As our smart phones deliver us more and more services at the tap of the screen, we continue venturing down a path that's always evolving. So too have methods of raising money for projects as the internet allows people of like minds to flock together more easily so as to manufacture goods and fund the arts that the modern consumer wants.
Hitting comic shops on August 15, Crowded is co-created by Eisner-nominated writer Christopher Sebela, with art by Ro Stein and Ted Brandt, colors by Triona Farrell and letters by Cardinal Rae. The comic plays out like an episode of Black Mirror, introducing us to a world affected by technology, but one we can still relate to and that's very similar to our own.
However, this world's been overrun by app-based services and crowdfunding taken to a new extreme in a service called Reapr, where you can invest in someone's assassination.
SYFY WIRE spoke with the creators of Crowded about their new title and what it's all about.
"I'm a hard cynic," Sebela laughed, while framing the concept of his latest creator-owned comic. "Crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding has become such a big thing, so I start thinking: 'What's all this great technology going to do to us?' My mind immediately goes to, 'What's the worst way this could end?'"
Charlie is always on the run, tending to her countless number of jobs that fill her day until one morning someone tries to kill her. Then another, and another. Fearing for her life, she uses the app Dfend and hires Vita, a licensed and bonded bodyguard with a 1.5 star rating out of 5. As the series evolves, readers will find the novel use of technology is not what is driving the series, but the unlikely pairing of our two protagonists.
Crowded had been swimming in Sebela's head for four-to-five years, but it wasn't until last year that he finally nailed the concept down and secured Stein and Brandt as artists. Ironically, Sebela was well aware of Netflix's technology-driven update on The Twilight Zone, and feared it at the same time.
"Black Mirror was a terrifying thing for me, because I was convinced that they'd get around to this idea before I could. I've been living in fear of Black Mirror whenever they'd announce a new season. (So I had) to see if this was going to be the one where they're going to wreck Crowded, but we squeaked by."
Sebela was careful not to set the story too far into the future. It feels contemporary and relatable as app-based businesses continue to offer alternatives to the service industries. When Sebela pitched Stein and Brandt, he had a specific but peculiar homework assignment.
"We watched a lot of Season 7 of Parks and Recreation," said Stein.
"It was really useful seeing that season. That was a perfect example of what Chris was aiming for," added Brandt. "It's like now, only a little more so. It was a good look at what might be different, but also might be the same."
But Crowded hinges on more than just the gimmicks of technology. There's just enough there to get the ball rolling. At its core it's about two people learning to trust and rely on each other, while navigating their challenging opposing personalities.
"I certainly didn't want a series where I tell you everything that's different and the new shiny stuff. That doesn't feel very interesting to me, like what Ted and Ro said, it's like Parks and Rec Season 7, they're not calling out everything that's different, but there's stuff in the background that's slightly different," said Sebela. "I like (technology) as a prop, but I didn't want it to be the whole book. Someone might pick up the first issue because of the concept, but if you don't give them anything deeper than that, there's nothing to hang on to."
"It's a story about people and the technology is set dressing," Stein added.
"That's what Star Wars always did so well," Brandt explained. "The story was what's in it, not the world itself. That's what we're trying to aim for here. The story is Charlie and Vita, not Reapr. It's the cause of the story, but not the story itself."
Sebela has his own crowd-sourcing experience, successfully completing three Kickstarter campaigns, including one where he raised enough money to live in a haunted clown motel for 30 days and lived to write about it. In the time that Sebela has been developing Crowded, he has been hard at work making a name for himself on creator-owned titles like Heartthrob, High Crimes, Dead Letters, and We(l)come Back. He then earned his stripes on work-for-hire gigs such as Ghost, Aliens vs. Predator, Blue Beetle, Injustice: Ground Zero, and Harley Quinn.
Often times, Sebela's stories feature protagonists unlike him, forcing him to disassociate from himself to write the best stories he can, and the Portland-based writer is striking while the iron is hot, having recently launched the period horror comic Shanghai Red through Image, and soon the horror conspiracy story House Amok for IDW's Black Crown imprint.
Crowded is indeed about two people learning to work together and be around each other. They're stuck together under the worst circumstances. So trust and being dependent and open with each other are themes the series will explore.
"They don't have the option of walking away," cautions Sebela. "Vita needs the money and Charlie needs to stay alive. We're going to explore a lot of aspects about this and that excites me the most, more than the action. At this point, they feel very much like real people to me."
Stein has a slightly more optimistic view on the central relationship: "It's more of a, I like you despite everything that you're doing kind of thing. [Laughs] Or I like you, but I don't necessarily trust you. It's fun depicting such a clash of personality."
"Relationships in real life are not straight down," Brandt added. "There's always going to be an imbalance somewhere. So Chris has developed a fantastic see-saw of trust and like, a beautiful precarious balance that we're having a blast trying to make sure it translates on the page."
With two main characters feeling each other out early on, a lot of that translation comes in the non-verbal communication, the body language that cartoonists Brandt and Stein expertly infuse into each panel. It has even pushed Sebela to modify his scripts; he now adds in extra notes for emotion in hopes of seeing that captured in the posture of facial expression.
The art duo of Brandt and Stein have worked together in comics since 2014, on a book called Princeless for Action Lab Comics, a B-Side for Kieron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie's Phonogram, and Kelly Sue DeConnick's Bitch Planet. Since then, their art has been largely seen in Marvel titles such as Captain America: Steve Rogers, The Mighty Captain Marvel, and The Unstoppable Wasp.
"The philosophy we've always had with making comics right from when we started was that as far as we're concerned, when working from a script, we're making a silent movie," Brandt revealed. "Even if no one turned in any dialogue, that there was a catastrophic failure and the letterer's dialogue was all whited out, you could still read it and understand the motivations and emotions of the characters."
The curious may be drawn into Crowded by the concept and Sebela's dialogue, but they'll likely sign up for the monthly mortgage because of the fun and lively art.
After reading the first issue, one of the questions readers may think about is whether or not Charlie could improve Vita's life? Sebela said that remains to be seen, as he organically tries to figure out the meat of the middle of the story.
Brandt offers a more direct response: "Vita doesn't have a life in any meaningful sense before the story starts. We see her daily routine and it's terrible, it's completely the life of someone who's chronically depressed, just mechanically doing things because the alternative is literally nothingness. Charlie can't improve her life, but she might actually give her one."
What Sebela does have is a firm construct of where the series will ultimately go. There's an ending he's already cooked up, but ponders how much of a "scenic route" they all want to take. "It's going to take a couple arcs to unspool this," Sebela said. "Ted, Ro, and I have talked about the possibility of doing other stories in this universe, but Charlie and Vita are our main characters. The day their story ends, is probably the day Crowded ends."
Enjoy a five-page preview of Crowded #1 below, which will be released in print and digitally on August 15.