'High Level' #1 Review: An Ascension to Sci-Fi Bliss

High Level is the latest release from the resurgent Vertigo Comics. Written by Rob Sheridan, drawn by Barnaby Bagenda, and colored by Romulo Fajardo Jr., the first issue introduces an engrossing new world where upward mobility means literally moving upwards.

High Level's setting blends cyberpunk with the post-apocalypse as if Blade Runner’s neon-infused facade were applied to Fallout’s wasteland. Readers follow Thirteen, the local “sewer girl” in an outland settlement considered neutral territory in regards to a nearby war. This issue walks through an average day in Thirteen's life, exploring and explaining the world she lives in through conversations with her peers. Having established the status quo, the issue upends it, ensuring Thirteen has few average days left to look forward to.

While most of the issue takes place within the settlement, the titular High Level looms throughout the narrative. The issue introduces High level through conflicting reports from Thirteen's friends. For one, it’s a path to prosperity, a respite earned after years of toiling in the dirt. For the other, it represents the complete loss of identity and autonomy, becoming another cog in a larger societal machine.

These conflicting accounts lay out the themes that Sheridan explores. Thirteen is skeptical of the promise of prosperity that High Level offers. She’s content in her simple life, doing what it takes to get by. But how long can someone live that life as job opportunities become scarcer? The alternative is to assimilate into the High Level society, to trust in the system to take care of you. Or, as Thirteen puts it to a friend who is taking that option, to “sell out.”

High Level
(Photo: Barnaby Bagenda, Romulo Fajardo Jr., Rob Sheridan, DC/Vertigo)

There’s also some discussion of faith throughout the issue. No one has ever returned after ascending through High Level. Entering requires faith in its promises, and, as such, this positions “selling out” as an act of faith. One must trust in the system, putting faith in “The American Dream.” But Sheridan also draws a parallel to religious faith when Thirteen critiques the Bible early in the issue.

It’s all well-integrated with the plot, even if the structure of the issue is a by-the-book kickoff to a speculative fiction adventure tale. Meet the protagonist, show a day in the protagonist’s life, and have an unexpected visitor disrupt said life. It’s a skeletal framework upon which Sheridan hangs the series' themes and setting up for display. Those themes and the setting, thanks to the artwork, are arresting and attractive enough that it works.

The issue does stumble a bit early on. There’s a cold open set “Somewhere else…” that seems disconnected from the rest of the issue. It seems meant to plant a seed that will bear fruit later on, and the scene does pose a question central to issue’s themes -- “Are you looking for something...more?” -- but it is jarring in the context of this issue alone.

Bagenda’s artwork is lush, especially with Fajardo’s luminescent colors. He tells the story well for the most part but commits a comics storytelling faux pas by stacking panels on the left side of a page. This breaks the flow of the page, creating confusion over whether readers should next move right or downwards. In this case, the high placement of the text bubble in the panel on the right side of the stack draws the eye away while the action continues downwards.

Besides Bagenda’s strong artwork and Fajardo’s brilliant colors, there’s sly flair in the issue’s lettering as well. Throughout the issue, the captions for Thirteen’s internal monologue are black while the letters are the same blue as her hair. Partway through the issue, the lettering changes colors mid-page to reflect the same change in Thirteen’s hair color. It’s a simple trick, but one that emphasizes how Thirteen’s external appearance is a reflection of her thoughts and emotions, the person that she is. This emphasizes Sheridan's parallel between Thirteen’s community and real-world subcultures who often color their hair or pierce their bodies in ways unacceptable in many workplaces. This keys into such these acts being modes of expression opposed to what High Level represents. It's a splendid, subtle bit of comic book storytelling.

High Level #1 is an introductory issue at its core, but it’s introducing readers to a world that is worth investigating. The themes here are rich, reflecting the tension inherent in consumerist society. It asks questions that every young person asks themselves at some point in their life. Reading along as Sheridan, Bagenda, and Fajardo unpack those themes and explore this new world further looks to be an exciting, gripping journey.

Published by Vertigo Comics

On February 20, 2019

Written by Rob Sheridan

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Art by Barnaby Bagenda

Colors by Romulo Fahardo Jr.