Every once in a while a creator pops up and just starts producing gold, even when we hadn’t had much experience with their work. A perfect example of that is writer Christopher Sebela, who has had a banner 2013 with “High Crimes” being one of the best Monkeybrain titles and big titles announced for him in “Ghost” and “Aliens vs. Predator”. He’s someone whose meteoric rise is fitting for his talent, and he’s quickly becoming a favorite around our offices.
Given that we’d never chatted with him before, we approached him and started from scratch, talking to him about all of his work and where it’s all going, his artistic and writing partners, what distracts him from work the most, and much more. Thanks to Chris for chatting with us, and please, check out his work, especially “High Crimes.” 99 cents people! How can you resist it?!
Sebela: AvP is one of four books Dark Horse is doing (Prometheus, Aliens and Predator being the others) all set in the same universe, all linked to one degree or another. We’re working in a writer’s room here in Portland: Paul Tobin, Chris Roberson, Josh Williamson and myself, along with editors and artists, so it’s very much a group vision breaking down each book’s story, then each one of us goes off and writes our books, tries to shove our own ideas in there and see what we come up with.
I’m doing Aliens vs Predator, which is, as the name advertises, Aliens vs. Predators. It’s kind of hard to speak about it in terms of plot or characters or anything, since a lot of the specifics are intentionally mysterious un other than it will feature both Aliens and Predators. Because a lot of the info about my book unfolds organically throughout all four of these books, there’s some element of mystery we have to keep in place. But at its core, it’s a relentless, brutal monster movie with equal amounts of brains and (acid) blood.
And I grew up on Aliens and Predators — especially Aliens — those are some of the fundamental building blocks of the “stuff I like” genre, and pairing the two up in a monster fight is stuff I’ve thought way too long and hard about when the idea of me writing an actual book about it was as insane a fantasy as I could imagine. This is just stuff I like to contemplate in my off time. So getting to play with all these pieces from all these films, all this mythology, is mind-blowing.
One aspect of Alien vs. Predator that always seems to struggle, either in past games or comics or even those two movies, is the relationship it has with the audience. Some people want to connect with the story via human characters; others just want to see aliens kill the crap out of each other. How do you find the balance of these two aspects, and what do you find is best for you to create an engaging story?
Sebela: It’s hard finding that balance, especially since the very idea of AvP strikes everyone differently. In the end, I had to go with what felt right to me as a fan who read the old comics, saw all the movies and has crafted my own plausible scenarios for Aliens fighting Predators in my head more than once.
For me, it’s a 2-part equation, not an either/or situation. I want to see Aliens and Predators going at it tooth and claw, using every bit of their arsenal to take each other out. It’s animal savagery with a humanoidish intelligence behind it, biology vs technology, mindless slaughter vs. hunting with a code of ethics, IT’S CREEPY THINGS WITH ACID BLOOD. But I also want to care about what’s going on, and since Aliens and Predators aren’t the kind of species given to expressing their feelings or following an arc where they change and grow or using words, you need to bring in outside parties. The trick is how to introduce these elements without taking the focus off what everyone has showed up for: Aliens fighting Predators. I think we came up with a really interesting way to bring both those elements together so that the gore enthusiasts will be happy and those in search of characters worth giving a damn about will be happy.Continued below
With Aliens vs. Predator, I don’t believe we’ve seen who is the artist yet. Can you share who is working on it quite yet, or is that still on the QT and very hush hush?
Sebela: Still quiet, still very hush hush. We’re just moving past the early stage of breaking the books and working out our outlines, so while some of the books already have artists attached, I think they’ve been waiting to see what kind of books the rest of us are working on to see who would be a perfect match for them. If they’re anything along the lines of Patric Reynolds and Juan Ferreyra, I think AvP is going to be in some awful good hands.
Sebela: What appeals to me, mostly, is that Kelly Sue is a great storyteller and writer and I’m trying to absorb as much of her knowledge as I can. In the end, working with her seemed easier than osmosis or brain surgery. There was some trepidation on both of our parts, I’m guessing, as to whether it would actually work out as well as it has. But once we started in, it was a very smooth process, so we decided to do it again.
Captain Marvel was daunting, coming in in the middle of a celebrated run and dealing with a fan favorite like Monica Rambeau or writing the build-up to the Enemy Within crossover, hell, just working on a book that is inseparable from Kelly Sue, with so much affection from fans surrounding it, that was a lot harder, trying to adapt to that voice and that style as best as I was able.
This new ongoing Ghost feels very much like a fresh start. I’m grateful that Kelly Sue and Phil Noto did the hard work of building Elisa Cameron and her new world in the first miniseries. Once I was asked to come on board, we sorta started from scratch. It was very much a case of “here’s all the pieces to play with, here’s a city to play with, now let’s see what sort of crazy shit we can do when we throw all this together.” Only, y’know, with heart. That Ryan Sook is joining us on our inaugural journey just reinforces this brand new start. He’s so good and his vision meshes with ours in lots of ways and breaks away from ours in all the best ways that we’ve got this frankenstein’s monster made out of only the best corpse parts.
Now that Ghost is coming back to life in this new ongoing, how do you find the greater challenges of writing an ongoing superhero comic with a character most people perhaps aren’t familiar with?
Sebela: I love it, actually, because we don’t have 50 years of continuity and canon to keep straight. Our Ghost is new, so we can build her from the ground up, using the old stories as reminders of where she’s been, but not necessarily as a roadmap. It’s pretty liberating that Ghost isn’t as widely and instantly recognizable or knowable just by saying her name. We get to build her life — both her lives — as a regular woman thrown into a life she doesn’t understand and as a terrifying specter of vengeance who hands out ass-beatings like Halloween candy. If the mini was laying the foundation, we’re trying to build the prettiest, most insane mansion on top of it.
Ryan Sook. I mean…Ryan Sook. You have Ryan Sook drawing “Ghost” for yourself and Kelly Sue. How genius is that guy, and as a writer, how thrilling is it to work with someone of his caliber?Continued below
Sebela: I’m not sure there’s a proper scale of measurement that can divine just how thrilling it is to work with Ryan. First of all, he’s legendary, and for good reason. I’ve pored over his sequentials in the past and everything is almost unbearable, galling almost, how good this dude is. So getting to work with him? It feels like a really vivid dream that I’m terrified to wake up from. And working with him is just as great as you might assume, seeing your story take shape in his pencils, it’s like he’s peering into your head at times, and other times it’s all him and you’re afraid to see what’s lurking in his head. Also? Super gracious and humble, a genuinely nice guy, which is always nice to encounter when you meet your art heroes. I could go on for a dozen more paragraphs with my fanboy exclamations, but I think I’ve drooled enough.
In terms of collaboration, what’s the give and take between you and Kelly and Ryan on Ghost?
Sebela: Kel and I are super give and take. We’re neither of us super sensitive, so we’re pretty free with the ideas and shooting down the bad ones and nuturing the good ones. Writing wise, we do that on our own and pass drafts between us and the editor and then get to a point where everyone’s happy with it. As far as working with Ryan, we’re open to all his questions about script stuff, but you try not to get in the way, mostly. If he calls a different shot or changes something in a way we didn’t expect, it’s a bonus. No one wants to tell Ryan Sook what to draw, he’s proven he knows what he’s doing, so it feels like all of us huddled together trying to smash our brains together to make something unholy and great.
Sebela: When you die on Mount Everest, especially at high altitudes, removing your body is more trouble than its worth, so you get left where you fall and you stay there until a stiff breeze or a crevasse claims you. High Crimes is about Zan Jensen, a trainwreck of a woman who’s on the run from herself and her old life of being an olympian, a life that imploded in lots of scandal. Zan works out of Kathmandu, guiding people up mountains around Everest. As a sideline gig, she and her partner, Haskell, are high-altitude graverobbers. They find these bodies, strip them of personal effects and their right hands and find out who they were, blackmailing the families into paying to bring the bodies down. Business as usual, until Haskell finds a body at the summit of Everest and it both belongs to the body of a former american black ops agent and has a roll of damning microfilm embedded in it, with 6 more of these information time bombs in his body up on the summit. A team of covert ops show up and it’s a game of cat and mouse between them and Zan to be the first to get to the top and claim this priceless treasure buried in a 20 year old corpse.
So, y’know, it’s an upbeat and whimsical tale. But it’s a character piece, first and foremost, it just happens to be taking place in one of the most deadly places on earth. It’s a noir, it’s a thriller, it’s a giant action movie, it’s a drama all swirling around a few story mysteries and a lot of character mysteries, it’s the book I’ve been wanting to write for years and years.
I’m rather intrigued by your mention of High Crimes being something you wanted to work on for years. Just how long have you been working on this series, and from where in you was it birthed out of?
Sebela: Actually, actively working on it as a comic? Since 2010 or so. But I first started thinking about it as a story a few years before that, even going so far as to start writing a few chapters of a prose version when it seemed like that would be the only way I could do it. But for a few years before that, I’d had the idea of a book set on Everest. Most of my writing stuff, the stuff that really spurs me on, comes from my obsessions, and Everest is one of those obsessions that would pop up every 12 or 18 months, where I’d suddenly get a wild hair to re-read Jon Krakauer’s INTO THIN AIR or crack a new volume by Reinhold Messner or watch as many documentaries as I could get my hands on. It would come on, burn hot and then flame out for a bit, but it kept coming back and once I started trying to break into comics, High Crimes (which was just known as “the Everest book” for forever) kept nagging me to work on it. I eventually got a pitch together, then I realized how crazy that pitch was and boiled it down into what the book is now, and pitched it to one publisher (who ended up rejecting it twice) before Monkeybrain came along and asked me to tell them what book I most wanted to do.Continued below
Ibrahim Moustafa is your partner-in-crime on High Crimes, and he really is a pitch perfect fit on the book, raising the highs and lowering the lows that you’ve taken Zan on in the book. He’s a fellow Portlander I believe. Did you develop this with him in mind, and how do you feel he elevates the story?
Sebela: Well, not to get fancy about it, but there’s two separate epochs of developing High Crimes. There was the First Era, which consists of lots of me sitting in coffeeshops and quiet rooms, figuring out the story, the characters, the setting, everything as much as I could see it in the abstract. I outlined the whole book, rewrote it once or twice, had something I was happy with.
The Second Era, when I met Ibrahim, that’s the one that really mattered. There’s a huge gap between the thing you see in your head and the thing that it becomes and, fortunately for High Crimes, the thing it became when we started working together became so much better.
Ibrahim is local, not that that really affects our workflow, we spend most of our time in our respective workspaces. But we met via a total fluke-based chain of circumstances at a time where he was looking for something to work on, ideally something in the crime genre, and I was looking for someone to draw High Crimes and once I saw his pages from The Pound, and especially when he started designing the characters, I knew this was gonna be pretty special.
When we started working together, everything changed. It wasn’t my book that Ibrahim was drawing, it was our book that we were making daily decisions on. He points out story stuff that he thinks could go in another direction (and is almost always right in a way that I slap my head for not seeing it before), I’ll make panel suggestions, he’ll expand a page out by a panel or another page if he thinks it needs it, or will condense several things down into one subtle but beautiful panel, I flat the inks so he can color it, he gives me lettering notes. We’re really in tandem, and have been since day one, even if we do most of our communicating via texts and emails.
So, long answer short: If it wasn’t for Ibrahim, there’d be no story. Not one anyone would want to read.
Let’s talk about Zan Jensen, the lead of High Crimes who, as you said, is a complete and utter trainwreck. She’s also a human feeling and engaging lead, even as she perpetually screws up her own existence. What makes her an ideal lead for a story like this one, and has she been a component of the story from the get go, or only come around as the book developed?
Sebela: Zan’s an ideal lead because she’s not perfect. Maybe at one time she seemed perfect to the world who watched her on TV, who rooted for her at races, this young woman with all this talent, working since she could stand up on a snowboard to achieve her goals, but underneath all that is a sea of resentments and regrets and from it comes an ocean of problems, both personal and public. I’m not interested in perfect people because they don’t exist, or if they do, it’s a brilliant cover for something really dark and messed up they can’t bear for the world to see. We’re all fucked up in our own way, Zan is just a little more open about it because she’s not being watched constantly, because she arrived in Kathmandu as a drifter and a druggie, so she can only go up from there in the eyes of what friends she’s managed to gather around her.
I think maybe there was a little bit where Zan was a guy, when I was still working out the broad strokes of how to do a crime book on Everest. Because I’m a guy, I think it’s very easy for me to slip into that default, just as a placeholder. It’s something I’m working on. But the more I thought about Zan as a woman, suddenly everything started falling into place, here was a character I was interested in, wanted to know more about, wanted to follow up a mountain.Continued below
Maybe this part isn’t useful, maybe I shouldn’t write it? I dunno, but I’ve had a revelation this last year. This wasn’t a revelation I had back then, at least not one I could verbalize at the time. But as a white dude, I live with the white dude that is me all day long, every single day and I’m pretty tired of him. I’m less and less interested in reading white dude fiction and even less interested in adding another book onto that ridiculously huge pile, either. Writing Zan, having that feeling that she is telling me what she would do in a certain situation, has been instrumental in coming to that tiny revelation.
Being a digital comic, and a 99 cent one at that, issues themselves are shorter and delivered in different ways if, say, a reader uses Guided View on ComiXology. For you, has that changed your approach as you’ve worked on the book?
Sebela: I’ve seen the book in Guided View. For a while, I was actually “authoring” guided view for Comixology on some of their books as a freelance gig, so I even know how the sausage of guided view gets made, but I prefer to read my comics one page at a time and we decided early on to do High Crimes like traditional comics. I’d like to write towards a panel-by-panel format at some point, but this wasn’t the book to do it on.
Working in the shorter format took a lot of adjusting on my part. I think I’d just gotten used to writing in the 20-22 page format, so suddenly I have to tell this story one chunk at a time, but with even less real estate. The first two issues of High Crimes, if you read them back to back, work better as one issue, because initially the idea was to write a 26 page comic and split it down the middle, which is a mistake, unless you have issues coming out every two weeks, so then it became more about making the most of what real estate we had. Plus, we’re not beholden to page counts. So while the first two issues were 13 pages apiece, the successive issues have had more story pages to compensate for everything we wanted to do in those issues. I’m pretty much the luckiest guy in comics because Ibrahim told me early on he likes lots of panels on the page to play with, so I’ve written to that, which I think makes our issues, even for being shorter than most print comics, feel just as full as any of them.
And we toyed with prices, maybe making each issue 1.99, but we felt like we wanted to get the book in as many peoples’ hands as possible, and it’s hard to turn your nose up at less than a buck a comic.
What made Monkeybrain the perfect home for a book like High Crimes?
Sebela: Honestly? They said yes. I had a publisher who turned the pitch down twice, the second time was after Ibrahim was on-board and we were moving ahead on it. They had editorial notes for how they wanted characters and the story to play out that weren’t in line with my own. Monkeybrain just said “Tell us what book you want to do.” So I did and they liked it and told me “Go make the book you want to do. We’ll publish it, we’ll tell you if we think it’s terrible, but otherwise, you do what you want.” Plus, there was a shorter window between us finishing it and them putting it out, which, where both of us were at last year, we wanted people to see this as soon as possible, if only to get confirmation that it was as good as we thought it was. We didn’t have to have several issues or the whole book done before soliciting it, we didn’t have to do interviews three months in advance of the book to get people to order it, all we had to do was make our book and hope people gave a crap.
Also, not for nothing, Monkeybrain isn’t in this to make money, they’re there to make comics, the best ones they can get their hands on, so there was no threat of us getting cancelled halfway thru the story we wanna tell. It’s a very definite length, we know where we’re going and knowing that you’re going to get there, even if it’s just your friends and parents still reading, takes a lot of the pressure off of the business side and places it all on the creative side.Continued below
With keeping yourself so busy, do you find that you have to do any particular tricks to get you into the mood of writing any one of these books?
Sebela: My only trick is to have enough stuff to work on that when I get stuck on one, I bounce to the next, and when I get stuck on that, I go back to the first one or I crack open the third one or I make notes on something that’s just a dumb idea right now. Of all of the books, High Crimes is the one I perseverate about the most, the one I’ll map and make notes about in my notebook my hand before even attempting to script the next batch of pages. I feel like I should be beyond the terror stage, I vow with each issue that I’ve totally got this and then I start on the next one and it’s back to “Oh god, what do I do?” time again, but the payoff makes it worth the struggle. Next to writing High Crimes, Ghost and AVP are a joyful romp, opportunities to just go nuts in an entirely different ballfield. It’s nice to mix in some fun with some self-flagellation.
Looking at the books abstractly and looking at your work in comics overall, I’m not sure your bibliography could be any more different overall. Is there any one story that you’ve found you enjoy telling the most, or are you still just playing around with what you like and what you think works?
Sebela: I tend to lean towards the darker side of things. My two big overriding interests are Horror and Crime, I’ll show up to a party with either one of those in attendance (which is why I love Ghost so much). I like to mix it up, though. I don’t want to get bogged down just doing one style of story, or one genre, or one anything. I’m trying to do as many of the things that interest me, the stuff that kinda intimidates me. I have some specific genre blocks that I think are pretty insurmountable, but they’re way outnumbered by the kinds of stories I want to tell.
So with all of this varied work — different genres, different style comics, different publishers — what’s next in the Christopher Sebela plan for Comic World Domination?
Sebela: My World Domination Scheme is the same as it ever was: Do the work. I’ve got a couple books close to being announced, and I’m in the process of putting together a few new creator-owned books, but I’m just going to focus on the stuff I have going on right now. I’m excited about where Ghost is headed, I’m coping with how much AvP is making childhood me lose his mind, and Ibrahim and I are busy making sure we keep each issue of High Crimes as amazing as we can. And I’m also trying not to succumb to the lure of GTAV (currently failing miserably at this step).