It is with a bittersweet triumph that I conclude my Eisner Watch: Best New Series portion with this last review. It’s been a blast reviewing all these fantastic books nominated for Best New Series in preparation for this month’s Eisner Awards, but all things must eventually come to an end? Even so, there’s no rule that says things can’t end with a bang, and that is certainly the case when it comes to this nominee. Personally, I love a good crime story. Even more then that, I love a good thriller. There is nothing that gets my juices flowing quite as much as the thrill of a chase, or a series of gruesome murders just waiting to be solved. As a kid I was a big fan of things like Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, fun detective stories where no matter what, the protagonist was always safe. You never had to worry about something happening to your favorite characters. When I got a little older, my tastes got a little more sophisticated. Or a little more morbid, anyway. Murder mysteries and horror movies, I was a big fan of the ‘Who Dun It’ gimmick following a good slashing. But really, what I love is the thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen next, or who’s going to be left standing. Honestly, what could be better then a story starting off with a dead body? The answer is, a dead body that’s half-frozen below the peak of Mount Everest. Have I peaked your interest yet? To quote the most eye catching tagline for a comic that I’ve seen in a long time: People die every year on Mount Everest. This year is going to be murder.
High Crimes is a comic digitally published by Monkeybrain Comics, written by Christopher Sebela (writer of things like Dead Letters and Ghost) and art by Ibrahim Moustafa (artist of things like The Pound: Ghoul’s Night Out). It’s the final Eisner nominee in the Best New Series category as well as being nominated for Best Digital/Webcomic. The story’s setting is in Nepal’s capital city Kathmandu, where American girl Zan Jensen is making her new life happen while actively on the run from a past that she just can’t seem to escape from. She works for an adventure consulting service by day, escorting tourists and adrenaline junkies respectively up the Himalayas’ in a never ending quest to conquer the great Mount Everest. Haskell Price, a fellow climbing guide and mentor to Zan, is also her partner in a much more disturbing line of work. To borrow a fantastic line straight from the Monkeybrain Comics website: high-altitude grave robbing. Yes, you heard me. They strip the bodies they find left along the deadliest of peaks, making off with their personal effects… and their right hands. Zan and Haskell then proceed to shake down the families and close friends of the deceased for a huge fee in order to get the bodies returned to them. But when Haskell stumbles across the ten-year-old corpse of a man named Sullivan Mars below the peak of Mount Everest, it puts Zan and Haskell directly in the cross hairs of a government conspiracy that people are killing for in order to keep it a secret. This series has it all: Murder, intrigue, death-defying heights, and a pair of compelling leads who are just as much of a mystery as the one they’ve accidentally stumbled onto.
The first scene opens up with Haskell finding his latest corpse and chopping off a hand, immediately giving the reader a perfect ‘WTF’ moment. I had to read it twice over just to make sure I knew what was actually going on, but it was exactly how it seemed. Some guy the comic hadn’t properly introduced yet was picking the frozen mountainside for dead people’s jewelry, personal affects, and one of their hands. It soon becomes evident after we meet Zan and watch her first encounter with Haskell that this is for the purposes of a very twisted kind of trade: a large sum of money for a pound of flesh. It’s all very Shakespearean and a little grotesque, but the art is gorgeous, so I can forgive the involuntary shudders. Despite the story starting off with Haskell, we actually learn more about Van right after she’s introduced than I think we’ve learned about her partner since issue one. She is the obvious focus of the story, and that’s as it should be. Van is a former Olympian who, after an embarrassing and very public accident, has been hiding out in Napal as an adventurer for hire while doing shady deals with her fellow climber and guide Haskell on the side. She’s a burn out, content to spend her days wasted and not thinking at all about the future, with an overall apathetic view of it that many young people can probably relate to outside of her unique circumstance. Her story is certainly a unique one, at least in terms of leading ladies. A failed Olympic Snowboarder and drug addict, running from her past and the law, somehow getting mixed up with a guy who cuts off dead people’s hands and holds them as ransom for a living. Just the sort of qualities you don’t necessarily want in your leading lady, but somehow, she becomes not only a character you find yourself rooting for (or at least I did), but you actually find her easier to relate to barring similar life experience or not.
As the issues continue you see a lot more back story from the main characters perspectives, which is both necessary and intensely rewarding. We see more of Zan and how she got to be where she is today, her story before she came to Napal and how she first met Haskell. As the mystery continues, we even get to see glimpses into the past of long-dead Sullivan Mars, a black ops intelligent officer from the government who deserted, and how he got to be where he was found ten years later. Dead and frozen in the snow, still holing onto state secrets that other people out there are willing to kill for in order to protect. We meet the Strange Agents, the ruthless men who have still been hunting Mars since his initial desertion, and the reader might watch with one eye open as they inevitably clash with Van and Haskell, the unlucky people who just so happened to run the finger print of a wanted man through a database in order to contact his family in the hopes of collecting a hefty return fee. Van and her partner soon get more then they bargained for, and the situation escalates quickly from one of back door deals to one of government conspiracy and murder. Haskell is taken prisoner by the Strange Agents and forced up Everest to reclaim Mars’s body, and in a valiant effort to save him, Zan follows hotly in pursuit, finally making the climb to the summit she had vowed to herself she would make once she was clean. It’s a plot that thickens as quickly as it escalates, exciting and dangerous and the stakes are set so high (figuratively and literally) that you find your own palms starting to sweat. Or maybe that’s just me, but I found it difficult not to be completely stressed out for Zan by the end of issue seven.
One of the truly special things about this comic is all the back matter. At the end of each issue Sebela takes some time to write about Everest’s real history and that of its many climbers, the survivors and those She decided to claim. Sebela’s writing throughout the series is so on point and beautifully layered, but being someone who doesn’t know much about Everest’s history, the back matter really helped connect me to the story and understand the basic human drive behind a comic like this. The real dangers and troubling history associated with the climb is raw and powerful, but the back matter’s historical perspective and the character dialogue he supplies through each issue is essential in making the reader feel for themselves that magical pull that drives people to make the suicidal climb, and what it means to them. Sebela intrinsically captures the sheer majesty of Everest through the eyes of those who worship her in a near cult-like celebration, and the disturbing levels of humanity (or lack there of) once you reach a certain altitude, where stakes are higher and crime is rampant. Moustafa’s panel compositions are a work of creative genius as is the way he beautifully captures each character in his art, and there are character sketches and glimpses into the artist’s process in each issue’s back matter. It’s also nice to see a comic book on crime that isn’t all noir. This was a digital-first book, the only comic of its kind that was nominated in the category of Best New Series, and it’s not to be missed. High Crimes is available for purchase on comiXology, and next year it will even be available in print collections through Dark Horse. It wasn’t until I went to Emerald City Comic Con in March that I first learned about this comic though it wasn’t until I set out to write this article that I actually sat down to read it, and I was immediately hooked. Do yourselves a favor and don’t wait any longer. It would be a crime to waste!