“Soldiers of armies, storm empty fields in a traveler’s trance, on the way to the high frontier”
I’m trying to catch up on my graphic novels reviews, as you can tell, and while High Crimes came out in June (I think), and therefore I should have reviewed it earlier in this run (the first review this month was for a book that came out in April, I think), I didn’t actually get it until September, when I bought it from Ibrahim Moustafa at the Rose City Comic Con.
For some reason it never showed up at my comics shoppe (I blame Diamond, as I usually do), so I was glad I found it at the convention. But that meant I pushed it back a little, and now it shows up! What this means, of course, is that I’ve been writing a review a day for three weeks and I’m only two months behind now! PROGRESS! High Crimes, by the way, is written by Christopher Sebela, drawn by Moustafa, and partially colored by Lesley Atlansky (she is credited with “color assistance” on some chapters) and partially lettered by Shawn Aldridge (who is credited with “lettering assistance” on some chapters). Everyone’s pal Jim Gibbons edited this, and Dark Horse published it for $19.99. Of course, I could have also gotten this digitally from Monkeybrain, but then I wouldn’t have been able to get Moustafa, Sebela, and Atlansky to sign it, would I?
High Crimes has a good high concept – an espionage thriller on Mount Everest – but it’s also more than that, which is nice. Sebela makes one big mistake – or at least I thought it was one, and I’ll get to it below – but he does so many things right, although occasionally he lets his narration get a bit too spot-on. He gives us a very interesting main character, Suzanne Jensen (who goes by “Zan”), good secondary characters, and he comes up with a good hook.
Zan’s employer is a man named Haskell Price, who has come up with a clever and gruesome business – he hikes up Everest to claim bodies and sell them to the families of the victims, and on one scouting expedition, he finds a dead man whose hand he cuts off for identification. When he has his police contact run the prints, it’s flagged by the American government (we never know the actual department, but let’s just assume it’s the CIA), and a sinister major sends a hit squad to Nepal to find the body and kill everyone involved with it. That’s just not very cool. Zan discovers that the dead man – Sullivan Mars – hid several containers of microfilm inside his body, exposing all the government secrets he could get, and Zan finds the one in his hand, and she knows that it’s a potential gold mine … if she can survive. So the government wants the film back, Zan wants to find it, and everyone ends up on Everest. And plenty of bad things happen.
It’s an intriguing set-up, but Sebela never answers a question that was nagging at me: Why would the major send agents up the mountain? Sullivan Mars has been dead for a while, it seems, and Price didn’t know about the microfilm.
The major claims that Zan can’t just go to the media with what she has found, because the government has eyes everywhere and she’d be dead before she could do anything with the information. She might go up and get the rest of the microfilm, but then they could just wait for her to come down. It seems counter-productive to climb a dangerous mountain on a dangerous mission when it’s quite probable that no one will ever find Mars’s body – if Price tries to find a relative, he won’t, and it wouldn’t be profitable for him to go back up, and if Zan does, they know they can find her in Kathmandu. No one else would be looking for Mars. But that’s just something that nagged at me, and I tried to suspend my disbelief that the major would waste so many agents going up a mountain on an almost futile search.
High Crimes is about obsession and addiction, so the fact that Zan and the agents race up the mountain to find Mars is just a vehicle for Sebela to delve into those two, linked themes, which usually tie in to keeping secrets. Zan is a former Olympic snowboarder who was disgraced when she tested positive for drugs (not performance-enhancing, she insists), and instead of returning her medals, she dropped off the grid and ended up in Nepal, still addicted and totally aimless.
She steals Mars’s journal from Price and reads it throughout the book, so we get a good sense of Mars as well and his obsessive personality. Mars was a government assassin who wanted to quit, but even after he did, he was still driven by the forces inside him that made him a killer in the first place. Sebela does a really excellent job with Mars – he’s hiding things, even from himself, and as we slowly come to realize what they are, his obsession becomes even clearer. He’s keeping secrets from himself, much like Zan, who refuses to deal with the wreckage of her life. Zan, naturally, keeps her own secrets – she doesn’t tell Price about what she’s found, she lies to a Sherpa guide so that he’ll take her up the mountain (and Sebela, resisting the urge that too many writers have to make their characters idiots, has the guide wisely abandon Zan when he realizes she’s keeping too many secrets), and she lies to herself about why she’s doing what she’s doing. Sebela tends to be a bit heavy-handed in the narration, but it’s still clever to link Mars and Zan, as they both want to escape their past but can’t quite do it. He’s the slightest bit more subtle about other manifestations of his themes, as he links the obsessive, addictive behavior of Zan to the people who climb Everest, as climbers have to be a bit like Zan to do what they do.
It’s a nice macro view that parallels what Zan and Mars are doing, and it’s a good way to keep everything on point.
Moustafa does a nice job with the art, too. He has a solid, utilitarian line that works for “realistic” work like this – his characters don’t look out of place in the misc-en-scene, and he gives them all a lived-in look by using judicious hatching on their faces and making sure their clothing is functional and worn. He does a good job with the setting – the creators mention in the back of the book that they used a lot of photographs of Kathmandu, and it shows, as the city and the mountain are really well done, so it’s clear we’re not just in some random place, but a real location. He doesn’t get to open up too often, but when he does – generally to show us the mountain – it’s impressive. He does good work showing how claustrophobic Everest can be, even though it’s a big expansive hill – there’s an avalanche scene that Moustafa nails, and there’s goings-on around crevasses that are also well done, as we get a good sense of how dangerous the mountain really is. He uses the space he has quite well – like a lot of European comics, this book is packed with content, and Moustafa doesn’t have pages to waste on big splashes, so he crams a lot onto each page, using small panels inside larger ones to show movement on occasion instead of spreading the panels out over more space, and in many cases, when he wants to show the impassive white of Everest, instead of enlarging the panels he shrinks the characters so that the blankness of the mountain takes over.
Moustafa also does something interesting that’s not really in Sebela’s writing – he shows, fairly subtly, the cost of climbing Everest for the mountain, as he makes sure to show the debris scattered on its slopes and how years of climbers have ruined its pristine appearance. Sebela alludes to the tourism aspect of the climb in the afterword, and he gets into it briefly in the book, but it’s better for Moustafa to show the cost to the environment through his drawings rather than have Sebela make it too obvious in the writing, and Moustafa does a good job with it.
Sebela doesn’t quite stick the landing – I mean, it’s not a completely happy ending, to be sure, but it doesn’t seem to resolve the way it should, given what we know about Zan and the people trying to find her – but High Crimes is still a good thriller. It’s set in an interesting place, the characters are compelling and fucked-up in all the right ways, and the art gives it a good, gritty, 1970s-cinema feeling, which is never a bad thing. It has enough twists that it never becomes just a race to the top of the mountain, and it will keep you on the edge of your seat. That’s all you can ask for when you’re reading a thriller, right?
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆ ☆
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