High Level’s Creators Explore the Influences Behind the Vertigo Sci-Fi Series

Comics Features Vertigo
High Level’s Creators Explore the Influences Behind the Vertigo Sci-Fi Series

HIGH LEVEL 1.jpgDC Comics’ storied mature-reader imprint Vertigo began a massive rejuvenation project last year, announcing the return of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman Universe alongside a slate of brand-new series from creators like Zoë Quinn, Leandro Fernandez and Ben Blacker. While some of those announced series have either been cancelled mid-arc or before hitting stands at all (a story for a different article, perhaps), the existing titles will be joined this week by High Level, the comics debut of multimedia artist and ARG designer Rob Sheridan.

Probably best known for his ARG (Alternate Reality Game) work with industrial legends Nine Inch Nails, Sheridan is joined on High Level by Omega Men artist Barnaby Bagenda and prolific colorist Romulo Fajardo Jr., all of whom bring their own sci-fi and fantasy influences to the mix in this tale of a post-dystopia in which human society rebuilds itself from scratch, including the titular mythical city from which no one ever returns. Based on the first issue, High Level looks to be a brutal quest story perfectly suited for Vertigo’s legacy, and Paste is thrilled to host Sheridan, Bagenda and Fajardo Jr.’s breakdown of the significant movies, music and video games that inspired High Level’s creation. Be sure to read all the way to the end for a look at High Level’s interior pages, too.


Writer Rob Sheridan:

Shadowrun (SNES)
I was 13 when Shadowrun came out for Super Nintendo, and I think that was just before I saw Blade Runner for the first time, so Shadowrun was my first real experience with cyberpunk, and I was HOOKED. The music, the mood, the mix of noir and sci-fi and fantasy—it quickly became one of my favorite games. Plus it took place in a futuristic version of my hometown, Seattle. As a young boy, Shadowrun took me to a place and an aesthetic I hadn’t experienced before—one that stuck with me through all my work, and especially to High Level. There are scenes and settings later in High Level that I know are drawn from my desire to capture the way Shadowrun felt. And certainly the inclusion of mythical and magical elements in High Level is owed to Shadowrun.


Blade Runner
I know this is the most obvious reference I could possibly cite, but it wouldn’t feel right to exclude one of my favorite movies of all time. When I first saw Blade Runner as a young teen, it was the music and the mood and the noir loneliness of it that struck me more than anything. I was an only child, and a loner, and I’d watch Blade Runner in my dad’s apartment while he was at work, alone in the dark, while the Seattle rain beat down upon the skylight and the lights of downtown twinkled in the distance. It felt like I was in the movie, and I came to romanticize Deckard’s lonely, melancholy life in his small apartment in the midst of a dark, rainy city. I’ve fallen asleep to Vangelis’ score on more rainy nights in my life than I could possibly count.

I spent so much of my youth happily alone in my room, surrounded by all my toys and my things, drawing and writing and imagining other worlds. Thirteen is a loner character for other loners, written by a loner. Her Gravitron fort is a fantasy version of my childhood bedroom, with some inspiration from Deckard’s apartment and Sebastian’s apartment (with his robotic toys) from Blade Runner.

The shot in issue #1 of Thirteen picking up the bottle of whiskey on her way over to her robot marionettes is a direct homage to Deckard picking up the bottle of whiskey off his piano in the above scene.


Selected Ambient Works Vol. II by Aphex Twin; Music for Airports by Brian Eno; and You Are Listening to Los Angeles

When I’m writing I can’t listen to music with lyrics—the words distract me. So I often put on ambient soundscapes to set a mood, and my favorite ambient albums are Aphex Twin’s Selected Ambient Works Vol. II, and Brian Eno’s Ambient I: Music for Airports. The eerie, repetitive tones of these albums have been the soundtrack to so much creative inspiration for me over the years, and High Level was no different. Despite how much I’ve listened to these albums, they took on new meaning when I was listening to them in the early hours of the morning in my RV in the middle of the forest, looking out at the first light of dawn peeking through the trees, and scribbling ideas in notebooks that would eventually become High Level. The beauty of a good soundtrack is how it can change and grow with you, and continue to surprise you when you suddenly hear it in a whole new way.

Another favorite writing soundtrack for me is You Are Listening to Los Angeles, a brilliant and simple website that mixes live police scanner audio from Los Angeles (or several other cities you can choose from) with ambient music tracks from SoundCloud. It creates an instant and endless cyberpunk soundscape that really feels like you’re in Blade Runner. I recommend turning the volume of the police scanner down a bit to get the perfect mix, but once it all starts working together, it creates an incredible mood.


Æon Flux

The experimental animation born out of MTV’s Liquid Television in the early ‘90s had a huge impact on me, redefining my understanding of what animation could be. I was a big fan of the animated adaptation of Sam Keith’s The Maxx, but it was Æon Flux that eventually inspired the character of Thirteen, who I drew in different ways over many years before finally reimagining her and giving her a story in High Level.

The visual style of Æon Flux was unlike anything else I’d seen on American television; it reminded me of the European fantasy art style of early Heavy Metal, which I’ve long been a fan of (the art of Moebius was a big reference point for the visual style of High Level), and its dystopian and fetishistic themes were something I hadn’t seen in animation before. I was probably 12 years old when I first saw Æon Flux, and it was weird as fuck, and I loved it.

High Level carries a lot of other themes that stuck with me from Æon Flux—Æon’s secret-agent identity, the idea of only two cities existing after an environmental collapse, and the contrast between anarchist Monica and authoritarian Bregna.


Year Zero, Nine Inch Nails
This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who knows my previous work, but my involvement in Nine Inch Nails’ Year Zero ARG paved the way for High Level in almost every way.

For the uninitiated, Year Zero is a 2007 concept album that tells stories from a dystopian vision of the future, a reaction by Trent Reznor to the neocon politics of the George W. Bush era. Trent and I, along with 42 Entertainment, developed a massive interactive ARG experience around the album concept, and immersed players in a gritty, realistic near-future world that was hurtling towards a mysterious apocalypse. It was my first big foray into world-building, which is something I absolutely love, and we continued building upon the world in the development of a Year Zero miniseries for HBO. That series died in development hell, but I learned a great deal about storytelling while working on it, and I knew without a doubt that I wanted to eventually tell a story of my own.

The world and story of High Level are very different than Year Zero, but High Level uses the same mechanic of a sci-fi future designed to reflect on the problems of today. Sci-fi will always be my favorite genre because of how powerfully it can blend escapism with social commentary, and that’s what High Level’s big story arcs will be all about. But Year Zero did it so well that the news today often eerily mimics elements from our 2007 story.


Artist Barnaby Bagenda:

Jet Set Radio
I started off with a very different direction when I initially designed the High Level world. I came up with this brown/black tatters-and-rags post-apocalyptic design but Rob and [editor] Andy (Khouri) suggested a more vibrant and expressive look to the overall world—something very different to this type of genre. The first thing that popped into my head is Jet Set Radio—one of my favorite games and a major influence to High Level when it comes to costumes and color palette.


Deus Ex
Yet another video game influence. Deus Ex influences High Level more in the technology and environment part of it. Such as prosthetic devices, weapons, buildings, etc. But I sort of added a DIY ramshackle twist to it.


Tomorrow’s Harvest, Boards of Canada
My main playlist to build my mood in creating the pages of High Level. I think the album fits perfectly with Thirteen’s nihilism and isolated personality. Also with the desolate imagery that BoC trying to portray in the album.


Colorist Romulo Fajardo Jr.:

I watched the Japanese animation Tekkonkinkreet before starting the book. I was drawn to the visual style of Treasure Town. It was one of my main inspirations on the visual style of the Onida Lands in High Level. I like the idea of bright palette and explosion of different lines and objects that add a nice contrast to the theme of the book.


Panopticon, ISIS
I’ve also listened to [the] Panopticon album while working on the book. It’s the third album by California-based post-metal band ISIS. The main theme of the album is focused around philosopher Jeremy Bentham’s idea of a Panopticon prison; he described it as “a new mode of obtaining power of mind over mind, in a quantity hitherto without example.” The album is mostly instrumental and very few vocals so you will be captured by the incredible dimension of the music.


Alejandro Jodorowsky’s The Holy Mountain
Jodorowsky’s use of outrageous and imaginative imagery was a huge influence, and what I like most with Holy Mountain is his brilliant use of color. He used primary colors that help to enliven the fantastic sets and costumes.


High Level #1 Interior Art by Barnaby Bagenda & Romulo Fajardo Jr.

High Level #1 Interior Art by Barnaby Bagenda & Romulo Fajardo Jr.

High Level #1 Interior Art by Barnaby Bagenda & Romulo Fajardo Jr.

High Level #1 Interior Art by Barnaby Bagenda & Romulo Fajardo Jr.

High Level #1 Interior Art by Barnaby Bagenda & Romulo Fajardo Jr.

High Level #1 Variant Cover Art by Francesco Mattina

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