For the past century, Mt. Everest has been regarded as a legend. According to experienced mountain climbers, the difficulty in ascending Everest has nothing to do with the mountain’s terrain, but rather its sheer height. In the death zone, the air is so thin that your brain dies a little every second. It’s not a matter of climbing Everest. It’s a matter of surviving Everest.
And yet, to this day, even though over 250 people have died trying to reach the summit, Everest is still regarded as a status symbol among most people. Many think of it as the top of the world. The mountain has taken on a myth and a life of its own, and that legendary status is what fascinates writer Chris Sebela, author of the Eisner-nominated webcomic series High Crimes, which will be released in a physical hardcover format by Dark Horse on July 8th, 2015. I sat down with Chris to talk about how his fascination with Everest first manifested, how it felt to be competing against Sex Criminals for the Best New Series Eisner, and what the characters in this “high altitude noir” mean to him.
Alex Lu: So now that High Crimes is complete, what are you working on now?
Chris Sebela: Nothing in comics that I can talk about yet, but I’m actually working on a non-fiction prose piece about a conspiracy I’ve been obsessed with for the last fifteen years or so.
So I used to live in Chicago and I lived downtown. There were these flyers that kept getting left in mailboxes all about something called the Ancient Order. It’s an organization that’s basically responsible for everything evil going on in the world. It was basically this dude setting out to prove letter math where you change letters into numbers and the numbers add up to something else that proves a point. He existed before the internet and broadband became a thing, so he distributed this information by hand. I’ve collected about 80 of them now. They form this explanation of how the world is actually run, which is completely bonkers.
I’ve hired somebody who is creating an index of every term he uses, and I’m creating a twin narrative that takes my personal story of how these flyers have haunted me and combines it with a fictional narrative that attempts to put all of his ideas into some sort of order that makes sense.
Lu: Have you always been fascinated with conspiracies?
Sebela: Yeah, most of the time, but 9/11 was definitely a test of my faith. I had friends who were super into 9/11 conspiracy theories and that really pissed me off at the time. I remember that day really vividly and people were suggesting that there was no plane that hit the Pentagon and all I could say was “Then what the fuck did?”
But yeah, generally, I like exploring conspiracies. I’m really drawn to the ones that are completely crazy like the one that suggests that the moon is a hologram. Like…what?! What is the endgame for that?
Lu: Do you believe in any conspiracies?
Sebela: Honestly, I don’t know. There are some that have some validity to them like JFK and Martin Luther King Jr….yeah, there are definitely some that ring truer to me than others, but it’s not like I’m out there touting everything.
Right now I’m reading this book all about the Dyatlov Pass incident, which happened in Russia back in the 40s. This group of hikers from a university went to climb this mountain and they all ended up dying, but the book talks about how they all saw weird lights in the sky the night that they died. They all ran out of their tents without shoes on, and one even cut through their tent. The government hushed it up, but no one really knows why. It’s easy to say the government was involved, but it’s equally likely that they just didn’t want to have to deal with the situation. Some of it is like historical fan fiction. There’s no way that the full truth will ever come out. Just drips and drabs.
Ultimately, the best explanation I’ve heard about conspiracies is that people can’t keep their mouths shut about the smallest thing. If there are these overarching conspiracies with all these people and all these moving parts, then at some point is going to open their mouth when they shouldn’t. Nobody can keep a secret that well, especially an entire government.
Lu: So are conspiracies where the inspiration for High Crimes came from?
Sebela: No…conspiracies were the afterthought. The initial concept was all about Everest, and I had to come up with a reason for the government to send its agents up the mountain after Sullivan Mars. The conspiracy stuff is such a huge field and covers so many things, so it was easy to focus on the concept of missing pieces, things that would resolve a lot of lingering historical questions. The more I got into Mars’ back-story, the more the historical stuff came to a forefront. In the end though, it really is all about Everest.
Lu: How were you introduced to Everest?
Sebela: Through Jon Krakauer’s Into Thin Air. I’ve always been a pretty voracious reader, so it’s hard to say when I first read it, but I remember buying it at some bookstore and it blowing me away. I think that first time, I thought it was really fascinating, and when I read it again a year later I felt the exact same way. At that point, I wondered what else was out there. The door opened and I looked into whatever I could get my hands on, Everest-wise. It was sort of an annual obsession– it would pop up and I’d get hooked for a couple of weeks and then I’d move onto something else until it came back the next year.
The insanity of trying to climb Mt. Everest was what baffled me. I wanted to try and understand that mindset.
Lu: Are you a mountain climber yourself?
Sebela: God no. I hiked 3/4ths of the way to the top of Multnomah Falls, this tourist destination outside of Portland. If it involved ropes, axes, or me trying to hold myself into a wall, it wasn’t going to happen. I have a terrifying fear of heights, and if I can avoid being in precarious places with no floor beneath me I’m going to opt to stick with that.
Lu: What kind of research did you do to prepare for the book?
Sebela: I read Into Thin Air seven or eight times, which deals with the 1996 climbing tragedy. I read other accounts of that tragedy as well, including Anatoli Boukreev’s. He took a lot of heat after that tragedy because he was a climbing guide but he was climbing without supplemental oxygen and was accused of leaving some climbers behind. Then I read Reinhold Messner’s books about doing the first summit of Everest without oxygen and then doing it again solo.
There’s three seasons of this crappy reality show that aired on the Discovery Channel, Everest: Beyond the Limit, that was about a group of climbers trying to summit. They gave them all cameras and dramatized it, but you got to watch people climb Everest!
Every time I went back into my Everest obsession, I’d find something new. A new book, a movie, a documentary…I’m sure there are dozens of sources I haven’t found yet. There’s an 1100 page book I’ve been saving that’s about Everest and how it relates to World War One. I think I just need a few months away from Everest before I dip my toes back in.
Lu: Through your research, did you discover a common element in the mindset of the people who wanted to climb Everest?
Sebela: I think the common thread is that nobody thinks they’re going to be the one who dies on Everest. I think that’s the case with any extreme sporting or lifestyle thing. Even if you see people wiping out all around you and dead bodies everywhere, you can think to yourself “Oh, that won’t be me. I’m more prepared,” whatever. You tell yourself these stories to convince yourself that it’ll work out fine for you.
A lot of people who die on Everest die after they summit because they use up all their energy getting to the top and then they realize they have to climb back down to safety. They’ve run out of gas, both literally and figuratively, as they’ve used up their oxygen.
I found a guy named Alan Arnette, who runs a website about Everest and has become something of a go-to figure for the community. I spoke to him before I started scripting, and he tried to summit Everest six times before he succeeded. Whenever he went up, he’d realize that it wasn’t going to work for one reason or another, and that’s expensive. Expedition groups pay anything from $40,000-$60,000 and there’s no guarantees the people running the group will get you to the top. They’re giving you the tools you need to get there, and then it’s up to you and Mother Nature as to whether or not you get up to the top.
Alan is really rational and measured about climbing, but he feels like the exception rather than the rule. Most people get obsessed because they spend all this time and money to get to this spot and at that point nothing is going to stand in their way even if someone warns them that if they do this, they will die.
Lu: It’s a pretty risky and expensive venture, and a lot of people probably see it as a vacation. They think that it’ll be a waltz to the top.
Sebela: Yeah, and that’s one of the things about Everest that I find fascinating. It’s pretty scoffed at by proficient mountain climbers because the mountain isn’t hard to climb on a technical level. My favorite quote about it is “Yeah, if Everest were at sea level, my grandkids could run up it.” It’s the fact that it’s so high up– for the last summit push you are in what is scientifically called the “death zone” because the air is so thin at that altitude that you are dying every second you’re up there.
One of my bucket list items is to go to Everest base camp just to see what it looks like. It must be intimidating as hell to see what you have to climb once you get there. In Into Thin Air, Krakauer recounts passing Everest on the plane into Katmandu and seeing the summit of Everest level with the plane. At that point, he realized “oh, I have to climb to the cruising height of a 747.”
So yeah, you go to base camp and it has a party atmosphere, but then you leave and have to pass through the Khumbu Ice Fall, which is where the vast majority of Everest deaths occur. If you’re on an expedition, you have to pass through it six or seven times. Most climbers quickly become aware that the expedition is not fun and games.
Lu: Personally, I think one of the most morbid things about mountain climbing is the way that bodies are handled. If you die up there, your body is just left there. You’re probably not coming back down.
Sebela: I think they’ve gotten better about it. They attempt burials nowadays. By and large though, those people are going above and beyond what you’d expect from anyone. At one point, there was a controversy surrounding a guy who people were walking past as he was dying near the top of Everest, and Sir Edmund Hillary was incredibly angry about their decisions. However, on the Discovery Channel show, the climbers passed a dying guy at one point and they realized that it’s hard enough to bring a body down. It’s impossible to bring someone down while they’re still alive.
It takes a very special person to say “I’m going to put aside everything I’ve worked for for the last five years so I can help this person.” It doesn’t happen. You’d think that those bodies would ward people off, but once you’re in the zone, it becomes easy to ignore all the signs that are telling you to stop.
The bodies were one of the easiest hooks for me while concepting High Crimes because they have histories. People know their names, where they’re from, and how they died. They become part of the mountain’s lore.
Lu: Are there real life Everest grave robbers like Zan and Haskell?
Sebela: Not that I’ve ever come across. I’m sure there are analogs out there, but they’re not talking about them. However, there’s a fair amount of crime that does happen on Everest that we are aware of. People steal each other’s oxygen stashes. People misrepresent themselves as climbing guides because they realize that they can charge someone $30,000 to bring them to the mountain and just give them supplies. There’s a definite criminal element on Everest that’s probably just going to get worse.
Lu: Zan has a habit of holding onto these ill-gotten gains like trophies, whether it’s the hands she and Haskell take off Everest corpses, her Olympic medals, or the microfilm she recovers from Sullivan Mars.
Sebela: Those trophies are a symbol for her inability to move beyond her past. The medals are the whole reason she went on the run. Yeah, she cheated and doped to earn a couple of them, but she earned the first one all on her own. Even for the later ones, she gave up a lot to accomplish this dream that may not have even been her dream. There are hints that her parents pushed her, that she liked snowboarding as a hobby but was considered to have a birthright and was forced to pursue that.
If you grew up weirdly different from a lot of people and went to snowboarding boarding school– which are real things that exist– and you sacrificed everything to achieve this goal, you couldn’t just give it up. You wouldn’t accept a bunch of people in suits telling you your life didn’t count anymore.
I think everyone holds onto their best moments to help float themselves through the most terrible moments. Zan’s terrible moments have gone on and on, and she’s a drug addict on top of that. Her need to keep the medals shows a nostalgia for a life that she never truly had.
There’s a line: it’s better to regret the things you have done rather than the things you haven’t done. She definitely regrets the things she hasn’t done, but instead of owning up to her mistakes and starting fresh, she holds onto the hope that she might be able to relive the better side of those past moments. She often bargains with the universe, which is something addicts often do, saying that if the universe just gives her this one thing, she’ll become a better person.
Sebela: They’re two sides of the same coin. They’re people trying to restart their lives, but they’re doing it in the worst possible way. Mars has an excuse because he was in a program that literally rewrote his brain in a feat of human engineering, but he and Zan are ultimately very similar because they want to go back to something that doesn’t exist. They want to go back to a world where they didn’t make terrible choices. It’s a way of avoiding responsibility while choosing to accept a small bit of culpability. They want to believe they can get back to being fundamentally good people and get back to living the lives they want to live.
Our discussion at this point turned to the ending of the story. If you haven’t experienced it yet, please scroll ahead! Spoilers below.
Lu: However, ultimately, Mars does accept his responsibility for the most part. I never got the feeling that Zan did, though. In the end, she even goes back to using drugs.
Sebela: The ending of The Sopranos is one of my favorite story endings because it feels like the overriding message is that people don’t really change. People change in small ways, but you are who you are. Tony Soprano tried to change and find a way to fix himself, but he ultimately was who he was. Zan is similar. She was a drug addict and she kept telling herself that she’d clean herself up, climb Everest, and start a whole new life once she came back down. I’m similar in that I will move places and try to start fresh. I’ll tell myself that I want to fix these things about myself, but ultimately it’s hard to get out of your own way.
I never saw Zan has somebody who would have a bright and shining moment where she realized that she could fix or even just live with herself. She’s always beating at the cage. We don’t go into this much, but when she was an Olympic star, she went through a media blitz where she was branded as America’s Sweetheart. It painted a picture of her that was similar to what the media did with Shaun White and Lance Armstrong, who both have very specific media packages of them that has to fuck with their heads. There’s an idealized image of you and you’ll never be able to really reach it.
Especially with Zan as an addict, it’s easy for her to say she kicked drugs because she was on Everest and her stash fell down a crevasse. She never actively chooses to quit. She just realizes she’s still alive and can still function after she loses access to them.
From the beginning, I always knew that last scene would be her getting drugs on the street from a kid in Katmandu. She walks off into the dark, and maybe she has changed a lot of things about herself since she came down, but ultimately she probably came down more fucked up than she was before she went up it. She fixed certain things about herself but also broke herself even more.
Lu: That seems like a pretty grim takeaway.
Sebela: It’s a stone cold bummer of a book. I’m not gonna deny that. It’s the reason why it was so hard to sell to publishers in the first place. I remember getting a note from an editor who said they weren’t sure what her arc was or how she changed. I told them that the arc was there but it wasn’t a happy arc. I’m trying to get better about that and tell happier stories, but Everest isn’t a happy place. It’s a tragic place, especially in the last two years with the earthquakes this year and the avalanche last year. More and more people are dying, but more and more people are rushing there anyways.
Tragedy is a part of what Everest is. We exploit this marvel of the planet. It’s become this carnival ride. Sherpas are getting exploited and the mountain is getting trashed. I never felt like there was a happy ending in High Crimes. I think there are happy elements to the ending. I think Zan is more accepting of the person that she is– and I realize that recognizing that you’re a drug addict and just going for it might not be an uplifting message, but she opens herself up to being with the guy she was just using as a placeholder for human interaction.
Lu: Perhaps her change is that she is more open to change.
Sebela: Yeah. Plus, that’s the end of this story, but not the end of her story. Zan is only in her late twenties. She has plenty of time to fix herself up or screw herself up all over again.
I latched onto the tagline “high altitude noir” pretty early on because I realized that even though this story isn’t a typical noir, it fits the definition of the genre because it’s based around a person making a bad decision for the wrong reasons, thinking it’ll fix everything when it actually makes things worse. Noirs always end with the characters being worse off than when they started.
I latched onto that because I wanted people to know the story wouldn’t be fun the whole way through. I wrote entire issues with a stomachache when I realized what I had to do to these characters. I didn’t want to write. However, it’s what the story required and not doing it would’ve been cheating.
Spoilers end here.
Lu: How has collaborating with Ibrahim Moustafa been?
Sebela: It’s been amazing. We clicked right away. I met him on my birthday after a pancake breakfast with my buddy Joe Keating. Joe was working in a studio with Ibrahim, and Joe foolishly had a policy that he didn’t work with people he was in the studio with…so thank god for that! He took me over, introduced me, and I just pitched Ibrahim by his drafting table.
It’s been the best collaboration I’ve ever had in comics. From the moment I got the character sketches, I realized that it was well beyond anything I had ever imagined for this book. It would not be what it is without Ibrahim. He completely changed everything it was about and how I thought it should proceed. We’d have conversations about what was coming up and Ibrahim was always very comfortable with telling me about what worked and what didn’t. Seeing his pages changed how I wrote the book later on. It’s the closest to true collaboration as I’ve ever gotten from comics.
Lu: And it seems like it’s all paid off. You’ve received several Eisner nominations for your work.
Sebela: We both basically did this book for no money. We get the digital comics sales from Monkeybrain and Comixology, but digital first comics still aren’t really a thing that most of the market has embraced. When the first issue came out, all these big authors tweeted at me saying they liked it, and it was amazing. We’ve gotten work off the back of High Crimes, but the praise is amazing. The fact that everyone who reads it seems to love it is baffling. I’ve gotten better about it, but I didn’t understand how people could read and like the book at the time.
We had running jokes about getting Eisner nominations, and then we actually got them. And not just for Best Webcomic, but for Best New Series?! We’re up against Sex Criminals?! It was super weird, but also amazing.
Lu: So, how does it feel to see your work in print for the first time?
Sebela: It feels amazing. It’s been three years since Ibrahim and I first talked about the project, and it’s been six years since I started thinking about it. We just got the print copies and they day I held them felt like the day we received the Eisner nominations. It’s a culmination of the last three years of busting our asses on this book.
High Crimes will be released in a physical collection for the first time on July 8th. You can find Chris @xtop.