Announced at Image Expo back in February, Crowded is a twisted, satirical look at ten minutes into the future brought to you by Christopher Sebela (writer), Ro Stein (penciller), Ted Brandt (inker), Tríona Farrell (colour artist), and Cardinal Rae (letterer).
Set in a world where the gig economy has become absolute, anything and everything is for sale or rent. Assassinations may have once been a clandestine affair, but in this time of hyper-capitalism and greed, the latest app “Reapr” allows you to crowdfund your revenge and turns everyone with a smartphone into a potential hitman. With a concept that high and a creative team of that caliber, it is of little surprise that the book’s inaugural outing is such a success.
Charlie Ellison is just your average, self-centred millennial working twelve shared jobs a day to make ends meet. Her life takes an unexpected twist after she discovers that someone has put a hit out on her. What’s worse, the Reapr campaign has reached over a million dollars, with thousands of backers. In order to survive, Charlie enlists the help of Vita Slatter, a moody, low-rated bodyguard on the security app “DFEND”. They have thirty days until the campaign ends and outrun the slew of assassins on their tail. Mysteries will be solved. Bodies will be dropped. And in the end, they may just discover something about themselves along the way.
From the opening salvo, Crowded impresses with stunning artwork, sublime character moments, and compelling world-building. Our leads: Charlie and Vita, immediately stand out in both design and personality. Sebela’s voice for characters remains as strong and distinctive as ever. Charlie’s Instagram-esque self-obsession is reminiscent of the best of Clueless and Mean Girls. Yet this shallowness betrays a darker side, one that has yet to be brought to the surface, but is allowed to peak out slightly in the quieter moments. Similarly, Vita wishes to portray herself as an uncaring and by the book, but its clear that this facade is there for her own protection rather than that of others. Whatever sense you may have had initially as to these character’s motivations and histories is subtly chipped away by a combination of cutting lines of dialogue and wonderful foreshadowing within the art itself.
Farrell’s colours present them in wonderful pinks and yellows that hammers home their desire to stand out, begrudgingly in Vita’s case. It’s more than just a desire, distinguishing themselves is a necessity their line of work. In an economy where your success is dependent on customers swiping right on your profile, you need to stand out.
The matter of fact way which the “Reapr” is introduced as the nation’s favourite pastime is terrifying. Now every petty grievance, every slight is potentially an executable offence if you can rally enough support behind you or find someone desperate enough. It takes our obsession with social media to an extreme, but in many ways logical conclusion. The team have created a truly fascinating world in which to play and each revelation only begets more questions.
Action scenes are interspersed sparingly throughout the issue, but each one is dynamic and kick-starts the heart. The sheer economy on display within these moments is a testament to the purposive approach taken by Stein and Brandt. Nothing feels surplus to requirement, but rather adds to the layers of the world being built. More importantly, these action beats are used to inform character rather than as mere spectacle.
The cartoonish linework from Stein and Brandt creates a false sense of security by friendly face on a society gone mad. The same can be said for Farrell’s colours with incredibly bright and vibrant colours occupying an unassumingly dystopian world. They are the gloss that allows people to be drawn in and consumed by this high-capitalist society. It creates a contradiction in terms: a world that’s desperately trying to present itself as pure, but the cracks are beginning to show. In many ways, the art reflects the culture of presentation that curating one’s online persona and profile entails.
A high panel density means there is a lot of story packed into each page. Credit goes to Stein and Brandt, who bring so much detail to their work. One particular splash page will have you simply entranced. In this sense it owes a lot to the European tradition of album comics. Rather than feeling crowded, if you’ll pardon the pun, it gives you something to sink your teeth into on every page. Not to say that this is heavy book in any sense, to the contrary, it is addictively readable. Rather, this is a book that invites and, indeed, rewards closer, careful consideration. It makes for one of the most satisfying reads of the year so far.
It has been quite some time since a book fulfilled the promise of the premise as skillfully as Crowded. It really is a special book, one that you’re going to want to add to your pull-list. If the pre-release announcement that Crowded would be made into a movie didn’t get you excited, then you owe it to yourself to pick it up next Wednesday and see what all the fuss is about. You will not be disappointed.