Two different worlds, both inhabited by those who know their secret ways, their language. Writer Christopher Sebela is an explorer of both digital and print, navigating their terrains with ease and absolute adaptability. A prolific argonaut upturning stories and giving them to the masses.
On the digital side, Sebela’s “High Crimes” is a creator-owned crime thriller set at the top of the world with art by Ibrahim Moustafa from digital publisher Monkeybrain Comics that is already garnering the attention of comic pros and readers alike with two issues on sale. On the more traditional print side, Sebela recently joined the creative team of Marvel Comics’ “Captain Marvel,” co-writing the book alongside Kelly Sue DeConnick with art by Filipe Andrade. Working for two different publishers on two very different properties — not to mention delivery systems — can pose some unique challenges, and Sebela spoke with CBR News about his life in both the digital and print realms, how he adapts to each and what’s in store for the future of both series.
CBR News: Christopher, how did you get started with Monkeybrain? Why are they a good fit for “High Crimes?”
Christopher Sebela: I met [Monkeybrain Co-Publishers] Chris Roberson and Allison Baker a year ago, right around Emerald City Comic Con, and we got along well and started hanging out when they moved to Portland, about the time when Monkeybrain was getting started. I gave them a copy of “Screamland,” my first book, and they must have liked it, because they asked me to pitch them something.
“High Crimes” was top of my list of projects I’d been itching to do, but I was having a hard time selling publishers on it. It’s largely populated with people who do unpleasant things and aren’t necessarily likable, and I needed the room to tell their stories inside this larger story. Chris and Allison told me they wanted me to pitch the book I dreamed of doing, which is like getting a golden ticket from Willy Wonka. I gave them my pitch, they said yes and that was that.
Monkeybrain’s such a good fit because they’re interested in creators and letting them tell their stories however they want to do it. They put their faith in Ibrahim and I to make a book that we love for as long as we need to tell it right. It doesn’t matter if sales drop to nil, we have the room and the support to do our book without interference, without worrying whether the shoe of cancellation might drop at any second. Plus we get to be on a roster with so many other great books by creators I know and admire, it’s sort of like having access to a really amazing comics tree fort.
How long have you had “High Crimes” brewing in your mindspace?
Three-four years as a comic. I’d had ideas about Everest as a setting for some kind of story going back even longer, and it quickly turned into a crime thing that I toyed around with as a novel for a couple dozen pages, but there was always something lacking/intimidating for me. It wasn’t until I started working on writing comics that “High Crimes” really made way sense as a graphic story. It takes someone way more gifted with words than me to really convey the scale and harshness of Mount Everest. Luckily, Ibrahim’s art is so great that it totally makes up for my deficiencies.
What are some of the noticeable differences working in digital versus print? Is there one you prefer over the other?
Deadlines, primarily. With digital, you make your own, unless you’re trying to stick to a hard and fast schedule. If it takes you an extra week or month to do the next issue, you have the room to do it without making life a nightmare for printers and editors and publishers and pre-production people. Also, and this is totally minor, but you don’t have to worry about minor nightmares like bleed and trim, which always freak me out when preparing a book for print.
The last few years I’ve been in a reverse-hoarder pattern, getting rid of as much stuff as I can, so I do a majority of my reading in digital these days. But I still love print and as much as I love doing “High Crimes” digitally, I’m also super excited about when the printed collection eventually comes out. I’m not interested in a world where the two can’t coexist, or I can’t walk into a comic shop and actually hold my book in my hands.
Is it the same dealing with Marvel, where you’re co-writing “Captain Marvel,” as it is with a publisher like Monkeybrain?
That’s mostly logistics. With Marvel, you have editorial teams who are wrangling writers, artists, colorers and letterers and making the book come together on time. With Monkeybrain, you have yourself and your co-creator doing everything, sometimes learning on the job, and Monkeybrain is there to take your finished product and deliver it to the world at large. They’re also there for moral support and to help spread the word about your book, which is one of the hardest parts of doing a creator-owned book.
There’s something very satisfying about doing your own book in the wee hours of the night, making it happen despite the whole “life” thing getting in the way and celebrating when it works, and knowing you take the blame if it fails. But I’ve loved working on “Captain Marvel,” getting editorial notes from Sana Amanat and Steve Wacker is crazy helpful for me as a writer, watching beautiful pages roll in days after you’ve written them is surreal and seeing the huge reaction from the fans on tumblr is heartwarming. Ideally, I can do a mix of both, because I think each one feeds the other for me.
That sounds great. How did you get started as a writer? Was there a point at which you realized, “Hey, I can do this thing full time”?
I’ve pretty much always written, mostly while holding a series of soul-destroying office jobs. As far as pursuing it as a career, I wrote journalism as a side gig for a while, interviewing authors and plumbers and covering other random subjects, but ultimately I’m more comfortable telling my own stories. I ended up going freelance about 7 years ago doing production work and graphic design, which was great until the economy ate its own head and I watched the bottom start to fall away in slow motion. So that’s when I decided it was now or never and I should go ahead and actually pursue writing as a career instead of just writing for myself.
I don’t know if I’ve reached the point where I’ve had the realization I can do this full time. Right now it’s more of a mantra of future bliss, but it’s definitely becoming more real of a possibility the more work I do. I still have a ton of non-writing work still on my plate these days, freelance gigs like lettering and flatting that bridge the gap between reality and fantasy. But pretty much the moment I got the nod on my first book is when I decided that I want to do this for as long as the universe lets me get away with it.
The art, the pacing and the exposition are carefully crafted in “High Crimes.” How far in advanced have you plotted these stories out? And do you know what’s going to happen far down the line, or do you only think about a couple of issues at a time?
It’s a bit weird: “High Crimes” is plotted out to the end. I know, in a broad sort of way, what’s going to happen in each issue, but there’s also a lot of question marks along the way, how to juggle everything in a satisfying way, which keeps it exciting for me to write.
Nevermind that this is only the script stage. Once I see Ibrahim’s art that can change lots of stuff for me as I’m lettering that issue or open up possibilities I hadn’t thought about for down the road. I don’t think I’d ever show anyone one of my “High Crimes” scripts because they’re so wildly different from the finished product, it’s like when that elderly woman in Spain restored the Ecce Homo fresco and turned it into monkey Jesus. Except in reverse.
What’s the collaborative process like between the two of you? How would you juxtapose that against working with, say, another writer? Like in the case of Kelly Sue DeConnick on “Captain Marvel?”
The best part about working with Ibrahim is that we tend to keep each other invested and excited. When I saw his initial pages for the first issue of “High Crimes,” they were so good I knew I had to write better to keep pace with him. He encourages me to go crazy with panels. We’ve got a fire brigade system in place where I give him script pages, he sends me pencils, I start lettering them, he inks the pages, I flat those, he colors them. We live in the same city, but we’ve hung out only a handful of times because we’re both so busy with the book and other stuff. We mostly communicate digitally: passing files, talking on the phone, texting, e-mail. It’s been the best collaboration in comics I’ve had so far.
Kelly Sue and I are old friends, so our working method is very casual and conversational and, because we are writers, most of our working together happens completely separate from one another (or anyone) in our respective clean, well-lighted places. Also, with a book like “Captain Marvel,” that is so much Kelly Sue’s book through and through, it’s a little nerve-wracking coming in and trying not to wreck anything, so I tend to be a little more high-strung and neurotic than I usually am, which is a lot.
What source material did you look at and study in preparing for “High Crimes?”
Jon Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” first and foremost. I’ve read it half a dozen times, easily. That was really my entrance into Mount Everest as a thing, and it’s a hell of a gateway drug. From there I dug into history. Reinhold Messner’s books are invaluable for getting a master’s viewpoint, especially “The Crystal Horizon,” about the first solo ascent of Everest without oxygen. “Touching My Father’s Soul” by the son of Tenzing Norgay, part of the pair who conquered Everest. Anything by Conrad Anker or David Brashears. Anything about disasters up high, not just on Everest, but K2 or other high impossible peaks. There’s a ton of reality shows that follow climbers all the way to summit, including dead and dying bodies, no matter how cheesy they are, those are great to actually see the way up without having to drop $40K on a trip up that high. Then that just bleeds out to movies about snowy mountains, like “Cliffhanger” or “The Eiger Sanction.” Over the years, it’s become a huge tapestry of sources that all kind of bleed into one another.
Do you have anything else in the works with Monkeybrain?
I do have more books I want to do with Monkeybrain down the road that are pretty embryonic at the moment. I’m getting them into shape, looking for artists and trying to re-adjust to the demands of doing a monthly book, but I’m optimistic that I’ll have something else coming up with them sooner than later, but for now, “High Crimes” is my number one priority.