had been developed up to that point. And just because of the way that DC/Vertigo scheduled their releases, ours was one of the later ones. So we've had a ton of time to be sitting on this [Laughs]. And in some ways that's frustrating because I feel like I can't believe this thing isn't in peoples' hands yet. But on the other hand, it made it so that I could work out a full story arc where we know where everything is headed. We know the ending, we know all the mysteries that we're teasing, we know the big questions are answered, and that makes it a lot more fun. We're not making it up as we go along. Everything that we can tease along the way is answered.
So on that level, I feel very confident in the story. I feel like when this whole thing is said and done, I'm really, really stoked about how it all plays out and I'm proud of it. So I'm not worried or nervous on that end, but it's a new comic and you have to find readership for a new comic, you have to find an audience. I'm new to comics, so when peers in the comics industry say good things about it, it's really exciting. It's awesome [laughs]. I'm kind of the new kid in town coming from a different industry, so the fact that they've repsonded so well to it is really validating, absolutely.
But if you've got the entire story for the series planned out, the stuff that they're heaping praise on has to be almost 'Yeah yeah yeah, but you don't even know"...
Well they don't know. I haven't told anybody. The only people that know are my editors... But no those people are just responding to the first issue, and the reviews that have come out are responding to the first issue. And that's a huge relief, that some people are starting to pick up the idea that this has a lot of big ideas behind it. Because it's really hard to, as I said, release the first fifteen minutes of the movie and hope people get it. So none of those people know what's going to happen ultimately. So that's very encouraging that people are starting to pick up on the bigger themes. And hopefully that keeps people along for the ride.
Has that helped the comic book medium sink its hooks into you yet? I imagine that happens pretty quick once you get into the rhythm with artists that you're talking about. It won't be publishing the final issue and then saying goodbye to the medium.
Oh, definitely not. It's a tough industry, you know, the economics of comics are tough right now. And a lot of it is hoping that it will take off, or you'll get royalties, or maybe it'll get optioned for something in the future. Talks of movies, and TV and everything like that. But the actual medium, when you get down to the creative process of it, is so satisfying. I mean it's like you can direct a movie but there's no budget [laughs]. You can dream up any world that you want and then we can create it and put it on the page. I'm working on Issue 4 right now, and it's a neon city of sex that's in the swamplands, and it's like... I can just come up with the weirdest shit and it actually just comes to life on the page. We don't need a special effects budget or anything.
Is that the part of the story where the 'cybernetic mafia' comes in?
Yeah. Cybernetic mutant mafia, although don't call them mutants. They're called The Changed. They were kind of born from old world experimentations with genetic design that went wrong. And now they're like a race of severely mutated people who are highly intelligent. So it gets into all kinds of stuff like that. And it's fun! It's like we can create this mutant mafia boss with cybernetic attachments and he comes to life. We don't have to worry about the practicality of how that's going to happen, like in a movie. I guess what I'm saying is 'comics are awesome.' And I highly encourage everyone to get involved in making them, because they're really fun.
To start wrapping up, the first issue is obviously what people are speaking about and having strong responses to. So if you could appear in front of a reader who just finished this first issue, how would you describe to them what is coming? What is the feeling that they should absolutely grab onto as what you intend for this story to spark?
Wow, that's a tricky question. First of all, I hope that they come away from it with a lot of questions, and a lot of wonder. Because part of what we try to do in Issue 1 is set up big mysteries that are going to be--even this arc that kind of seems like the story is about this journey that she's going to go on, it actually leads into a much bigger journey. I hope we've put out the right seeds, and I'd want to ask them if they're intrigued. 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.
Final Question: what music should people put on in the background when sitting down to read High Level?
I don't want to promise this, but my friend Steven Alexander Ryan, who did the music for the trailer that you saw, he's working on the idea of creating an original score for each issue. I gotta check in where he's at on Issue 1, but we're hoping to release that when the first issue comes out. So there will actually be a kind of ambient, electric soundtrack to listen to while you're reading it.
You couldn't resist. There was absolutely going to be a cross-playing of media with any comic book you created.
Oh, I wish we could do a lot more. Maybe when it circles back around to a trade paperback or something we will do more cross-media stuff, I love that. Right now we're just focusing on telling the story, but thankfully I know some people who make some really cool music. Steve's gotten really into it, and he's been working on the soundtrack, so I hope that works out and we might end up releasing a soundtrack for the whole story.
High Level #1 will be available February 20th, 2019 in your local comic shop, and digitally from DC/Vertigo.