The BMD Interview: Rob Sheridan’s HIGH LEVEL Welcomes You To The Post-Post-Apocalypse
Last week, we rolled out the latest edition of the Trying Times podcast, which featured a guest spot from Rob Sheridan, former art director for Nine Inch Nails and current writer/creator of the new Vertigo Comics series, High Level.
Because all the High Level chatter was buried at the end of that episode (and because we're big fans of what we've read of High Level thus far) we decided to excerpt that portion of our chat with Rob and give it its own post. This is a series we think the BMD readership is really gonna enjoy, and we wanna make sure you didn't miss out on hearing Rob talk about it just because you didn't want to sit through an hour of us rambling about monster trucks and Serenity in order to get there.
You can hear it for yourselves in the following embed (starting at the 55-minute mark), or you can just skip on down to the transcript below, which has been edited for clarity and features input from me, my Trying Times co-host Katie Shultz, and Sheridan. Enjoy.
SCOTT: Let’s talk about High Level. Shultz and I both read the first issue of the series. It has kind of a Mad Max feel to it, plus a bit of Borderlands, if you’re familiar with that video game. It’s a post-apocalyptic thing where … well, actually, Rob, why don’t you explain it, it’s your book.
ROB: We’re calling it a “Post-post-apocalyptic” thing because it’s not so much about what happens when society collapses, it’s what happens when society has been rebuilt in various ways, when all the rules and all the infrastructure, and all the established things about society like governments and borders and business, and power grids, internet… everything’s gone. Various people have rebuilt in different ways, and a lot of it is about how differently the 99% survives a climate apocalypse than how the 1% will. So, you mentioned Mad Max and Borderlands, which are good comparisons that people make, but they’re good comparisons for the *beginning* of the story; because part of the idea of the story arc is that along this journey that the main character goes through, as she gets closer to the center of power and wealth of the world, we change into a much different sci-fi territory - so it gets much further away from Mad Max, much more dystopian, and much more futuristic.
SCOTT: One thing I want to point out is that the main character is female. Can you talk a little bit about your decision to make a woman the lead of this series?
ROB: Part of it was just that’s just who the character was to me, it’s a character that I’ve been drawing for years in various iterations, and that’s just the identity of the character to me. The other part was it’s just more interesting. You know, when all the rules of society collapse, a hardened male smuggler loner type character isn’t as interesting, and there aren’t as many unique conflicts that come out of that. And the other part is, I just identify with the character, she has a lot of elements of me in various points of my life, but she was also someone I wrote when I was living in an RV, in the forest, isolated with my wife. I was around my wife and she defined the character a lot in various ways as well. So there’s just something about Thirteen that’s always just needed to be a female character, and I think it’s more interesting anyway.
SCOTT: I agree with you on the more interesting thing. If I’m playing a video game and it gives me the option to create a character, I’m always picking a female character.
SHULTZ: Why do you think that is?
SCOTT: It’s more interesting.
SHULTZ: I mean, yeah, but what do you mean by "more interesting"? Just because you haven’t seen it before?
SCOTT: What I mean by more interesting is ... historically, [video games have featured] a male protagonist. I’m playing Fallout 76 right now, [a game where] you don’t even see your character - it’s a first person perspective game. But I have a female character. It’s more interesting to me to imagine a female character navigating that world than yet another - as Rob pointed out - grizzled bounty hunter type. That shit is [played out], as we sorta learned in Solo: A Star Wars Story.
ROB: Yeah, I mean we’ve seen the Han Solo character, and there’s a lot of Han Solo in Thirteen [the protagonist of High Level]. But part of it is that High Level is kind of a sci-fi adventure that, along the way, is making a lot of commentary about our society right now, where we’re headed, and a lot of different aspects of that. And that’s a lot more compelling to do from the perspective of a woman trying to survive that, when society collapses and men try to regain power, and some men still have power, and what that can say about where we are now as a society. So it’s a much more interesting character device to me, and it makes it easier to say some of the political things I want to say.
SHULTZ: I mean, you’re saying that this is a society that’s been rebuilt after our society has fallen, but it sounds like it has a lot of the same problems as ours. So, is it a way to comment on the “now” by not placing it “now”? By putting the consequences of our society far in the future and foreseeing how the problems in our society become bigger?
ROB: Yeah. Not only become bigger, but what the consequences are if they continue down the path that they’re on. I think science fiction is one of the great genres for being a commentary on society, because you can take someone into a fantasy where they’re escaping into what might seem like a fun adventure with robots and mutants and neon chainsaws that cut down octopus robots - and that’s all going to be in there! - but along the way, the themes, characters, and what it’s ultimately saying about the world, are kind of creeping into you, without it having to be like, “Hey, capitalism sucks, fuck Trump!” You know?
SHULTZ: “Capitalism is poison!”
ROB: Yeah, it doesn’t come across as a political commentary comic initially. But eventually, I think the political and societal ideas creep in a lot more heavily, but it’s all wrapped up in a fantasy, and that makes it easier in a lot of ways to talk about it.
SHULTZ: It makes it a bit more of a palatable system for political commentary.
ROB: Yeah. And sometimes when it’s delivered in that way, it can insert ideas into you that you might reject if you just saw them bluntly presented in today’s terms.
SHULTZ: That said, you tweeted about how your Irish Catholic family is excited for you and pre-ordered copies, but in the first couple pages you denounce The Bible, so how palatable do you want to be, really?
ROB: Oh, I don’t want to be palatable to everybody, it’s not for everybody. But yeah, there’s a monologue at the beginning of the first issue that sets the tone of the overall story arc, which has a lot to do with how systems of power manipulate and control the masses for the benefit of the very few. So it was using the idea that in the future, when history has been erased, and our main character has been given this book - this dirty old run-down book from the past, which this guy says used to be the most important book in the world. She reads it and it seems absurd to her, because she has no cultural context for what The Bible was. So it’s a statement about the character, but it’s also about the whole theme of the series, which is going to be about deconstructing systems of power - and that’s everything from patriarchy to capitalism to religion.
SCOTT: This is actually your second apocalypse-related storyline, after [Nine Inch Nails' ARG/concept album] Year Zero, both of which are tales that take place within a post-apocalyptic - or as you said, a post-post-apocalyptic - environment. Seems like you have sort of a fascination with the idea of the apocalypse. Is that true?
ROB: It is. So, Year Zero is something that was set about twenty years from the time that we did it in 2007, and I would call it a “pre-apocalyptic” dystopia, where it was leading up to a very different idea of the apocalypse in that particular story. But the inspiration was the same as High Level. At that time we were seeing the seeds, in the Bush administration, of how religion and war and authoritarian elements were starting to creep quietly into society. And that was a much more gritty, realistic version of a dystopia, a really direct commentary on where we were in 2007. The difference with High Level is that we wanted to take the same idea of commenting on where we are right now, but taking it much further, so it’s much more in the realm of fantasy - it’s hundreds of years in the future. I think with Year Zero, that was really gritty and immediate, and people ask - because we were supposed to do a miniseries with HBO that went into production hell - “Is that Year Zero thing ever going to happen?”, and now I just say “Yeah, just turn on the news - it’s already happening.” Because so many things that we predicted with Year Zero are part of our reality now in the Trump administration.
SHULTZ: The evil timeline.
ROB: Yeah, there are so many parallels now to where we saw things headed. But the plot element in Year Zero that was about the apocalypse was something we were careening towards, and in High Level it happened long ago, and that’s inspired by how close we are right now to an apocalypse of climate, of resources, and mostly, of greed - of income inequality, where so few people hold so much of the wealth, and how that’s going to impact the climate apocalypse.
SCOTT: One of the problems that serialized television or comic books have is that the creator doesn’t always seem to know where [the story's] going. Things getting made up as they go along. But in my conversations with you, it sounds like you have a really good idea about where this story is going. You have it planned out through the end, is that correct?
ROB: Yeah, from when this was conceived to when it was green-lit to when it was actually put into production of the first issue was over a year, and in that time I plotted out an 18-issue arc that has the entire story figured out. Which is something I really wanted to do so we could plant little mysteries in the story, and know where they’re going, and not fall into the trap that often happens, especially in television —
SHULTZ: Like LOST.
ROB: I wasn’t gonna say it, but yeah, LOST. That’s the best example, where it feels like they start making it up as they go along. I wanted to be able to hint at bigger weirder mysteries while we’re telling this adventure story, and actually be able to answer them in a satisfying way later on. So I know where it’s all going, and I know what’s actually happening, and that’s where, as I said earlier, when it seems like this is a Mad Max / Borderlands story in the first issue, the comic will be almost unrecognizable by the seventh issue - except for the main characters.
SCOTT: Are you nervous about your new career as a comic book creator?
ROB: Yeah! I mean, it’s nerve-racking, because it’s a new industry for me. I don’t know that many people in the industry, and none of the readers know me. I’m new. And also, my fans from my previous career and my art aren’t necessarily comics people, so I’m trying to tell them “Hey, come check this out.” But to that end, I really wrote High Level for people who maybe haven’t read comics, or haven’t read them in years, and I wrote it very cinematically so it’s very easy to pick up and get engaged in the storyline. And I like that aspect of it, but it’s also weird to release issue #1, which is basically the first 15 minutes of the movie. That first issue was really hard to figure out, because I wanted it to start out kind of quietly and slow, but gets bigger and bigger as Thirteen goes through this journey. It's meant to be like onion layers of discovery. So it has to start out small in order for that to work, but you also have to hint at what’s coming, to hook people. That’s tricky and weird. Imagine if you watched the first ten minutes of Star Wars, and it’s just this kid in the desert complaining a lot. And then they said “Okay, wait one month, and then come back for more, it’s gonna get crazy!” That’s the weirdness of episodic comics right now, trying to find the balance of not spoiling anything, starting the story the way you want to start it dramatically, but also making sure that you hook people.
SHULTZ: Well, how many comics do you get hooked in the first issue, whereas you may have to get to issue 5 or 10 before people people start reading it, before it starts to gain followers?
ROB: Oh, for sure, I hope it’s going to attract more readers as it goes along and the story starts building. And then there’s the reality that a lot of people probably won’t read it until it comes out in a trade paperback where you can read six issues at once. But there are a lot of twists and turns, so I hope we find an audience within comics and outside of comics to follow along. I think anyone who’s into science fiction movies and TV would be into this kind of thing. It’s inspired by every sci-fi thing that I grew up with in '80s and '90s. So, it’s easy to get into if you grew up with the same types of movies I grew up with.
SCOTT: Right on. Well, we look forward to reading the rest of it!
SHULTZ: I’m pumped. I need to pre-order mine!
SCOTT: I’m waiting for the trade!
ROB: Thanks a lot, Scott.
Rob Sheridan's High Level arrives on February 20th. You can learn more (and pre-order issue #1) here, and you should definitely stay tuned for one more bit of High Level-related goodness next week: we've got a very fun Photoshop contest in the works that Rob's agreed to guest judge for us, and the prizes will definitely be of interest. Stay tuned.