Written by Chris Sebela
Art by Ro Stein, Ted Brandt and Triona Farrell
Lettering by Cardinal Rae
Published by Image Comics
‘Rama Rating: 9 out of 10
Crowdfunding seems almost ubiquitous these days. From comic books to college funds, films to family emergencies, sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo play host to projects both whimsical and profoundly tragic. Crowded #1, one of the more curious announcements at this year’s Image Expo, attempts to take the idea of crowdfunding to an especially gruesome conclusion: professional hits. Instead of chipping in a few dollars to help someone get a life-saving medical treatment, what if you could launch a campaign to end someone’s life instead?
There’s an already grim and dystopian element to crowdfunding that sucks some the air out of Crowded #1’s dark comedy concept in its debut issue if you think about it too hard. “Reapr,” the site that kicks off the series’ premise, is mentioned only in passing as something of a gruesome novelty; hopefully, future issues of this ongoing series will explore how launching an extremely public quest to assassinate someone rose out of a major segment of the United States economy currently dedicated to everything from paying for cancer treatments to saving folks from eviction.
Somehow more compelling in this debut than the question of “what if you could crowdfund a killer” is the mystery of who and why would want to kill the abrasive Charlie Ellison, co-star of the series, and the quirks of the world around her that might make it possible. Writer Chris Sebela delivers a near-future that seems painfully present in some aspects, particularly Charlie’s enthusiastic participation in the gig and sharing economy of Airbnb and Uber - sorry, "Muver." When Charlie meets up with her would-be bodyguard Vita, the idea that Vita might only have one job (also facilitated through an app) seems positively novel.
It’s the small details that make Crowded #1 so compelling, fleeting moments that raise more questions about the world Vita and Charlie live in - an automated fast food vending machine, raising questions about just how far gone the economy is, and Vita’s past as a “private contractor.” Sebela does a stellar job building out these characters in just one issue. Charlie’s proud participation as a freelancing cog is as much a reflection of her flighty nature as it is of the state of the world around her; as the issue unfolds, it’s easy to see why someone so sharp would prefer a series of never-ending one-off gigs rather than steady work seeing the same people day in and day out.
But even with such a strong script from Sebela, Crowded #1 would be utterly lifeless without stellar art from the team of Ro Stein and Ted Brandt on pencils and inks, with absolutely gorgeous colors from Triona Farrell. The world of Crowded is at once familiar and a little futuristic - stylish, casual Charlie would be right at home on the sidewalks of any city today, but Stein and Farrell deliver future tech like restaurant table-sized touch screens that are unusual without being jarring. The body language is engaging and Stein delivers some utterly engaging character moments, making the chemistry between Vita and Charlie (for better or worse) palpable on the page. In ink-heavy panels, Brandt adds an element of mystery and melancholy, and one panel in particular with Charlie makes her look so downright devious it’s easy to see why anyone might be inclined to chip in a few bucks to get rid of her.
The book is a co-creation of the entire creative team (including letterer Cardinal Rae, who does some particularly clever work with the tails of speech balloons to indicate height differences or speaking around the corner), and it shows - Crowded is a collaborative effort that wouldn’t be nearly as engaging and entertaining to read without the contributions of its full roster of creators. It’s a clever and well-executed book from its script to its art, well worth a look when it debuts this summer. With luck, its future issues will explore the circumstances that gave rise to assassinations-on-demand a little more fully - a satirical work like Crowded doesn’t necessarily need to deliver a deep dive, but it will be interesting to learn even a little about how Reapr grew from the current crowdfunding landscape.