DC ROUND-UP: HIGH LEVEL #4 is the best trip through post-modern hell

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DC Comics is trying something new. In the wake of their Rebirth initiative, the publisher has rapidly expanded its content to include diverse new imprints such as Young Animal, Wildstorm, Jinxworld, Wonder Comics, Black Label, Ink, and Zoom. As their lineup expands, it can be hard to figure out what to pick up each week. That’s what our team is here to help with, every Wednesday, with the DC Round-Up!
THIS WEEK: Get ready to have a surprising amount of fun trudging through sci-fi allegories for societal ills.
Note: the reviews below contain spoilers. If you want a quick, spoiler-free buy/pass recommendation on the comics in question, check out the bottom of the article for our final verdict.


High Level #4

Writer: Rob Sheridan
Artist: Barnaby Bagenda and Amancay Nahuelpan
Colorist: Romulo Fajardo, Jr.
Letterer: Nate Pieko of Blambot
It sounds crass to say, but societal ills have never been so fun to explore as they are in DC Vertigo’s High Level. Like the three issues that came before it, High Level #4 is well-executed, imaginative, and nigh-impossible to predict. It’s a book that’s definitely interested in allegories for current hot button issues, in exploring systemic ills and what they might one day lead to, but it’s also a comic that leads with story.
The quality I like most about High Level is the book’s structure, one that makes each individual chapter sharp and distinct, while still pushing forward a larger quest. It sounds easy, especially in a periodical medium like comicbooks, yet it remains an increasingly rare feat in today’s market of often writing for trades and collections. High Level gets it. Part of that is the book’s plot—in a rebuilt society after the world ended, a smuggler is escorting a chosen child to a mythical city called High Level. This setup allows for each issue to take us somewhere new, resetting the challenges and foes and allies our heroes find themselves mixed up with. Simply put, High Level is a pure quest book where the places our heroes go cause as much excitement as the challenges they find there.

High Level #4’s secret weapon, meanwhile, is once again artist Barnaby Bagenda (joined here by Amancay Nahuelpan as well as Romulo Fajardo, Jr. on colors). The visuals in this story are really a new kind of cyberpunk offshoot that isn’t afraid to embrace the bright shades of neon colors that have found their way into modern fashion of late. The aesthetic of this book is somehow both consistent and surprising, making each page essentially an adventure, especially those that give us establishing shots of places like Pleasure Island, the setting for this particular issue.High Level
It all adds up to an imminently stylish and versatile comicbook. Another thing I have particularly enjoyed about this story is that writer Rob Sheridan started things off with such an absurd tone, that now in this fourth issue we as readers have essentially been conditioned to take any idea in stride. From page to page, this issue gives us a dominatrix, standoffs with policies, a giant mass of pulsating genetic experiments dictating the rules, serious examinations of pleasure and trafficking and the image one presents versus the quality of ones actions. It’s a rapid and joyous book that knows how hip it is and is unafraid of darkness, a total blast that feels like a modernized successor to the years of Vertigo comics that have come before.
Verdict: Buy


Superman #11

Writer: Brian Michael Bendis
Artist: Ivan Reis
Inkers: Joe Prado and Oclair Albert
Colorist: Alex Sinclair
Letterer: Josh Reed
My ability to process grandiose storytelling is really being tested lately. First, there was Avengers: Endgame (apologies for mentioning it in this sacred DC space, but I have a point…), and then this epic-if-maddening stretch of episodes in Game of Thrones. Say what you will about execution, but both of these are stories with stakes, going huge with their ambitions in ways that threaten beloved characters. From each, we’ve gotten a string of set pieces, all cranked to 11, that pushed the limits of movies and television. In comics, meanwhile, I think the closest equivalent is this run of Superman.
Superman #11 is yet another installment of this book that goes absolutely huge, picking up from the last moment of the preceding issue. In it, Clark and newly-empowered Jon Kent rush into a battle in deep space, where three massive powers—the Thanagarian Black Order Squad, the lead priestess of the Trillium Collective, and the Khunds—are seemingly all vying to punish revived-and-possibly-crazed patriarch, Jor-El. By the end of this issue, Zod, Jax-Ur, and Supergirl have also arrived and joined the fray. Sides line up, allies unite, deals are struck, motives are (almost) discerned.

It’s a massive story, one that perfectly compliments the quieter shadowy storytelling currently being done in the pages of Action Comics, leading up to this summer’s Event Leviathan. And for as big as it’s gotten, the stakes here still seem poised to go bigger, with tease after tease (both in the story and from the creators in real life) suggesting this whole thing is probably heading for a return of the Legion. It’s epic stuff.
All of that is a winding means of saying I really enjoyed this issue. I’m all in on a united House of El taking on the heaviest hitters in the galaxy, especially when artist Ivan Reis (inked here by Joe Prado and Oclair Albert, and colored by Alex Sinclair) continues to rise to the increasingly intricate chaotic space warfare scenes he’s being asked to draw. Reis has long been a polished and reliable source of DC house style. Within this story, though, he continues to push himself, using that same dependability to nail that basics while taking bigger and more detailed risks with the packed two-page spreads, of which every issue of this series seems to have between three and six. It’s stellar to watch unfold.My favorite development within the plot of this issue is the return of Rogol Zaar, the villain who showed up in writer Brian Michael Bendis first-ever work for DC (the short with Jim Lee in Action Comics) and has been looming from the fringes for a few issues as the story deals with Jon rapidly gaining new age and powers (Which, by the way, I’m becoming a bigger fan of every time Jon does something like layout Zod). Zaar has always been the point of this business, and his return here gives the story an urgency and charge that had faded just a bit during recent installments (just a bit). We are quickly reminded that Zaar is dangerous and driven and harboring several secrets that might even make him sympathetic—he is, in other words, everything you want your big bad to be.Anyway, in the end I really do think this run is reaching for grandiose heights similar to those in Endgame and Game of Thrones, and like those kindred stories, this one has also been polarizing. Audiences are vocal these days, and I get it. I, however, will be kicking back and enjoying the sheer spectacle of it all, loving this current run of Superman.
Verdict: Buy


Round-Up

 

  • Pearl #9 is such a gorgeous comicbook. Artist Michael Gaydos is doing the best work of his career in this series, which is really saying something considering his portfolio. Everything looks great here, from the framing device YouTube channel panels to the full-page splashes. And Bendis is writing a nice little romance around dives into esoteric tattoo culture and Yakuza operations—all of three of those things, by the way, are rarely explored in comics, or any other storytelling medium for that matter.
  • I’m still really enjoying this Batman run, and I kind of think the recently-concluded Knightmares story arc got a bad rap. I like when writers try things. That said, Batman #71 definitely gives the impression that things are going to keep getting worse before they start to get better.
  • Kelly Sue DeConnick’s Aquaman run is really bringing the best out of its artist. As with Robson Rocha before him, Viktor Bogdanovic (inked here by Jonathan Glapion and Daniel Henriques, and colored by Sunny Gho) really shines. I’m really into this run, overall. The ocean is a powerful, mysterious, and really just crazy thing, and these stories are really leaning into all of that.
  • Finally, Teen Titans #30 is a classic sort of team book in which things fall apart and everyone is fitting with each other, playing out tension and baggage that’s been building since the start of this run. I wasn’t a fan of this concept—Damian Wayne builds a secret jail for enemies—but the creative team here has really won me over.

Miss any of our earlier reviews? Check out our full archive!