By Christopher Sebela and Ibrahim Moustafa
She’s unforgiving. She’s harsh, cold and littered with broken dreams and regret. Stuck in place, with the past buried just below the surface, she’s almost impossibly removed from reality. And then there’s also Everest. This is High Crimes. It’s a story about perseverance and about trying to discover if there’s such a thing as rebirth; or if all our fuck-ups and what-ifs and hopes are insurmountable no matter how high we reach. It’s about addiction and the inexplicable urge to put oneself in harm’s way time and time again, even when every voice you can hear is screaming, “No, you idiot!” Christopher Sebela and Ibrahim Moustafa have undeniably poured themselves into every crevice of this story and don’t you dare sell them short by going into this tale with expectations. Let it catch you unaware and surrender yourself to it because it deserves your respect as a thing far grander and far more challenging than what you could ever prepare for. Meet Zan Jensen and struggle with her, fall with her and then pick yourself up and climb with her. It’s a long way to the top.
That Christopher Sebela is one smart dude. Beyond the evident amount of research he waded through (historical, scientific, practical, etc.) the way its integrated into the story is elegantly subtle. There’s never a large info-dump regarding what a piece of equipment is or unwieldy statistics extrapolated over a long sequence of panels. That’s all there of course, and every ounce of it enhances the richness of the real story unfolding over the twelve issues, but the meat of High Crimes is the journey of the aforementioned Zan (short for Suzanne) Jensen. The real success of Sebela’s deft scripting is in creating this impossibly real, flawed and multi-faceted character. You very well may not sympathize with her, but you’re damn sure going to empathize with her. With every step she takes, you feel her struggle and make no mistake: it is a struggle in every sense of the word.
An addict in a myriad of ways, Zan’s desires to fade away intertwine and dance with her desire for redemption. A former Olympic athlete whose sense of invincibility paired well with her search for her next high, Zan continued to think she could stay one step ahead by falling down hard. Eventually she found herself on the bottom of the world, at the base of its highest point, partnering with Haskell Price to recover the dead adventures strewn about Everest’s many nooks for their families in exchange for a hearty fee. They made a living off the dead, and Zan felt stuck somewhere in between the two. She literally carried the past with her in the form of her three Olympic medals, heavy symbols for her past, for her identity. She was ready to throw it all away, scrape the bottom of the drug den and pub barrel, so long as she could hold on to those. Until Haskell found the body of someone who was far more complicating than their average adventurer and the two found themselves involved in an espionage-driven thriller; light on flair, heavy on the brutality that comes along with it. With it, Zan finds a fellow identity-less wanderer, Sullivan Mars; a distorted mirror version of herself in the form of someone looking to straighten out the truth from the presentation, and one hoping for a reawakening that can only be found at the greatest of heights.
Sebela’s dialogue is succinct, much like the stern characters found within, but good lord is it full of heart. Filled with characters revealing themselves by concealing themselves through speech, much of the real insight comes in the form of captions where the reader spends time inside the minds of Zan and Sullivan. Like the trek up the mountain itself, the journey through their drug-addled minds, unravel in a Lovecraftian manner with the truth becoming a madness as their brains starve for oxygen. Sullivan’s journal, the reader’s at Zan’s window and mirror into a life spent lying, killing and searching, is an examination of paranoia and loss. Sebela intersperses the entries to best match the physical and mental challenges occurring in real time and it’s a testament to how tightly structured the entire series is. Its pace matches the arduous trek up Everest itself; threats from the formidable mountain balanced against those from the robotic, merciless government agents and from within Zan’s mind.
As things unravel they become simultaneously more cryptic and more coherent, with each step forward exponentially increasing in difficulty. But you read on because like Zan, there is no alternative. There’s only the hope that the peak will reveal the purpose and that everything that was sacrificed, both willingly and unwillingly, won’t be in vain. Is it about hope? Possibly, but Sebela crafts a narrative that is far more concerned with why we hope in the first place. We err, we fight, we survive, and we climb towards something even when it makes no sense to do so. The dialogue, the captions, the mirror-dance of Zan and Sullivan juxtaposed atop a grounded, espionage thriller are in perfect harmony, even when it feels as harsh and as desolate as the Earth’s tallest point. Yes, it’s a metaphor for letting go and finding oneself, but it’s as earnest as the mountain itself.
Ibrahim Moustafa approaches the art in High Crimes like one would need to approach the undertaking of scaling Everest itself; methodically. This is not to say it’s cold or emotionless; far from it. Moustafa’s art is beyond engrossing in its attention to detail and ability to convey the horrors of both natural extremes and those of the human condition. His line is laser sharp and precise while remaining adeptly constrained. As the series progresses, you see him improve with each issue as the character’s get worn and battered. Perhaps most impressive is his ability to convey the toll this adventure takes on his figures; their frostbitten, weathered skin increasing bit by bit that gnaws away at their noses as they’re being pulled down by their padded mountain vestments. The accuracy of the equipment and environs is beautiful and pairs exceptionally well with his realistic style replete with the full detail of the rigidity of Everest. It’s never over-done and the horror of the isolation mixed with serenity is captured perfectly. Moustafa never weighs the art down with heavy shadows, content to let the unforgiving, sterile environment make itself known and allows the heft to occur in the figures where it has the greatest effect.
Often muted and lightly textured, the colors echo the level of tension on every page. They’re soft and honest and never overtake the inked pencils; content to the harshness and vibrancy come from elsewhere while still managing to run a gamut the gamut of cools and warms. With so much white to be found the level of pop presented is impressively restrained with how it all blends together naturally, as though the bright orange parkas are perfectly at home in this cold behemoth. The reflections in goggles, the pink-stained Mars flashbacks, the stark contrast of blood on snow are all clinical while maintaining a soothing tone despite the gruesomeness of their circumstance. Like the intrepid climbers, Moustafa’s colors feel windswept and faded just enough to ensure that the next step is still more than visible in the stark surroundings.
Above all of that however, is Moustafa’s clever layouts. Transitioning from tight, tension-inducing sequences to full bore wide-screen mode (the avalanche issue in particular is a marvel) and surgical overlapping panels, Moustafa. Surgical, in fact, is a good descriptor for his approach overall: methodical, precise, in full control and able to extract the exact amount of despair, strength and symbolism with ease. Often the full-page backdrop will be a single splash image with multiple specific moments-in-time panels expertly positioned to give a sense of the grand scale of the feats taking place, while also making sure to zoom into exactly all the little mechanical aspects required to achieve them. Other times, it’s appropriately framed with rigid white borders, trapping the contents like so much a Mondrian playground with each Tetris block locked in place. It’s chaos, structuralized. If there’s a better constructed page than where empty oxygen tanks fall like spent shell casings and the mountain becomes a literal pile of the dead, this reviewer hasn’t seen it. Moustafa approaches the page like he’s forming x-rays as to the hidden truths and horrors that lie just below the fallen snow and it’s a pleasure to examine each and every one.
This is a difficult book to review, if only because in order to fully appreciate all the care and craft poured into it, one must take the entire journey to understand its truths. What Sebela and Moustafa have done with a book whose pitch belies its complexity is remarkable. Does it feel like it slows in places? Maybe, but each of those moments are given new life when once looks back upon reaching the final destination. Are there metaphors waiting on the surface to be grasped? Certainly, but that hardly means they’re lacking in heartfelt, well-woven honesty. Rarely does one get to read a book this technically precise while still feeling the pangs of struggle along with the characters’ every step. What drives you? What holds you back? What ultimately gets to decide what defines you? For Zan, and Sullivan and Haskell and Dorje and hell, even our men in black antagonists, it’s all found on the way to the top. We all fall, sometimes we even fall on purpose, but we don’t get to the top alone and we’re never sure what we’re going to find when we get there. High Crimes is so much more than what you’re expecting and it puts itself all out there without any hidden meanings or unnecessary layers. Everything is there for you to find if you’re willing to undertake the journey to get there. Beautiful, practical, joyously exhausting, and precisely crafted, High Crimes is nothing short of a triumph.