THIS REVIEW OF ‘HIGH LEVEL’ #1 CONTAINS MINOR SPOILERS.
by Brendan Hodgdon. It is something of an indictment of our society that dystopian stories never really fall out of style. They continue to serve as a catharsis for people who are increasingly wary of our world, both politically and economically. What can often be a pitfall of dystopian fiction is the conflation of an oppressive force led by a singular, all-powerful leader (often an antagonist) with a story that makes the defeat of such oppression simply a case of winning one big duel amidst one big battle. But in the hands of Rob Sheridan, Barnaby Bagenda, and Romulo Fajardo Jr., High Level has smartly avoided this pitfall in the early going. What results is a solid DC Vertigo debut.
In the broad strokes, High Level hits many of the usual dystopic beats: the reluctant protagonist working menial, dead-end jobs; the faceless police force; a conspiracy that threatens the fabric of this world, etc. But details are the name of the game here, and Sheridan & Bagenda fill their story with a specificity that allows High Level to stand on its own in an ever-crowded subgenre. Combined with a righteous fury boiling just under the surface, the book has no trouble leaving its mark.
Like many a science-fiction story, the world of High Level is hugely indicative of the kind of tale it is going to be. It feels like a pretty straightforward allegory to our current social structure, with people putting all their faith into the possibility of moving up in the world, which really just turns them into pawns and stooges for those already at the top. That said, Sheridan finds ways to shade things with nuance and acknowledges the ambiguity that comes with both survival and doing the right thing.
The pieces are definitely in place for a very thorough holistic examination of this society. Sheridan & Bagenda seem to be painting a clear picture of the world so they can properly explore what’s wrong with it and what about it needs to be fixed. So far it doesn’t seem to be the result of the machinations of one or two malevolent individuals, but the end result of an entire social order. And the story is structured to examine as many different facets of the world as possible. Some of the exposition is rather naked and direct but that’s eased a good deal by Bagenda’s art.
It’s interesting to see Bagenda work without the 9-panel grid structure as he did so effectively with Omega Men. Here, his layouts are much more fluid and intuitive, which helps the story flow with a more natural pace. His design work throughout is also terrific, crafting a world that is reminiscent of Fallout without delving into imitation. The color work from Ramulo Fajardo Jr. is also a big winner here, as he finds a way to lend the characters and their surroundings vibrant and distinct hues while also giving the whole package a subdued, hardscrabble aesthetic.
At the nexus of all of this is Thirteen, the series protagonist, and like the book itself she is an archetypal vessel with which this creative team deliver their ideas unto the audience. Thirteen seems to be a usual twenty-something hero: She scoffs at people trying to improve their station and prefers the supposed autonomy of her current dog-eat-dog position. But how much of that is legitimate and how much of it is just fear of failure, trying to convince herself that there’s nothing else worth having or fighting for in the world?
It’s a question that challenges Thirteen’s world by the end of the issue, and it’s the question that Sheridan seems interested in challenging ours with, as well. Besides that, Bagenda gives Thirteen a clear visual identity, with the cool outfit and cocky swagger one would expect from this Han Solo-type, and Fajardo gifts her the bright blue hair you’d hope people would have in a cyberpunk dystopia. She is exactly the rakish badass to lead us through such a world.
The lettering, also by Fajardo Jr., has interesting choices behind it. He forgoes the usual hard borders that encase typical speech bubbles and gives Thirteen a blue speech that unites the caption narration to her dialogue. My favorite detail is marking the beeps and buzzes from Thirteen’s robot Ezra with speech bubbles and not just SFX, which helps Ezra feel like a character and not just a prop.
When you consider Rob Sheridan’s background as the NIN creative director, and Barnaby Bagenda’s work with Omega Men, it’s not surprising that a series like High Level would be the end result of their collaboration. They’ve built a bleak, but no less colorful, world around a hard-nosed hero, and have planted the seeds for some timely and pointed ideas about the current state of our world. I look forward to seeing those seeds grow.
DC Vertigo / $3.99
Written by Rob Sheridan.
Art by Barnaby Bagenda.
Colors & Letters by Romulo Fajardo Jr.
8 out of 10
Check out this 6-page preview of ‘High Level’ #1, courtesy of DC Vertigo!