Dead men tell no tales but sometimes their hands do in Image Comics’ High Crimes. Originally published by MonkeyBrain Comics, Image’s volume contains the entire, twelve issue series and is as satisfying a read as you can find in comics.
Mostly Christopher Sebela and Ibrahim Moustafa have taken a setting I took for granted and shown it to be the most epic place to set a comic ever: Mount Everest. You’d be pressed to find a more famous mountain, but I couldn’t have told you where it was before this story and only realized it was Nepal after spotting a few signs in Chinese. Normal looks different on Everest, and even if you think you know how extreme it can get, there are aspects of climbing I never would’ve thought to consider.
The book opens with Haskell Price cutting off a dead man’s hand. Corpses, unfortunately, aren’t an unusual sight on Everest. Many people die trying to make the trek and getting a corpse off a mountain isn’t an easy task (and that’s when the person climbing isn’t traveling alone). What Haskell’s doing, make no mistake, is unusual, and the perfect “what the crap moment” to set things off.
It’s also the first time you see artist Ibrahim Moustafa’s amazing ability to condense time. Here it’s over the course of one panel, where Haskell does four different actions yet Moustafa is able to show that this is a sequence of events by putting a box around each movement (later he does this over the course of one page by having the characters hold the same positions but their outfits and hairstyles change, showing the passage of time).
Haskell needs the hand so he can id the victim and try to find loved ones who will pay him to bring the body down. His business partner, Zan Jensen, is our main character. A former Olympic snowboarder, whose career ended in disgrace (we learn more about that as the book goes on), these days there isn’t a moment Zan isn’t drunk, high, or both, as she tries to avoid recognition. At one point she ditches her friend, Sophie, at a bar and it’s the moment I feel solidifies her character because it’s so casually done. You don’t even realize what’s happened until later, when Sophie leaves a message on Zan’s phone.
It’s a nasty business, Haskell and Zan are running, but it’s not an illegal one until one of the fingerprints gets pinged by a government agency. Sullivan Mars (the victim) was one of their agents. Now they want his body back and anyone who knows about it dead, including Haskell and Zan.
Zan always dreamed of climbing Everest but part of the plan was getting clean first. Now she’s climbing Everest for a different reason and if the mountain doesn’t kill her, the government agents might.
This is what’s so darkly brilliant about Christopher Sebela’s writing. Zan doesn’t catch any breaks. If there’s a way to make her situation harder, Sebela does it because there is no easy climb up Mount Everest, and that’s without armed killers and self-loathing to combat.
Throughout the climb Zan reads passages from Mars’ journal. Sebela is credited as the original letterer, Shawn Aldridge for letter assists, and Hassan Otsmane-Elhaou for revised letters, so I’m sure who to credit for what, but the lettering in this book enhances the storytelling at every turn. Since Mars narration is written down, his captions sometimes include crossed-out words. It’s also how the comic is able to switch between Zan’s and Mars’ narration on visual cue alone (Mars’ narration is always italicized and in caption boxes that look like graph paper).
Moustafa did the colors, with assists by Lesley Atlansky, and if you’re expecting a washed-out landscape, with snow as far as the eye can see, that couldn’t be further from the truth. The flashbacks are paler, placing them firmly in the past, but the colors on Everest are crisp, like a jolt of fresh air, while colors make it possible to instantly tell who’s who, by what coat everyone is wearing.
Hard Crimes is a book I’ll be chewing over for a while, it’s such a dense and fulfilling journey. Available now from Image Comics, you won’t regret hiking to the book store for this one.