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High Crimes
by Christopher Sebela & Ibraham Moustafa
Dark Horse Books, $19.99, 224pp
Published: July 2015

I'm not sure how I ended up with a copy of 'High Crimes'. Maybe it was a gift at some point. Maybe it was on a table at an event and it looked interesting. It certainly did when I pulled it off the shelf to be my graphic novel review for the month. It has a great cover: a mountainous village with a white blur of a sky decorated only with a bloody handprint that contains in its design the mountain whose peak is the furthest away from the centre of our planet you can get and still remain on it.

It's a thoughtful and rather unusual graphic novel, a hardbound collection by Dark Horse of a twelve-issue comic book series from Monkeybrain Comics. The closest I can come to describing it in elevator pitch terms is "Heart of Darkness on Everest", but that doesn't cover everything. The characters who we follow, whether alive or dead, are all quitters, for a start; which is a fascinating approach, though one that's a little misleading too. It works best as a journey, both a literal one up Mount Everest and a psychological one into the soul of the lead character, Zan.

Zan (for Suzanne) is a broken character. She used to be someone, a snowboarder who competed in the Olympics and still has three medals, at least one of them a gold. She doesn't have much else. She quit the life and left in disgrace. She found her way to Europe, then to Asia and eventually found a home in Nepal where she works in a weird job with a rather unique business model. She and her boss, Haskell Price, locate the corpses of climbers on the slopes of Everest, then charge their families ten grand to bring them down. It's half extortion, half reconciliation and, if they weren't a team of two, it ought to qualify them for membership in the Club of Queer Trades.

This all goes south when Price discovers the body of Sully (for Sullivan) Mars. As usual, he brings back a hand, so that a colleague in the local police force can run its fingerprints and identify the body, so he can determine who to make his offer to. But Mars was a Strange Agent and that fingerprint check puts Price on the radar of some very dangerous people. When Mars quit as an international spy and assassin, he took information with him and that's right there with his corpse, except for a single reel that Price found with the hand. He's only a quitter in that he spills the beans when the people eager to recover that information cut off his hand in a grand gesture of irony.

Our focus is Zan, though only on a human level because it's really Mount Everest. The two merge and blur together as the book runs on because her inevitable reaction to danger, namely to run, promptly fails when she sees her photo on the news at the airport, being sought for murder she didn't commit. Instead, she has to go up and over, in an attempt to walk from Nepal to China, where perhaps the men giving chase won't follow. And, if she's going up, she should do what she's never done in her countless previous climbs: reach the top. And that journey is as much into herself as it is up a mountain.

One reason that this is so hard to describe is that it plays in a number of different genres. At heart, it has to be called a drama, because it's a character study of Zan as she tests herself against a mountain and finds herself in adversity. Of course, it's a spy story, because Sully was one and the people giving chase are too. But that chase makes it a thriller, albeit inherently a unique one because of where we are. It's hard to maintain suspense when there's only one way up, meaning that all the key characters know exactly where all the other key characters will be at any point and roughly when. And, because Everest is such an important character, it's a mountaineering melodrama, a genre that used to exist in the movies, at least in Europe. It's where Adolf Hitler first saw Leni Riefenstahl.

There's action here too, though there's not a lot of it and it's generally small action pieces that are set against a grand backdrop so surely can't be seen as a focus. That's an irony too, given that Zan is famous for doing well in an action-oriented sport. She's even recognised on the slopes of Everest by a couple of Americans being guided to the summit. If you're imagining grand scenes of snowboarding or skiing or whatnot, you'll be disappointed. Yes, there's an avalanche but that's as close to a gimme as you could get given the setup. Nobody rides it like a wave. This is grounded in reality and the most we're asked to believe is the existence of Strange Agents like Sully.

Instead of action, the tone is often dreamlike. Just as Zan and the mountain blur as characters, there is blur between timeframes. We often alternate between Sully's journey up the mountain, as told in a diary to which we're privy for effect, and Zan's similar journey somewhat later on, two climbs that are inherently not dissimilar. Just as Zan's in our present and Sully's in our past, we find that he finds it a difficult task to change his tense, because he's so used to being a Strange Agent that he talks about it in the present tense and has to correct himself to the past. He quit, he has to remind himself.

I liked this a lot, but I can see why a lot of readers might not. I appreciate it for what it is, a dreamlike melding of the physical and the psychological. In its way, that epitomises the climb up Everest, which is a task not only for the body but the mind. Obviously you have to be in shape to make that climb but you have to be mentally in shape too. The easiest way to fail is to tell yourself you can't succeed. I really liked that the lead character here is a lady who is clearly massively able—you don't win Olympic gold without being someone special—but who has also continually talked herself into failure ever since. It takes unwanted outside influence to push her into actually succeeding again, into even attempting.

And that may not be an approach some readers appreciate. In the end, it may be easier to describe what this book isn't than what it is. It's not a murder mystery. It's not a crime story, even though it's kinda-sorta. It isn't a Hollywood action film set in the snow and it certainly isn't 'Cliffhanger'. It isn't a bubblegum read, the equivalent of a popcorn movie. It isn't fast and it has zero interest in cheap thrills. In its way, it's a slog, something you have to persevere to finish, but it has plenty of value in wait to reward the dedicated. You know, like Mount Everest. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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