The first page of High Level #1 is entrancing. The cover screams dystopian sci-fi, but here we start with pastoral fantasy, pristine gowns and golden armor. The captions give no hints as to where we are and Rob Sheridan’s dialogue hints both at a paradise and the insufficiency of the concept of paradise at the same time. Swiftly we’re introduced to a strained marriage and a utopian scene. And, like the Christian Paradise, what would it be without a tempter?
Of course it doesn’t hurt that Barnaby Bagenda and Romulo Fajardo Jr. are still breathtaking craftsmen. Their use of framing and colors are truly a shock to the system in this immediate introduction.
And then: the fall.
We begin again with our protagonist, Thirteen, already digging through shit. Her world has changed a lot since it was our world and, quite honestly, it’s not pretty. But Thirteen loves it just the way it is.
Thirteen is a familiar type of hero: fabulously dressed, always ready with a retort, happy to answer gross behavior with a swift bottle to the head. She’s an action hero waiting to happen. It’s just that she doesn’t really want to go on any bigger adventures and what you or I might call a small or even moderate adventure is just another day to her.
You see, as Sheridan’s plot slowly, but fairly naturally, reveals, there’s a war going on. It’s been going on so long that people barely remember what they’re fighting over, but the two sides clash frequently up north near the entrance to the semi-mythical city of High Level.
It’s a little unclear if High Level is one place or two. The lore of the world paints a picture of a “silver city at the top of the world”, but it’s also said that the residents of High Level spend their days seeking ascension. Is it a physical ascension, to a city beyond the clouds, or a spiritual ascension that can only be achieved in High Level, or something altogether different? We don’t know and it’s possible that none of the characters quite know either, because no one has ever come back from High Level. Is it one place or two? Is it a utopia or a bureaucratic prison state? High Level is a myth, first and foremost. It’s a myth of a place that matters, where things have innate purpose. And Thirteen hates that.
The driving conflict of the story thus far is Thirteen’s desire for the wild west freedom to do as you wish and value what you care for against the holy importance of High Level. It’s an interesting and relatable character trait. It’s interesting to see a character who, like so many do or have to, has found peace in the familiar and the path she has chosen. Unfortunately, in practice, this element of High Level is undoubtedly its most obnoxious.
We’re introduced to Thirteen through a monologue where our traditionally beautiful yet blue-haired heroine scoffs at why people need a religion to tell them what to do. She deals with her business but can stay no longer as a jack-booted occupational military force torches her favorite bar for not respecting their authority. Oh boy, it’s one of those stories… Indeed, High Level says the least about people or the human condition when its asking these questions and it does so throughout its running time. The empty bitterness of Thirteen’s current state is both uninteresting and familiar to anyone who’s ever spoken to a teenage white boy.
However, one suspects that this is an intentional incompleteness, an indicator of Thirteen’s own adolescent self-confidence that will eventually give way to a fuller appreciation of what drives her. And the first hints that this could be the case arrive before the issue is through. Things suddenly get very Children of Men for Thirteen as an old flame shows up with an unexpected uniform and an even more unexpected proposition. And while I’m obviously being a little irreverent, I want to be clear that the Children of Men comparison should be taken as a point in its favor, not a dig.
Sheridan creates an interesting world in a short period and plants the seeds of an engaging mystery before pivoting into a more immediate, but similarly promising, plot before issue’s end. And though it’s not as regimented as Bagenda and Fajardo’s most famous collaboration, the epic Tom King Omega Men, there is a definite sense of synergy between writer and artists on this book as well. Bagenda and Sheridan craft more than one clever metaphor into the layouts of this issue and you can feel just how much the story depends on its visuals to immerse you in this world.
Perhaps my favorite moment of the issue comes towards the end of act two (and you better believe that this book is following a perfect classical filmic structure). A bitter Thirteen ponders the plebeian need for something greater as she re-dyes her hair. If you’re not paying attention you might not even notice that this isn’t just a touch-up, but she emerges from the shower without her most iconic feature, having traded her cyberpunk blue mane for something closer to the ultraviolet spectrum. Though it all she dwells on her mystification at others, the dye is just part of her day, something utterly routine. And, as she does, her narration shifts along with her hair, taking on a purple hue.
It’s a brilliant moment not only for being fairly original but for saying volumes in a simple lettering choice. “What if this is all there is,” Thirteen asks herself. This is a woman who doesn’t have any belief in her life that stands in the way of her own fulfillment and the importance that others place on purpose and answers only confuses her. A scant eleven pages into knowing her we’ve agreed upon a way to label her, but Thirteen doesn’t care if you associate her with her blue hair, it’s just a color, and she remains her, even without it. It’s a clever and (at least to me) original way to express our hero’s disdain for constraint.
Fajardo, of course brings the scene to life, giving the purple Thirteen just as intense a pop as the blue version and the whole world around her follows that same attitude. The slick blue palette of the book and the unyielding saturation of the colors immediately give you a cyberpunk feel, even in the middle of a relatively low-tech desert that could easily have taken far more of its color inspirations from Mad Max or The Matrix than Tron or Blade Runner.
Even despite the intensity of color, it’s hardly all neon and black glass. Farjardo and Bagenda both seem to take a subtle pleasure in jumping back and forth over the line between the beautiful and the sickly, often giving the impression that something is not quite right or as it appears.
It is beautiful though. Bagenda’s soft yet angular aesthetic and Fajardo’s careful attention to shadows and light sources have always combined to make one of the most captivating looks in comics and this is no exception. It makes no attempt to strive for realism, preferring its simplified geometry but occasionally capturing something decidedly real in its lighting or the the folds of a garment or sneer. Many times this feels completely intentional, but there are a few places where they seem to spring, unbidden, out of the feelings that the artists capture purely from their craft.
That sense of freedom and authenticity is not always a blessing however. Though I’ve mentioned how some panels will spring to life and benefit from it, you can’t call the art consistent. Thirteen’s hair and wardrobe makes a big impression, but it’s kind of necessary, as her actual features morph radically from panel to panel, with even her general face shape seeming to change within individual pages. Honestly, this is the sort of thing that an art professor cares about a lot more than an actual reader, but there are certainly times where it can become distracting rather than just questionable technique.
Still, while there are the weaker panels the way that any comic does, I recognize that my biggest artistic criticism is ‘sometimes it looks like different beautiful art. If I’m being honest the hardest part of critiquing the art is the lack of utility in describing how pretty it is when you can surely see that for yourself.
High Level doesn’t catapult into the realm of must-read debuts, but it entertains, sets up enough mystery to draw many of its. readers back, and looks phenomenal doing it. The world is interesting but not yet deep enough to stand out from the crowd and Thirteen’s militant atheism is fairly accurate but draining to anyone who’s had the pleasure of hearing it from a friend at thirteen. But then the ending is intriguing, the personality palpable, and the art stunning. High Level #1 puts a little too much emphasis on style in an attempt to lure you back to see the substance of its story and its setting and it feels like it doesn’t always interrogate its own biases strongly enough, but there’s a lot to like here.
High Level #1 is currently available from Vertigo/DC Comics.