'High Crimes': mountain of madness

One upon a time, an entire subcontinent crashed into the largest continent. Tectonic plates collided, sending rocks jutting toward the heavens. Jagged peaks formed formed the Himalayas, and looming higher than any other was Everest. Sir Edmund Hilary famously journeyed to the top of the world, a feat that inspired generations of explorers to believe that no place on Earth is unconquerable. But they're not always right, for on its icy, windswept cliffs, many an intrepid soul has succumbed to its perils. Everest is a mountain of madness. It's a mountain ... of death.

Christopher Sebela and Ibrahim Moustafa's Eisner-nominated comic High Crimes (Monkeybrain) follows the thrilling, high-stakes adventure of a lost soul named Suzanne "Zan" Jansen. She was an avid snowboarder until her Olympic dreams were cruelly crushed by an injury. Haunted by failure, her days are spent in an unbreakable cycle of drinking and self-loathing. She ends up involved in a sordid occupation: finding the missing bodies of those who disappeared on climbing expeditions. The dirty work is done by her grizzled, older business partner Haskell, who chops a hand off the dead, then returns to base to have it stored in his freezer. The fingerprints are traced by a corrupt police officer, and the identity lets them know which families to bribe.

One day, Haskell is dealt a bad hand. Literally. It belongs to a decades-old corpse who used to be Sebastian Mars. He's not just a climber; he's a person of interest. Inside the severed hand, Zan discovers a capsule containing a rolled-up microfiche of secrets. It turns out that it's something like the Maltese Falcon: the stuff that dreams are made of, and a thing of extreme value to the wrong kinds of people.

The fingerprint search triggers these malefactors into action. With frightening efficiency, a team of hitmen follow the paper trail, brutalizing anyone involved. They descend on Haskell. It's Sebastian Mars they want, and they're perfectly capable of relieving Haskell of redundant limbs until he gives up the information.

Arriving too late to help her partner, Zan goes on the run, her Olympic instincts switching on as she barely slips through the grasps of her would-be captors. The adrenaline kick and the promise of riches buried on the peaks of Everest finally shake her out of her stupor. With a newfound resilience, Zan follows Haskell and the agents to the base camp of one of the most unforgiving places in the world.

When I was younger, I used to read a lot of adventure novels aimed at young male readers. There were tales of  luckless teens who got stranded on Alcatraz Island with murderous gang members, or hikers who ran across a downed plane filled with cocaine.  High Crimes reminds me of those two-fisted boy's adventure stories. There's even a sweet retro cover for Issue 4 that blares, "They raced to the top for glory, but all they found waiting for them was danger!" (Shoot, do those kinds of books still exist ...  or have they all been replaced by the books about students of witchcraft and wizardry?)

Zan certainly reminds me of the typical adventure protagonist, only gender-swapped. She's sullen and moody, finding any hint of compassion to be a fatal weakness. But when her back is against the wall, she becomes an unbeatable super-soldier. It doesn't matter if it's woman vs. man or woman vs. nature, pain doesn't hurt. Blood and bruises only make her tougher.

Moustafa's illustrations convey Everest's stunning grandeur and devilish perils. When Zan arrives in Everest, she can't help but stare at the mountain in awe. It's her first time seeing it after resisting for so long, and we can't help but stare along with her. She and her guide are on a path along a steep cliff, already dwarfed by the nearby cliffs and foliage. But Everest looms higher still, a mountain that dares all challengers to crash violently against its foreboding peaks.

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