The new DC/Vertigo title High Level is set within an apocalyptic future where humanity is scrounging for resources. Thirteen is one of the best at scavenging, but her world is turned upside down when she meets Minnow, a mysterious child who needs her help.
High Level features art by Omega Men's Barnaby Bagenda and is written by Rob Sheridan, the scribe behind Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero game. Sheridan came up with the idea for High Level when he started imagining the distant future of our Earth after an ecological disaster, one that he believes is imminent.
The title comes from story’s mythical city of High Level, a utopia where the lucky few can rise above the dystopia and live in safety and security. But Sheridan told Newsarama it also refers to the title’s journey toward finding a higher purpose.
With High Level #2 coming out March 20, Newsarama talked to Sheridan to find out more about his new Vertigo series and what readers can expect next.
Newsarama: Rob, this series imagines a distant future, both familiar and yet fantastical. How did you come up with the idea behind the series, and is it based around any certain idea?
Rob Sheridan: Yeah, the main story came about when my wife and I were traveling around in an RV and rebuilding our lives, and spending a lot of time in the forest, disconnected from the world. And I was thinking a lot about current events that are going on, and thinking about how differently the 99% of us are going to survive the coming climate apocalypse, versus the 1%, and how much income inequality factors into apocalyptic things like climate change, which leads to mass migrations, which leads to wards, which leads to resources dwindling.
So I wanted to talk about that, but in a way that projects it hundreds of years in the future, so it becomes a sci-fi fantasy.
And I wanted to envision a future that’s filtered through all the types of sci-fi that I love - a retro-futuristic version of what our future could be after society is rebuilt. And I wanted to kind of look at the different classes and the different ways society has evolved.
Nrama: How would you describe the series overall?
Sheridan: We’re standing right now on the precipice of a massive ecological apocalypse that we don’t seem to be turning away from. I want to look at how that plays out when you factor in how differently society is weighted right now between the haves and the have-nots.
And High Level is kind of a classic adventure story filtered through science fiction in a future that’s very much an adventure and a fantasy and a fun journey. And it also becomes a hard sci-fi, twisted, strange look at where we’re headed as a people right now.
Nrama: We got to know Thirteen in the first issue, as well as some of the other key players. Can you talk about the main characters in the series and what role they play in the story?
Sheridan: One of the things we’re doing with the first arc is, it’s essentially a quest story, so it’s a journey. And Thirteen is going to be the anchor through it.
We’re going to go to a lot of different locations and meet a lot of different characters along the way, with Thirteen kind of being the prime anchor through the entire story.
In addition to her, we have Minnow, this young girl who’s been a key to war her whole life. She has mysterious powers that no one fully understands. She’s been used as a pawn of war because of her powers.
She’s been taken by this guy Akan, who has defected from the army that was using Minnow. He believes that returning her home to this mythological city of High Level is actually the answer to stopping the war and reuniting the people.
Thirteen, our main character, doesn’t want anything to do with it. These wars happened far north of her. She likes to mind her own business. She’s got a good little set-up going way down in the south, in the outlines.
But she’s thrust into this journey, this mission, that she doesn’t want. And she’s going to do anything she can to get out of it.
Nrama: It seems like this series is exploring the question of whether a person is going to just take the safe way through life, or whether they’re going to search for a higher purpose. Is that one of the themes?
Sheridan: Yeah, it’s called 'High Level' for a reason. A couple reasons, actually.
There’s going to be a constant back and forth going on between your perception as a reader and Thirteen’s perception as a character of whether seeking a higher purpose or wanting more than what she has is something that she should be aspiring to, or if it’s a grand deceit.
There’s elements at play that are parallels to organized religion, and to capitalism, and to various systems of control in society that tend to manipulate people to get them to behave, to get them to do certain things in hopes that they’ll reach a higher level, whether that’s enlightenment or wealth or whatever that might be.
So we’ll play a lot, back and forth, on Thirteen’s journey as to how right she is about her worldview, and how that’s going to change as she goes along and discovers more about the world.
Nrama: The artist on this is Barnaby Bagenda. What does he bring to the title?
Sheridan: I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect artist for this, because Barnaby is really, really detailed. He’s very good at developing sci-fi worlds that all feel tangible and real.
The main aesthetic I wanted to draw for this was a retro-futurism where everything is tactile. You know, it’s hard-wired. It’s discs. It’s screens. It’s not a sci-fi future of today. It’s kind of depreciated sci-fi future.
And Barnaby’s so good at that tactile environmental stuff. He can read a description of a scene and just pull it together in such a way where every little detail in the background all fits together.
He’s telling so much story, just in the backgrounds, that makes it so much easier on my end.
Nrama: Will we find out more about Minnow in issue #2? What’s the focus of issue #2?
Sheridan: Issue #2 kind of slows the pace down a little bit. We had a lot of ground to cover in the first issue to set up the character and the story and kind of tease the larger world.
But I really wanted to structure the story as a classic adventure story, where it starts out very small, with characters who are very far away from the center of conflict of the world.
Issue #2 really resets and starts the journey in a kind of small, character-driven way. And you get to know Minnow, and you get to know Thirteen more. You get to see the push-and-pull between them. And you get to see how Thirteen deals with the situation.
But it’s much more of the true beginning of the journey of the first arc in issue #2, now that all the introductions and set-ups are out of the way in issue #1.
So it’s a nice change of pace and it’s very character-driven.
Nrama: I get the feeling there are some pretty big secrets hiding behind these mysteries we’ve seen so far. Anything you can tease about what’s coming down the line for High Level?
Sheridan: The first story arc is this journey that Thirteen has to go on to High Level. And that’s going to take us up to about issue #5.
Throughout that journey, we get to go to a bunch of different weird and exotic places throughout this world and understand the world of the future better, and watch Thirteen’s character change along the way.
But once we get to the destination of High Level, everything gets a lot weirder. It goes in a much less Borderlands/Mad Max territory and much more into the hard sci-fi territory.
I don’t want to say much more than that. But whatever you think the story is, by issue #7 or so, it’s going to be a completely different story. It’s all planned out.
What happens in the first four or five issues is important, because we need to talk about the world and explore it, and it’s going to be fun.
And we need to explore the characters.
But it’s ultimately building up to something much bigger and weirder.