(DC Vertigo)

As billionaires prep for the apocalyptic "Event," what happens to everyone else?

Salon talks to Rob Sheridan about "High Level," his DC comic about income inequality and the post-apocalypse


Chauncey DeVega
September 2, 2019 7:30PM (UTC)

The Earth is in the midst of an environmental disaster. Humankind may not survive the Anthropocene.

Climatologists and other scientists are warning that if the Earth’s temperature rises more than 2 degrees Celsius that the human race may have reached a point of no return in terms of stopping global warming and the catastrophes it will cause.

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Global warming is causing rising sea levels which threaten at least one billion people. Global warming is also generating a weather feedback loop which is causing hurricanes, blizzards, firestorms, and droughts to become more extreme. There is also a shortage of arable land and fresh water. Entire ecosystems are collapsing all over the planet.

The world's militaries are preparing to fight “resource wars.” These conflicts will likely kill many thousands (if not millions of people). Resource wars will also create a global refugee crisis as entire populations are displaced. As global warming melts glaciers in Antarctica, Siberia, Greenland and elsewhere there will also be a mad scramble by the United States, Russia, China, and other nations to secure rare earth metals and other resources.

As the Earth’s climate and weather continues to worsen who will live and who will die?

The answer: the rich will find a way to survive while everyone else will experience gradations of misery and death depending on their socioeconomic status.

This is the logical and predictable result of extreme inequality where 1 percent own half the planet's wealth. This inequality is also a function of neocolonialism where the West continues to enrich itself by siphoning a huge amount of resources and other wealth away from the Global South and the “Third World” every year. Rich countries also benefit disproportionately from destroying the world's environment.

Neoliberal policymakers and other elites in the West and elsewhere have developed a language and ideology to justify doing everything and anything possible to survive environmental collapse and the global chaos it will cause.

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Such a system of extreme self-interest is encouraged by how, at its core, neoliberalism is an example of Social Darwinism and Malthusian thinking: survival of the fittest is the guiding principle. All other people are expendable and viewed as being “surplus” under this form of human livestock management. The rich and powerful justify and naturalize such an outcome through a disproved theory known as "lifeboat ethics".

How is "apocalyptic greed" fueling environmental disaster? What will human society look like in the aftermath of a global environmental disaster? How can we create a more humane and just society to both prevent such a dystopic outcome and/or to survive once it occurs? In what ways are human history and memory being turned into a commodity owned and controlled by the few as society becomes more digital and less analog? How are plutocrats and elites across the political spectrum working from the same playbook as they prepare for “the Event”.

In an effort answer these questions I recently spoke with Rob Sheridan. He is a futurist and former graphic designer for the band Nine Inch Nails. He is also the writer of the new science fiction graphic novel series “High Level” from DC Comics.

This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

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You are now writing a comic book. You were the web designer and artist for the bands Nine Inch Nails and How to Destroy Angels. Does the novelty and surprise of what you do for a living ever go away?

In the past I've worked mostly with other artists. "High Level" is my first foray into doing something that is entirely my own creatively. That has been a big career change for me. There are moments when I say to myself, “Oh my God, this is just me now."

It is exhilarating and terrifying. There is the excitement of being able to guide a project in my own way. But there is also the terror of "now it is up to me". You make something, you put it out into the world and you hope people like it.

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Right now I'm riding on the high of feeling a sense of relief that readers have been responding so positively to the graphic novel series. I think it is really important for a creator to acknowledge that almost every artist and other creative people as well feels a certain sense of impostor syndrome. But in the end it is really satisfying to know that readers are enjoying the book.

How did you overcome the anxiety and decide to follow through on being an artist, a writer, and doing that creative work as your profession?

I don't think I ever got over it. And I don't think the vast majority of creative people ever truly get over that feeling. When I got asked by Nine Inch Nails if they wanted to work with me when I was a 19-year-old kid who'd only just done websites on my own in high school, there was this feeling of, “What are you talking about? I can't do this.” But when you're asked to take on a project, a big challenge, you can either step up and say, "Well, they asked me so there must be some value in what I'm doing and I should pursue it" or you can shrink away. I had similar feelings when DC Vertigo came to me and they said, "We like your work that you've done in the past. Do you have a pitch idea for a comic?"

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When you are in that impostor syndrome headspace, you think immediately, I'm not a comic book writer, or I'm not this, or I'm not that, your immediate instinct is to say, "No, no, no, no, no." But you have to overcome that voice. You have to step up to the challenge — or not. It's very rewarding to find out that stepping up and conquering that impostor syndrome voice often works. And I think every creative person should remember that all of their heroes, all of the biggest artists, all the biggest musicians, no matter what they've achieved feel that way in one way or another.

What is the creative DNA of "High Level"? There is clearly some "A Boy and His Dog" in the story.

The first story arc is very much “A Boy and His Dog.” But it's not the ultimate destination. But it is important to begin “High Level” that way for a number of what are mostly character-driven reasons. I love classic adventures where people are forced into a task they didn't want to take on and then have to go from their small place in the world out into a much bigger and much more dangerous environment that they never wanted anything to do with. “Lone Wolf and Cub” is another example of the type of storytelling that inspires my work.

It is also my first comic book as a writer. I want to tell the type of story that I want to read. I want to tell the type of story that has inspired me since I was a kid. I'm not afraid to wear my influences on my sleeves. “High Level” is heading to a place that few readers are going to expect. I just want them to come along for the journey.

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What are some of the other influences?

I'm a huge fan of 1980s retro futurism. And by that I mean specifically the way that science fiction in the 1980s and the 1970s shows how the future would be. I am specifically very interested in the predictions of the future made at the time which have now been shown to be incorrect.

For example a film such as “Blade Runner” has flying cars. But there are these tiny little boxy old televisions in the "Blade Runner" movies and that world still does not have the internet. They are still using pay phones, disks and analog hardwired technology. “Total Recall” is another film that I love which envisioned the future from an analogy perspective. The story I wanted to tell and the commentary I wanted to offer begins where we are right now in 2019.

Where are we heading as a global society? There is climate change that is going to completely disrupt society if we don't do anything about it. Climate change impacts the power grid, infrastructure, and just about every aspect of human society. In this future I am imagining in "High Level" digital devices that rely on the cloud or other types of network connectivity are gone. They don't exist anymore.

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If human society is thrust into several generations where survival is all that matters then our technological comforts will fall by the wayside. This means that the beginning of "High Level" shows a society that is scavenger based. They're rebuilding their own technology from old things they find from the past. This allows me to introduce a very tactile analog element to the world of "High Level."

Because of digital technology we are going to know a lot more about the far past -- paper and books will survive -- than we will about the recent past. If there is a global disaster much of the digital information will be gone — or at the very least the means of accessing it will be.  

That is exactly what “High Level” is grappling with. In the first issue the opening monologue is about the main character discovering a book that we, the readers, know is the Bible. But in the world of “High Level” they do not have any cultural context for what the Bible is or means. So to that character, it is just a book of gibberish.

How far are we really from that future right now? “High Level” is also about the erasure of history. All they have left are books. What if 50 years into our future there is a moment when our infrastructure and all of our digital technologies are disrupted in one way or another. As we increasingly put all of our media, all of our history, all of our thoughts, all of our memories onto the internet — we call it the cloud, but it doesn't exist in the air. It exists on physical servers on the ground, and if the servers are destroyed we lose all of our history. Books will survive. And then maybe the only real true recorded history of what brought the world to that moment exists only for the people who had the money to preserve it. That is where “High Level’s” story is going.

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Imagine how much control the very rich, the elites have over knowledge and information.  If they wanted to delete all of our collective memories and history there are only so many people who really have the keys to all of that digital technology right now. And of course they are the very rich and powerful. When it comes down to who survives as Earth’s environment collapses, what are these plutocrats and other very rich and very powerful people going do? Are they going help us all or are they going to help themselves? That dichotomy about how the 1% survives versus how the 99% survives is really the core of the idea behind "High Level."

The average person is just trying to survive under a regime of cruelty as well as distraction that is neoliberalism. Most people are not thinking about the future in a big picture way. Their lives are very much about the immediate present and getting dopamine hits to their brains from social media, smart phones, and other technology to combat their deep feelings of loneliness and social atomization. By contrast, the 1 percent and the other global plutocrats and oligarchs are planning for the future and what they see to be an inevitable calamity.

The differences between the “alt-right” conspiracy theorist types online and billionaires who are viewed as being liberal in some way or another are really not that great.

They both have a mutual priority which is survival. They want to preserve their way of life. The “alt-right” ideologically driven racial “ethno state” vision is not really that different than that of the private billionaire. They are going to keep all of their stuff and everyone else can go off and die. This is true even of those billionaires who are self-proclaimed philanthropists and who say that they're liberal. At the end of the day when push comes to shove they are all going to preserve their way of life above anything else.

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The secret billionaires— the ones who have huge sums of wealth and who keep a low profile — are now asking futurists, "What's the best way for us to survive the Event?” They do not exactly know what the Event specifically is, as it could be global ecological disaster, mass migration, a class uprising, but the billionaires are planning for it. They feel like it's coming. And they know that the cross-hairs are on them.

These questions include, “How do we build a super bunker? How do we hire militias to protect us and make sure that they won't turn on us?  Do we trust AI?”

If things do not change core questions of survival are going to dominate the future of humanity. That future will be very different for those who are allowed to hoard the wealth as opposed to the rest of humankind. The world is facing an apocalypse of greed, the intersection of income inequality and climate change.

What happens when there is no more arable land and readily accessible fresh water? What happens when the middle class, the lower working class and the poor can no longer access cheap consumer goods? The replacement of huge swaths of the American and European (and global) middle and professional classes with robots and AI?  When global warming floods the world? These are the questions that we as a species will be forced to grapple with sooner rather than later.

Right now there is an American populace which has been convinced that they're being betrayed somehow by immigrants or by having to pay taxes to maintain a minimum social safety net for “those people.” At the same time, these very same people are the ones who want to run out to Walmart every weekend and catch the cheapest deals on giant TVs.

So many Americans do not understand that the reason they can have all this cheap stuff is because it's made on the backs of laborers from other countries. And if they got those precious American jobs that they want back, then those TVs at Walmart would cost three times as much — at least. Too many people in America have been conditioned to not think logically about these issues. When these huge system shocks hit it is going to be really ugly unless we can somehow turn the tide of American culture at present.

There is the Event, the global disaster. But then there is what happens after, that moment which some futurists, science fiction writers, social scientists and others have described as the “post-post-apocalypse”? How do we reestablish normalcy? What does that look like in your graphic novel series “High Level”?

For me, it is not so much about establishing normalcy as it is revolution.

“High Level” is a science fiction fantasy. But I want to draw a really strong parallel to where we as a country and species are right now. We need to take a critical look at certain aspects of our society that are working as well as the other ones which are tearing us down. There are so many people who have bought into an incorrect narrative about their own personal progress, the meaning of their lives, and ultimately what a “high level” is for them.

In “High Level” I wanted to show a world where there are people developing a community after the post-post-apocalypse. They are making things work. They are trying to solve problems and live in a communal way. They work with each other. The people in this new world are guided by communal values. The ultimate revolution is realizing that the real power is in us and it is not elsewhere in the hands of elites or some other higher system of control.


Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a politics staff writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at Chaunceydevega.com. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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