Friday, August 2, 2013

Fireside Chat with Christopher Sebela and Ibrahim Moustafa of High Crimes

Our Fireside Chat is going digital today as we sit down to talk with Ibrahim Moustafa and Christopher Sebela about their most excellent "high altitude noir" comic, High Crimes.  Released under the much celebrated Monkeybrain digital comics banner, the most recent issue, High Crimes #4, dropped this week and is available (along with the rest of the series) right now from Comixology.  Chris and Ibrahim were kind enough to take time out of their busy days to sit down and chat High Crimes, tumblrs, mountaineering, and much more.  So find a cozy seat for yourself and please join us on the other side of the jump.

Ibrahim Moustafa and Christopher Sebela are like a force of nature, bursting like a hurricane onto the scene earlier this year with their great comic book series that has only been getting better and better.  Both longtime comic book fans, they've worked on smaller projects here and there, but High Crimes is their first major project together and is like nothing else.

Grant McLaughlin: How do you describe High Crimes to readers who may be unfamiliar with the series?

Ibrahim Moustafa
Ibrahim Moustafa: I usually give them the quickest pitch I can (unless time allows for more!): Two climbing guides in the Himalayas, Suzanne and Haskell, moonlight as high altitude grave robbers, identifying frozen bodies by removing a hand and running the prints, then extorting the next of kin for a retrieval fee. One of the bodies they find belonged to an ex government operative, Sullivan Mars, and his prints set off a red flag, causing a team of ruthless agents to go looking for him.

Christopher Sebela: Ibrahim pretty much nailed it, but I'll give it a shot.

It's a crime book on Mount Everest. Zan Jensen is a disgraced olympian hiding out in Kathmandu, guiding people up mountains to support a drug-addled ex-pat lifestyle. Along with her partner, Haskell Price, they loot the bodies that are left where they die on these high peaks, extorting their families for body return fees. When Haskell finds a body at the summit of Everest, it turns out to be a black ops agent who's been missing for decades and now his old agency is coming to collect the secrets embedded in his skin and eliminate any loose ends.

It's a noir at heart, a book about morally questionable people, broken to some degree and doing bad things for bad reasons. HIGH CRIMES is as much a character piece as it is a spy thriller or giant action extravaganza. 

GM: Where did you guys come up with the idea for High Crimes? How long had the idea been percolating before that first issue came out?

Moustafa: I'll defer to Chris on the first part, as I know he had the idea gestating for a while. We were introduced to each other by a mutual friend in early July, 2012. I'd been looking to work on a crime book, and when Chris pitched it to me, I was immediately on board. I was still in the midst of a project that took me until about late October to wrap up, but I started on character sketches and logo design as soon as I was able to squeeze them in. Once I was finished with my previous commitment, I got started on research and layouts. 

There were more character designs and a ton of research to be done, as well as establishing a color palette. All in all, we spent about two months on the first issue. 

Christopher Sebela
Sebela: If you want to go all the way back, it probably started in 2008 or so. I'd had the germ of the idea, of a book on Mount Everest. I was reading a lot of crime novels back then, so I'd originally envisioned it as prose. I had set pieces and elements of the summit climb as interesting bits, but I didn't have a story to wrap around it all. I'd come back to it when my Everest obsession did its yearly flare-up, but it wasn't until 2010, when I started writing and pitching comics that I realized it was a perfect story for comics. So I spent a long time outlining the whole story, beat by beat, until I felt like it was good and pitchable. The publisher I had in mind shot it down and it went into the someday pile while I worked on other stuff. When Monkeybrain asked me to pitch something, the comic I most wanted to do, I didn't have to think twice. Luckily, they liked it and so I had a publisher and no artist. Through a totally random set of events, I met Ibrahim about a month later, July of 2012, and we started in on it. So, long story short, it's been percolating forever.

GM: Building on that last question, how has your collaboratings evolved and changed since that first issue? What does the prep for an issue of High Crimes look like nowadays?

Moustafa: Recently, we've both been really busy, so there was a period of time where Chris was sending me a page or two of script at a time upon receipt of a page or two from me. That was kind of cool in a way because the script was able to evolve as we went. I might find certain details in my visual research that would end up changing the way a scene played out slightly, or I could make a suggestion that Chris was able to incorporate as he was writing up the next few pages. But we've maintained really strong communication throughout this whole endeavor, and it's been absolutely wonderful. 

There's still a ton of research involved in every issue, even 5 chapters in. From all of the different locations, vehicles, architecture, and people in Kathmandu, to the different cities and small villages on the way to base camp, and finally, the mountain itself. Each location is incredibly nuanced. The layout of base camp, the equipment, the different aspects of Everest like the Khumbu Icefall and the Hillary Step. I've probably spent almost as much time collecting reference as I have drawing the pages. It's incredibly fascinating.

Sebela: There's always a learning curve when you start working with someone on a creative thing, no matter what it is, but Ibrahim were pretty in sync pretty early on. I think we both told each other at the start that High Crimes was an us thing. So if Ibrahim thought something I wrote sucked, or could be done better, he should tell me, and if I had things I disagreed with on his pages, I should tell him, and we've pretty much stuck to that since then. If anything, our collaboration has gotten deeper. I don't just go away and write a script and send it to him, I'll send him chunks of script and see his pages and those will inform the next chunk I do. Ibrahim sends me pencils and thumbnails on things he wants my input on.

Like Ibrahim said, we've both been slammed my life and responsibilities the last few months, so on the issue we're doing now, I've been sending him a page or two of script, he'll send me pencils of those pages and I'll send him another page or two. Right now I'm hung up on something in the script, so Ibrahim's been inking his pencils and I'm getting him the rest of the pages today. While he's doing those, I'll start doing color separations on his first batch of inks and when Ibrahim moves into colors, I start in on lettering. It's not a perfect system yet, but it's efficient for us and it feels like we're both busting our humps in equal measure to get every issue out.

GM: And getting into the subject matter of the book itself, did either of you have prior interest in mountaineering and / or climbing? What kind of research did you do in preparation?

Moustafa: Chris has had a long-running interest in Everest. I had a cursory familiarity with it, but was never compelled to research it myself. Within a week or two of meeting Chris and discussing the project, he gave me a copy of the audiobook for "Into Thin Air" to listen to while I worked. That piqued my interest, and I've been slowly becoming an armchair expert ever since.

Sebela: I think I first read Jon Krakauer's INTO THIN AIR back in 2005, which is where my interest in Everest started. By the time I'd read it for the third time, it'd turned into a minor obsession that would flare up once a year. I'd watch any movies even remotely associated with Everest, along with cheesy Discovery reality shows. I read two or three other books about the same disaster Krakauer's book covers, then went back to read about the first summit, books by Reinhold Messner. It became a bit of a problem whenever it would pop up. When I actually started working on outlining the book, that turned into basically anything involving climbing or cold-weather disasters. Books on K2 and the Robert Scott's failed attempt to be the first to reach the North Pole and deep cavers looking for the longest, deepest cave systems in the world. 

Working on the book itself, most of the research is still ongoing. Figuring out the mechanics of the summit route, what Kathmandu looks like and the best way to utilize it for a foot chase, just lots and lots of unknowns that we handle through the miracle of the Internet. There used to be a time where you'd just have to do a lot of supposition, but now you can watch someone's videos of them climbing all the way to the top of Everest, and that kind of first-hand visual information is vital to us nailing as much of the real as we can so we can do all sorts of crazy things on top of that solid foundation.

GM: How did High Crimes end up at Monkeybrain?

Moustafa: I'll let Chris answer this one, as I came in after it was green-lit.

Sebela: I had prepared a pretty detailed outline and pitch for what I was just calling "The Everest Book" for a publisher. The publisher turned it down for a few reasons, one or two of which made sense and one or two of which I was too set in my ways to consider changing. So it went in a folder of someday stuff. Around that time I'd "met" Chris and Allison on twitter and when they moved to Portland, got the chance to hang out with them for real and we got along well. This was in the lead-up to Monkeybrain debuting and one night they asked me if I wanted to do a book with them and High Crimes was the only thing I thought of. Luckily they liked it and High Crimes was suddenly half a real thing. The other half showed up when I met Ibrahim.

GM: Following that, how does working in the digital medium impact your work (if at all)?

Moustafa: It definitely impacts our work. Because we're dealing with a few less pages per issue than a standard print comic, we've really packed each page with content to ensure that people are getting their 99 cents worth. There are very few instances where you'd find a High Crimes page that has fewer than 5 panels on it. I think if we were to decompress each issue, we'd easily fill a 22 page book with our 13-15 pages. In fact, many reviews we've read of the series have been under the impression that he book is actually a full 20 pages. It's great to know that people feel as though they're getting a full experience with each chapter. 

Another thing we've done because of the digital format is to add a newsprint texture to the pages of the book. That was an idea that Chris had early on, and I was totally on board. It's very subtle, I'm not sure if people have even really noticed or not. But it gives the pages a certain look and quality that Chris and I are both happy with.

Sebela: The shorter format is definitely a tricky aspect of this very particular realm we're operating in. I'd just finally gotten used to writing in 20 and 22 page runs when we started, so that meant learning to tell much shorter stories as part of this larger story and, yeah, it made my head hurt for awhile until I got the hang of it. Digital also means we don't have to rush a book to get it to the printer or having to pushback a public deadlines. We have our own internal deadlines, but we release on our own schedule, so if things come up and we need to take another week or two to make sure we nail it, then we do that and don't have to worry. Not that we don't, but theoretically we don't have to.

But process-wise, we're still doing traditional comics on this book, it's just the delivery system that's new, and most of that is out of our hands. We just try to make the best pages we can and hope that it works out well with stuff like guided view.

GM: And what has reader reaction to the book been like thus far?

Moustafa: It's been really fantastic. Both fans and industry pros alike have responded well to it, and I for one couldn't be happier. The next step for us is going to be to try casting a wider net, which will involve reaching out to crime genre enthusiasts and mountain climbing aficionados. 

Sebela: The morning the first issue was coming out, I'd been up all night working on the second issue and sort of losing my mind with dread and then one nice thing after another started coming in on twitter and via email, from people I was not friends with or related to and from pros in and out of comics who I knew of and whose stuff I was a fan of and it was basically insane. It's been like that ever since with each new reader and each new issue. I don't think either of us expected the crazy levels of support we've gotten, we were mostly just happy to be putting out the book we wanted to do without any interference. So that it worked out that people liked what we wanted to do is the best thing ever.

GM: On a similar bent, where does the High Crimes tumblr fit into everything? Do you see it as a companion piece to the book where fans can get extra insight into the comic and its process? A way to stay in touch with fans? Or some other, third possibility perhaps?

Sebela: Comics is a visual medium and tumblr is a very visual blogging platform, and one that doesn't require knowing how to establish and maintain a website, plus pretty much everyone is on tumblr at this point, so I think initially it was just an easy way to make a web presence for the book to keep readers updated as to when each issue was coming out and info about the book. Same with the Facebook page. With tumblr, it's also about getting new eyes on the book, because things can spread so easily, it's a great platform for random transmission of your book to people who'd normally never hear about it.

As we've gone along, I've been turning it into a sort of digital scrapbook we're keeping along the way. I like to post stuff that's influential, visuals that help spur my writing in a certain direction or that Ibrahim uses for inspiration to give people a peek behind the curtain, but also doing process posts about how the issue came together, rough drafts of what the book is looking like and showing how people are reacting to the book. Once we're all done with the book, I think you could print out and bind the contents of the tumblr and it would make for a good companion piece to the book as a whole, what we were thinking and when we were thinking it.

GM: Also, do you ever plan on finishing the "About the Book" section? :P

Sebela: Ha, I'm on it TONIGHT. Admittedly, it's not a perfect tumblr. But some day, god willing.

(Editor's note: that "About the Book" section has yet to be completed.  I'm looking at you, Chris!)

GM: Closer to the book itself, was it a conscious goal on your part for your protagonist to be female? There's obviously on ongoing conversation about female representations in comics, and how do you feel that Zan fits into that subject?

Early sketches of Zan
Sebela: It was, though maybe not in the way you mean. I remember in the period between the original publisher shooting it down and Monkeybrain picking it up, I'd talked to a guy I know in Hollywood about High Crimes and the first thing he said was "well, it's a female protagonist, so you're closing a lot of doors right there" because Hollywood is leery of those kinds of stories, because they think people aren't interested in them. But of everything I was most certain of at that point, Zan being Zan was the one thing I never questioned. It just felt right for the story, Zan felt like the character I was most interested in following and watching. Changing Zan to a dude (Zed?) would have changed the whole book, it's about her and how she's been shaped to be who she is and how that version of her that we meet would react to this maelstrom of crazy popping up around her.

If we're part of that discussion, that's a bonus, but hopefully we're just a signpost on the way to where people don't need to have this conversation anymore, where women taking center stage in comics, movies, music, politics, whatever isn't a thing that we have to point out as being notable. We're mostly interested in telling Zan's story, and in making her as alive as we can. She's a deeply flawed person, she's done some amazing things in her life that most people could only dream of and she's screwed her life up in ways most people are terrified to even consider, but she gets up every day and tries to figure her way through it all until something makes sense. I think if we contribute to anything, it's the notion that because you're writing about women, they don't have to be these archetypes of "strong woman" or "damsel in distress" or any of that shit, they can be all that stuff in one person, they can be 10,000 other things, some of them directly contradicting others. All that matters to us, with all our characters, but especially Zan, is that they're real enough for us and our readers to care about them.

One last bit on this, as I could clearly talk about it forever, but when it comes to Everest or any expedition to anywhere dangerous, gender means nothing. It's about ability and endurance and intelligence. Women summit, women turn back when they know they won't make it, women make terrible decisions, keep going and die up there. If Zan being the lead character of our book is the most eyebrow-raising thing to a prospective reader, we've probably done something wrong.

Moustafa: Everything Chris just said.

From my end of things, I very much wanted Zan to be someone that anybody could know. I didn't want her to be "sexy". She needed to be an average twenty-something who doesn't wear makeup, doesn't care what her hair looks like as long as it's not in her face, and is one step from the edge at all times. Chris' initial character description made it incredibly easy for me to se her in my head. It was kind of like she already existed and I was just doing a composite sketch of a real person based on his description.

GM: I'm also curious as to your backgrounds. Chris, how did you come to be comic book writing? And Ibrahim, how did comic book arting come to be one of your proclivities?

Sebela: I came to it on the scenic route. I've been into comics since I was a kid and I've gone through phases of deep involvement and phases of running away from it. I've always been a writer to some degree or another, and for awhile, I really focused on journalism and prose because those made sense. Scripts confused me and comics seemed impossible to poke my way into, even though most of my friends had managed to do it. I'd gotten away from writing for a few years due to going freelance as a graphic designer and production artist, so when I hit a sort of lull of "Do I keep doing this graphic design thing that I'm just okay at or do I finally try to make writing, which I think I'm good at and I'm happiest doing, my full-time thing" it wasn't much of a debate. That was three years ago and I haven't (majorly) regretted it since.

Moustafa: I've been drawing since I was old enough to hold a pencil, but it wasn't until about 5 years ago that I began actively drawing sequential comic book art. I grew up loving Superman, and I had and read comics when I was much younger. Even as a kid I was always interested in the more realistic renderings of characters. When I was in the 10th grade, "Smallville" premiered, and it reignited my interest in Superman. Someone gave me the book "The Compete History of Superman" as a gift, and inside of it there were a few Alex Ross paintings. 

I'd never seen Superman drawn to look like a real person in that way before, and I was absolutely captivated by it. I wanted to draw and paint exactly like he did. A little cursory digging led me to "Kingdom Come", and it was down the rabbit hole from there. I was reintroduced to the language of comics and visual storytelling and I really fell in love with the medium. And because I already loved to draw, becoming a comic book artist was a perfect fit. I made it my mission to learn as much about the craft as I could. From there it was just putting in the work. Comics are a harsh mistress...

GM: Continuing on the subject of yourselves, I'm curious about your influences. Don't feel limited to influences for High Crimes; more generally speaking, what are the stories or the creators who have impacted and inspired you over time (comics or otherwise)?

Moustafa: As far as comics go, I'm all over the map. As I mentioned, Alex Ross was a huge influence on me when I was first getting into comics. Stuart Immonen was as well. His work on "Superman: Secret Identity" was MAJOR for me, and I really love what his style has evolved into on books today. Other huge influences for me are (in no particular order): Milt Caniff, Greg Capullo, Jonathan Glapion, Leinil Yu, Chris Samnee, Sean Murphy, RM Guerra, Jordi Bernet, Olivier Coipel, Travis Charest, Dave Johnson, Eric Canete, Dave Stewart, Ryan Sook, Lee Bermejo, Greg Tocchini, Jerome Opena, Adam Hughes, and Jock.

I'd say I find a lot of inspiration from the work of certain writers, as well: Mark Waid, Kurt Busiek, Greg Rucka, Rick Remender, Ed Brubaker, Jason Aaron, Brian Azzarello, and a lot more that escape me at the moment.

Another thing that I've been influenced by more recently is episodic television. It's rare that I find the time to catch up on my favorite shows (Breaking Bad, The Killing, Sons of Anarchy, Longmire, Friday Night Lights-- to name a few), but when I do, I really try to study the different shots and camera angles, and what the mood of the scene is (action, a really dramatic moment, talking heads, etc or what the director is trying to convey). The great thing about shows like those I mentioned is that each episode is typically directed someone different from the last, so you can really get a lot of different inspiration from them. 

Sebela: My influences that I can name right off the top of my head and affecting me most right now and forever: Grant Morrison's Doom Patrol, Ondi Timoner's We Live in Public, Dashiell Hammett, Lauren Beukes' novels, Seth Fisher, Charles Burns' Black Hole, Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips, Matt Fraction, Chelsea Cain's Archie & Gretchen Series, Will Christopher Baer, John Carpenter's The Thing, Duane Swierczynski, Kelly Link, Charlie Huston's novels, Kelly Sue DeConnick, Booty Luv's "Boogie 2Nite (Seamus Haji Mix) Electric Six, Titus Andronicus (the band), Emmy the Great, David Fincher, Jenny Frisson, Joan Didion, Jon Krakauer, Breaking Bad, Thomas Ott, all my massively talented friends making great comics, the internet (always the internet).

GM: As we wrap up, would you have any other projects (current or upcoming) that you'd like to point out to readers who are chomping at the bit for more of your work?

Moustafa: I'm in a monogamous relationship with High Crimes for the next several months :)

Sebela: I'm co-writing the ongoing GHOST series at Dark Horse with Kelly Sue DeConnick. That'll be coming out in November. I have other stuff I'm messing with but nothing solid yet. Mostly I'm just focusing on the rest of High Crimes and making sure I do my part to make it come out as great as it is in our heads.

GM: And finally, at the Weekly Crisis, we like to cap our chats with what we call The Literary Rorshach Test. The way it works is that I have 10 words or phrases for you and your job is to respond with the first thing that comes to mind. It can be a word, a sentence, or a full blown paragraph. The choice is yours.


Altitude - High
Ascend - Oh Shit
Danger - Will Robinson
Weird - Science
Noir - My Favorite
Challenge - Accepted
New - Edition (you've got to cool it now)
Ideas - Too Many
Collaboration - Fantastic
The End - Of The Road (my favorite Boyz II Men song)


Altitude - Death Zone
Ascend - Summit
Danger - High Voltage
Weird - Twitter
Noir - Bleak
Challenge - Assumption
New - Universe
Ideas - The easy part
Collaboration - The best part
The End - End of movie, End of world

GM: Thanks so much for taking the time!

Moustafa: This has been a ton of fun and really great of you, Grant. Thanks again, sir!

High Crimes #4 came out this week and is available NOW!  And as a digital comic, you can get your hands on it without having to leave the comfort of your own home!  Issues 1 through 4 are available from Comixology, and at 99 cents an issue, it's one heck of a deal!  If you haven't already given the series a look, there's no time like the present!

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