Christopher Sebela: Five Things I Learned Writing High Crimes
I’ve told you about High Crimes before. I’ve told you how much I love this comic. So, shut up and go read it, yeah? Wait! I mean, shut up and read this first, then go read that. Okay? Okay.
1. Write What You Obsess About
I’ve been obsessed with Everest since 2005 or so, a yearly flare-up that would culminate in me reading more books, watching more documentaries and thinking more thoughts about Mount Everest. Not that I’d ever actually want to try it, but the story of those who had, who’d done it without oxygen, or died on the way down or saved other peoples’ lives while their own bodies were shutting down, that stuff haunted me. Everest came back time and again, year after year, so I finally decided to do with it what I do with my other obsessions: turn it into a story and exorcise it.
After a year of tinkering with it, outlining it, nailing down every aspect I could think of, obsessively smoothing every edge to perfection, I pitched it to a publisher. They eventually said thanks but no thanks with several reasons given and High Crimes went back in the someday pile, until a year later when Monkeybrain asked me to pitch something, whatever I wanted to do.
When Monkeybrain asked me to pitch a book, I could have chosen anything from my notebooks, stuff that seemed more commercial, less unseemly, a better proof of concept to show people that I could write and they should throw as many dumptrucks of money at me as they could muster. But obsessions don’t make sense to anyone but the obsessive, that’s why they’re called obsessions. I knew, no matter what editors and others had said about it —a female lead made it a hard sell, the material was too dark, the characters weren’t heroic enough — that if someone was giving me a blank check, I’d be a fool not to use it to buy a ticket to Everest.
2. An Introduction to Loopering
This is probably an abuse of the term “Looper” — from 2012’s movie about time traveling versions of yourself messing with yourself — but it’s also a completely made-up term, so I can make it mean whatever I want. In the pantheon of bad habits, I have two major ones: Procrastination and Loopering. Procrastination is easy enough to understand, Loopering is sort of procrastination combined with self-flagellation. Let’s say, for a purely hypothetical example, that me of the past (PastMe) wrote something like “MAJOR CHARACTER JOURNAL ENTRY HERE” in issue 2’s outline and never bothered to figure out and write down what the journal entry was gonna be (or the entirety of their storyline, either) at the time. Cut to PresentMe writing the book and getting to those pages and reading the vaguest of notes in the outline and everything screeches to a halt.
PastMe just loopered PresentMe by sneaking some of his workload off to FutureMe, who is now PresentMe. Or Future Me will decide to take everything that Present Me is beating my head against to the point of mental breakdown and throw it away like it wasn’t anything at all because ultimately it was dumb or a tangent or too big for a book where we have 14 pages an issue and fight for as much real estate as we can get. This is Loopering, and like all time travel concepts, it starts to get confusing fast.
The weird thing is this process works for me and has wormed its way into my workflow. Sometimes I’m just not ready for whatever I’m supposed to write right at that moment, I know what it is, and what it’s got to do, but I’m still baffled as to what they say when they open their mouths. I write around it enough to keep the story moving. Leave it until I finish the skeleton of the issue and figure out what the hell I’m trying to say. Shunt it into the wormhole of time for FutureMe, who I always assume will be more than capable of handling all this extra work than me. PresentMe hates PastMe. And FutureMe hates us all for what we’ve done to his outline.
3. The Outline is My Friend (Until It Is My Enemy)
Outlines are awesome, they hold your trembling hand as you try to figure out how to finally write this thing you’ve been wanting to do for months or years, building in your head. To get our metaphors in order, a good outline can be a guide rope through the Khumbu Icefall, telling you where to put each food, how to avoid dying.
They can also be like hardcore Civil War Recreationists, the ones who smack their lips and roll their eyes when someone wears shoes or modern eyeglasses or heart pills that didn’t exist back then. The Outline can be a bit of an oppressive jerk, leaning on you, backseat driving, talking over the voice in your head that tells you maybe this isn’t working. “Stay the course!” Outline shouts, “at least you know what you’re getting with me.”
I was slavish to my outline when I started writing, sticking closely to it for the first issue, and a little bit of the second issue — this was the thing that got the book approved, I have to stick to this, it’s a breach of trust to step off the path — but by the time I got to the third issue, I realized I was writing a completely different book than the one I’d spent so much time, so long ago, outlining. Loopering at work.
This revelation wasn’t a one-and-done Saul on the road to Damascus moment where the scales just fall away and I live happily ever after (that’s how the Bible ends, right?). It’s a moment repeating over and over over the last year, still ongoing, one change begets another, entire issue arcs change, new characters are born, other characters who walked off the page before now die in horrible ways. This week, working on the script for an upcoming issue, I was glancing at that initial outline, hoping maybe it could show me the light for these pages I was stuck on, when I remembered the best thing that ever happened to this book was me walking away from that old idea of what it was.
4. None of This Is Possible Without A Partner
In comics, the word collaborator is pretty common nomenclature. Artist and writers collaborate to tell a story. Sometimes they’re brought together by chance, sometimes by editorial edict, sometimes by the magic of tiny classified ads. However it happens, comics don’t happen without the interaction between artist and writer. Even if they never meet, never talk, never interact except through a third party, collaboration is how things get done.
Sometimes collaboration becomes a partnership, some sort of weird creative destiny where this story was just floating like a spacebaby out in the ether of storyland until the stars aligned enough for the writer to meet the artist and it finally descends into our material plane. It can’t exist without both parts, and High Crimes can’t exist without Ibrahim Moustafa. Besides killing it on art from day 1, he tells stories in a way that make me think more about them, he sees parts of the scripts I don’t and we move into some weird feedback loop where each of us is informing the other almost seamlessly.
Ibrahim and I have had phone calls where entire chunks of narrative fell into the sea because of something one or the other of us said, and we both get excited all over about this book, about getting to that new shiny part and knocking it out of the park. Finding people who fit in your social life is hard enough, finding ones who fit into your creative life feels like an impossible dream, but through an ornate chain of circumstance, Ibrahim and I ran into each other.
When I initially pitched High Crimes to Monkeybrain, I had shifted from the longstanding title of “The Everest Book” to the more crime-sounding Dark Summit. It still wasn’t there as far as titles go or as far as books go. Dark Summit is the book I wrote. High Crimes is the book Ibrahim and I are writing.
5. Sometimes That Pretentious-Sounding Twaddle is Totally True
It feels like all my life I’ve been familiar with a trope writers like to drag out into the light (here I go getting meta) when asked about where stories come from or why bad things happen to good characters or whatever. This notion of “The character told me what they would do.” And I will admit to perhaps an occasional bout or two dozen of eyerolling at this (and, in my much too later years, accompanied by a lewd biological hand gesture). The notion that someone you create “comes to life” seemed like a cheap avoidance to answering the question.
And then I started writing Zan Jensen and Sullivan Mars and the more I found their voices and filled in their spotty pasts, the more they started recommending things themselves. Plotting out an action scene, I had to totally scrap my old idea because Zan made a face when I tried to write it. Figuring out what to include in Mars’ journal of his old life as a Strange Agent, I had to check in with him to see what he’d be comfortable admitting. It snuck up on me, this realization that I’d somewhere along the line, I’d lost complete control and was now at the mercy of a junkie with commitment issues and a dead secret agent.
The main reason High Crimes changed as much as it did from when it was Dark Summit is that you can sketch out all the action down to the angle of the sun and type of handgun being fired, but you can’t do that with people. Joss Whedon once said “It’s about moments, not moves” and I feel like more than anything Ibrahim and I have done in High Crimes, we’ve created some actual people, people that we care about even though everything should be screaming run away. I remember the night I was going over what happens in a later issue and I told Ibrahim something that he reacted to with audible sadness. Or the time I sat down to map out the last 6 issues of High Crimes and got immensely sad about what I had to do to these people I’d come to care about and that there would be a point where we didn’t hang out anymore.
I really hope things go well for everyone in High Crimes, I like them all a lot, even the evil ones, and I’m just as curious to see what happens to them, and this book, by the time we finish.
High Crimes: ComiXology