Mountains are compelling settings — they not only set up challenges to climb up, but they are often used for thriller-based narratives as seen through movies such as The Eiger Sanction and Cliffhanger. Certainly, the Earth’s highest mountain, Mount Everest, is the backdrop of many stories in both fact and fiction, including the latest Image title from Christopher Sebela and Ibrahim Moustafa, in which the mountain is a place where death can come in sudden and unexpected ways.
When the high-altitude grave-robber Haskell discovers a frozen corpse with a jackpot of state secrets embedded in its skin on the Southeast Ridge of Everest, he returns to his home in Kathmandu, where he and his young partner Zan Jensen become targets of a government agency bent on recovering the body, leaving no witnesses. Instead of running away from the situation, Zan is determined to save her partner as she attempts to climb up Everest where she will discover more about the mysterious body, as well as confronting her own past.
High Crimes could easily be defined by its high concept, which is basically a survivalist thriller taking place in the highest mountain known to man. Sebela does a serviceable job at maintaining the suspense and that largely comes down to the characterization of its female lead. Following her disgrace as an Olympic snowboarder, Zan is drowning herself in drugs and alcohol while in the middle of two jobs as a climbing guide for rich tourists and the aforementioned grave-robber.
Lacking in social skills and consumed by self-hatred, her central arc gives the book its heart. Throughout her journey climbing up Everest while Sebela drops as many captions as he can in nearly every page, you understand the physical and emotional pain Zan is going through. The few sequences of wordplay between her and Haskell start out as humorous, but end up becoming something genuinely heartfelt.
In contrast with Zan’s inner monologue, we learn more about the body named Sullivan Mars, formerly a government assassin whose life is told via his journal as read by our hero. Throughout twelve issues, you have stories going on at the same time and this is where the book suffers. Despite the interesting characterization of Sullivan Mars, of whom Sebela shows a flawed human angle to this man’s life of murder and escapism, the writer puts too much time on him, distracting us from engaging with Zan’s struggle. Similar to Ed Brubaker, Sebela seems more interested in writing a crime novel that is all about the interior monologue, instead of allowing the art to tell the story.
That said, the art itself will leave the biggest impression. Ideal for the book’s noir-driven high concept, Ibrahim Moustafa knows how to draw flawed individuals who are plunged into the murky surroundings — the primary setting of Mount Everest is as much a character as the people who attempt to climb on it. With most of the book taking place in white snow, Moustafa is able to keep the suspense refreshing from the composition of small and large panels to an unexpected direction in page layout where an action sequence is done in landscape format.
In twelve issues, Christopher Sebela can be long-winded as he juggles two narratives, but when he focuses on the disgraced former Olympian climbing the snow-filled danger of Mount Everest, stunningly illustrated by Ibrahim Moustafa, that’s where High Crimes succeeds.