New To You Comics: Fantastically Dark, Surprisingly Light & All Kinds Of Murdery- ‘Crowded’ Vol. 1

by Brendan M. Allen

When COVID-19 brought the comics industry to a screeching halt, my colleague Tony Thornley and I dove deep into our longboxes and collections to bring you New To You Comics. 

Comics made their way back, but we had so much fun with the thing, we decided to keep going. 

Tony and I have very different tastes in comics. 

Tony loves his sparkly tights, super powers, and sci-fi. I tend to stick to horror, noir, and weird indies. Occasionally, our paths cross, but we, like most readers, tend to stay in our lanes.

We’re here to break up the pattern a little. Tony’s throwing some of his favorites my way, and I’m sending him some of mine. Every title we cover is brand new to one of us, and every stinking one of them is available on digital and mail order platforms, in case your local shop is still closed.

This week, we’re kicking around Image Comics’ Crowded Vol. 1, by writer Christopher Sebela, artists Ro Stein and Ted Brandt, colorist Triona Farrell, and letterer Cardinal Rae.

Here’s what Image tells us about the book:

‘Ten minutes in the future, the world runs on an economy of job shares and apps—like Reaper, a platform for legal assassination. When the apparently average Charlie Ellison wakes up one day to find out she’s the target of a million dollar Reapr campaign, she hires Vita, the lowest rated bodyguard on the Dfend app. 

Now, with all of Los Angeles hunting Charlie, she and Vita will have to figure out who wants her dead, and why, before the campaign’s 30 days—or their lives—are over.’

Brendan Allen: I’ve been waiting to pull this one out for a minute. I actually had it lined up for the first week in October before we decided to go with the month-long horror theme. 

Crowded hits the ground killing. It’s barely seven panels before some poor schmuck’s guts are splattered all over the wall. Not to worry, though. The dude probably deserved it. Probably. 

Kind of hard to tell though, because Crowded is one of those stories where it isn’t immediately apparent whose side you’re supposed to be on. Everyone’s at least a little scandalous, and we aren’t really given clear “heel” and “face” labels. 

The premise is beautifully simple. We have apps for EVERYTHING now. Some of the services Charlie provides for her clients seem odd at first, until you realize that every one of the services she’s providing to make a buck via her smartphone are based on an honest-to-god real life app that is currently available. Why wouldn’t contract killing have its own crowdfunding platform? It’s an obvious progression, really.

Tony Thornley: Holy cow. On one hand, this is a brilliant satire of capitalism and the gig economy. On the other, it’s a near future dystopia that is way too realistic. The synopsis said ten years in the future, and it feels like it could be less, the way things are going in our world. This is an influencer and app obsessed, candy colored nightmare, but it’s also a really smart, really fun action comedy. But still a heavy dose of the nightmare.

Brendan: Christopher Sebela does a bang-up job with the pacing of this first arc. He doles out pieces of the bigger picture here and there, but generally, the reader is learning about what’s happening as the characters themselves are learning. 

There’s an underlying darkness in each of the principals’ stories that they’re trying desperately to hide from one another, and everyone is deeply suspicious of everyone else’s motivations. Exposition mostly comes from personal retelling of past events, and the bias is blatantly obvious when each character is telling their own stories.

Tony: Oh yeah, it definitely has the element of the unreliable narrator for sure, especially when Sebela is telling things from Charlie’s perspective. Really, the only character that’s sympathetic in this opening story is Vita, and even then she’s clearly not a good person.

Brendan: Oh, just wait. In the next arc, you start to see some of the holes in Vita’s version of her personal history. Not that she necessarily lies about anything. She’s just very good about only telling the bits she’s ready to share. 

Tony: I have no doubt. I really enjoyed Sebela’s story though. It’s quick, witty, and very fun. It also does not let you stop. Even the slow moments are punctuated with horrific violence. The characters are fully formed, and all deeply flawed.

I don’t think it’s perfect though. As much as I like it, this arc was definitely trying to do too much, especially in the second half of the arc. The story was at its best when it was focused on Vita and Charlie, and when it started introducing others, particularly the competing assassins, it got cluttered and all over the place.

Brendan: Fair. It does tighten back up in subsequent arcs. This first volume really had to lay the whole thing out there to immerse you in the world of Crowded, but it gets way more intimate in the first act of the next arc.

Tony: Yeah, and it’s clearly a lot of world building happening here. There’s just so much going on that it was a bit all over. But again, I really enjoyed it. That’s a criticism that comes after how much fun I had reading it.

Brendan: On the visual side of things, Ro Stein, Ted Brandt, Triona Farrell, and Cardinal Rae present a surprisingly cool, airy aesthetic for such dark material. Stein’s cinematic angles and brilliant spreads, Brandt’s clean finish work, Farrell’s rose-tinted palette, and Rae’s crisp lettering all contribute to Crowded’s deceptively simple, sexy look. This book is beautiful. 

Tony: Stein and Brandt are just superstars in the making. This is one half a chase comic and the other half a fight comic. Not a lot of line artists can capture that hyper kinetic insanity very well. The art also creates this new version of LA throughout the volume that just comes to vibrant life. It’s a piece of pop art on its own, from Farrell’s neon colorscape to the futuristic tech that Stein and Brandt fill the pages with…

Then a lot of shit gets blown up. And it all looks great.

Brendan: Yes! And I’ve never really even known who to credit for this, but the diegetic effects in this one are something else. Muzzle flashes and blood spatter and jet explosions that incorporate the action and impact of the sounds into the visual representation. It’s pretty cool to see, and I don’t know that I’ve ever seen it done this well. 

Tony: Yeah, I love good effects work, and it requires a line art team that works perfectly in sync with its color artist and its letterer. Clearly the entire team knew what the other was doing and put time into making sure they were doing it right. You point out stuff like the action explodey pieces, I noticed the app displays and the news feeds. Rae’s lettering is just as much a part of the art as the finishes and the colors. It’s great stuff.

Brendan: Oh yeah. Those little details are great. There are a ton of little visual jokes peppered throughout as well. You can take a second and third pass and find little humorous little pokes here and there. 

I love Crowded. I can’t wait until next year, when they’re planning to drop the third and final arc in trade only. 

Super dark and extremely funny. It’s a slick commentary on where we are as a society and a sly little piece of satire, taking a good hard poke at the tech that drives our daily interactions.

Where’d you land on this one?

Tony: It’s fun, it’s got a lot of action, it doesn’t stop. I mean, it’s not perfect, but it’s one of the most enjoyable comics I’ve read in a long time. Absolutely worth the pick-up.

Brendan: Word. What do you have on deck for us next week?

Tony: Well, everyone’s been talking about Spider-Man this week, thanks to the biggest video game release of the fall. So we’re going to take a look at the origin of Miles Morales in Ultimate Comics Spider-Man!

Some of your local shops have re-opened. As always, we’d like to ask that you first try to get these books at your local shop. This is a very uncertain time for owners, employees, and their families. Show some love for your community and friends by buying from your regular shop when possible and safe.

If your local comic store is still closed, not offering safe curbside pick up or mail order, or is out of stock on this title, you can find a digital copy at Comixology for just $5 (FIVE BUCKS!!!) right here


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