Sheridan And Bagenda Take Things To A Very “High Level,” Indeed (Advance Review)

When the going gets tough, the tough go — north?

Obviously the future Earth as conceived of by writer Rob Sheridan and artist Barnaby Bagenda for their new DC/Vertigo series, High Level (the first issue of which will be hitting your LCS shelves on Feb. 20th), doesn’t have any of this “Polar Vortex” bullshit going on, but that doesn’t mean it’s absent its own share of problems — what Sheridan refers to as his “post-post-apocalyptic” premise is rife with the resource shortages, social and economic stratification, and violent mercenary assholes anyone who’s seen films ranging from The Road Warrior to Exterminators Of The Year 3000 is well-familiar with, but don’t let this comic’s decidedly “old-school” sensibilities about, as The King himself would put it, “The World That’s Coming!,” fool you into believing that it doesn’t present something new. Maybe not radically new, mind you (frankly it’s too soon to tell), but at the very least new enough to hook you pretty quickly.

Series protagonist Thirteen (no other name is given her) seems to be doing what everyone does in this society where environmental and political collapse apparently went hand in hand, namely cobbling together a hard-scrabble, mercenary existence in whatever manner possible with whatever tools are at hand, albeit with considerably more flair than you or I would in her steel-toe boots : throwing down when necessary, boozing up when possible, dripping with take-no-shit confidence at all times, some of which is probably an act — but exactly how much remains to be seen.

Without giving away too terribly much, she has a challenge foisted upon her come this debut installment’s cliffhanger that will probably answer the query just (sort of) posed, but prior to that we’re served up a solid dose of what’s colloquially known as “world-building,” and Sheridan does such a solid job of giving you just enough without giving away too much that one can be forgiven if they forget that he’s new to this whole thing, coming to comics by way of a successful career in the visual arts that saw him strike up an LTR with Nine Inch Nails (or, as well call them around these parts, “The” Nine Inch Nails), culminating in landing the gig as the band’s artistic director. Some of that patented Reznor “nihilism for the masses” ethos carries over here a bit, sure, but it’s tempered with an undercurrent of at least the potential for optimism, as well as several knowing nods to tropes of the tried and true variety.

I’m not wild about each and every one of these, truth be told, but a lot of that’s simply down to personal taste, and for every one thing I never cared about seeing again (malfunctioning robot sidekick), there are several that I’m more than eager to roll out the red carpet for my own damn self as they make welcome returns (“floating head” narration, souped-up muscle cars, punk hairstyles).  All in all the various elements that you absolutely need in a genre yarn of this nature are present and accounted for, with an added dose of thoughtfulness and intrigue that goes above and beyond, and the dialogue admirably eschews the plain and predictable in favor of expressiveness that establishes individual and unique personalities for each character.

We’ve probably only seen a very small portion of the weird and wild that this world has to offer, of course, but with the prospect of a Lone Wolf And Cub-esque road trip at hand (there’s a hint there about who Thirteen will be traveling with), things are bound to be fleshed out a lot more — and with “go north, young lady” replacing “go west, young man” as siren call for the adventurous on this iteration of Earth, things are already turned on their head a solid 180 degrees. Cliche alert, but nevertheless it applies : I fully expect the unexpected to continue.

Barnaby Bagenda has all the chops to make this world feel real, lived-in, and most importantly dangerous, as anyone familiar with his work alongside Tom King on The Omega Men knows. His solid grasp of traditional page layouts, emphasis on emotive facial expressions, and imaginative character design are reminiscent of the best “Eurocomics” reprints presented in the pages of Heavy Metal during its heyday, but the wise choice to leave his work “unfinished” and apply colors directly over his pencils adds a modern, gritty favor to the proceedings that nobody would have dared try in that mag circa, say, 1984 or whatever. In short, this is exciting art that has a hell of a lot of rich detail communicated with utmost immediacy. Romulo Fajardo, Jr.’s cinematic, surprisingly vibrant hues add a final layer of panache to what’s a very appealing visual presentation, and whether we’re talking Thirteen herself, the bar patrons she tussles with, the paramilitary goons of Black Helix, or that evil arachnid super-villain, everybody is somebody you want to look at.

So — am I in? You bet I am. Buckled tight for the entire sure-to-be-bumpy ride, in fact. I don’t get too jazzed for “Big Two” offerings very often, but this one hit all the right notes for me and I’m very much looking forward to my monthly fix already. This is storytelling that’s at a pretty damn “high level” already, and all evidence suggests it has nowhere to go but up.

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