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ADVANCE REVIEW: Even the End of the World Can’t Stop the Rat Race in Vertigo’s HIGH LEVEL #1


High Level #1

Writer: Rob Sheridan
Artist: Barnaby Bagenda
Colorist: Romulo Fajarda, Jr.
Letterer: Nate Piekos
Publisher: Vertigo

“Are you looking for something more?”

I’ve always been intrigued by stories set in a post-apocalyptic world. It’s just incredible how acutely they can lay bare the human condition and inform us about ourselves. Logically you’d expect the opposite, right? Fallen world settings are so strange and disconnected from the world of the reader that the parallels should, in theory, be few. Yet it always seems that when a fictional realm is stripped of creature comforts, a sense of security, and the normal rules of societal behavior, we find that the inhabitants start to seem uncomfortably familiar. These stories force us to question how we would act if actual survival was on the line, and the answers are sometimes surprising but always enlightening.

It is this rare type of illumination that High Level promises in its opening chapter. In the region of Onida Flats, after the Great Disruption and the subsequent Migration, people are scraping by the best they can. A young woman named Thirteen works by day as the “sewer girl”, cleaning up other people’s shit and making an extra credit wherever she can. It’s not a fun job, but at least she gets to live a simple life on her own terms. Besides, it’s a great cover for harmless illicit activities every now and then. No one’s going to suspect the sewer girl.

Not all of the inhabitants of Onida’s run down landscape are so content to live on scraps. The grass is always greener somewhere, and there are tales of a place up north called High Level that boasts a life of luxury, wealth, and purpose. If one is willing to work hard, it is said, then it’s possible to ascend up through the ranks into glory. The trip north isn’t easy, but if the whispers about High Level are true, isn’t it worth the risk?

This is one of those stories that has recognizable enough symbolism to be intriguing but not so much that it’s a straight allegory. It hits that sweet spot in the middle where you know what the Silver City represents while simultaneously certain that you’re not a hundred percent certain. We don’t want books to spoon feed us a message, we want some layers of ambiguity. And layers is exactly what High Level provides, to the point that there are a few different possible themes to the book. Growing up versus selling out, perhaps? The myth of the corporate world versus the reality of it? Or maybe this is a weighing of the opportunity of conformity against the cost of obedience. I don’t know. And the fact that I don’t know makes me want to read more.

High Level is written by Rob Sheridan, the former art director for Nine Inch Nails. It’s packed full of characters and motives, viewpoints and details. The re-readability factor is high. The main character is easy to love because she is sympathetic, tragic, and beautiful. There are plot threads and mysteries seeded into this first issue that promise a whole lot of fun to come. The art by Barnaby Bagenda and Romulo Fajardo, Jr. is vibrant and original. The scenes are painted with thick brush strokes, expressive faces, and detailed backgrounds. The lighting effects are especially noteworthy, with glowing white outlining around the figures and a reflective feel across surfaces. The world looks to be lit up by fluorescent lighting throughout.

Ultimately, I got the feeling from this first chapter that I’m going to learn something about myself if I keep reading. I hope it’s something surprising and enlightening and I’m optimistic that this book will deliver.

High Level #1 hits stores on February 20th. Tell your local comics shop that you’re interested!


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