DC Vertigo’s High Level has a high concept to match its title. It tells the story of a world that’s fallen. Scavengers like the fiercely independent and capable lead character, Thirteen, eek out an existence by selling off whatever treasures they can find– or steal– from the wastes and warehouses in the Outlands. However, some of them dream of a better life in High Level, a mysterious place that’s either a prison or a paradise, depending on who you talk to. No one who’s moved there has ever come back. And now, Thirteen might just have to travel to High Level herself.
In advance of High Level #2 ‘s release next week, the Beat spoke to the book’s creative team, including writer Rob Sheridan, artist Barnaby Bagenda, colorist Romulo Fajardo Jr., and letterer Nate Piekos to find out how they put a page of this wildly imaginative and stark-raving-gorgeous book together.
On this page from High Level #1 , we see Thirteen returning from a scavenging job to Benny’s, where we get a feel for what social life in the world is like and get a stronger sense of Thirteen as a character. Let’s take it apart and build it back up from start to finish. Alex Lu: Taking it from the top Rob, I’m interested in how you found the scripting process of High Level to be. How does your visual background, working as an art director, director of photography, illustration, and more come into play as you put words to paper here?
Rob Sheridan: I really love the scripting process. Comic book scripting is a style of writing that has a lot more in common with directing than with writing a novel, so it was a really smooth transition from my background in visual storytelling. Aside from just the dialogue, you have to think about the flow of the action, the pacing of each page, and then describe a vision of the world for the artist to interpret. Having worked as a director, editor, and stage producer, I’ve spent years thinking about how visuals, action, and drama flow to tell a story. Translating that into the pages of comics is an absolute blast. the “beat sheet” Lu: The first thing that we see here is your beat sheet for what will ultimately be page 4 of High Level #1 . At this stage of writing, what are you focusing on as you lay out a page in broad strokes like this?
Sheridan: The beat sheet process is intended to get my general ideas of what needs to happen in the issue in a rough linear order, so my editors and I can start seeing if it works on a macro level: Does it have a good flow to it? Does the protagonist go through a change, internally or externally, from the beginning to the end? Does it have a satisfying cliffhanger? Those types of things. Then we whittle it down to what can realistically fit into 22 pages and how that breaks down page by page. It usually involves a lot of cutting and visual tricks to fit as much into a page as possible, with the goal of having each page (or pair of pages) tell sort of a contained story in itself. This page is a great example of a complete scene that’s captured on one page, with an elegant lead-in to the next scene (as Thirteen walks away towards the contact she meets in the next page). Script Pg. 1 Script Pg. 2 Script Pg. 3 Lu: I’m fascinated by how much thought you put into the visuals of the world before Barnaby and Romulo started putting art on the page. You list off a variety of disparate outsider subcultures as aesthetic inspiration while simultaneously telling your collaborators not to veer too far into augmentation, necessarily. What were you hoping to inspire in Barnaby and Romulo by evoking these groups and how was what you envisioned while writing the script similar or different compared to the world that they ultimately created?
Sheridan: As an art director, I see things very visually, so I have a really clear picture of everything in my head. This first issue is the tone-setter for the world and the series, so I had some really specific looks in mind that I wanted to convey here. By listing off some of the characters that could appear in this bar, I wanted to really flesh out the specific cultural flavor of this place for Barnaby and Rom. It had to feel like a cyberpunk version of a “road house” tough biker bar trope, but culturally very expressive and open and colorful. It was a potentially difficult balance to communicate visually, but they managed to capture it perfectly: A place where no one is judged for whoever they want to be, but you wouldn’t want to piss off the wrong people.
Barnaby has been incredible to work with – we’re on the same wavelength, where when I describe something in the panels he seems to truly understand the feeling of it, and goes way beyond the descriptions to flesh out all kinds of details that really make every setting feel tactile and lived-in. It’s not easy to find collaborators who take your ideas and then improve upon them, but that’s what Barnaby and Rom do.
Lu: You talk a couple of times in the documents we have here about this being your team’s version of the “cantina scene” from Star Wars . In your mind, what’s the importance of having a scene like that in a sci-fi story like High Level ?
Sheridan: In the first issue of a comic, you really want to hook people, and tease them as much as you can about where the story might be headed and what else there might be to discover in the world. That can be tricky when you’re trying to tell a classic adventure story – as we are – where the world tends to start out very small and reveal much more as the story goes along. If you think about the early Tatooine scenes of Star Wars, it’s a lot of desert landscape and a lot of Luke and Ben and droids. You haven’t seen many aliens, you don’t know how diverse the galaxy is, which makes sense for the beginning of Luke’s journey. But then they go to the Mos Eisley cantina, and suddenly the universe opens WAY up just in this one bar scene. It was a brilliant way to show early on that this is a massive universe much, much bigger than Tatooine. So I wanted a scene like that early on in High Level, to show how interesting and diverse the culture of the Outlands is, all in one page. It’s a very effective and efficient world-building mechanism. Lu: A small detail that we’ll see carry over into Barnaby’s initial art notes for this page is the pinball machine. It’s more in the background in the final art, but you seemed to put some thought into what you wanted with that machine, asking Barnaby to base it on “Bride of Pin-Bot.” What’s the significance of that pinball machine specifically for you?
Sheridan: I really wanted this world to have an 80s retrofuturism feel, tactile and hard-wired, disks and cables and TV monitors. Part of the way we achieved that in the story was by making Onida a scavenger community that raids storage pods left preserved from the mass migrations of the old world. The progress of technology was disrupted generations ago, and there’s no infrastructure left – no power grid, no internet, no new tech being mass-produced. So the people of Onida have found all this old stuff that they don’t have any context for and created their own DIY remix culture out of it. So I wanted to include 80s (and current-day) staples of dive bars, like pool tables and pinball machines, to ground this place firmly in our history, while also mixing in elements of our future. And when I pictured this 80s retro-futuristic cyberpunk dive bar, no pinball machine channels the vibe better than the fantastic 80s sci-fi robot babe art and design of the Bride of Pin-Bot machine. They have one at a pinball bar in Seattle I frequented while I was writing issue 1, so it was vivid in my mind and a perfect fit for Benny’s. I love that Barnaby actually took that note and drew in the shapes of the actual artwork onto the machine, even if it’s barely noticeable. That amazing attention to detail is what I love about Barnaby’s art and how he works. Bride of Pinbot Machine| Attribution: joho345 [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)] Barnaby Bagenda’s pencils for High Level #1, Page 4 Lu: Barnaby, having had a chance to play with this sort of high concept sci-fi world before in Omega Men , as you came into High Level were there things you wanted […]
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