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Indie Comics Spotlight: Chris Sebela on Crowded and fancasting Tessa Thompson

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Aug 16, 2018

Christopher Sebela is one of those writers who’s been hiding in plain sight, writing for both the Big Two and indies for a while now. Sebela is known for his work on Boom! Studios' Escape from New York (which picks up right where the movies left off), DC's Agent 47: Birth of Hitman and Injustice: Gound Zero, as well as his recent run on Harley Quinn.

Finding success on the creator owned side, it was High Crimes (Monkeybrain), written with Ibrahim Moustafa, that garnered the team two Eisner nominations. In the past couple of years, Sebela has found his rhythm writing for Image Comics, penning Shanghai Red, Demonic, and Evolution. But his most recent series, Crowded, also from Image, which dropped this week, has already been optioned by actress and comedienne Rebel Wilson -- meaning it may just be his most successful work to date.

For this week's Indie Comics Spotlight, SYFY WIRE spoke to Sebela about his history in comics and his latest success with Crowded, which imagines an app-based service that lets people crowdfund a stranger's assassination.  

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Artist: Ariel Medel

What got you into writing comics?

Christopher Sebela: I’ve always written. For a long time I just wrote prose. I have a couple finished novels that are awful. But writing is the only thing that ever really made sense to me, in terms of those moments where you’re asking yourself, “What the hell am I supposed to be doing with my life?” Comics was just something I’d been reading all my life and had built a big circle of friends around, and it sort of made sense. Also comics just seemed a lot easier to break my way into than the novel scene, where I knew no one and had no idea how it operated. So, i basically hit a crisis point in my life where I had to make a decision what I wanted to do with the rest of it, and I decided to gamble on “writing comics” and weirdly, it worked out.

What was the first comic you wrote?

The very first comic I wrote was a thing called Cruel Biology for an anthology that never came out. It was a really short comic about Japanese germ warfare balloons in WWII, just a weird part of history that got stuck in my head and I thought would make for a good story. Eventually I re-worked it and put it out thru Dark Horse many many years later, which felt good that I could actually make something out of what was a pretty lame attempt at writing a comic all those years ago.

You’ve written for a few publishers. Which do you prefer? The budgets and marketing of the majors? Or the freedom to create new characters with indies?

I prefer making my own stuff up, if I had my choice. Getting to build my own worlds, create my own characters, and not be held down by someone else’s continuity or ideas; it’s why I got into writing in the first place. I really do like working on stuff with Marvel and DC, getting to write these mythical characters is ridiculously fun and all sorts of dreams come true, but they’re not mine, I’m just a caretaker at that moment. I’d rather be the one who helps build the house and gets to live in it afterwards.

Image has been good to you, you’ve done quite a bit of work with them. What’s your favorite Image project?

Right now it’s Shanghai Red and Crowded. I honestly think they’re two of my best books so far, and Image gave us the freedom to tell these stories exactly how we want to. I mean, I love all my weird kids, but these two are my newest kids and I’m ridiculously proud of how good they are.

Was Crowded inspired by a previous crowdfunding campaign of your own?

Not particularly. I’ve done a couple kickstarter campaigns, and if nothing else, I definitely channeled a lot of the bad feelings I had while running those. The whole asking for money over and over routine, along with the terrifying notion that you’re gonna fail and fail publicly, that was useful for me getting in-depth with how bad crowdfunding could be. Then I just took it about ten steps further.

High Crimes

Artist: Ibrahim Moustafa

The two main characters are women, did you crowdsource the dialogue with women so that it sounds natural?

Only in the way I always do. I’m friends with women and talk to them, and I feel like I understand women (in the same way that I understand men, which is to say, not a lot, but maybe enough?). Plus, we have four women on the Crowded team, so between my editor, Juliette, and Ro and Triona and Cardinal, I trust them to call me out if I’ve really goofed something up massively. I just try to write living people as best I can, complete with contradictions, hesitations, and imperfections aplenty. I wanted to make them seem alive and real, and hopefully we’ve achieved that.

Did you pattern the characters after anyone in particular?

The character designs were all Ro and Ted. I just wrote up descriptions of Charlie and Vita, describing their lives, their quirks, their hobbies, and other bits of history that sort of make up who I thought they were, and I gave that to them to figure out, visually. Beyond a few visual cues that I have in mind, I try not to get in the way of my collaborators and let them do what they’re best at. As far as their personalities go, I didn’t base them on anyone consciously, but a lot of that stuff bleeds through when you’re not looking. So I probably did, but that is lost to time and who Charlie and Vita have become since then.

What’s your process? When you script are you extremely detailed with your artists?

I try to just get across as much information as the artists need in each panel. I don’t tell them “this should look like this,” or get into how a panel should be staged, or at what angle. Because that’s not my job, and I can only make Ro, Ted, and Triona’s jobs harder if I start barging in with my suggestions of how this book should look. Mostly I’m focused on the actions and the emotions, and I have all the trust in the world that my collaborators will turn that into something even better.

What made you decide to make Vita a woman of color?

I’m not interested in writing books about white dudes, since I am one. Beyond the fact that there’s already way too many and it’s boring to me, I want to make books where people can see themselves in it. Ethnicities, body types, genders, sexualities, I want to represent the kind of stuff that is still far too rare in comics and mainstream fiction as a whole. As far as why I made Vita a woman of color? It just felt right to me. I mean, having two white ladies ping-ponging off each other is also a look that’s pretty familiar, and I didn’t want this book to feel like you were just seeing the same thing again. Creating fictional people is weird and not an exact science, so I tend to let go and kind of let things drift thru me, and the stuff that feels right, I keep. The stuff that feels wrong, I toss.

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Artists: Ro Stein, Ted Brandt

What is one thing you want folks to take away from Crowded?

Mostly I want people to get a really good story. I want them to have fun and also to sometimes make a face at the things that Charlie and Vita get up to. I want people to care about Charlie and Vita the way all of us making the book do. Beyond that, I try not to get caught up in expectations too much. I’m not writing a book where I have an agenda or some kind of life philosophy I’m trying to get across, at least not consciously. If there is something I want people to take away from Crowded, I’m not sure what it is, but I’ll probably figure it out several months down the road.

Crowded has already been optioned by actress Rebel Wilson. What's it like having a comic you wrote being made into a film? Who would you dreamcast as bodyguard Vita?

It’s super weird, honestly. But it does take a lot of the pressure off and gives everyone on the team a nice boost of confidence knowing that we made something that resonated that strongly with Rebel Wilson. With anyone, really. But with someone who can turn it into a movie who I’ve watched on my TV and movie screens? It’s all pretty surreal. As far as fancasting Vita, I haven’t thought too much about it, but I think Tessa Thompson or Aja Naomi King could both bring something interesting and different to the role. But this is all theoretical. I’d just be giddy if the movie got made, no matter who’s in it.