Writer: Rob Sheridan / Artist: Barnaby Bagenda / Vertigo (DC)
“Keep her safe. She is the key.”
Two issues into its run, High Level reads like a love letter for fans at the intersection of William Gibson, James Cameron’s Aliens, and Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Creator Rob Sheridan and artist Barnaby Bagenda render a detailed and realized dystopic future that looks and feels organic while still not overwhelming the unique characters. Whereas the debut issue painted a gorgeous 4K broad stroke of a world divided with the elite in the sky and the have-nots on earth, this issue brings us closer to the strange and conflicted character of Thirteen and her strange cargo – Minnow.
In the previous issue, professional sewer cleaner and underground robotics hacker/macker Thirteen keeps finding herself in the wrong situations – a deal gone bad, a run-in with a rogue army faction known as the Black Helix, and the convenient rescue by her ex-lover amongst them. Clearly, her devil may care approach to life is beginning to catch up with her. Akan helps her, but his aid comes with conditions as he implores her to help smuggle the girl Minnow back to the utopian High Level where was was born amongst the elites.
The issue opens with another prologue in the past, this time showing the infant who would become Minnow being delivered to the Black Helix Camp. Returning to the present, the issues finds Thirteen begrudgingly taking on the job of moving Minnow from the Onida to High Level. Only when Akan promises her some payment does she relent and decide to take the job. While Thirteen tries to treat it like a job, she has some moments of genuine compassion and care for the girl that shine through her self-serving nature.
During her plan to hide Minnow in the open before escape, Thirteen cuts the girl’s hair and buys her new clothes to make her appear as a boy. Later on, while trying to sleep and sharing a bed together, Minnow annoys Thirteen to exhaustion with a barrage of child-like questions. One of the many strengths of the series lies in scenes such as these – they are intimate and fun that allow the series to succumb into “dismal dystopian cliche.” As embodied by the feelings of Thirteen herself, the series is more cynical than dismal, which makes it an excellent read into a new world that is inviting rather than distancing.
For all the new titles that struggle out the gate to capture a tone, style, and consistent narrative, High Level exceeds expectations. Bagenda’s attention to background and character detail are gorgeous to analyze and make for an immersive read. An interesting journey lies ahead in the forthcoming issues as both the past and present future become more dangerous as they come to light.
Rating: 7 out of 10