Review: High Crimes

Those of you who have been reading my work for a while know that I love few things in this world like I like comics, and I like few comics like I like High Crimes by Christopher Sebela and Ibrahim Moustafa. I failed as a reviewer and fell behind on the last few issues of the series, so I’m taking this opportunity to freak the freak out about the fact that I finally get to read the end of the story. This is one of those series that is easy to summarize on the surface but tough to get to the nuance of. In terms of basic plot, what if a secret agent died on Everest with his secrets hidden on microfilm in his body, and a couple high-altitude grave robbers found his body, kicking off a cat and mouse game at 29,000 feet? That is this book. But there’s so much more to the story. It’s a story about discovering who you are when the rug gets pulled out from under you, and again when you discover you’re the one who pulled the rug; it’s about addiction and madness and how self-discovery and massive achievement don’t always lead to major personal overhauls. “I always wanted to save the day,” says the main character, Zan. “It seemed easier than saving myself.”

Sebela and Moustafa are the rare kind of creative team that is firing on all cylinders right out of the gate. In a 12 issue series like this, I would expect it to be issue 3 or so before they really hit their stride; Sebela and Moustafa waste no time. This is a fully-realized world, from the way that Zan interacts with the locals in Kathmandu to the way the Strange Agents hint at their own tragic downfalls, to the way that everyone’s backstory doubles back on itself and reveals new, hidden dimensions of personal pain.

Essentially, the story rests on the microfilm, and who’s going to get to it first. It’s a classic McGuffin, except that the contents of the film reveal themselves to be incredibly important to the story by the end, something that other McGuffins like the Maltese Falcon never manage to do. It’s a nice shift from following the film in the same way you follow the summit--it doesn’t necessarily matter what it is that you’re chasing, it just matters that it’s there and it has to be achieved. The fact that Sebela and Moustafa turn it around and make it all matter is another sign of their skill as storytellers.

High-Crimes-TPBHonestly, most of this book is me remembering with shock every issue that this book was written by two people who have not only never summitted Everest, but two people who have never even been there. They get the majesty of the area, they get the treachery of nature, they get what really drives these characters to literally kill themselves slowly to get to a point that is five miles from sea level on foot.

The publishing on this volume is top-notch all around. Originally published by Monkeybrain with their partnership with ComiXology, I read most of this book using their Guided View technology. It’s a fine way to read comics on the go and get an issue in on your phone, but reading it in full page format like this makes this book even more majestic and impressive than it already was. It’s much easier to see the masterful ways that Moustafa and Sebela insert pacing into this story. Scenes when they go from a panel of Zan to a matching panel of Sullivan to a new panel of Sullivan to a matching panel of Zan; the issue that’s almost entirely horizontal splash pages after the avalanche. It’s interesting to see those as horizontal pages, because with Guided View, it dragged you along with them, but in a print volume, they would lose some art and lettering in the spine, so moving the book horizontal to read them makes for an interesting experience, and lets Moustafa really shine. The design sense of this volume really shines, as well. Aside from the bonus material in the back with Sebela’s commentary, each chapter heading features a significant item from the story, and gives the book a cohesive feeling that some collections lose. The only time it really stumbled was when there was an image of a dollar bill on a page that leaked over onto a panel on the first page of an issue, but it’s passable.

This is one of those classic noir stories where the protagonist lives in a world of disillusioned people who still believe in god, even if god is Chomolungma, the Holy Mother of Everest; the guides up the mountain are heavy smokers even up to 25,000 feet, but they won’t allow swearing on the slopes. Meanwhile, Zan is climbing up the mountain and learning more things about herself, but she just gets beat up the entire time. She gets trapped in an icefall, she falls into a crevasse and barely saves herself, and meanwhile she’s fighting her drug addiction and getting clean by necessity. The drugs give another nice parallel into the theme of programming vs. free will; where Zan is ruled by the drugs and her need for ritual and routine in her life, Mars is ruled by The Room and has to decide if he’s trying to summit Everest because it will heal him or because someone implanted it in him. Meanwhile, being on Everest lets Moustafa and Sebela use weather to reflect character states, and it makes it so much more dramatic; a thunderstorm in a cornfield is fine, but a thunderstorm on top of Everest is some real Wrath-of-God shit.

Last thing I want to mention: the covers. Moustafa is relatively new to the game--I haven’t seen him do anything but High Crimes, and I’m more than okay seeing him devote all his time to it. The covers, especially on issues 7 and 8 that hide subliminal faces and body parts in the art, are truly stunning, and they only get better and better as the series goes on. We all know that Sebela has more projects lined up; he’s been working on Ghost and the Aliens properties at Dark Horse, he’s done some Marvel work, and he’s got a new series called We(l)come Back coming out at Boom! soon. But the most important question: what’s Moustafa’s next project and how long do I have to wait before I can give him my money for it?

If you’re picking up Batman, Saga and The Walking Dead this Wednesday, but you’re not picking up High Crimes, you’re missing the single best volume on the shelf, and I pity you. At 20 bucks in hardcover, it’s also one of the best deals I’ve ever seen, and that’s the frickin’ cover price. Buy this book, you rubes. Support amazing comics.

Score: 5/5

High Crimes Creators: Christopher Sebela and Ibrahim Moustafa Color Assistance: Lesley Atlansky Lettering Assistance: Shawn Aldridge Publisher: Dark Horse/Monkeybrain Price: $19.99 Release Date: 7/8/15 Format: Hardcover; Print/Digital