Sebela & Moustafa Trek from Digital to Print with "High Crimes"

Grave robbing alone might be enough of a hook to get anyone interested in a book, but grave robbing at high-altitudes...? That's practically double the fun. By the way, the person grave-robbing is a disgraced olympian hanging out in Kathmandu, spending her days as a climbing guide. Imagine then, this elite snowboarder pairing up with somebody to grave rob those unfortunate souls that die at the roof of the world. Everything's going good for these scoundrels until they stumble across a dead body pregnant with secrets -- secrets that will kill them faster than any avalanche could.

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by writer Christopher Sebela ("Ghost," "Alien Vs. Predator") and artist Ibrahim Moustafa is currently a digital comic published by MonkeyBrain. Six issues are out right now, and the acclaimed series even earned an Eisner Award nomination. In early 2015, Dark Horse Comics will be collecting all 12 (projected) issues in hardcover format. With that bit of news in our pocket, CBR News spoke with Sebela and Moustafa about their collaboration and work process, why the book will be printed at Dark Horse and the differences in working in a digital format versus print.

CBR News: Chris, it's been a little over a year since we chatted about "High Crimes." What's changed since then?

Chris Sebela: Lots. "High Crimes" has done so much better than I think either of us ever anticipated. It's nominated for two Eisner awards, everyone seems to like it; it's all super weird to me this book even exists for people to read, much less people liking it as much as they do. Besides that, I've just been writing more comics like "Dead Letters," which I was lucky enough to get Ibrahim to join me on doing a variant cover for.

Beyond that, I'm currently starting in on my second solo arc for "Ghost" and my "Alien Vs. Predator" book will be coming out this fall. It's been a really weird year.

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At a high level -- pun intended -- what's "High Crimes" about?

Sebela: Zan Jensen is on the run from her past as a disgraced olympian who crashed and burned very publicly. Now she's an expatriate hiding in Kathmandu and working as a climbing guide, helping rich tourists reach the summits of the endless mountains of the Himalayas and get home alive. On the side, she and her partner, Haskell, work as high-altitude grave robbers. When people die high up on mountains, their bodies are left there due to the danger of trying to get them back down. So when Zan or Haskell find a body, they strip the personal effects and cut off the right hand for fingerprints to ID the body. Then they shake down the families back home, offering to send their loved ones back to them for a hefty finder's fee. On Haskell's latest trip to Everest, he finds a body that belongs to Sullivan Mars, a black ops agent who fell off the map 20 years ago. When they scan his fingerprints in, it sets off alarm bells across the globe and a group of deadly killers is sent to collect his body from the summit and eliminate anyone who gets in their way. Zan is forced to race them to the top of Everest to get to the secrets embedded in Mars' body and save herself and her partner while hoping that this climb she's been preparing all her life will save her from the black hole that is her life.

Now that we know the book is coming to print, will you be adding any additional content to the hardcover edition? What other differences can people expect in the Dark Horse version?

Sebela: We're going to try to fit as much bonus content in as we can. The nice thing about digital is we can go nuts on the back matter and it doesn't mean higher print costs or anything. So we tend to load the digital issues with as much stuff as possible to make it enticing to people who don't normally read digital books. The collection will be curated out of all the stuff we've generated, from Ibrahim's concept sketches to the promotional material I've made for the tumblr and maybe some of my essays and -- it's a lot of stuff to sort through, but we're trying to make the perfect edition. We've been working on this book so long and so hard, we want the collection to really sum it all up as perfectly as possible.

Also, little fixes are a nice bonus for us. There's been things we've noticed in the issues that we're like, "Ehhh, wish I could go back and fix that" or "Gah, that line, I wish I'd tweaked that word or kerned that lettering a bit more," and now we'll have the chance to make sure we get to all that stuff before it hits print. All the little cosmetic changes you only notice after your book is out and you're looking at it and it's too late to do anything about it.

Ibrahim, this is our first time chatting, so I'd really like to know more about your process. How do you go about tackling a page?

Ibrahim Moustafa: Generally I start in my sketchbook by sketching out the panels as I see them when I read the script. Sometimes I'll do a few different versions of the same panel to try out a few different ideas. I put a lot of thought into the "camera" angles that I choose, matching the facial expressions to the dialogue, and the storytelling from panel-to-panel. I'm always scrutinizing whether or not the choices I make are the best choices for guiding the reader through the page. This is also where I have to do a lot of location research, since our book takes place in a very specific part of the world.

Then I scan that sketchbook page into Photoshop and move the panels around, re-sizing as I need to and accommodating the live area, trim and bleed of the comic art board. I pay close attention to the panel layouts, asking myself: "Are these laid out in a visually interesting way? Does the continuity make sense? Is the page balanced well?  Am I emphasizing the more important aspects of this page?" When I've reached a layout I'm happy with, I print it out in a non-photo blue, and I fine-tune the rough layout with more detailed pencils. This is the stage where I fill in the little technical details, like making sure everyone has the right gear, equipment, etc.

Once the pencils are done, I move onto the inks. This is where I fill in some of the general rendering that I leave out of the pencils, as I knew I'd be inking them later. Once those are scanned I send them to Chris for color flatting. Up until recently, he'd send me the flats and I would change all of the colors to match the palette that I've established for the book, subsequently rendering everything and putting in the final details. We've since brought in a local colorist, Lesley Atlansky, to help lighten the load (she's wonderful!). So now Chris sends her the flats, she color matches and renders, and then I go in and tweak things making sure the page is consistent with my previous colors on the book before adding the final details and adjustments. Lesley is very diverse in her skill set and has done a fantastic job aping my style, so the whole thing has been pretty seamless.

EXCLUSIVE: Christopher Sebela is Ready to Post "Dead Letters"

What're the main hurdles drawing for a digital format vs print? Are there any?

Moustafa: I can't say that I've encountered any. Chris and I decided from the outset that we wanted to approach this as a print book. The one accommodation that we made was to execute an action sequence in the 5th issue of the book using a landscape format rather than with double page spreads (as those don't work very well digitally). But that choice was more to create an immersive sequence that called for the reader to physically turn the book, and it was supported by the fact that a landscape page format works better in a digital book than a double page spread.

Are you having to go back and clean up any of your art, or retouch it here and there before it sees print?

Moustafa: I try to be very stringent when the pages are done the first time so that I won't have to do any work on the back end. We've yet to cross that bridge, but I imagine (hope!) that the only things that need fixing will be standard pre-press stuff. Maybe a color correction here or there.

Chris, any future plans for "High Crimes" beyond the twelve issues you have planned?

Sebela: Barring us becoming really cynical and losing our souls in the next 6 months, no. From the start "High Crimes" has been a very definite story with a very definite end. We could stretch it out into infinity, we could tell every excruciating detail of a Mount Everest climb and make this book 40-50 issues of that, or we could somehow try to spin it out into a spinoff, but that's not the kind of story we're telling. Every expedition has an ending and "High Crimes" is ours and it totally has a finish line and once we cross it, why go back and risk messing it up? I do have a vague idea for a kind of related spin-off of sorts, an anthology, but that idea will probably continue to remain vague for a while.

So why does it make sense to go to with Dark Horse?

Sebela: Jim Gibbons from Dark Horse approached us around the time that issue #3 came out and told us how much he liked the book and would we maybe want to talk about them doing a collection, which is basically like getting a call out of the blue from some creative you admire and them asking if you want to collaborate on something together. Of course you do.

So of course we wanted to work with Dark Horse, especially on the back of the really beautiful books they put together and the fact that we can drive over there and look at paper samples or get together with our editor at a bar and talk about the book. And we're joining a roster of amazing books, including one of our fellow Monkeybrain books, "Bandette," so we're stoked to just get a spot on Dark Horse's shelf.

Also, they offered us a hardcover and that's pretty much been a life goal of mine since I started working in comics, so combine all that and I think Ibrahim and I were salivating at the prospect. We're excited to wrap the book for all sorts of reasons, but one of them is we cannot wait to hold this thing that represents two really weird years of our lives in our hands.

Moustafa: Our editor, Jim Gibbons, is a great guy and he approached us with a solid, fair deal for the book. Also, Dark Horse puts together really nice collected editions, and they've been doing so for a very long time. We're really happy that they're putting the book out for us. And I'd be lying if I said there wasn't a feeling of hometown pride. [Laughs]

"High Crimes" #1-6 are on sale now from comiXology. Issue #7 goes on sale June 4, and Dark Horse will collect the entire series as a hardcover in early 2015.

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