“It’s hard to depict the endless slog of climbing Everest without getting a little stir-crazy” Christopher Sebela on High Crimes, white-outs and Eisner Award nominations

High_Crimes_01With San Diego Comic Con just around the corner, that means the annual Eisner Awards – the comic industry’s leading prize – is also about to be upon us. As well as the usual back-slapping and hand shaking for the comic world’s leading titles from the big publishers, six fantastic comics will be vying for the prize of ‘Digital/Web Comic of the Year’. One of those is Everest-set crime thriller High Crimes, from digital-first publisher MonkeyBrain Comics. We catch up with writer Christopher Sebela to find out about the impact of this prestigious nomination, the secrets to writing a story at high altitude and  who he’d cast in the movie of the series.

High Crimes #7 cover

“We’ve gotten lots of new readers showing up to check us out and the book is definitely a bit of an easier sell at cons and pushing it online when we preface it with “Eisner nominated.”

High Crimes has been shortlisted as one of the titles on the ‘best digital comics series’ list for this year’s Eisner awards at SDCC (as well as best new series), how significant has the nomination been for you?

CS: Basically, we’re two creators that no one had really heard of before High Crimes and the reception it keeps getting blows our minds on a monthly basis. Being nominated for two Eisners after all this is completely bonkers for us, and while getting nominated for best digital is great, we were really blown away by being nominated for Best New Series as well, alongside books like Sex Criminals, Rat Queens and Lazarus. We’re the first digital-only book to get nominated for that category, I believe, so all of it is super significant on a whole lot of levels. We’ve gotten lots of new readers showing up to check us out and the book is definitely a bit of an easier sell at cons and pushing it online when we preface it with “Eisner nominated.”

The story of Zan and Haskell has taken a much darker turn in recent issues now that they are reaching the summit of everest, has the story evolved and changed as you wrote it or has it ended up as you always envisaged? 

CS: It has and it hasn’t. I always had the core story idea in my mind and an ending that was pretty locked in from the get-go, but it’s definitely not the same book it was when I pitched it to MonkeyBrain. All that is due to Ibrahim and his storytelling. His pages and the choices he makes on each one have definitely changed my mind on story beats or plot points as we went and we occasionally have these long conversations about what’s coming up next and what we should do differently. The last time was me calling him from the bathtub of a sleazy motel in Kalama, Washington and us figuring out some major changes that got both of us super excited about the book all over again.

You do a great job creating this highly claustrophobic world at the top of the mountain which is both incredibly exposed and also very isolating, was that why you chose to set the story at the top of a mountain? And do you prefer writing the stuff up the mountain to those at base camp?

CS: That is the weird thing about climbing Everest, or any expedition where you’re part of a larger team or community. There can be a lot of camaraderie and partying going on at any of the camps, a sort of ritual denial of anything going wrong, a group reassurance that everything is gonna be okay. While climbing, you have guides telling you where to go, where to clip in, how to cross this ladder bridge, but ultimately you spend most of the time alone, inside your head, trying to make your body obey you and put one foot in front of the other. And if you fall, if you get deathly ill, no matter how big the expedition, no matter how well you might’ve gotten along with them down at camp, that all doesn’t mean squat when you’re that high up, you might as well be completely alone.

I like writing all of it, because they both feed each other, you can’t have the stark aloneness of climbing without the summer camp vibe of camp. But base camp is probably my preference because it’s hard to depict the endless slog of climbing Everest without getting a little stir-crazy myself.

Zan is a very flawed character for a heroine, with a lot of selfish and self-destructive tendencies, how difficult is it to find her moral compass in terms of what she will and won’t do when it comes to the right thing? 

CS: I’d say it’s probably just a notch or three more difficult for Zan than for most of us. Because she’s already fallen, already lost so much because of following her moral compass the wrong direction, it’s harder for her to make that clear call as to what’s the “right” thing to do. The uncertainty is the best part of writing the book for me, that Zan has become real enough to me that I’ve changed things because they’re not things she would do, or I’ve tried to make her go one way and it’s become pretty clear she was always gonna go this other way. I love writing screwed up people. I’m a screwed up person. I think most of us are, even if we don’t go around being as obvious about it as Zan is, we all have insecurities and regrets and wishes that’ll never happen. Writing screwed-up people is easier than writing non-screwed-up people because I’m 90% certain non-screwed-up people don’t exist.

High Crimes 06 page 4

“It’s the first time we got together and broke down the pages in person…[to] give the reader a better scope of just how big and empty it is up there.” Christopher Sebela on issue 5 and 6’s ‘white out’ scene

One of our absolute favourite scenes in High Crimes was the white out scene in issue 5 and 6 which saw you flip the orientation of the book to mimic the effect on the climbers, whose idea was that, yours or [artist] Ibrahim Mustafa’s? How successful do you think that scene was in conveying the mood you wanted?

CS: Thanks! That was both Ibrahim and I. It’s the first time we got together and broke down the pages in person, to get the mood we were going for, to open up the layouts for that big action scene, and sort of give the reader a better scope of just how big and empty it is up there. I think we were successful? I think it’s one of the best parts of the book so far, but I’m biased by the process of Ibrahim and I sitting across a table outside a coffeeshop and breaking each page down panel by panel to something we were both excited about and just how beautifully they came out in the end.

Have you had much feedback from the mountaineering community about High Crimes? You include essays in each issue, was that an intentional thing to appeal to them or just a reflection of something that was important to you? And how important has it been to keep the story as accurate as possible for mountaineers?

CS: We haven’t. I have a friend who is a big-time climber and I ran a lot of stuff by him to make sure it reads to him alright, that was comforting enough. With everything we do in the book, we’ve done as much homework as we can to try to hew very closely to reality, making facts our foundation for all the crazy stuff we pile on top of it. We don’t want to lie about what Everest is like. Hell, we don’t have to, it’s dynamic and terrifying enough. But we also aren’t trying to make a documentary, so I’m sure that anyone who has climbed Everest could totally come up to us and be like “That part is totally inaccurate” or “why didn’t you cover this?” We’ve mostly comforted ourselves with the fact that there isn’t a huge population of people who have summited Everest and reads independent creator-owned comics, so we’re not gonna get called out too often if we have slipped up.

High Crimes has a very cinematic feel to it and I could see it being turned into a movie, if so who would you like to see in the lead roles?

CS: Ibrahim and I talked about this a long while ago and I remember nominating Bradley Cooper to be Sullivan Mars, but a lot of that is down to me having a man crush on him. Ibrahim’s suggestion for Mars was Edward Norton, which totally works too. I think Ibrahim also had the idea of Kate Mara as Zan, which is what I think of whenever I see her now. Haskell feels like we’d have to go back in time and get Kris Kristofferson from 15 years ago, but barring that, maybe John Slattery from Mad Men?

Finally, if you win the Eisner, what will it mean to you and how important is a prize like this for a writer like yourself?

CS: It would be huge for both of us. We started working on this book 2 years ago because it’s a thing we both believed in and we’ve put our hearts and souls into each issue, sometimes taking months to get an issue out because we want it to be right. We do it for no money up front and not a ton on the back end. It was a leap of faith on both our parts, and on the part of MonkeyBrain, to make High Crimes happen and we never expected even to be nominated. To win? That would be insanity and I think I’d probably spend the rest of the night swinging between floating on air and crying. Or both.

High Crimes #1-7 is available from MonkeyBrain Comics exclusively on ComiXology for £0.69/$0.99 per issue.

Author: Alex Thomas

Alex Thomas is the Editor and founder of PIpedream Comics. He grew up reading comics in the 90s, so even though he loves all things indie and small press, he is easily distracted by a hologram cover.